Elizabeth Gaskell – Ruth

The term ‘illness’ draws up several definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. The meaning most immediate to our present understanding would be a ‘bad/unhealthy condition of the body and mind’. Another among the others – now obsolete – presents it as a ‘bad moral quality, condition, or character.’ Illness was often used as a measure of morality, with the perception that bad morals predisposed to illness and could be contagious like a disease. Elizabeth Gaskell explored these issues of morality – the loss and redemption of – in her English social novel, Ruth. Challenging the typical ‘fallen woman’ narrative, her sympathetic portrayal of the eponymous heroine caused a huge divide in opinion, disrupting and questioning the traditional values and beliefs held in society. Throughout the novel, there seems to be an intertwining relationship between illness and morality, from the notion that lacking in the latter can manifest in the physical body to the treatment of moral illnesses as communicable diseases.
Elizabeth Gaskell was conscious of the risk she was taking in depicting Ruth in such a way that shed light on her identity beyond the crude label of ‘fallen woman’. At the time Ruth was published, Victorian society was built upon a foundation of a strict set of moral codes that commanded dignity and restraint – including sexual repression – in the conduct of its people. The religious sector, particularly the Anglican Church, had a powerful and ubiquitous influence on politics and society; therefore, many values were rooted in Christian beliefs. The ‘great social evil’ of the time was prostitution, becoming a public health issue by the end of the Victorian era. In Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Bracebridge Hemyng claimed that ‘literally every woman who yields to her passions and loses her virtue is a prostitute’, placing any sort of sexual transgression within the term’s boundaries. The ideal Victorian woman conformed to the ‘Angel of the House’ archetype while those who engaged in sexual activity outside marriage were ‘fallen women’, irredeemable until death. The typical ‘fallen woman’ narrative was weighed down by suffering, warranted as an inevitable consequence of tainting of moral character. Dismissed as outcasts, a downward spiral would ensue ultimately to suicide. Reform was available via female penitentiaries, quarantined as if contagious in institutions away from society. Throughout Ruth, Gaskell suggests that more benefit would be derived from rehabilitation within the community itself.

Since Victorian society operated under strict religious principles, causes of disease were often given metaphysical explanations linked to immorality. The emergence of anti-contagionist theory occurred during the British cholera epidemic of 1831 to 1832. With this, Swenson claims a direct causal link was affirmed: ‘the “filth” of immorality not only generated fever, but “immoral” persons were predisposed to it.’ Gaskell appears to conform to this convention; fever is a recurring theme to which characters are subjected whenever moral ills are committed. However, beneath the surface, she also pushes against this idea. The first question she confronts the reader with is whether the heroine is a truly immoral figure. In contextualising Ruth ‘fallen woman’ narrative, Gaskell explores Ruth’s background for the reader to gain a greater understanding of how she came to be seduced. Ruth is presented as ‘innocent and snow-pure’, ‘childish and awkward’. Orphaned at fifteen, she began an apprenticeship as a seamstress under Mrs Mason. Upon first meeting Mr Bellingham at a ball where she is working, Ruth is ‘infected by the feeling’ of his amusement, marking the start of her downfall. There is allusion to another recurring idea that bad morals can corrupt others like a contagion, something severe and insidious. This use of clinical language heralds the forthcoming manifestation of moral illnesses into physical symptoms, and its management.

The first instance that illness befalls Ruth is when she finds herself in the regular company of Mr Bellingham, who is smitten by her beauty. On one of their evening walks, Mrs Mason catches them together and vehemently orders Ruth not to ‘attempt to show your face at my house again after this conduct’. A ‘trembling, guilty’ Ruth becomes ‘stony, sick and pale… she was so sick and faint’. In an instant, she has become someone scorned by society, banished to its outskirts for her frivolity. She had previously pondered that what she was doing was ‘not exactly wrong, but yet as it were not right’ before dismissing the thought, showing some degree of internal conflict. The first external confirmation signalling that her actions are wholly inappropriate renders her physically weak, so much so that Mr Bellingham exclaims ‘Are you ill?’. An element of irony arises here, insinuating an unhealthy condition of morality as well as the body. And as reality sinks in, she exhibits symptoms of a fever: ‘shaking and dizzy’, ‘became as hot as she had previously been cold’. Mr Bellingham coaxes Ruth into going with him to Wales, where their relationship becomes a topic for gossip. When sexual intercourse is implied, Mr Bellingham is overcome by a ‘brain fever’. Victorian readers may have identified him as the victim, just as his mother saw Ruth as the ‘cause of his illness’. However, there is an underlying significance in his becoming ill so quickly after the act that suggests Gaskell is highlighting him as the guiltier party in preying on Ruth’s sexual innocence. Ruth only falls ill again when abandoned by her lover – the knowledge of her ‘fallen’ status overwhelming her into an unconsciousness that has characteristics of what can now be understood as depression.

On the contrary, the novel also counters the causal relationship between illness and morality while recognising that the linkage is difficult to resist (Krienke). Mr Benson wonders himself whether Mr Bellingham can ‘grow into perfect health, with these great sins pressing on his conscience’, proposing that the two come hand in hand. His mind then wanders into ‘whole labyrinths of social ethics’, suggesting the huge complexity of the association that society took to so naturally. Their traditional values dictated a very clear-cut boundary between right and wrong. To further strengthen the challenging of convention, characters who are not deemed ‘morally unwell’ also fall ill: Jenny with the pain in her side and a cough, and Elizabeth who suffers from a ‘fainting-fit’. A bout of measles also befalls Leonard, innocent in the eyes of God perhaps, but an ‘heir of shame’ in the eyes of men. The presumption that his illness is punishment for Ruth’s sin can be made. However, Gaskell implicitly opposes this. Volume II ends with Mr Benson’s reassurance of: ‘It is what every child has to go through.’ Ending with this emphasises its prevalence and acknowledges the surrounding factors inducing illness that have nothing to do with the person themselves.

