The Nineteenth-Century Book Club: Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (1853)

Welcome to the second meeting of the Nineteenth-Century Book Club. Last week, we delved into the wonder that is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton (1848). This week, (and please excuse me for my self-indulgence), we’re going to discuss her second novel, Ruth (1853). I promise we will move on to a different author next week, though I absolutely cannot guarantee we won’t return to Gaskell in future meetings (spoiler: we most definitely will return to her). As I noted last week, I do have a vested interest in Ruth. It was one of the novels I included in my PhD thesis, and I love it. There, I’ve said it. Now, for those of you who have yet to read the novel, I will begin with a very brief overview of the plot.

Like Mary Barton, Ruth centres on a ‘fallen woman.’ Seduced, made pregnant, and abandoned, Ruth Hilton provides Gaskell with another opportunity to bring female sexuality, and society’s treatment of women who transgress its conventions, to the forefront of her readers’ minds. As a seamstress, Ruth works extremely long hours for very low pay. While mending dresses for a ball, she encounters her seducer, the rich and caddish Henry Bellingham. Bellingham convinces Ruth to meet him under the guise of a friendship which, before long, results in Ruth running away with him.

When Bellingham falls ill and his mother discovers his relationship with Ruth, she convinces him to abandon the girl to her fate. By now, Ruth is pregnant. Realising her predicament, Ruth attempts suicide but, before she can act, she is rescued by kindly Mr Benson and taken to live with him and his sister, Faith. In order to prevent Ruth’s history coming to light, the Bensons suggest she change her identity to ‘Mrs Denbigh’, a young widow. Before long, Ruth finds work as a governess for local businessman, Mr Bradshaw. Though all seems calm for a time, it isn’t long before Ruth’s past catches up with her.

For me, one of the most important themes of this novel is Gaskell’s creation of the Benson’s unconventional family set-up. Rather than the typical and normative husband, wife, and children family, the Benson’s are a brother and sister who live together and take in the pregnant Ruth, eventually helping her to take care of her son, Leonard. Their stable domesticity (the importance of which Gaskell was often keen to explore) provides Ruth with some crucial time and space to come to terms with her situation, and also for the rest and recuperation that a steady, domestic environment offers. Though they may not be typical, the Benson’s familial situation allows Gaskell to extend the understanding of a successful domestic space, demonstrating that atypical families who do not fit into the expected mould are still just that: successful family units. Both Ruth’s and the Benson’s situations are not conventional, but they are acceptable.

As Gaskell demonstrates, the flow of ordinary life in the context of a domestic setting is restorative, and is therefore crucial. Within the calm, domestic setting of the Benson’s home, sewing becomes a recuperative act. Though her job as a seamstress initially led to Ruth’s ‘fall’, it now gives her the space to consider her situation and to recover from it.

As you can imagine, this is a very tiny analysis of one small part of a fantastic novel. I could go on (and believe me, I have), but this is supposed to be a blog post and not an article! Needless to say, Ruth is well worth reading if you haven’t yet discovered it. I was very privileged to research it and write about it. It’s one of my favourites, no doubt about it.

Next week, we will give Gaskell a well-deserved rest, and we will instead delve into the world of the oft-underrated Margaret Oliphant. We will start with (in my humble opinion), one of her best novels, Hester (1883). See you then.

Oh, before you go, do remember I am here to help you with all of your proofreading, editing and transcription needs, should you need me (end of plug).

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