“Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret—an illegitimate child.”
Ruth is a deeply religious novel that explores the intellectual, social, and spiritual life of a “fallen” young woman. The depiction of the attitudes and mores of mid-nineteen century England fascinated me and often made me angry. By modern standards, and in many places, the innocent and sexually ignorant sixteen-year-old Ruth would be a victim of statutory rape. I was appalled at the way so many wanted to vindicate the seducer and assume he was “beguiled” by this “very artful and bold young creature.”
After being so carefully groomed, used, and then deserted by her seducer, Ruth is found ill and in despair by a middle-aged minister who takes her to his home to live with him, his sister, and their housekeeper. Thurstan and Faith Benson make enormous social and financial sacrifices to take Ruth into their home, and Faith is, naturally, disturbed by Ruth’s lack of gratitude. Her brother consoles her with these words:
“The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty live in a village where women rule and men usually tend to get in the way. Their days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness, friendship and an endless appetite for scandal (from the alarming sight of a cow in flannel pyjamas to the shocking news of the titled lady who marries a surgeon). But, like it or not, change is coming into their world—whether it is the new ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or the unexpected return of someone from the past.”
“Lady Ludlow is absolute mistress of Hanbury Court and a resolute opponent of anything that might disturb the class system into which she was born. . . . The vicar, Mr. Gray, wishes to start a Sunday school for religious reasons; Mr. Horner wants to educate the citizens for economic reasons. But Lady Ludlow is not as rigid as one may think.“
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character.”
I’ll admit that the little novel Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, didn’t impress me much at first or even engage me. The story is told by a young woman who writes about her experiences in Cranford as if she’s writing in her journal, which makes for a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. That, combined with the episodic nature of the plot, results in a lack of strong narrative drive. I kept reading because the style of writing, sense of place, and quaint characters relaxed me. I felt as if I had stepped into a world that didn’t exist anymore, and that, while not always happy or comfortable, was more self-sacrificing and less frenetic than our own.
Cranford gave me such a pleasant feeling that I went on to read two other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are similar to it: My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. It wasn’t until I had finished reading all three stories that I realized they dramatize some of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes—in philosophical and political terms—in Democracy in America, Volume 2. Tocqueville details the differences between aristocratic and democratic ages in great depth, and Gaskell breathes life into those differences as she looks back at the diminishing agricultural, aristocratic age of the generation that came before hers and gently carries her characters—and readers—into a more industrialized democratic world. Tocqueville observes:
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.