Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth: Ch. 8 Annotation – The Victorian Penitentiary

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Guest Contributor:
Kim Egolf

My son, on recovering from his illness, is, thank God, happily conscious of the sinful way in which he has been living with you. By his earnest desire, and in order to avoid seeing you again, we are on the point of leaving this place; but, before I go, I wish to exhort you to repentance, and to remind you that you will not have your own guilt alone upon your head, but that of any young man whom you may succeed in entrapping into vice. I shall pray that you may turn to an honest life, and I strongly recommend you, if indeed you are not “dead in trespasses and sins”, to enter some penitentiary…

Such goes Mrs Bellingham’s stern and unforgiving letter to Ruth  as she and her son Henry are on the point of departing the Welsh village where Henry and Ruth have been “living in sin.” At the end of her letter in Chapter 8, Mrs Bellingham counsels Ruth to enter a penitentiary. But what exactly does she mean?

In our vernacular, “penitentiary” has become synonymous with “jail” or “prison.” This is a place where we house criminals to serve out their sentences decided by due process of law. These are not pleasant places to live. The inmates of today’s prisons are kept to a strict regime. They usually work at chores within the prison; some might even work outside it. Prisoners today are invested with certain rights, including fair and equal treatment and no cruel or unusual punishments.

But did the Victorians mean the same thing? Why would Mrs Bellingham wish Ruth into a penitentiary? Is Ruth a criminal as we would think of one today?

With increasing industrialization in cities came increasing populations. And with increasing populations vying  for fewer resources came more and more crime. Nineteenth century England needed to find a way to deal with these crimes, and so a system of penitentiaries and prisons grew. (Some were already there, but the network grew to accommodate the population.)

Some of these prisons were called workhouses and were very aptly named. Inmates — generally males — would work at hard labour for long hours each day. Many died or were severely injured before their sentences were up. Women were not generally assigned to workhouses for hard labour.

London's Notorious Fleet Prison

Another form of “penitentiary” was a type of charitable institution created specifically for “fallen women.” These women would be trained in a number of different areas in an attempt to rehabilitate them for work in the world. Some learned needlework (both utilitarian and fancy); others made their way as washerwomen; while still others were trained for domestic service. In many of these “reformatories” the women had to show their continued desire for true reform — usually by attending a strict regime of religious services and leading an austere life with few worldly comforts.

It is to this type of institution that Mrs Bellingham wishes Ruth. But do you think she achieves the same result in Eccleston with the Bensons?

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