Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth
Gaskell, Elizabeth, Ruth, edited with a New Introduction and Notes by Tim Dolin, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2011, 384 p., xxxix.
1After simply reissuing Alan Shelston’s 1985 edition of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth in 1998 and 2008, Oxford University Press has now published a new edition of Ruth for its Oxford World Classics series. Edited by Tim Dolin (Curtin University, Western Australia), this edition is based on the three-volume first edition of the novel, published in 1853 by Chapman and Hall, with some modifications drawn from the 1855 “Cheap Edition”, a version known to include corrections made by Gaskell herself. Dolin profiles minor changes that have been made to this text (continuous numbering of the chapters, correction of typographical errors and inconsistencies in spelling), all of which contribute to the integrity of the novel. In addition to the new introduction and extensive notes by Dolin, this 2011 edition includes Shirley Foster’s 2006 “Chronology” and a select bibliography that includes sources on Gaskell’s life, two volumes of her correspondence, a core of general studies of Gaskell’s, a handful of treatises on “Victorian Fallen Women”, and critical studies of Ruth.
2Tim Dolin’s well-crafted, insightful “Introduction” begins by placing Ruth within the context of Gaskell’s body of fictional writings, balancing it between her social problem novels (Mary Barton and North and South) and those he categorizes as pastoral idylls (Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Wives and Daughters). He suggests that because it “sits awkwardly” between these two, it is the least read of Gaskell’s novels, though I would suggest that a stronger case could be made for Sylvia’s Lovers’ right to claim that dubious distinction. As a prelude to his analysis of the novel, Dolin profiles the mid-Victorian concerns with family, public health concerns, the sexual exploitation of working women, the role of the seamstress as an icon for that exploitation and the hypocritical, gender-based double standard of sexual morality that characterized Victorian society. He summarizes the plot, providing nuanced references to the novel’s underlying themes as he carefully weaves contemporaneous reviews of Ruth and previous literary analysis by a small selection of established Gaskell scholars before he begins his own critique. Succinctly, he explores and documents the Victorian attitudes toward prostitution and fallen women, Christian duty, the discrepancies between preaching forgiveness and practicing forgiveness, as well as variations of Dissent embodied by the liberal, Unitarian-like Benson and the Calvinistic Bradshaw. Ultimately, he tackles and effectively explores the long-standing conundrum of why Ruth must die.
3Dolin lays the groundwork for his analysis of Ruth the novel and Ruth the character by profiling the central character as a virtual victim of the weight of the Biblical symbolism of her name and her physical description as a Greek goddess. He notes that she is “represented successively and sometimes even simultaneously” as Mary Magdalen, Mary (the Mother of Jesus), and a distinctively Unitarian Christ. At the same time, he contends that Ruth is not just a “set of allegorical religious meanings” but, rather, cast by Gaskell as “a model for ethical behavior in a secular society” (xxvi–xxv). He suggests that Ruth’s radicalism lies in its exploration of the concepts of charity, duty, forgiveness, hypocrisy, motherhood and the child-like purity of Wordsworthian Romanticism embodied in Ruth Hinton. He finds it significant that Ruth is portrayed as an ideal mother who works, thereby allowing Gaskell to comment on “working class exploitation”, more specifically exploitation of “a feminized working class”, observing, “Because of her fallenness, Ruth’s influence as a mother, as a governess, and as a nurse, is all the more profound” (xxii). He contends that Ruth must die because there is no place in the fictional world she occupies for “one with such unworldly charisma, such purity of soul, such incorruptible rectitude” (xxvii). Dolin concludes his analysis of the novel’s message about duty, suffering, forgiveness and redemption by emphasizing that ultimately it is Ruth’s power as art that can “bring about lasting social improvement” (xxviii).
4As a Gaskell bibliographer, I would be remiss, were I not to comment on Dolin’s choices for his “Select Bibliography” of secondary sources on Gaskell in general and on Ruth in particular. The formula for preliminary material in the Oxford World’s Classics series clearly (and appropriately) limits the number of sources that can be included. Nonetheless, given that Oxford’s own profile of this novel twice mentions that it includes an “up-to-date bibliography”, I was struck by the fact that of the eight “General Critical Studies of Gaskell”, only two were published in the last decade (2005 and 2007) and, of the eight focusing on Ruth, two were by the same author (one of which focuses more on Mary Barton than Ruth) and, again, none were published more recently than 2007. A quick review of the literary criticism sources on Gaskell’s writings that I have identified and posted bi-annually since 2002 on the “Gaskell Bibliography” page of my web site (www.nancyweyant.com) revealed that from 2002 to 2010 (the year before this edition of Ruth was published), there were fifty-three book chapters, journal articles and dissertations that focused on this novel, twenty-two of which were published between 2007 and 2010. I would suggest that this updated edition of Ruth would have benefited from the inclusion of at least one of the more recent scholarly discussions of this “world classic”. Beyond this very minor shortcoming, this new edition of Gaskell’s second novel stands firmly as a valuable addition to Oxford’s eminently affordable paperback series. In summary, Tim Dolin’s “Introduction” presents a strong, fresh analysis of this under-read Gaskell novel, ultimately locating it appropriately as a work of art rather than a mere socio-political treatise.
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Nancy S. Weyant, « Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 76 Automne | 2012, 184-186.
Nancy S. Weyant, « Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 76 Automne | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2013, consulté le 30 avril 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/564Haut de page
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