The reading public seems to be divided into those who fall hopelessly in love with Mrs Gaskell’s saintly Ruth and those who find her irritating. I belong to the latter group, an admission which will no doubt lead to some accusations of heartlessness (I’m also with Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell). Ruth Hilton, an orphaned dressmaker’s assistant, is seduced and abandoned by the wealthy Henry Bellingham. Alone and pregnant, a hunchbacked nonconformist minister, Thurstan Benson, takes pity on her and helps her establish a new life as a respectable widow, Mrs Denbigh. In this guise she is able to obtain employment as a governess with the evangelical Bradshaw family. All is well until Bellingham reappears on the scene as the local prospective parliamentary candidate, and then Ruth’s hidden past is brought into the light. Her continuing self-sacrifice leads ultimately to tragic consequences.
Contemporary reviewers were critical of Ruth’s faultlessness and unwavering self-flagellation. The Gentleman’s Magazine thought she should have been portrayed as “more alive and less simple”. Gaskell’s refrain of “Remember how young and innocent, and motherless she was” is unconvincing beyond the early chapters, and her contention that Ruth was both faultless and necessarily contrite is inherently contradictory. In the author’s defence one could argue that if society is minded to reject an unfortunate victim like Ruth, then how would it behave towards a less angelic figure? Although the critical reception was more understanding of Ruth’s predicament than Gaskell had perhaps predicted, the novel did cause trouble in her own household, and two men of her acquaintance burned their copies in disgust.
The excellent introduction by Alan Shelston thoughtfully considers the novel’s strengths and weaknesses and draws the reader’s attention to the poetry of Gaskell’s writing. There is also illuminating contextual material in the form of a letter Gaskell wrote to Charles Dickens during his Urania Cottage days in support of a young girl who had suffered a similar fate to Ruth. After being seduced by a doctor she was forced to embark upon a life of crime in order to support herself. Finally ending up in jail, she was again confronted by her seducer, who was by now the prison surgeon. Although Ruth’s unrelenting martyrdom is unpalatable to many readers (including me), Gaskell’s stauch defence of the vulnerable is genuinely moving, and her story inspired future less-than-perfect (and more credible) literary heroines.