A Victorian Defense of Unwed Mothers

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Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1953

 Today’s blog post comes with a real life embarrassing story!

I am with my mother and her friend enjoying the wild wonder of our cabin in West Virginia. Watching birds, looking at trees, tubing down the beautiful Cacapon River. Short of taking a trip to Wales, this is the perfect spot to get a picture for Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Poor Ruth, an unwed mother abandoned by her lover, tries to kill herself by jumping into a Welsh river. To get the shot, I need to position myself on the opposite bank from the photographer, so he can get both me and the river in the frame. So, I put my Victorian dress and shawl in my backpack and, against Mom’s protests that the current is too strong, start the arduous process of wading across the shallow part of our rocky little river.

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Arriving safely on the other side, I scramble around the banks until I get as close to both the rapids and the photographer as possible. I put the dress and shawl on over my summer clothes and start trying to look forlorn and suicidal. A few minutes later, I am pretty confident I have something usable. Time to take some risk, try something different. “What else should I do?” I shout across the river to my Mom and her friend.

“Bend your knees!  Look at the water!” Mom shouts back, her voice just barely reaching me over the rushing river.

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Ever ready to oblige, I bend down as if poised to jump. As I stare intently into the churning current, I feel my left foot start to slip on the wet, algae-coated rock. “No! Don’t slip. You can get your balance back,” I tell myself, but my foot slides down the back of the rock into the water and my body inevitably follows. In my desperate attempt to stay grounded, I have fallen in a pike position, butt nestled in a me-sized cradle of rock, hands and feet poking out of the water.

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Hauling myself out, I truly feel the discomfort of sopping wet Victorian garb, including many feet of knitted shawl.

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Seeing my genuinely forlorn expression, my mom tells her friend to keep taking pictures.

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And that is the story of how I fell in the river in Victorian clothing.

Ruth, the eponymous anti-heroine, also survived her aquatic misadventure. Her benefactor, Thurston, finds her and takes her away from the river before she can fulfill her plan. He and his sister continue to care for Ruth. They help her to see her baby as her chance for redemption and grace. They even convince her to join them in their provincial home, disguised as a widow.

Gaskell chose to write Thurston as a dissenting minister with a physical disability. She characterizes him a man of strong religious and moral conviction, an outsider whose perspective enables him to recognize the folly of conventional thinking. He convinces his sister that while lying is sinful, shutting an erring human out from all human sympathy and (Christian?) kindness is the greater evil.

Writing at a time when women lost “respectability” by even mentioning the name of a “fallen woman,” when unwed mothers were turned out of their family homes to languish and die in poorhouses, Gaskell skewers prejudiced behavior towards unwed mothers. She shows poor Ruth as an orphaned young woman working in harsh conditions as a seamstress, with no one to guide her into adulthood. No one to explain what female behavior was acceptable and what lead to ruin. As Gaskell states “she was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice concerning the subject of a woman’s life.”

Lonely, she accepts the friendship of a handsome young gentleman, Mr. Bellingham. Desperate for a glimpse of the familiar spot where she was once so happy, she agrees to accompany him to her old family home. Ruth’s employer happens to see her and Mr. Bellingham together and casts Ruth out with absolutely no one to turn to but…Mr. Bellingham.

(Sometimes I have a glass of wine while I write posts. This post is long, so right about here I had two.)

Innocent little Ruth ends up living with Bellingham as a fallen woman, because what the hell else was she supposed to do at that point? They go on vacation in Wales, where they won’t be recognized. Eventually, B’s mother shows up and does what any good mother would do: convinces her son to abandon his now pregnant lover. Now, Bellingham has a life of luxury and hedonism ahead of him and is free to marry any damn Miss Darcy he happens to run across (but he stays in love with Ruth forever, because she’s perfect). Meanwhile, Ruth is doomed to live as an impoverished pariah with no hope of providing a life worth living to her unborn child. Because, misogyny. This is when she starts to think that the bottom of the river might be the best place for her.

Fortunately for Ruth, kindhearted, farsighted, wonderful Thurston prevents her suicide and slowly persuades her that God will forgive her and she can still lead a meaningful life full of whatever kind of approval it is that Christians seek.

Ruth lives for her child, and loves him with the same love as married women. Cuz love doesn’t know what documents are down at the courthouse, y’all.

Later in the novel, a friend of Ruth’s finds out Ruth’s secret. She is tempted to tell, because she is jealous of the attention her suitor pays to beautiful Ruth. But, she realizes that she had advantages in life that Ruth didn’t have and the same thing could have easily happened to her if their positions were reversed. That’s right, a Victorian character checked her privilege. Compassion triumphed over jealousy, because Elizabeth Gaskell is a queen.

Ruth becomes celebrated in her tiny town for bravely tending to very sick patients, with no concern for her own safety from infection. Wait, I was just going to tell you the ending, but no! You should read it! The ending is fucked up, though. You will cry.

You might like Ruth if:

  • a human heart beats inside your chest.
  • you love a tale of redemption.
  • you like Tyrion Lannister, but wish he didn’t have to exist in a miserable, sadistic world. Seriously, Thurston reminds me of Tyrion, if Tyrion wasn’t subjected to a world of shit.
  • you love social criticism.

You might not like Ruth if:

  • you hate unwed mothers.

Final thoughts:

Ultimately, this book is a vindication of individual morality and forgiveness over hive-mind prejudice and hate. Yes! The kind of book that makes my heart contract with sympathy, empathy and envy. Sympathy for women, because it takes two to make an unwed mother, but only one pays the price. Sympathy because the price was so disproportionately harsh. Empathy with the author who saw a deep, searing flaw in society cause unnecessary suffering and sought to express the iniquity in the form of a novel. Envy because she did it so well and I will never write such a book as Ruth. This book makes me want to SWF Elizabeth Gaskell. I want to go back in time and become her. This book. Sometimes I just rub the pages on my cheek; that’s how much affection I have for this book. Totally worth falling in a river for. I love you, Ruth.

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