It began in 2010 as part of my desultory “Mrs. Project.” In the nineteenth century, Gaskell’s work was published under the name “Mrs Gaskell,” not Elizabeth. The Mrs. title was also de rigueur for Victorian writers Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mrs. Browning, and Mrs. Campbell Praed.
I have been considering Gaskell’s work because I am reading Nell Stevens’ new book, The Victorian and the Romantic, which is part fictional biography of Gaskell, part memoir of Stevens’s studies of Gaskell for her Ph.D.
I recently reread Ruth, Gaskell’s second novel, in which she treats the subject of pregnancy out of wedlock with sympathy and intelligence. Though much has changed since the nineteenth century, unintentional pregnancy remains a social problem, especially as states slash funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide health care for low-income women.
The first hundred pages of this intriguing but uneven novel are pitch-perfect. Gaskell’s style is simple and serviceable: the plot races along, the characters are vivid, and there is much pathos. The unmarried heroine, Ruth Hilton, is a teenage orphan with no future. After her parents die, her guardian sends her away to be a seamstress in a sweatshop. The girls work impossibly long hours–they sometimes work till 2 a.m. and then get up at dawn. One night Ruth is chosen to go to a ball to work in the cloakroom sewing rips and repairing ladies’ gowns. And then a wealthy young man, Mr. Bellingham, falls for her beauty.
Poor Ruth! Her boss, Mrs. Mason, fires her after seeing Mr Bellingham holding Ruth’s arm as they walk around town. And so Ruth becomes homeless. Mr. Bellingham, whom she loves and regards as her saviour, whirls her away to London. Then they travel to Wales, where Ruth admries the countryside and takes long walks.
Naturally, this idyll cannot last forever. Mr. Bellingham falls ill, and his mother takes him away. He never returns to Ruth, because she was just a passing phase. After he deserts her, she becomes very ill, and she learns she is pregnant. Mr. Benson, an upstanding minister, and his sister, Faith, take her into their home. After a discussion of the relative morality of telling the truth about Ruth’s pregnancy (and ruining her life), or passing her off as a widow and a relative, they do the latter. And it works out very well: Ruth blooms under their care, and they love her son Leonard. She even gets a day job as governess for a wealthy family. That is, until… Yes, the Mrs. title can serve her only so long.
There is a draggy patch in the middle, but the pace picks up again and I really loved this little book. It is a predecessor of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.