Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Ruth (1853) is a novel by English writer Elizabeth Gaskell, author of the well-known Cranford. I first learned about Ruth while doing project for my 19th century literature lessons a few years ago and although I started reading it, I never finished it. So, when I got a case for my e-reader last Christmas and I could finally take it off the house without fear of having it broken, I decided to return to Ruth.

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From Goodreads:

Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret – an illegitimate child. When Henry enters her life again, however, Ruth must make the impossible choice between social acceptance and personal pride. In writing Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell daringly confronted prevailing views about sin and illegitimacy with her compassionate and honest portrait of a ‘fallen woman’.

I was very interested in the concept of a “fallen woman” as seen by such an individual and powerful woman as Elizabeth Gaskell was. Over the years I have been surprised at how much women participated on each other’s social ostracism due to concepts such as “fallen”, “impure” and the like. And it was not different regarding Ruth, however, Gaskell pays lots of attention to the fact that Ruth us motherless (as well as fatherless, but his absence has more to do with her lack or resources) as a cause for her fall. Because no mother told her what to do and what not to do regarding men, honor and relationships, Ruth finds herself falling – in the positive and negative way – for the wrong man. They travel around the country together and when he falls ill and his mother comes to take care of him, Ruth is told to go away. Later on, we discover she is pregnant and she has to create a new life which she does with the help of a Dissenter minister and his single sister. I found this allegiance very special since the three of them share some kind of social ostracism for in the novel you can find lots of comments regarding Dissenters and poor Miss Benson who has never married. And from that odd combination and a white lie, Ruth manages to become a respected and happy woman again.

Regarding the pregnancy and the social consideration of women who got pregnant out of the wedlock, the novel clearly states that many of them were better dead than in such a situation. At a given moment Ruth thinks so herself, but everything changes when she has her baby boy. I thought it was pretty significant that she had a boy instead of a girl and that Ruth considered him her savior. I think that from a 21st century point of view, this story and its outcome is clear from the very beginning, but it may have not been so for a 19th century audience.

As you can see, I struggled and liked Ruth at the same time. On the one hand, I found myself struggling to like Ruth as a character because she is only a victim and is portrayed so in the whole novel. She is haunted from the very beginning by guilt, shame and sadness and things do not get better when she gets pregnant. But, what worried me the most is how little agency and drive she had. Similar fallen women such as Tess or Madame Bovary also fight social ostracism, but they are very different to Ruth. On the other hand, I liked exploring what life for such a woman would have been in the 19th century because even nowadays there are societies where getting pregnant out-of-wedlock is still considered a cause for dishonor.

So, would I recommend Ruth? It is part of a body of work by a 19th century woman and that is mainly the reason I read it. But if you have read Cranford and want to explore Gaskell’s other novels, do not start here. Also, be prepared for a good sob, because the story and the characters may not be good, but Gaskell was a great writer.

Feminist Sundays

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Feminist Sundays! Please leave a link to your wonderful posts on the comments section so that we can all pay you a visit. Thank you 🙂

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Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

The idea for this project started when I was reading a book about female philosophers and I realised my total ignorance about their lives, works and achievements. One of the names that came up was Emily Dickinson and of course, I knew her name, but I realised I could not quote a single line of her 1,175 poems. How could that be? So, I decided to dedicate this post to her and to the many other women whose names of course we know, but whose works we are not so familiar with.

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  • Name: Emily Dickinson
  • Dates and place: Born in London in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Died in the same place in 1886.
  • Historical period: Romanticism with an influence of the 18th century metaphysical poets.
  • Famous for: The 1,800 poems discovered by her family after her death at the age of 56. During her short life, she seldom left her house which has resulted in a comparison with the many women secluded in the Middle Ages. Her poetry is usually described as “primitive” due to her scarce use of words, yet hers are masterful pieces full of emotions and images. It is not a simple task for writers to evoke so much through so little.
  • Poems: The Complete Poems (Volume II: Part 3 “Love”). Upon researching her body of work, this has come up as my favourite poem. I like how she established a dialogue and the idea of a legacy where there is a construction around feelings (pain as something you can parcel and put boundaries to). Also, the idea of knowing another person’s consciousness suggests me – probably because of the previous line – eternal love of any kind, not just romantic. But also, a love for someone you know everything about and there is an instant and lasting connection with them.

