Monday, April 27, 2009

Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell

The recent airing of the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford inspired me to read some of the Gaskell novels I had missed. Ruth is where I’ve started, and intend to finish with Sylvia’s Lovers.

I became a big fan of Mrs Gaskell after reading her political novel North and South, which explored the question of labour versus capital. I next read Cranford, which being a witty, surreal social novel, came as a bit of a surprise. The terse drama of North and South left no clue that Gaskell could write comedy. Then I tried her first novel, Mary Barton, which dealt with themes similar to North and South. I didn’t enjoy this as much, and left off reading Gaskell for a while. Then I picked up Wives and Daughters, and was happy to discover the writer’s great masterpiece.

Ruth is the first novel I’ve read by Mrs Gaskell since Wives and Daughters. Like Mary Barton and North and South, the novel has a moral aim. Gaksell explores the theme of the ‘fallen woman’, and pleads for greater understanding and sympathy. This understanding is of course based on Christian ethics.

Ruth Hilton, who falls pregnant to the weak and mother-dominated Henry Bellingham, in the end redeems herself through her own good works, inspired by her Christian faith. The great success and moral truth of the novel is found in the fact that these forthright Christian precepts can resonate so powerfully in our own secular age. Even though I’m a non-believer, your heart is moved by Ruth’s faith and the way she puts that into action. Being a Christian makes so much sense!

Ruth is elegantly written and carefully constructed. The author’s sincerity and absolute belief in her message comes through in every line of the text, without the book ending up mawkish or sentimental. We know from Gaskell’s life that she was a tireless social worker, for whom novel writing was a bit of a side hobby. Yet Gaskell obviously wanted to improve life for the downtrodden and unfortunate by educating and informing the public through her fiction. Despite the novel’s aim as propaganda, it succeeds as art also. You can read it today and get a completely satisfying aesthetic and moral experience.

Having said that, I would still have to put Wives and Daughters up at the top of my list of favourite Gaskell novels. North and South would come next. Then Cranford. Ruth is not up there with the best of the Gaskell novels, and I place it perhaps just above Mary Barton.

I hope this ranking I have devised does not put readers off, as I certainly think it is a very good novel. And it did confirm for me (once again) what a formidable artist Elizabeth Gaskell is. If anything, I would like this post to highlight the vital importance of reading every Gaskell novel and story, as I indeed hope to myself!

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