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‘I Think I Must Be an Improper Woman Without Knowing It’: Fallenness and Unitarianism in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth

Rachel Webster (University of Leeds)


This article draws on the public dialogue surrounding mid-nineteenth-century prostitution, and is particularly concerned with how fallenness was classified, and how it was thought that it should be ameliorated. Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Ruth (1853) engages with the myth of fallenness - how female sexuality was religiously and socially conceived - which contributed towards the dichotomy of two classes of women: the fallen and the virtuous. Gaskell, as a Unitarian, rejected Original Sin, believing that the human mind and soul were not innately sinful but had immense potential for growth. Consequently, Unitarians considered the environment as fundamentally responsible for shaping and determining an individual's character and fate. This religious viewpoint permeates Gaskell's response to the "problem" of the fallen woman, perceiving female sexuality not to be inherently corruptible or dangerous. She challenges the institutionalised, separatist response of penitentiary restoration by locating Ruth's redemptive process within the family home of the Bensons. She offers female solidarity and the role of motherhood as the ideal ameliorative solutions and yet the novel ends with Ruth's sacrificial death. The article takes this problematic conclusion and suggests that Gaskell, frustrated with the reality of the fallen woman's fate, hands Ruth over to the Unitarian hope of redemption in death.

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