Ruth tells the story of an inexperienced orphan who is seduced and then abandoned by a man while they are on a trip together in Wales. She is discovered on the brink of suicide by Dissenting minister Mr Benson and he and his sister decide to take Ruth and the baby she is carrying back home with them, passing her off as a young widow. She gives birth to her son, Leonard, and becomes a governess to a local family. However, the scenario eventually unravels and Ruth is forced to prove her penitence once again.
I found Ruth rather refreshing in some respects and rigidly traditional in others. The treatment of Ruth by the author and Mr and Miss Benson battles against the mid-Victorian values by accentuating the fact that she was naive and unworldly and is now wholly penitent. This image of a woman not completely condemned and allowed to try and redeem herself is a tonic when faced with a large body of Victorian fiction that rails against this kind of repentance. However, the problem then becomes that Ruth's goodness must be accentuated to the point that there is no real room for manoeuvre as far as characterisation goes. Ruth must be beyond reproach for the novel to work and that means Gaskell ultimately sacrifices a degree of believability.
None of this is to say that I didn't completely enjoy the book. I worried with it, I cried with it and I mourned with it. Some characters came and went in the early chapters but I was happy to discover that after this many of the principle characters remained the same. I was a little distracted when the viewpoint suddenly shifted from Ruth/the Bensons to Jemima Bradshaw. It felt very sudden but I finally settled into it.
There were several notable scenes within the novel which have lingered. Ruth's foray into her old home in the early chapters; Benson's trek after her when he fears she is about to destroy herself and her meeting with Bellingham on the beach, to name but three. The scenes with Leonard, too, were usually well handled, avoiding excessive emotion for the most part and so maintaining the illusion of reality.
Gaskell sketches some memorable individuals but also creates a good sense of community, particularly in the final third of the novel. Ruth evidently had a social purpose but it sacrificed surprisingly little in the way of plot to accommodate it. An excellent read for an alternative view of the 'fallen woman' in mid-Victorian fiction.