This is my first time reading an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, though I have read her biography of Charlotte Brontë (which, to be fair, is presented a lot like a novel). Having read so many of the Victorian literature greats, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to her.
Ruth in some ways is a very typical Victorian novel, and in other ways a very untypical one. For the most part, Ruth is a virtuous and spotless heroine – always acting respectably and doing what is expected of her. In this sense, she can be connected to many of the stereotypical heroines from this period – like, groan, Pamela – however Gaskell marks her as unique through one mistake she makes early on in the novel.
As a poor sweatshop employee, Ruth, by chance, crosses paths with the wealthy aristocrat Henry Bellingham. Still young, only fifteen, she is wooed by him and persuaded to run away with him to Wales. Bellingham’s pleasant exterior soon fades away, and Ruth ends up being abandoned while pregnant with his child. This event – this one mistake that Ruth makes – hangs over her for the rest of the novel, and proves to be something impossible for her to get away from.
Though unmarried pregnant women were not incredibly uncommon in literature up to this point, it’s the way that Gaskell handles Ruth that can be seen as untypical and incredibly progressive for the period. Most authors would have had Ruth commit melodramatic suicide as soon as Bellingham abandoned her – and she attempts to do this in the novel – but Gaskell allows her to live, for a while at least, despite not marrying the father of her child. She starts a new life after Bellingham abandons her, gains the respect of notable families and even manages to overcome the judgement of others when her past is finally revealed to her friends. And even when she eventually dies, her death is only indirectly related to her past ‘crime’, and it does not feel at all like Gaskell is punishing her.
Ruth is much like Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; both novels try to challenge gender conventions in a period where women were far from possessing any freedom. While it’s not always the most interesting novel – the middle part of the book is pretty mundane – it’s a gutsy one. Gaskell does not let her characters’ pasts define them.