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As in North and South, Gaskell explores the values and inequities of Victorian society here. The main character, a desperate young woman who has lost her job and has no family to assist her, falls prey to a handsome gent--it's the old "seduced and abandoned" theme. But Ruth gets a chance to redeem her life and to provide a happier future for her son--temporarily, of course. Although there are no surprises here (the story is quite predictable), Gaskell makes it interesting with her fine characterizations and understanding of the human heart.
trying to see the world with my ears
This is a great companion to Eliot's Adam Bede and Hardy's Tess for its pregnant-outside-of- wedlock protagonist (although Gaskill's sentimentality leads to a different treatment).
I found this to be the best structured of Gaskill's novels, and I think Mr Benson one of the more interesting characters she created. I've heard that Ruth was based on a real character known to Gaskill's family. Hooray for Gaskill for taking up the topic as early as she did (though overall she still placated Victorian sensibilities and made Ruth a "too good to be true" character to try to garner contemporary readers sympathies)
Ruth, orphaned and alone at the age of 12, is lead astray at 16 by an affluent, self centered young man in his early 20's and then abandoned after she becomes pregnant. She is taken in by a kindly, sympathetic clergyman and his sister who share their home. Assuming the identity of a young widow, Ruth raises her child and is grateful for her good fortune and the generosity of those around her. After a dozen years, her secret of being an unwed mother is, through unexpected connections, revealed. She is then rejected and shunned by members of the community who had previously welcomed her into their homes. The rest of the story concerns Ruth's redemption; she is finally recognized and elevated for always putting the welfare of others ahead of her own. The novel is beautifully executed with a bittersweet ending. I have read and listed to a number of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels and have found each to be unique and memorable. The author balances sorrow and joy in equal parts.
The narrator does a great job of subtly changing between the many characters' voices.
I cried. (But I cry at Hallmark ads...) I was most struck by how well the story illustrates the redemptive power of true selflessness...without expectation of any reward.
I love Gaskell's ability to develop characters. She takes what would be background characters in, say, a Jane Austen novel...the destitute widow, the spinster sisters, the crippled neighbor...and gives them the lead roles. Their seemingly everyday struggles and triumphs built up to heroic proportions. Very satisfying.
Eve Matheson has a fine expressive musical voice which brings out the subtle details and exquisite character sketches Gaskell wove into this story including as an aside, the splendid example of parents' counterproductive interference with the romance of a daughter. Rich, handsome Henry Bellingham calls to mind John Willoughby, "Sense and Sensibility" who, I am sure you recall, seduced Eliza Brandon then abandoned her unmarried, pregnant and penniless, a circumstance which often reduced a woman to prostitution and a short, brutish life; i.e. a death sentence. His public humiliation of Marianne Dashwood was her social death sentence. His behavior revealed a true character totally different from the noble and amiable person which we thought we knew. I go on and on about Willoughby because Bellingham is a Willoughby. As you remember, after her illness, Marianne became a stronger, better woman. Myself, I didn't like her until then. Ruth became a stronger better person after she was abandoned by Bellingham. She took charge of her life and that of her son. While she was certainly the weaker of the two in the beginning of her relationship with Bellingham, as time went on, she grew strong while he remained the same. So much stronger she became, that she sent him packing when he offers belated marriage, i.e. salvation, wealth, ease for herself and her child.
I often read of women similarly situated being put to death so let us not congratulate ourselves that the attitudes expressed in this story are dated and we live in a time superior to Ruth's world of the 1800's. Indeed, one often sees stories where the woman is killed for much smaller offenses or is guilty of being a rape victim. Ruth is here among us, today, in the Twenty-First Century. Our women's groups are notable by their silence as they mostly are on issues of real consequence. Let us be humble before our Ruths. Listen, hear the silence.
If the elderly servant, Sally, had been the rule for Elizabeth Gaskell in forming her characters in this book, it would have been another great like "North and South". Sally's wit and comic urbanity, contrasts sharply with the nauseatingly sweet goodness of Ruth, the innocent led into predictable sin by a wealthy young rake. The result is a preachy fairy tale of Christian redemption through sacrifice. Elizabeth Gaskell is a clever observer of people and their foibles, but in Ruth she missteps in giving her heroine unearthly beauty and divine purity, thus, taking her out of the realm of common mortals. Nevertheless, Gaskell writes an entertaining story which only requires a suspension of disbelief in human nature. The reader is excellent.
The narrator of this story sounds so glum that it makes the listener dread the next sentence. It's almost as though she's apologizing for telling you a sad story. I recommend choosing the version narrated by Nadia May.
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