You left me, sweet, two legacies,—

A Heavenly Father would content,

Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain

Capacious as the sea,

Between eternity and time,

Your consciousness and me.

Source

I know this is very little about such a great and well-known writer as Emily Dickinson, but it is a start and this is why I came up with the idea for these posts. I remember studying some of her poems in class and back then the did not appeal to me at all. Now that I have explored her works and I gave myself the opportunity to choose a poem I like and relate to it, Emily has now a place in my mind and heart.

Feminist Sundays: Elizabeth Gaskell

Happy 1st of December! I’m back with yet another Feminist Sunday 🙂

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Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

Today I’ll be presenting you a personal favourite of mine and my readers: 19th century English writer Elizabeth Gaskell. You can read a more extensive biography and study of her main works here. But today I will give you a quick profile on her:

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Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)

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What Maisie Knew by Henry James

What Maisie Knew by Henry James was first published in 1897 and just recently turned into a movie starring the lovely Julianne Moore. I was offered a review copy by Penguin and I accepted: it was the first time a publisher had offered me a re-print of a classic, so thank you!

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From GoodReads:

What Maisie Knew represents one of James’s finest reflections on the rites of passage from wonder to knowledge, and the question of their finality. The child of violently divorced parents, Maisie Farange opens her eyes on a distinctly modern world.

I think GoodRead’s description is short yet accurate and I would not advise future readers to do more research. When I first started reading I only knew it was the story of a child caught in the middle of her parents’ bitter divorce and I totally refused to watch the trailer just in case it spoiled anything. For me, this worked perfectly fine and has been doing so for some recent readings.

So, what about What Maisie Knew? I would definitely label it as a typically Jamesian: the story is organised in short chapters, full of long sentences and lots of subordination. If you ever read James, you know what I am talking about and how it sometimes mean you have to re-read a sentence. For me this was not a big deal because the style was perfect. Just perfect! I enjoyed every sentence and felt that they were all perfectly constructed with every word belonging where it was placed. I had forgotten how much I admired Henry James for his style and technique and only remembered how tedious some of his longer works can be.

The characters along with the above-mentioned style played a key role. Obviously, young Maisie is the main character and the reader can only but sympathise with her. She may be a child, but she is witty and she knows how to adapt herself to her environment. One of the things that I found more tragic is how she is deemed a fool when, in order to avoid confrontation, she makes other people believe she knows thing and just stares at her speaker. Sadly, no one thought Maisie more clever than she really was when all she was trying was to protect herself.

The themes are obvious from the very beginning: a child caught in her parents’ bitter divorce will go through a lot of bad experiences. I always thought it very sad to see a child’s parents literally use the child as a weapon against one another instead of worrying about the child’s feelings and her stability. Funny how I thought that as a modern concern: James wrote the novel in 1897 and a hundred and ten years after, there are people who still put their children through such hells – mind you, the “using-them” part, not the divorce in itself! – so I was really surprised to see how current the whole text still was.

I highly recommend What Maisie Knew to anyone interested in psychology and/or children and how they navigate the adults’ world better than we sometimes do. I was not happy at all with the ending, but since the book was so well-written and I had fallen in love with Maisie, I thought it fair to let her do what she wanted for once and for all.

Now I plan on seeing the movie as soon as possible and also I’m eager to read Washington Square the novel in which the Broadway play The Heiress (starring Dan Stevens and Jessica Chastain last yeat) was modelled on. 🙂

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina has been on my TBR list for a long time, so when Mr. B&R bought me this amazing Penguin tie-in edition for Christmas, I was delighted. For some reason I find myself drawn to books with female character titles because they usually tell the woman’s story. But Anna Karenina was not exactly what I expected.

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From GoodReads:

Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of doomed love is one of the most admired novels in world literature. Generations of readers have been enthralled by his magnificent heroine, the unhappily married Anna Karenina, and her tragic affair with dashing Count Vronsky.

In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna’s increasing isolation. The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colorful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together. Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life.

