In chapter two, Ruth goes to the Hunt Ball, where she first (and fatefully) meets Mr. Henry Bellingham. As a token of his thanks for her service in fixing Miss Duncombe’s dress and an apology for the lady’s rudeness, Henry picks up a flower from the table and gives it to Ruth:
He was surprised that [Miss Duncombe] gave no word or sign of thanks to the assistant. He took up a camellia that some one had left on the table.
‘Allow me, Miss Duncombe, to give this in your name to this young lady, as thanks for her dexterous help.’
‘Oh – of course,’ she said.
Ruth received the flower silently, but with a grave, modest motion of her head.
This is the first notice that Henry takes of Ruth that evening, but not the last.
Mr Bellingham danced on gaily and merrily through the night, and flirted with Miss Duncombe, as he thought good. But he looked often to the side-door where the milliner’s apprentices stood; and once he recognised the tall, slight figure, and the rich auburn hair of the girl in black; and then his eye sought for the camellia. It was there, snowy white in her bosom. And he danced on more gaily than ever.
Ruth treasures the flower, though Gaskell is quick to point out how innocently she thinks of it:
Yet she had no idea that any association made her camellia precious to her. She believed it was solely on account of its exquisite beauty that she tended it so carefully.
Right away we see that Ruth is terribly innocent in her feelings. She treasures the camellia as a token of friendship and appreciation, but doesn’t recognize it’s deeper associations with love and seduction.
But even the meaning of the flower itself is relatively innocent. In flower language, the white camellia (or camellia) symbolizes graciousness. You use it to tell someone he or she is adorable. No sinister meanings there, right? Yet why does it feel like this gift of a flower is so momentous for Ruth? What do you think about it?