The first encounter between Ruth and Mr Benson: Ruth is taking a walk after being dismissed by Mr Bellingham for having a ‘depression of spirits.’ In awe of a waterfall, she crosses a stream, from stepping-stone to stepping-stone. However, at the middle there comes a ‘great gap.’ Hesitantly contemplating her next move, she is startled to ‘hear a voice offering help’. It is Mr Benson. At this point, she does not know Mr Benson will help her more than she ever realises. With his outstretched hand, she crosses ‘in a moment’. He rescues her from falling into the water that ran ‘high and rapidly, as busy as life’ just as he rescues her from being swept away by the relentless currents of societal stigma. Following this, he ‘made way for her to precede him… and then silently followed her up the glen.’ His quiet way with her sets the tone for their future interactions: he is never imposing or forceful with his views nor does he attempt to remove her agency but is there to guide and support as best he can – becoming the father figure she so needed in life. His understanding, compassionate nature represents an open community willing to welcome those who are broken or ill – be that morally or physically – and aid them in their reintegration within society. Gaskell demonstrates that if given a chance, an opportunity to change, someone can find their purpose and contribute to the community meaningfully.

The truth of Ruth’s ‘fallen’ status is revealed as gossip spreads through the community, reaching the ears of Mr Bradshaw and rendering his face ‘purple with suppressed agitation’. In his heated rage, he calls her ‘depraved’ and ‘disgusting’, recoiling as if she were a filthy creature to be kept as far from him and his family as possible. He blames her for Jemima’s growing impudence, declaring ‘when such a woman came into my family there is no wonder at any corruption – any evil – any defilement’. He continues to reinforce this point with ‘how deep is the corruption this wanton has spread in my family. She has… spread her nets well and skilfully. She has turned right into wrong, and wrong into right…’ This betrayal of trust erases all of Ruth’s hard work from his mind, removes all traces of the soft, noble characteristics she embodied that had led to her employment as governess for his children. The flames of anger stoke the distortion of his perception, so that he only sees her as some sort of lowly vermin with malicious intentions in transmitting its germs of immorality. In his confrontation with Mr Benson, Mr Bradshaw argues that Ruth was ‘contaminating my innocent girls’. His use of disease metaphors further reinforces the concept of moral contagion, with ‘contaminating’ suggesting that the simple presence of the dirty, sinful Ruth could mar the pure and the clean with her wrongdoings. In his eyes, Ruth has become inextricably linked to the sin that she committed in the naïveté of her youth, her whole identity now revolving around this one irrevocable misstep. Ironically, it is later discovered that his own son – a product of his narrow-minded principles – committed forgery and embezzlement.

McBee remarks that Mrs Mason ‘had the ability to save Ruth and keep her from committing any immoral behaviour’, arguing that Mrs Mason was aware of the threat of temptations to the girls under her charge but did nothing to guide them until it was too late. Even, Gaskell’s narration adopts an admonishing tone: ‘It would have been a better and more Christian thing, if she had kept up the characters of her girls by tender vigilance and maternal care’. As soon as Mrs Mason sees the unchaperoned Ruth with Mr Bellingham, she immediately assumes that Ruth has ‘fallen’ and doles out a dismissal with a severe hand and without any attempt to understand the situation. She leaves Ruth in a state of fear and panic, feeling ‘shut out from every house’. With nowhere to go, she has no choice but to follow Mr Bellingham and ultimately become a ‘fallen woman’. Via Mrs Mason arises Gaskell’s criticism of a community all too ready to hand out swift punishment, to banish those they view as morally irredeemable to the outskirts. One that is more concerned with ‘keeping up the character of [the] establishment’, sweeping the problems out of sight instead of addressing the roots of said problems. Gaskell recognises that society has a part in the downfall of these women, that morality can be shaped by the environment (in line with her Unitarian views) and more should be done to protect women falling into traps of prostitution.

Ruth’s deathbed scene is shrouded in a whimsical tone, pushing against the notion that her death is punishment for her immorality. Her eyes tell of the ‘sweet, child-like insanity within’ as she sings ‘soft and low’. The significance of her dying moments lies in the restoration of her ‘early joyousness’, transporting her back to her childhood days. To the days when she had felt love and knew no suffering, before her life fell apart. Levy claims that the description of Ruth’s death diminishes her to her ‘reproductive capacity’: ‘There she lay in the attic-room in which her baby had been born, her watch over him kept, her confession to him made’. However, such an argument demeans all of Ruth’s hard work, just as Bradshaw did when he discovered her secret. It fails to recognise her expression of pure joy when she realised she was pregnant and all her efforts over the years in educating herself to better the life of her child. Focussing solely on the death may allow assumption that the novel endorses the ‘conventional Victorian moral tone’ but to do so neglects the extensive redemption process Ruth undertook. As Krienke says, these analyses ‘prioritize outcomes over middles’ instead of interpreting the ending in the ‘discourse of convalescence – a state not defined by its outcomes’.

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