The main reason I finally decided to face the challenge of reading 892-pages-long Anna Karenina was the trailer for the 2012 movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley. It is not the first time neither will be the last a movie makes me long to read a book which I think is a good thing because you can be passionate about both forms of art and enjoy the way they connect with each other. So, I started reading the book in February since the movie was to be released in Spain in March and I thought i had plenty of time. Turned out, I did not. Anna Karenina has been one of the most challenging reads I’ve faced as an adult. I expected the whole novel to tell Anna’s story, but instead I found a coral novel. Do not get me wrong, Anna as a character is defined by the society she lives in, so it is only normal that Tolstoy describes the environment she lives in in order to fully create Anna. I do think society defines us and the way we behave, the dreams we have and what we feel happy with so, Anna Karenina can very much be the story of a woman in the Russian society in the 19th century who at the same time is fighting against what such society expected from her. I was more than happy with these sections, I really understood Anna and the chaos her affair with Vronksy caused despite my personal views on adultery. Anna and many other women were trapped in marriages and their roles as wives and mothers without any other personal fulfillment.

So, what was my problem with Anna Karenina? Mainly Levin. I do not know how a novel with a feminine name can be so focused on another character. Every time Levin appeared I wanted to cry, especially in the second half. I felt he was a foreign voice – the narrator’s – who was merely using Anna’s story to show his own views. And I did not agree with those views either, I found his showing off of his supposed moral superiority as cynical as those who he criticized. Also, his relationship with Kitty was unbearable to read: it was near domestic violence. His constant self-deprecation and how he tortured Kitty – remember the last jealousy attack? – just to come back to her and tell her how in love they were and how hel oved her  was is the perfect description of psychological abuse nowadays. I do admit his parts provided me with a great deal of information about 19th century Russian politics and racism, but sill, he managed to enrage me. I think Levin lost all integrity when he tried to work as a muzhik when he was clearly the boss because he thought hard work and the daily struggle would make him better so, he just worked as one… until he obviously got tired and came back to his pleasant life. I found this kind of behaviour insulting and sadly it reminded me of modern tendencies as well.

Regarding the female characters, Anna and Kitty work as complete opposites: the witty and dark adulteress and the devoted, blonde, innocent and naïve wife, daughter and eventually mother. I think the theme that eventually described them completely was motherhood. While Anna gives up her own son and does not love her daughter with Vronksy, Kitty is all love and tenderness even some minutes after giving birth. This leaves the reader with a dichotomy we are accustomed to, since it is central to Christian societies, but still infuriating, especially when also adulterous Oblonksy is socially respected and Anna can only commit suicide to escape her situation.

I did enjoy reading Anna Karenina‘s first half but struggled with the second one, but I am very glad I finished it. It is a landmark in 19th century literature and although I expected to love it, it was what I considered necessary for my education focused on gender and female characters.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women and I have had a long relationship now extending over 15 years. I first encounter the story when my maternal grandma, the one after I took in all senses, gave me an illustrated, Spanish translation dating from 1976. The book had belonged to my mom and my aunt and, in 1997 my grandma thought it was time for me to have it. I have always been an avid reader and very curious, but there was something in the book I did not understand, mainly because I had no idea about the American civil war, I only knew of the Spanish one (1936-1939) so, somehow I found the story historically wrong for I knew no one wore “long, beautiful dresses” during our civil war. Later in life, I encountered the 1994 version and, finally in college I wrote an essay on the 1933 version with my beloved Katharine Hepburn, but still, I felt I needed to read the book.

I sat down to read Little Women at the beginning of December and it felt like the perfect timing since the book starts on a Christmas morning. I really wanted something cozy and easy, and very 19th century and I really wanted to enjoy this book and add it to my “Favourite Books”, but it didn’t work for me. I actually gave it only 2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads although the book seems to be pretty popular and beloved, enjoying a 3,96/5. My review will have two parts, following the novel’s structure, because I found them so utterly different, that I thought I was reading two different books.

