Tuesday, January 26, 2021

7. Ruth

Ruth. Elizabeth Gaskell. 1853. 432 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: There is an assize-town in one of the eastern counties which was much distinguished by the Tudor sovereigns, and, in consequence of their favour and protection, attained a degree of importance that surprises the modern traveller.

Ruth Hilton, a beautiful, young apprenticed seamstress, makes a mistake when she falls in love with a wealthy young man, Henry Bellingham. The two run away together--to Wales, I believe. When he becomes sick, his mother comes and rescues him from the "evil tramp" Ruth. What will Ruth's future be now? Is there hope for this 'fallen woman'?

Why do they run away together? She is late coming home on her afternoon off. She'd been out walking with Mr. Henry Bellingham. When her boss sees that she's walking with a fellow, she's THROWN OUT OF THE HOUSE. No questions or interrogations, no chance to explain. Being an orphan, she has no one to turn to. Granted, he is quite enchanted with her and eager to keep company with her. Granted, he being older and wiser and more aware of how the world works could have taken more care to protect her reputation. But he didn't. Would Ruth have become a fallen woman if she hadn't been pushed out the door with malice??? Didn't her former boss push her DIRECTLY into the arms of Mr. Bellingham? 

The book doesn't make a distinction between kind and tender AND reprobate sinner sin sinner. I don't see Mr. Henry Bellingham as EVIL per se. I think in some ways he was more mature and worldly wise; she was more naive and innocent. But I do get the idea he genuinely cared for and loved her. In other words it wasn't 100% lust on his part. 

So the book skims the surface of their time together. Is it a few weeks, a few months, half a year or more? Readers don't know for sure. Long enough for her to conceive a child. (Which could lend itself to a mere week or two). But their days are full of happiness in one another. Until he becomes ill and requires nursing. She's his full-time nurse and she's tender, loving, and all kinds of wonderful. But someone else writes his mother to come and fetch him. 

His mother sees Ruth as an EVIL TRAMP, a seductress. She WENT AFTER HER SON. She forced him to live a debauched life. The best thing--the only thing--is to keep these two apart forever and ever. Whether Ruth lives or dies is no concern to her. She must reap what she has sown--bear the consequences for her wickedness. Readers can put two and two together and see that her perspective on Ruth is unkind--though not shocking or out of touch with the times.

But their holiday in Wales wasn't all that secluded. Ruth also made acquaintances and friends with others during her stay. One of those is Mr. Benson, a minister. He knows that Ruth is "living in sin" with a young man (though I don't believe these two meet at this point). But he also sees her as a young, naive, deeply troubled young woman who has hit rock bottom. Almost literally. Ruth has lost the will to live. She's sunken to the 'depths of despair' (to borrow a phrase from Anne Shirley). He doesn't see Ruth as reprobate past the point of no return. No, he sees her as a human being in need of a Savior. Mr. Benson knows that ALL have fallen and come short. Mr. Benson knows that NONE are worthy. Mr. Benson knows a mighty, mighty Savior who will graciously welcome her into His Kingdom with open arms. God's grace is AMAZING and his love knows no bounds. What Ruth needs is not stern judgment and to be cast out from society, what Ruth needs is to be welcomed wholly and loved. 

Mr. Thurstan Benson and his sister, Faith, take Ruth with them to their own community (remember Wales was a vacation, a holiday), to their own home. Ruth becomes one with them and gets a new beginning. And a new beginning it is, Ruth has been born again, born from above. She has been forgiven, fully forgiven. And she loves abundantly and graciously. Leonard, her son, is a wonderful little boy. 

Not content to live off of charity, Ruth first becomes a governess and then later a sick nurse. The novel illustrates through its characters--Ruth, Faith, Sally, Thurstan, etc.--faith in action.

The novel is a tragedy--but not for the reasons one might expect. Elizabeth Gaskell is no Nathaniel Hawthorne or Thomas Hardy. The novel's treatment of a woman bearing an illegitimate child is revolutionary for its time--in my opinion. Ruth was treated with GRACE, BOUNTIFUL, OVERFLOWING grace. She was LOVED unconditionally without judgment, without scorn. Mr. Benson loved her with the truth: There is a God who SAVES. There is a God who FORGIVES. There is a God who LOVES, who SEES and HEARS. Even if the world doesn't forgive, even if the world doesn't give second chances, even if the world rejects--there is a God who will never leave nor forsake. 

