Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.
Introduced to our main character, Ruth Hilton, an orphaned young lady who works as a seamstress. She is romantic, emotional, and described as a beauty. The Hunt ball is coming up and four seamstresses are chosen to be on hand– she is one of them
Gaskell opens Ruth with some background of the town where her heroine lives, weaving in social commentary and foreshadowing. It’s described with great physical disparity; height, with chimney’s cutting against the blue sky and low streets, suffering in the shadows of the tall buildings. The contrast brings to mind:
- Poor vs. Rich
- Danger vs. Safety
But the disparity could also be applied to the way people and society thought during the later centuries she’s describing, of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ orders. When the town lost it’s appeal to fashionable society, professional men and shop-keepers resided. They brought down some of the tall buildings, so there would be more light, which means they could be more prosperous, people would see their shops and they wouldn’t have to burn so many candles (more convenience). Perhaps this represents the changes of the later century ( ie. Industrial Revolution).
But some of the buildings were “too solidly ground to submit to alteration.” Are they the ideas too fixed within society? Those that cast darkness on others (ie. female repression, lack of compassion against an unmarried mother)? Progress has changed some of the town but not enough to reform all of it; The ‘new world’ is haunted by the old.
The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities.
Ruth is a romantic soul; while the other girls stretch their limbs, relieve their hunger, sleep, or admire the beautiful dress they’re sewing during their break she goes to the window to gaze at the beauty of the snow. This connection with nature is also seamed in Gaskell’s way of using nature to reflect Ruth as she does with the larch:
A little distance off, the feathery branches of a larch waved softly to and fro in the scarcely perceptible night-breeze. Poor old larch! the time had been when it had stood in a pleasant lawn, with the tender grass creeping caressingly up its very trunk; but now the lawn was divided into yards and squalid back premises, and the larch was pent up and girded about with flagstones. The snow lay thick on its boughs, and now and then fell noiselessly down.
Jenny Wood is another young lady who works for Mrs. Mason, she comes from a large family. She is motherly towards Ruth and tempers her nature with practical advice. But Jenny is ill and Ruth’s nightmare may be a warning that Jenny will leave.
She could not sleep or rest. The tightness at her side was worse than usual… What was the matter with Ruth? She was crying in her sleep as if her heart would break. Such agitated slumber could be no rest; so Jenny wakened her…
“Oh, Jenny!” said Ruth, sitting up in bed, and pushing back the masses of hair that were heating her forehead, “I thought I saw mamma by the side of the bed, coming as she used to do, to see if I were asleep and comfortable; and when I tried to take hold of her, she went away and left me alone–I don’t know where; so strange!”
Mrs. Mason is a strict woman and hard-worker. She places a deal of importance on appearances, especially related to her establishment, this will be a key fact later on.
The passage Gaskell writes when describing the young seamstresses eating reminds me very much of one from chapter seven of Cranford. (Gaskell was working on Cranford for Dickens’ Household Words and Ruth at the same time)
Some employed the time in eating their bread and cheese, with as measured and incessant a motion of the jaws (and almost as stupidly placid an expression of countenance), as you may see in cows ruminating in the first meadow you happen to pass.
…However, Mrs. Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker’s want of knowledge of the customs of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow’s.
And another similar phrase sister-flowers and sister roses.
They conjured up visions of other sister-flowers that grew, and blossomed, and withered away in her early home.
From North and South
No! Vanity; you did not. You may have worn sister roses very probably.’
- What images and thoughts did the description of the town invoke for you?
- What was your favorite passage?
- Did you notice any other distinctly Gaskellian words or phrases?
- What’s your first impression of Ruth Hilton? the other characters?