Part I – Little Women

Originally published as a single novel, this was the first literary success for Alcott who had been writing to support her family for some years now. To be sincere, I expected Little Women to be this, only part I although I must admit I was familiar with part II as well. Here, we get the well-known beginning at Christmas where the March sisters donate their Christmas breakfast to a poor neighbouring family. All throughout Part I we see the kindness and generosity at many levels and sometimes in tension with a natural selfishness of the perfect daughters, the perfect sisters who love each other so much that eventually the common wellness prevails over trifle matters. The struggle of the March sisters to get along well overlaps with their desire to be more perfect than they already are, following Marmee’s example. I found parts of their struggle encouraging, inspiring and I longed to follow their preachy ways: I posted about following her example here. I really found myself trying to work harder and being happier for doing so. These were some of my favourite and most inspiring quotes:

“You may try your experiment for a week, and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.”

“[…] For though we have to work, we make fun for ourselves, and are a pretty jolly set, as Jo would say.”

“Let us do it”, said Meg, thoughtfully “It is only another name for trying to be good, and the story may help us; for though we do want to be good, it’s hard work, and we forget. and don’t do our best.”

“That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it; and when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfast, and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.”

All throughout Part I I felt more identified with Jo than with any other sister, being the bookish type and, above all, for having a moody and explosive behaviour as I do. Jo likes “good, strong words, that mean something” and her “ambition was to do something very splendid” but she is usually described to have a “the least self-control, and had hard times trying to curb the fiery spirit which was continually getting her into trouble”. However, I also sympathised with Amy and her change from extremely materialist ways to a recognition of her luck for having her wonderful family supporting her for I myself have experienced this change during the last years.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this part and it had the mood and style I expected. I will revisit it any time I feel to tired or lazy and I’ll surely find the comfort and encouragement I need to any of my struggles. I will work harder and be thankful and happy for what I have because trying to make the most of what we already have, while also fighting for a little bit more, is in my opinion the key to a successful and happy way of living. As an anecdote, I remembered the girls much older than me when I first read the book, but I was surprised to find them as 12 to 16 years old. Now, I see them almost as children!

Part II – Good Wives

I was surprised to find that the Penguin Classics edition also contained the sequel to Little Women. I knew about the major things happening, but I was surprised. I did not start to read it as happy and convinced of the plot as with Part I. I had a feeling I was done with the March girls by the end of Part I, I was glad everything had worked out for them and her dad was finally home, the family was complete – in the traditional way- again. But, Part II saw the March girls turn into the prototypical women and I did not like at all. In the introduction to the Penguin edition, feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter analyzes Alcott’s need or desire to create good daughters, and ultimately, good wives: at home, Louisa was Jo, the rebellious daughter who was trying to be tamed by her father. Showalter also highlights some of Alcott’s statements such as “I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man” which could possibly point out to a repressed Victorian sexuality. All this made Louisa not only rebellious, but I think very conscious of her condition and, as a contrast, Good Wives stands as the decalogue for the perfect rebellious girl who needs to become a good wife. Some of the quotes, such a the following ones, made me sick, want to throw the book across the room and, as a feminist reader, want to cry. in fact, some of them clearly state arguments used by those who support violence against women.

“Girls say no when they mean yes and drive a man out of his wits just for the fun of it”

It was Meg’s chapters what made the most difficult reading. She is such a devoted mother that she neglects her husband and he starts to spend his evenings with his friend and his wife while Meg stays at home with the babies. Marmee offers her help to bring John back by urging Meg to dress well, have time to devote to him and finally, fake interest in the topics he likes to talk about. Also, as devoted as she is, Meg is unable to discipline her children and needs John to do it, for she is portrayed as too weak and sentimental to do so. You can imagine how I felt reading Meg’s fate in Part II. But then, as I read the introduction by Showalter, I was reminded to read the book in context, and with context she also referred to Alcott’s struggle with her own sexuality and role as a woman to a father described as taming, dependent and unable to support himself. All this, in consideration with 1860’s USA clearly called for some understanding. I pitied Alcott and her personal fight to fit in.

