‘RUTH’, HER TIME, AND OURS
The Victorian Era was a very colorful era, especially for women. This is the era in which Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810) set her novel ‘Ruth’ in. ‘Ruth’ is about a young dressmaker’s apprentice who became victim to the time’s aristocracy, and eventually had to pay for her giving in to her cluelessness and ingenuousness with death. The novel paints a very interesting picture of Victorian women and how they were during this time – the picture of women in this era, however, can be viewed in three different ways.
The first would be that women during this time were submissive to the male figure, then, Victorian women had the tendency to be so into themselves to the point of hypocrisy and wrong judgment; and third, women of the Victorian era were very likely to be pompous and quite outward and expressive when it came to their social circles. These pictures of women could easily be gleaned from the text of the novel itself.
The first assumption that women of the Victorian era, especially wives, were given in to submit to the will of the men is clearly shown in a passage that describes Mr. Bradshaw and his wife, which reads, “dressed in clothes of the finest broad-cloth, and scrupulously ill-made, as if to show that he was indifferent to all outward things. His wife was sweet and gentle- looking, but as if she was thoroughly broken into submission.” (Gaskell 191) This particular passage describes Mr. Bradshaw as superior and apathetic; as in the phrase ‘indifferent to all outward things’; then the passage goes on to describe the wife as being ‘broken into submission’, the mere use of the work ‘broken’ paints a picture of women being treated inferiorly in relation to men. Then, to validate this further, the crying Mrs. Benson is again described as “had always looked upon herself as so inferior to her brother in real goodness” (Gaskell 163) further strengthening the thesis that women looked down upon themselves in relation to their male counterparts.
Another image of women is evident in a passage that refers to Thomas’ wife, “had not yet returned from church, or from the weekly gossip or neighbourly tea which succeeded” (Gaskell 56) Gossip and church don’t usually go together, and if we analyze this statement carefully, we can easily imagine a group of women gathering after a church service, indiscriminately talking about other people’s lives, quite characteristic of hypocrisy and the tendency of women in the Victorian age to succumb to wrong judgment. Finally, we take on a lighter quality of women as described in the novel; their being vain and overstated, as supposed by Ruth of the people she would be working for as having “lives in which such music, and such profusion of flowers, of jewels, elegance of every description, and beauty of all shapes and hues, were every-day things.” (Gaskell 13) In particular, this passage describes the opulence and the luxury that women of the Victorian era enjoyed; it brings to mind images of elaborate dresses, colorful jewels, as well as high-strung aristocratic balls and gatherings.
While we cannot necessarily say that the picture that we get of Victorian women is all that accurate because literature is larger than life, we are again presented with a different glimpse of women in the person of Ruth herself. We have a woman who is a slave to her innocence, “Ruth Hilton sprang to the large old window, and pressed against it as a bird presses against the bars of its cage.” (Gaskell 6), one who is quite humble and mild mannered, aware of her lacks “Ruth left her seat very gently, and took up her work. She wished she had the gift of being amusing” (Gaskell 81), and one who is quite patient and blameless in her suffering, in the words of Mrs. Bradshaw herself, “I have watched Ruth, and I believe she is pure and truthful! and the very sorrow and penitence she has felt — the very suffering she has gone through — has given her a thoughtful conscientiousness beyond her age.” (Gaskell 250)
The picture that Gaskell paints of Victorian women is not a picture that is limited to the era itself, it is a picture that could very well be seen even in the modern woman. What is striking about the novel is not mostly about the fact that it presents different images of women, but the truth that for a feminist novel, it is surprising how the heroine is treated. After being put through many unpleasant things in life, to begin with her pregnancy that resulted from her innocent traipsing into the world of the aristocracy, she still emerges the down-trodden with her unpalatable death in the end. At fist the novel would seem very subversive of women if viewed from an external point of view, but if it is read from the point of view of the characters, one thing becomes clear, that the novel is actually a glorification of the role of women in society – that women, because of their resiliency and heart are often the silent ‘changers’ of society. It actually tells the reader that someone as trivial and as uninfluencial as a dressmaker’s apprentice can penetrate the aristocracy and cause considerable changes in the way they think. ‘Ruth’ is not a novel of subversion, if even; it is a clear allusion to the significance of the role of women in society. The death of Ruth in the end, does not represent submission to a cold and unfeeling society, rather, it represents triumph over life’s complexities and abstractions; going beyond the grounded and inconsequential concept of life and transcending the barriers of earth-bound and trifling concerns – something only Victorian women , or any woman for that matter, can accomplish with true graciousness and composure.
Gaskell, E. (1853). Ruth: A Novel (Vol. 1, , pp. 1-297). New York : Chapman and Hall.