The novel features many conversations that I imagine would have been shocking, offensive, challenging to the status quo at the time it was published. I imagine that this novel might have been a bit controversial in some circles.What is 'the Christian' way to treat a fallen woman? a single mother? Were the Bensons being too lenient? By extending love and grace to Ruth were they compromising the truth and their witness? 

There were several opportunities for Thurstan Benson to show grace. The most obvious being to Ruth herself and to her son. But a second was when he was wronged by a neighbor. He shows grace both times and advocates for grace in strong language. But there was one opportunity where he did NOT show grace nor give the benefit of the doubt. 

Thurstan Benson, for better or worse, does not see Mr. Bellingham (aka Mr. Donne) as being anything other than a reprobate. He sees him as a SINNER SIN SINNER through and through. Though he graciously sees Ruth as being REDEEMED (her past completely wiped clean; spotless), he doesn't seem to think that God could work a mighty wonder in Henry too. Benson is not civil to him and utterly rejects all of his offers to help with Leonard, to provide for him, to be even a little part in his life. Is it fair of Mr. Benson to offer the grace of the gospel to Ruth but withhold it from Henry Bellingham??? Is Leonard better never knowing his father's name, better never having a relationship with him, better without a cent from his father? I am not saying absolutely that a relationship between Leonard and Henry Bellingham would have been perfectly perfect and the ideal way to end the novel. But in the real world, I would hope that a child would be able to have a relationship with both parents even if one parent isn't a saintly saint saint.


