Introduction to the author's "Growing Heroines: Elizabeth Gaskell's Women," English Literature Senior Thesis, Hartwick College, January 1997
From this tale of the effects of the new industrial values on life in a small town, we return to a novel which embraces a different issue of concern to the general Victorian public. Though values were changing, as seen in Cranford, the taboo against sex and motherhood out of wedlock remained strict. Though Gaskell certainly does not condone unwed motherhood, neither does she damn the unfortunate girl. Instead, she shows one way in which a girl might be led to that state, and insists that the girl is not, and should not be treated as, unequivocally evil because of an moral slip. We will see that Gaskell accomplishes this by making Ruth into a devoted mother and Christian and portraying her as a saint.
Ruth is the story of Ruth Hilton, an orphan who "was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice" (44) about life and the situations with which she would be presented. Ruth was innocent and naive and while this led to her downfall, her good nature also helped save her. Ruth's father died soon after her mother and left the girl alone except for an uncaring guardian who acquired an apprenticeship for the child to a dressmaker. Ruth meets Mr. Bellingham, the man who will lead her astray, in connection with this work.
Her friendship with the rich gentleman discovered, Ruth is turned out of the dressmaker's establishment to fend for herself. Though Ruth is not motivated by dreams of wealth and status as the young Mary Barton is, Gaskell asks us to "remember how young, innocent, and motherless she was" (56) and so having no one else to turn to, and no one to tell her right from wrong, Ruth turns to Mr. Bellingham as a protector, someone to provide and decide her future. She is easily influenced by this gentleman and her naivete prevents her from knowing that she is sinning by living with him. Once Ruth is made aware that she is considered a "naughty woman" by the remark of a little boy, she is yet too naive to realize the magnitude of people's opinions of a young woman living with a man to whom she was not married. In fact, she even assumes that Mr. Bellingham would be shocked at the idea of its being improper and does not tell him what she has heard so that she does not change his opinion of her.
Ruth is ultimately abandoned by Mr. Bellingham and left alone once again. On the verge of suicide, she is saved from that end by the timely fall of an old minister called Mr. Benson whom Ruth has met during her time with Mr. Bellingham. Ruth turns back from her flight to help the man as she has never been able to ignore the suffering of a fellow creature: by helping him and accompanying him back to his lodgings, Ruth enters into one of the most fortuitous circumstances of her life.
Mr. Benson is an exceedingly kind man and he takes Ruth under his wing. He entreats Ruth in the name of her mother to be still and be guided by him and the Lord, and she is calmed and listens. Ruth is again in a position in which she has no one to turn to, no family, but it is a blessing that she is taken in by Mr. Benson, his sister, and Sally their housekeeper. These three, each in their own way, nurse Ruth's body and mind, and strengthen the faith that will help heal her tortured soul. From Mr. Benson, Ruth learns not to mind what men say but what God thinks, and to leave her life in God's hands. Miss Benson inspires Ruth to read, to educate herself, as well as to keep her mind from returning to the sad subjects of the past. The time and effort that Ruth devotes to improving her mind is an important step in her growth process, while also being symbolic of her change from a naive girl to a wise woman.
Sally, never one to mince words, has heard enough of Ruth's heart-wrenching sighs and sobs. She lectures her to
just try for a day to think of all the odd jobs as has to be done well and truly as in God's sight, not just slurred over anyhow, and you'll go through them twice as cheerfully, and have no thought to spare for sighing or crying. (176)
Ruth takes this good advice to heart and sets about her tasks and the care of her beloved son with a lighter heart than before. As well as lecturing Ruth, Sally speaks to her of her own experiences, for example the remorse she felt after dropping the baby Mr. Benson and causing his crooked back. She, too, "took to praying and sighing, and giving up the world" (175), but Mr. Benson's mother sat her down and gave her much the same advice that Sally now gives Ruth. As we will see with Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters, hearing the story of someone who has faced similar circumstances successfully by thinking of others rather than herself, can do much towards improving one's outlook on something difficult.
