Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Reviews by Victorian Magazines and Journals

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

What did Gaskell’s critical contemporaries think of Ruth?

Blackwood’s Edinboruough Magazine, May 1855

Mrs. Gaskell has made herself an important reputation… and Ruth, though a great blunder in art, does not seem to have lessened the estimation in which her audience hold her. Ruth is the story of a young girl betrayed and fallen while little more than a child—innocent in heart, but with her life shipwrecked at its very earliest outset; and Ruth is the sole heroine and subject of the book.

The vain attempts of her friends to conceal the irrecoverable downfall of this poor child — the discovery that comes after many years — her humility and devotion and death—are, of course, the only circumstances in which the author can place her unfortunate heroine; the mistake lies in choosing such a heroine at all.

Every Eure [sic] feminine mind, we suppose, olds the faith of Desdemona—” I do not believe there is any such woman” and the strong revulsion of dismay and horror with which they find themselves compelled to admit, in some individual case, that their rule is not infallible, produces at once the intense resentment with which every other woman regards the one who has stained her name and fame; and that pitying, wondering fascination which so often seems to impel female writers to dwell upon these wretched stories, by way of finding out what strange chain of causes there was, and what excuse there might be.

  • “Humility, devotion, and death” the voice in which this is written implies the critic thought the idea melodramatic and unlikely. The tragic death may be so, but why the humility and devotion? Characters alter and develop.

The Christian Observer, July 1857

Mrs. Gaskell …is a writer of lively invention, passion, power …But her taste is by no means refined; and the moral influence of her writing is, to say the least, very doubtful …in “Ruth,” she instructs us, that a woman who has violated the laws of purity is entitled to occupy precisely the same position in society as one who has never thus offended.

..Mrs. Gaskell’s religious creed is, we cannot but fear, is one of a very limited character. We imagine her — though we shall be deeply pained, if we are doing her injustice—to receive just as much of the New Testament as she conceives herself to understand; to lean [sic], therefore, more to what is called (though most inaccurately, if the word is meant to designate the highest order of reason) “rationalistic,” than to what is “orthodox;” to proceed to the investigation of Scripture—like the student of Euclid, who began the reading of his ” Elements,” by cutting out all the figures, —by an exclusion of all which constitutes the grand peculiarities of Christian Truth, and thus leaving us a sad residuum, on which we find no resting place for the soul.

To such moral teachers we have no disposition to listen.

  • The topic of a fallen women was very hushed during the Victorian era, the Magazine’s disdain at exploring such a character is evidence of the harsh opinions that reigned.

The Christian Reformer, January 1859

The charge against Mrs. Gaskell’s Ruth is not so well made out; nor if it were, is it a clear case of false morality against the authoress. It is a delicate subject, but should be fully met. We need not recall the story.

The reviewer thinks Mrs. Gaskell’s aim was to “arouse a kinder feeling in the uncharitable and bitter world towards offenders of Ruth’s sort” (no doubt it was); “to shew [sic] how thoughtless and almost unconscious such offences sometimes are” (thoughtless and passionate, we might prefer saying); “and how slightly, after all, they may affect real purity of nature and piety of spirit” (here we demur); “and how truly they may be redeemed whon treated with wisdom and with gentleness” (no doubt here).

The reviewer goes on: “She has first imagined a character as pure, pious, and unselfish as poet ever fancied, and described a lapse from chastity as faultless as such a fault can be; and then with damaging and unfaithful inconsistency, has given in to the world’s estimate in such matters by assuming that the sin committed was of so deep a dye that only a life of atoning and enduring penitence could wipe it out.”

The reviewer hints that the world’s estimate of this matter should be braved (almost the only matter of morals in which “the world” is at all rigid). We think, on the contrary, that the authoress of Ruth has been untrue to probability in representing Ruth as of so high an order of mind and morals, yet as falling almost without temptation and sinning without knowing that she was stained; and that, had she added the reviewer’s suggested conclusion, she would have deserved the opprobrium of lax morality which has been thrown upon this article in the National.

  • Can a person be both pure in heart or moral and commit a sin of passion without realizing it? The Christian Reformer didn’t think so. What do you think?

The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1853

It is impossible to deny that many good people are aggrieved by ” Ruth.” There is no disguising that a girl who has taken her place among the fallen is finally raised to the level of a real and most exemplary heroine. This is the fact lying at the foundation of the novel.

…That some, and those among very true lovers of their kind —very excellent, admirable people, by no means overstrained in their general views of moral questions— should recoil from both the subject and Mrs. Gaskell’s way of treating it, does not surprise us; but we think their view somewhat narrow and oppressive.

There is another part of the subject which is very painful; from it however we may not shrink; and, happily, there are good and strong men who allow the injustice of merely punishing the delinquents of one sex, however repentant, however desirous of return, with perpetual exclusion—while not the betrayer only, but the actual deserterof the betrayed woman is scarcely less welcomed by society after than before his offence. Here again then Mrs. Gaskell has strongly felt a deep and painful truth, and has written under its influence.

This is the sum of the whole: the tale tells by implication the author’s views of the evil of closing summarily the doors of mercy and hope; it points out the danger of driving merciful people into falsehoods, and, at the same time, the author shows, with all her might, the short-sighted, confusing, evil nature of all such expedients—how they detract from the merit of a generous act, and by fixing the censor’s eye upon the means, steal away for a time sympathy with the end. As for the execution of the work, nothing really can be more beautiful.

Mrs. Gaskell’s language is the perfection of easy, simple, womanly grace; her wit is irresistible. Nevertheless, we do not think her always alike successful in the management of the story. We think that it would have been more true to paint Ruth as both more alive and less simple. She ought not to have gone astray from stupidity or from fear, but with all her poetic love of beauty should have been less passive, more enkindled —more of the woman in short; ensnared from within as well as from without, though still possessed of a young heart’s delicacyread the full review.

With Gratitude to GoogleBooks for Digitizing these Magazine

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Diane says:

    My gosh – times have changed. Here I (and other readers, I’m guessing) will read this as a story of a woman who has been taken advantage of and betrayed – who we should feel sorry for. These reviews blame Ruth for what happened and don’t seem to beleive that she was totally blameless in her situation.

    I look forward to actually reading farther into the text to see how the whole thing comes about but I’m sure if Ruth has any character “flaw” it’s that she’s too naive and trusting.

    1. The Christian Observer is especially harsh against Gaskell. It’s interesting how they throw in praising adjectives the first sentence only to insult her saying she has weak morals.
      Ruth is certainly very young and naive, in chapter three we just learn she’s turned sixteen.

      Looking forward to reading your thoughts, Diane. 🙂

  2. Joan Sutton says:

    None of these Victorian reviews mentioned the fault of the shallow man who took advantage of Ruth when she was an extremely young woman. Mrs. Gaskell was careful to paint his undesirable character – weak and lacking in any depth of feeling or human compassion. On the other hand Mr Bradshaw, who was so quick to criticize others, learned compassion in such a moving way, and the conversion of his character made for an unforgettable ending – I was moved to tears for quite a while.

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