  • "Well, my dear, you must learn to think and work too; or, if you can't do both, you must leave off thinking. Your guardian, you know, expects you to make great progress in your business, and I am sure you won't disappoint him."
  • The night before, she had seen her dead mother in her sleep, and she wakened, weeping. And now she dreamed of Mr Bellingham, and smiled. And yet, was this a more evil dream than the other?
  • Ruth was innocent and snow-pure. She had heard of falling in love, but did not know the signs and symptoms thereof; nor, indeed, had she troubled her head much about them.
  • "My dear, remember the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; remember that, Ruth."
  • The old man sighed as he watched them away. "The Lord may help her to guide her steps aright. He may. But I'm afeard she's treading in perilous places. I'll put my missis up to going to the town and getting speech of her, and telling her a bit of her danger. An old motherly woman like our Mary will set about it better nor a stupid fellow like me."
  • "Ruth, would you go with me to London? My darling, I cannot leave you here without a home; the thought of leaving you at all is pain enough, but in these circumstances—so friendless, so homeless—it is impossible. You must come with me, love, and trust to me."
  • Low and soft, with much hesitation, came the "Yes;" the fatal word of which she so little imagined the infinite consequences. The thought of being with him was all and everything.
  • "In the eye of God, she is exactly the same as if the life she has led had left no trace behind. We knew her errors before, Faith."
  • "Yes, but not this disgrace—this badge of her shame!" "Faith, Faith! let me beg of you not to speak so of the little innocent babe, who may be God's messenger to lead her back to Him. Did she not turn to God, and enter into a covenant with Him—'I will be so good?' Why, it draws her out of herself! If her life has hitherto been self-seeking, and wickedly thoughtless, here is the very instrument to make her forget herself, and be thoughtful for another. Teach her (and God will teach her, if man does not come between) to reverence her child; and this reverence will shut out sin,—will be purification."
  • "I think you, Thurstan, are the first person I ever heard rejoicing over the birth of an illegitimate child. It appears to me, I must own, rather questionable morality."
  • Oh, Faith! once for all, do not accuse me of questionable morality, when I am trying more than ever I did in my life to act as my blessed Lord would have done."
  • She is about to become a mother, and have the direction and guidance of a little tender life. I fancy such a responsibility must be serious and solemn enough, without making it into a heavy and oppressive burden, so that human nature recoils from bearing it. While we do all we can to strengthen her sense of responsibility, I would likewise do all we can to make her feel that it is responsibility for what may become a blessing.
  • 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 thy Holy Son!
  • Let us try simply to do right actions, without thinking of the feelings they are to call out in others. We know that no holy or self-denying effort can fall to the ground vain and useless; but the sweep of eternity is large, and God alone knows when the effect is to be produced.
  • My dear Ruth, you don't know how often I sin; I do so wrong, with my few temptations. We are both of us great sinners in the eyes of the Most Holy; let us pray for each other. Don't speak so again, my dear; at least, not to me!
  •  Everything may be done in a right way or a wrong; the right way is to do it as well as we can, as in God's sight; the wrong is to do it in a self-seeking spirit, which either leads us to neglect it to follow out some device of our own for our own ends, or to give up too much time and thought to it both before and after the doing.' 
  • 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."  
  • Those summer mornings were happy, for she was learning neither to look backwards nor forwards, but to live faithfully and earnestly in the present.
  • "Now I wish God would give me power to speak out convincingly what I believe to be His truth, that not every woman who has fallen is depraved; that many—how many the Great Judgment Day will reveal to those who have shaken off the poor, sore, penitent hearts on earth—many, many crave and hunger after a chance for virtue—the help which no man gives to them—help—that gentle, tender help which Jesus gave once to Mary Magdalen."
  • "Come, come, Mr Benson, let us have no more of this morbid way of talking. The world has decided how such women are to be treated; and, you may depend upon it, there is so much practical wisdom in the world that its way of acting is right in the long run, and that no one can fly in its face with impunity, unless, indeed, they stoop to deceit and imposition."
  • "Is it not time to change some of our ways of thinking and acting? I declare before God, that if I believe in any one human truth, it is this—that to every woman who, like Ruth, has sinned, should be given a chance of self-redemption—and that such a chance should be given in no supercilious or contemptuous manner, but in the spirit of the holy Christ."
  • I state my firm belief, that it is God's will that we should not dare to trample any of His creatures down to the hopeless dust; that it is God's will that the women who have fallen should be numbered among those who have broken hearts to be bound up, not cast aside as lost beyond recall. If this be God's will, as a thing of God it will stand; and He will open a way."
  • Be brave and faithful. It is to God you answer, not to men. The shame of having your sin known to the world, should be as nothing to the shame you felt at having sinned. We have dreaded men too much, and God too little, in the course we have taken.
  • My child, it is Christ the Lord who has told us of this infinite mercy of God. Have you faith enough in it to be brave, and bear on, and do rightly in patience and in tribulation?"
  • "The world is not everything, Ruth; nor is the want of men's good opinion and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach Leonard this. You would not wish his life to be one summer's day. You dared not make it so, if you had the power. Teach him to bid a noble, Christian welcome to the trials which God sends—and this is one of them.
  • Teach him not to look on a life of struggle, and perhaps of disappointment and incompleteness, as a sad and mournful end, but as the means permitted to the heroes and warriors in the army of Christ, by which to show their faithful following. Tell him of the hard and thorny path which was trodden once by the bleeding feet of One.
  • "God's omnipotence did not need our sin."
  • The most shallow person dislikes to be told that any one can gauge his depth.
  • "I don't know. The wonder comes into my mind sometimes; but never into hers, I think. It is part of her character—part perhaps of that which made her what she was—that she never looks forward, and seldom back. The present is enough for her."
  • "We have no right to weigh human lives against each other." "No! I know we have not. But it's a way we doctors are apt to get into; and, at any rate, it's ridiculous of you to think of such a thing. Just listen to reason."            

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Ruth said...

Hi, Becky,
I'm reading Ruth right now, so I tried to jump over those parts of your post that offer spoilers, though I know now that she has a child. Ooops. I am only to the part where they run away together.
At this point, I am lukewarm about Mr. Bellingham. I think my flag went up when he was rather unkind to the older woman whose grandson he rescued. (I think it was her grandson.) There were some other things, too, but I am keeping an open mind.
Seems like this story has some great themes, so I am looking forward to finishing it.
And I am really enjoying Gaskell's story-telling and writing style.
Also, since you brought him up, I do feel a bit Hardy-esque while reading this, though I understand what you mean about Gaskell not being Hardy. For sure! But the unfavorable timing for female characters seems typical of these kind of stories. But I shall see.

Lark said...

I have a copy of this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it; Ruth sounds like a character I would really like. And I love those excerpts from the book you quoted. Makes me think I should try and read this book sooner rather than later. :)