After reading North and South I wanted to read another of Gaskell's books, but wasn't quite ready to plunge into the weighty 650-some page novel Wives and Daughters, so I opted for Gaskell's third novel, the little-known novel Ruth, originally published in three volumes in 1853.
Ruth is considered a social novel as it deals with a Victorian society's views on sin and illegitimacy.
At the beginning of the novel the heroine, Ruth, is a young woman (about 16) who is orphaned and apprenticed by her guardian to a dressmaker. During this apprenticeship she meets upon a handsome and rich young squire, Henry Bellingham. Bellingham is drawn to Ruth's sweet innocent beauty and begins to seduce her. Without the moral guidance of a family member or guardian nearby Ruth is oblivious to any wrong she has done. All she knows is that she is alone in the world and madly in love with someone who loves and cares for her.
It is only when her lover abandons her and Ruth is treated cruelly by those around her that she realizes how wrong she has been and how great her sin. Alone in a Welsh village Ruth, pregnant and despairing, is rescued from committing suicide by a kind and godly minister and his sister. In an effort to protect Ruth's child from a life of cruelty for his mother's sin, the minister and his sister pretend that Ruth is a distant relative and a widow. This earns her and her child respectability in their neighborhood. Meanwhile as Ruth grows and matures as a woman and mother you learn of her repentant spirit and love for God. It looks as though her past is finally behind her... until her lover returns... her secret is unveiled... and the shunning begins...
The story has a beautiful, but bittersweet ending and overall it is so well written. One aspect I particularly enjoyed is the depth of the relationship between Ruth, the minister and his sister, and God. This isn't a shallow "Christian" novel. Gaskell's writing is as good as Jane Austen, but she isn't afraid to be open and clear about sinners, the repentant, and how Christians should behave towards such people. In my opinion this novel would put any modern Christian novel to shame for it's shallowness and cheap writing, which is why I tend to avoid Christian novels published after a certain point.
What I found intriguing about this book is that it is recorded as being the first novel to have a "fallen woman" as the heroine. In today's society an unwed mother is not nearly as scandalous as it was two-hundred years ago. While I certainly do not advocate such life, I truly believe as the minister, Mr. Benson, explains -- if Christ could forgive a woman such as Mary Magdalene's character when she repented, so should we and not treat people with cruelty. I won't say anymore, if you want to know how it ends you'll have to read the book yourself. It will be worth it, I promise.
The copy I borrowed from the library (purchased upon my request) was a Penguin Classics edition and steady, but fascinating read at 432 pages. As a Penguin publication footnotes on the text are included and are often useful to the reader.