A thirty six chaptered Elizabeth Gaskell novel written in the eighteen hundreds, entitled Ruth can only be about the journey of a pretty dressmaker’s apprentice through life. Ruth Hilton is a naive sixteen year old and a weary apprentice of Mrs Mason, an oppressive dress-maker and a hard task-master who reigns over her working girls in a squalid dark mansion and gives them an occasional treat of fixing the ladies’ gowns in the ante-rooms in hunt balls. And at one such, she meets Mr Bellingham, a much sought after bachelor, who notices her amidst the bevy of ladies. An acquaintance between them tenderly buds and then blooms, as the gentleman becomes more and more enraptured by our rosy heroine and her auburn tresses. Naivety, docility, the charm, ardour and reproaches of Mr Bellingham, pleasant companionship amidst the dingy workdays and a lack of a parental figure to look up to all add up to Ruth’s acquiescing to accompany the gentleman to Wales and Gaskell beautifully captures the innocent emotions of sixteen year old as she embarks on this journey with no knowledge about the consequences she will face throughout her life.

In-evidently, Mr Bellingham proves to be a weak character, both physically and emotionally, a tempestuous impatient boy blessed with a mother who “does the thing handsomely” and meddles with his muddled affairs. And Ruth is left with a broken heart, clinging to her fancies about her vanished knight, a sharp ray of insight into her present circumstances, distraught and nearly suicidal, when Mr Benson, a minister steps in and picks up her shattered life and unconsciously becomes her mentor and guardian. And the book begins, with lovable characters entering the picture. Faith Benson, the minister’s sharp tongued, soft hearted, manly sister and Sally, an equally sharp tongued and even more soft-hearted faithful maid accept Ruth, newly christened Mrs Dinghby, a young and pregnant widow and  the three endeavour to teach Ruth about life through example.

The book describes the shame and sin of mothering an illegitimate child rather in detail, and Ruth is left to shed her tears of penitence ever so often, but also beautifully describes how motherhood proves to be the saviour of the girl and transforms her into a woman. How true is it that, most often, a vigorous desire to be everything to a loved one moves us to hard work and effort of which we think ourselves incapable.

Parallely runs the story of Mr Bradshaw (a Dickensian Gradgrind figure), a morally exacting, adamant and unbending husband and father and his family, which beautifully intermingles with the Bensons and Ruth. Jemima Bradshaw, to me is the most appealing, natural and charismatic character in the entire book. A plain but vivacious girl, rebelling against her father’s autocratic and stern ways, yet ground in that way of thinking, impulsive and argumentative, good hearted and strong, jealous and hating her jealousy, .. an entirely three dimensional character we can feel and empathize with. And there is of course, the weak brother and son, Dick Bradshaw who is the Tom Gradgrind of this book and the plot moves along in a very similar vein to the one followed by Hard Times.

The book deserves mention for three reasons. The first being the presence of Jemima, the second for the beautiful treatment of the way the child is told of his illegitimate birth and finally, for the chapter entitled “Mr Farquhar’s Attentions Transferred” and the the whole relationship of Jemima and Farquhar. Life isn’t two-dimensional, love is not constant, yet, we can and do be happy with our partners, at some point or the other. Beautiful. It is also very gratifying that Bellingham doesn’t suddenly reform at the end, for people never change. If you can tolerate the eighteenth century attitude  (prevalent till today) to pre-marital sex and sin for a small part, why not have a go at it ?

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2 Comments on “Ruth”

  1. Only one question – Is it better than ‘North and South’ or worse?

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