Fallen Female: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth

MAY / JUNE 2012: BY TRYNTSJE CUPERUS

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RUTH HILTON IS ONLY 16 when she becomes an orphan. Her father, a respectable farmer, leaves her in the care of a negligent guardian.

Sensitive and obedient by nature, Ruth is given a job in a dressmaker’s shop. The work is hard, the hours are long and though Ruth makes friends among her fellow workers, she feels lonely… especially on Sunday when all the other girls have family or friends to go to. Ruth spends her day alone in the empty shop. She soon becomes acquainted with Henry Bellingham, a gentleman, who is enamored by the beautiful seamstress. He starts walking Ruth home from church and one day persuades her to take a longer walk with him. Misfortune strikes when on their way home they encounter Ruth’s employer, who discharges her. By this time Ruth has fallen deeply in love with Mr. Bellingham and consents to live with him. Though innocent and naïve, Ruth has a “strange, undefined feeling of doing wrong,” but what other choice has life left her?

Ruth was published in 1853, as the second full-length novel of Elizabeth Gaskell, after Mary Barton and a collection of stories that would become known as Cranford. It tackles with honesty and sympathy a difficult social topic, the fate of “fallen women,” women who lived with men unmarried and sometimes became single mothers.

Gaskell was not the first author in whose work illegitimacy played a role. Previous examples are Eliza, Colonel Brandon’s ward in Sense and Sensibility or Little Emily in Dickens’ David Copperfield. Unique to this novel was the way she confronted the issue head-on, by making the “fallen woman” the titular character and painting her in a sympathetic and understandable way.

The story continues later. Ruth and Mr. Bellingham have taken up residence in a Welsh guesthouse. When he falls ill, his mother visits and persuades him to leave Ruth behind. She despairs and runs without thinking into the Welsh countryside. Victorian society was hard on unmarried mothers. For girls in higher classes of society, “arrangements” would be made consisting of time spent with a distant relative followed by a quiet adoption. Working class women would be shunned by all employers once they were discovered pregnant and often ended with their child in the workhouse. Elizabeth Gaskell was familiar with the problems these girls faced, as she corresponded in 1850 with Charles Dickens about an unmarried mother named Pasley whom she wanted to help. Ruth might partly be based on her real-life story.

What happened to Pasley is unknown, but Ruth is lucky enough to be found by a kind-hearted minister, Thurstan Benson. He and his sister Faith decide to take Ruth into their home in Eccleston and give her and her child a chance of a new life. Faith is a heroine in her own right: practical, at times curt, but friendly and with a big heart. She soon takes a liking to Ruth. She lives up to her name when she decides to give Ruth a place in their home. The income of the Bensons is small but Faith is willing to share it with a girl polite society would shun.

Ruth gives birth to a son. Under the loving guidance of Mr. and Miss Benson, she becomes a devoted mother and a Christian. During the first service she attends in Eccleston, Ruth feels as if Mr. Benson’s sermon is written just for her. She confesses her sins and gives herself to God. Sometimes shame over her former behaviour seems to overpower her, but Faith brings her to mind how God looks at her: “My dear Ruth, you don’t know how often I sin: I do so wrong, with my few temptations. We are both of us great sinners in the eyes of the Most Holy.”

Persuaded by the fear of how society will treat Ruth and Leonard, the Bensons decide to present her as a widow. In this disguise, Ruth’s modesty and quiet kindness capture the heart of many of the inhabitants of Eccleston, including the Bradshaw family. The father is the richest and most powerful member of the town and a very strict and pious man. He offers Ruth a job as a governess to his daughters, giving her independence. His head-strong, intelligent eldest, Jemima, is impressed by Ruth. The two girls, only a few years separate in age, grow close.

Years go by in which Ruth grows in faith and wisdom. But a secret like hers cannot be buried forever and she must face the judgement of everyone she has come to know. Mr. Bradshaw dismisses her in disgust and Jemima does the same. But she struggles with the decision, as she has gotten to know Ruth as a loving Christian for many years. In the end she turns away from her father’s doctrines and views Ruth in a more Biblical way, “with a pity, so Christ-like, as to have both wisdom and tenderness in it.”

Ruth is an interesting tale about judgement and redemption with three skilfully created female characters. It may be hard to connect to Ruth as a modern reader. Elizabeth Gaskell, over conscious of the reception her novel might get, created a “fallen woman” so innocent and faultless no one could object to her. This was also seen in the responses to the novel by its contemporary critics. Though some did object to Gaskell’s choice of subject, most criticism was aimed at the characters.

The strict Victorian morals of the time when Ruth was written might have converted to the tolerance of the 21th century, but judging other people is something we still all do from time to time. From Jemima we can learn to judge people like Jesus did, to “let those who are without sin throw the first stone.” From Faith we can learn to open our lives and hearts to people who have made mistakes. And from Ruth we can learn that no matter how the world may judge us, we can always turn to Jesus and receive His love and mercy. ♥

mayjune2012

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