Even when it is discovered that Ruth is to have a child, an event that could make her ordeal as a social outcast even more painful, Mr. Benson can see that it, too, is a blessing if approached properly:
I can imagine that if the present occasion be taken rightly, and used well, all that is good in her may be raised to a height unmeasured but by God; while all that is evil and dark may, by His blessing, fade and disappear in the pure light of her child's presence. Oh, Father! listen to my prayer, that her redemption may date from this time. Help us to speak to her in the loving spirit of the Holy Son! (121)
The right way for Ruth to approach the birth of her child, and for the Bensons as Ruth's surrogate family, is to stress the care he will need and the guidance she must give him so that he will lead an honest and Christian life. Ruth is no longer alone once her son is born; she has family again, and the responsibilities of raising her son bring her closer to God as she continually asks for His help.
Unlike many unwed mothers at the time, Ruth is given a second chance at a decent, God-fearing life, thanks to the Bensons' open minds, open hearts and true Christian charity. The lessons she learns from the humble Benson household do much to strengthen Ruth so that when the inevitable happens and she and her son must face the world as open sinners, they have the knowledge that there are at least three people who truly love them, sinners or not, and that they are worthy in God's eyes.
When Ruth was taken in by the Bensons, they thought it best that her real identity be disguised. They told everyone that she was a distant relation, a Mrs. Denbigh, who had recently been widowed. Ruth lives peacefully under this false identity for some time, even contracting a job as governess to the children of Mr. Bradshaw, a man who prides himself on his severe moral character. When the townspeople do discover Ruth's true past through a series of coincidental circumstances, and she re-encounters Mr. Bellingham, Ruth's temporarily peaceful world is chaos once again and she is thrown out of Mr. Bradshaw's home.. Miss Benson reflects that "Ruth has had some years of peace, in which to grow stronger and wiser, so that she can bear her shame now in a way she never could have done at first" (361). The Bensons have given Ruth all the help and guidance that they possessed; she needs something more now.
As stated, each of the girls in these novels have a special relationship with her father; in Ruth's case it is her heavenly father. By praying, she refuses to be self-absorbed, and gives her problems up to God's will. She asks for strength, not to fight back against those who shun her, but to bear their disapproval meekly, as a penance for her early sin.
On two occasions it appears that God is answering back in the form of an event in nature. The first is on the night that Ruth meets Mr. Bellingham, now Mr. Donne, again. Outside, while Ruth is alone and praying to God for strength, there is a storm which seems to match and soothe the raging in Ruth's heart. The other occasion is after Ruth meets Mr. Donne for what she thinks is the final time. She takes her stand against him and refuses to be coerced into trusting him as she was in her youth. When he is gone, she collapses from exhaustion. As she lays on the ground, wishing to die, a beautiful crimson sunset occurs and
Ruth forgot herself in looking at the gorgeous sight. She sat up gazing, and, as she gazed, the tears dried on her cheeks; and, somehow, all human care and sorrow were swallowed up in the unconscious sense of God's infinity. The sunset calmed her more than any words, however wise and tender, could have done. It even seemed to give her strength and courage; she did not know how or why, but so it was. (305)
Perhaps it was a reminder that God's power is what Ruth needs to heed, not man's shallow disdain, as Mr. Benson taught her.
As Ruth learns to accept the consequences of her immoral act meekly, she passes on her quiet strength to her son, and succeeds in "leading him up to God" (384). Her true work, the ultimate penance for her sin, is to be a sick-nurse for the townspeople with the fever. When no one else was willing, Ruth volunteered for the job and worked long and hard to comfort the sick and dying. With religion as her "unseen banner" (391), Ruth appears more and more as a reminder of the Penitent Magdalene who soothed Christ's feet with oil, as Ruth tends to the poor and sick and is forgiven for the sins of her past because she repented. And like a saint, Ruth dies from the fever after proving that she has learned Christian charity and humility through the Bensons, by nursing Mr. Donne, the man who first led her astray, back to health.
Created 1997; entered the Victorian Web 25 August 2000