Katherine Wootton examines how Elizabeth Gaskell’s daring novel Ruth, a new edition of which is published this month, challenges our prejudices and suggests how it is still relevent today
Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) is largely known and loved for her sharply observed social satires, like Cranford. Others like North and South examine the effects of the industrial revolution. While she is similar in style to Jane Austen, she presents greater criticism of the class system, drawing particular attention to the cruel standard of living inflicted on the working classes, and the personal and moral results of hardship, as well as the discrepancy in living standards and attitudes between and among classes. Her heroines are generally intelligent, moral, responsible women who observe the injustice of their milieu, often acting as much as possible to correct imbalance as and when they can.
In light of this pattern, Ruth, which is being released in a new edition, is quite unusual. The exceptional style and ethical focus remain, as do her well-drawn characters, strong women, and psychological and social insight, but her method of examining a particular moral issue is unique in this book.
The story of Ruth’s life is a kind of extended parable; she is a humble and pious martyr to her own lost innocence and socially dictated moral strictures, and her religion both condemns and saves her. Gaskell writes the character of Ruth deliberately as symbol for the reader and supporting characters to provoke an examination of both their own and society’s misogynistic prejudices, which spring from cultural convention and religious teaching. Gaskell brings the Madonna/Whore dichotomy to a head by creating a character that represents both, and crafting a plot which invites the reader to notice the casual cruelty of their own assumptions, the hypocrisy in religious practice, and the ways that an accumulation of small injustices can have drastic results.
Ruth is an innocent child, orphaned and sent to work as a seamstress. Her job puts her in the path of a wealthy and self-important man, who easily seduces the 16-year-old girl with the affectionate attention she had missed since the death of her parents. He impregnates and abandons her, and the rest of the novel follows her raising her child and living in a society based on customs that assume she is a lost cause. For a time Ruth lives under another identity, and therefore relatively happily, without public judgment and condemnation. This happiness is short lived, however – Gaskell’s audience at the time would not have accepted a book that allowed a ‘fallen woman’ a happy ending.
Gaskell is unflinching in the portrayal of the outrage, disgust, and rejection that Ruth is victim to once her secret is uncovered, and Ruth’s patience and humility in the face of this ostracism emphasises her sense of guilt; Ruth believes herself to be as bad as everyone else thinks, and internalises the social and religious judgment of her position, without allowing herself any excuse or defence. She lives as a quintessential repentant sinner.
Although we would like to think that times have changed since 1853, there has been plenty in the news lately to remind us that women are often considered partly or entirely to blame for rape
By building Ruth’s character into an allegorical martyr, Gaskell presents her argument against this common injustice entirely on principle. Ruth condemns herself more than a reader would and lives as a perpetual penitent, despite the fact that she is largely irreproachable. Gaskell forces the reader to face the reality of how Ruth is victimised and, by extension, how this was true for thousands of women at the time.
Gaskell’s argument is, interestingly, presented in largely religious terms – there are several biblical quotes in the text. One character spends much of the book arguing, with scriptural support, for Ruth’s innocence and right to a peaceful life without social ostracism. By making Ruth inarguably Good, and suffusing the text with religious meditations, Gaskell makes the injustice of Ruth’s situation obvious and irrefutable, while still technically within the confines of the conventional ‘fallen woman’ narrative of suffering and death.
Gaskell also brings to attention the double standard for men and women regarding their sexual experiences. Additionally, she surrounds Ruth with lively, strong and opinionated women, some happily and deliberately single. These other female characters give Gaskell a means both to show a more active and forthright character than Ruth can be, and to explore how women specifically condemn other women, fearful of being tainted by association.
Although we would like to think that times have changed since 1853, there has been plenty in the news lately to remind us that women, however young, are often considered partly or entirely to blame for rape, and have to live with consequences far more life-altering than those of men. Gaskell’s observations of the kind of social judgment women have to live with, and her means of showing the reader some of their own automatic prejudices are still sadly quite relevant. Excellent reading material for many a politician today, I would think.