Final thoughts

So, I cannot say I enjoyed Little Women, because although I really loved Part I, I was very disappointed with Part II, even more when in the introduction Showalter clearly points at her interest in monetary matters more than artistic ones. Alcott wrote Part I when a publisher asked her for a girls’ story which actually translates as “moralistic guidelines for future wives and mothers”. Clearly, Part II was a subproject of these monetary reasons, after all, she came from a family where the father was not the bread-winner but a dependent man who liked being pet by the women surrounding him, as Showalter points out.

I highly recommend Part I to everyone, but I have my doubts about Part II. Of course, it is a classic story in that it influenced American art in many ways, it has been adapted for the big screen at least three times and actresses as great as Katharine Hepburn found in Jo March a strong, artistic heroine among the many submissive and weak roles out there. If you feel like watching a movie this Christmas, don’t doubt to take the 1933 version with Mrs. Hepburn and directed by George Cukor, you won’t be disappointed.

Gift Ideas 2012: Final Post

This year the Books and Reviews’ Gifts Ideas contained more titles than last year because I felt that last years’ were not enough. I hope you have enjoyed them: this is my last post on the series and I would like to devote it to talk about the nature of gifts thanks to an essay I read some days ago: Gifts by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Just recently I realised I wasn’t making the most of my Sony e-reader and decided to split some of my reading time between books and those works that I could download on my e-reader. I found this collection of American Essays over Project Gutenberg and instantly fell in love with it (click here to download it). Now that I no longer attend literature lessons, I long for essays, so I decided to give these a try. Whilst exploring the titles on the index I found Gifts (1844) and thought it would fit perfectly this time of the year and the Gift Ideas series. Just take a look at the first lines:

IT is said that the world is in a state of bankruptcy, that the world owes the world more than the world can pay, and ought to go into chancery, and be sold. I do not think this general insolvency, which involves in some sort all the population, to be the reason of the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year, and other times, in bestowing gifts

If fits perfectly the current state of affairs regarding economy: this year while doing my usual Christmas shopping I’ve noticed less stock and fewer people buying which translates into less money to be spent and less money earned by business. But this should never stop us from making gifts as Emerson notes: gifts do not need to be expensive, they need to come from our hearts and our desire to make the other person, that we love, happy.

Emerson continues his essay talking about gits and how they should be purchased: by keeping the other person’s tastes in mind. I highlighted the difficulty of buying books as presents for non-bookish people because they could be inappropriate if the person does not like to read in this post. I would feel horrible if someone bought me fitness clothes for Christmas because although I do enjoy a run every once in a while, I am not the sports type, so by giving me the clothes I would ask myself if the person is trying to change me, or worse, the do not know me at all. Emerson puts it nicely:

Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift, which one of my friends prescribed, is, that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought.

But, what struck me the most on Gifts was a little comment on the obligation that comes with gifts. First of all, I live in a mainly Catholic country and by talking to many other people from different religions, I’ve found a huge difference in how me perceive help and gifts: we gladly accept it all while, for example, Lutherans or Protestants seem to be more than proud on self-sufficiency than we are (and I admire them a lot for this). Having said that, it is only my perception and although I live in a Catholic country I have an almost-Lutheran perception of help and gifts as well. I rely on my self-sufficiency most of the times and every time I’m given a gift, I know I’ll have to return it. I quote Emerson:

The law of benefits is a difficult channel, which requires careful sailing, or rude boats. It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten.

I would really like to know your opinion regarding this, I know this blog has readers from a lot of different countries and I’m really interested in how you perceive this. I have also seen old people say opening a gift in front the person who has given it to you is not polite, then I’m the most disrespectful person ever because I tear the paper almost crazily. Have you heard this? Are there any rules associated to gifts in your country?

Finally, I would like to highlight this short sentence that appears at the beginning of the essay but that clearly sums up what I believe about gifts:

The only gift is a portion of thyself.

In this “state of bankruptcy” we must remember to keep all this in mind: the gift has to please the other person not us, but it can also me meaningful and remind them of us. In the very same store, two people buying a present for the same person would buy two different things, because we unconsciously put a part of us in the selection.

What do you think about the points Emerson makes? Do you agree?

You can read the whole essay for free here.

Past Books and Reviews’ Gift Guide posts:

Books for Christmas?

Classics

Crime Novels

Books Adapted