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Ruth (thoughts)

December 17, 2009

Sorry about the malfunction guys! I don’t know what happened with the post, or why it showed up empty in feed readers, but here it is.

Today, I’m discussing Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell as part of the Classics Circuit. I just started reading Gaskell this summer, and this is my third book I’ve read by her; I’ve also read Cranford (which I loved) and North and South (which I had mixed feelings about, probably due to seeing the incredible BBC adaptation beforehand). Also, you should know that I listened to this on CD, since my library didn’t have a hard copy (and at over 432 pages, you can imagine there were quite a few CDs!). I love audiobooks, but one of the key differences is that there’s no skimming over bits, so I think Ruth felt preachier to me than it would have if I was reading a hard copy.

Ok, so Ruth is one of Gaskell’s ‘issue’ novels. Ruth is a young girl working as a seamstress in a kind of cottage factory, if that makes sense (the girls all live in, but there’s quite a few of them) after the death of her parents. Due to a series of coincidences, she meets a rich young gentleman Henry Billingham and falls in love. Eventually, she becomes an unwed single mother in a society that saw that as the apex of evil for a woman, and the bulk of the book is devoted to a portrait of Ruth as a devoted young mother (she’s only 15 or 16 when she has her son) whose live is changed by Christianity after a kind, untraditional minister and his sister take her in.

For me, this book was a series of ups and downs. The beginning was wonderful; Gaskell really brought Ruth and her surroundings to life. I could envision the small house she had lived in happily with her family before her troubles, I could see her mean employer at the seamstress place, and I could imagine Ruth’s shy excitement when Billingham took notice of her. But then, once Ruth had her son, Gaskell seems to put the story on pause to try to convince the reader that an unwed mother can be a good, Christian woman. I understand why Gaskell took up this cause, especially in Victorian times. And I understand her focus on Christianity; she was a minister’s wife, and in Victorian England one pretty much had to be a Christian to be considered morally upright. But as a twenty-first century agnostic reader, it felt tedious. As I mentioned earlier, if I’d been reading a hard copy I would have just skimmed these pages. But in audio form, I didn’t really have a choice. So there was a boring bit. But then it got good as Ruth began to rebuild her life, and became an individual once again rather than a political message. And then it got preachy again. And then good again. And the book cycled like that; there were moments when I really loved it and moments when I wondered if I would even finish it. And then there was the ending…it felt like a stereotype of Victorian sentimentality, but Gaskell is such a good writer that it brought me to tears even while I was rolling my eyes. I’m not sure whether to give props to her or not for that achievement! ;)

I really, really wish that I had passages to share with you, so that you could get a taste of the dichotomy between the two writing styles; it’s almost as if Gaskell flips a switch as she starts a new section. For me, in the end the good outweighed the bad, and I’m glad that I read the book. I think Gaskell is at her best when she’s painting scenes of village life and villagers; since most of the book is about Ruth’s life in just such a village, I enjoyed getting to know the other characters (particularly one family, which plays a large role in the novel) and finding out their fates. And while the sermons were a bit tedious, I can’t help but admire Gaskell for not only strenuously disagreeing with the prevailing attitudes of her day, but speaking out against them in the strongest language she could! But I wouldn’t recommend this as the place to start getting to know Gaskell, and I’m hoping that her other books prove stronger than this one. Whenever a novel’s characters are less important than a novel’s political message, inevitably the book will suffer. And in the case of Ruth, that definitely happened.

Thanks to Ms. Gaskell for visiting my blog today! If you’re curious to know more about how classic authors go on tour, if you’d like to join the February tour (which is a theme one: the Harlem Renaissance), be sure to visit the Classics Circuit website. Also, see more of Ms. Gaskell’s blog stops via her tour schedule!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009 2:28 pm

    I’ve got Translucent Tree on my TBR list too. I could have sworn I heard about it from you :)
    Maybe I’m thinking about Tree: A Life Story.

  2. December 17, 2009 4:09 pm

    Well, oops. I meant for this comment to go on Library Loot!

  3. December 17, 2009 4:30 pm

    I’m about halfway through this now and I can definitely see your point about the dichotomy between the preaching and the good story. Gaskell has definitely gone overboard on Ruth’s goodness, as everyone thinks she is literally perfect in a way that I just don’t think is possible. The village life is my favorite part so far too, and is largely the reason I also loved Cranford.

  4. December 17, 2009 4:31 pm

    I read this at university and loved it. It is one of my favourite Gaskells. Yes, it is very preachy, and I felt the ending was highly unnecessary, and contradictory to the message of the book (did Ruth really end up being redeemed, if Gaskell felt she had to make her story end in the way she did? I felt she was bowing to societal pressure in insinuating that Ruth could never live a normal life), but even so, I thought Ruth was such a beautiful character, and the central message that people shouldn’t be judged and condemned forever for their mistakes was very radical at the time. For Gaskell to speak out against the attitude that ‘fallen women’ were a scourge on society and dirty sinners who didn’t deserve to play a part in ‘normal’ life was incredibly brave of her, though like I say, the ending did, for me, somewhat undermine this. A fabulous under-read classic in my opinion, and a great insight into Victorian attitudes surrounding femininity and sex.

  5. December 17, 2009 6:46 pm

    Great review! I still need to get around to reading this one and Cranford. I agree with you about the North and South BBC adaptation, it was wonderful! And while I enjoyed reading the book I felt I didn’t really get much more out of it than I did watching that faithful adaptation, except maybe that the political aspects were heightened in the book. I thought Gaskell’s writing was beautiful though.

  6. December 17, 2009 7:27 pm

    I’m really intrigued by this one — the character in Mary Barton had the potential to become a “Ruth” so this sounds like a different approach to a similar story line. Definitely not listening not listening to the audio though. :)

    Thanks for joining the Circuit!

  7. December 17, 2009 11:47 pm

    Great review! I have to admit, I’ve never read a book by Gaskill. And I’ve never watched North and South either. But I’ve enjoyed reading the reviews of her books. Not sure this one would be ideal for me either. But sounds interesting.

  8. December 18, 2009 7:01 am

    I just read my first Gaskell for the Classics Circuit (Sylvia’s Lovers) and I am looking to read more of her work. Ruth sounds like a great choice!

  9. December 18, 2009 9:34 am

    It sounds like I would take issue with the same things you did here, Eva. The village parts sound great, while the preachy bits sound really tedious. I’d love to try Gaskell myself, so I’m excited to see what my library has of her work.

  10. December 18, 2009 2:28 pm

    I’m wanting to read some Gaskell but maybe this isn’t the one to start with.

  11. December 18, 2009 2:58 pm

    Wonderful and honest review. It is rather frustrating when the point an author is trying to make overwhelms the story fo the book. Makes you wish they had found a more subtle way of getting getting the point across.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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