Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell, dramatized by Ellen Dryden

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BBC Radio 4 Extra, 12-14 December 2011
This three part adaptation for the Classic Serial strand, first broadcast in 2009, had some trenchant points to make about mid-Victorian society. The dramatist-director Ellen Dryden emphasized how organized religion - represented by the bourgeois parishioners attending Thurston Benson's (Anton Lesser's) chuch, only believed in God if it suited their purposes. When Mr. Bradshaw (David Schofield) discovered that Benson had offered shelter to Ruth (Laura Rees), a 'fallen woman' with her illegitimate son Leonard (Jordan Clarke), he decided not to attend Benson's church in the future. To his credit Benson did not seem intimidated by such threats; he believed that every person irrespective of their circumstances was fundamentally good, and should be treated as such, whatever they might or might not have done in the past.
Ruth shared Benson's beliefs; in times of adversity she appealed to God to give her strength, even if those around her - especially her rich lover Bellingham (Rory Kinnear) derided her for it. Dryden emphasized her strength of character; despite all the reversals she experienced during her life, Ruth retained a basic goodness, ensuring that she died peacefully.
However life was not easy for a young woman in mid-Victorian England. Everyone who encountered Ruth constructed her character according to their prejudices: Bellingham saw her as a plaything, a "fawn" or a "goose"; the socially respectable Mrs. Bradshaw (Marcia Warren) considered her a brazen hussy; while most women of her own age treated her as a rival (even though she was their social inferior) who attracted young men on account of her looks. Dryden suggested that no one - excepting Benson and his wife (Anne Reid) - took the trouble to understand Ruth's character. They were the fallen people, whose corrupt personalities prevented them from appreciating true goodness.
Dryden extended this psychological analysis by examining the relationship between the protagonists' private and public selves. Ruth seldom communicated her thoughts in public, in the belief that no one really listened to her. They were far too busy constructing her character according to their prejudices. In a series of asides delivered direct to the listeners, we learned that she was neither ashamed of her modest social background, nor overawed by her circumstances, as she first fell in love with Bellingham and subsequently obtained respectable employment as a nurse, despite her dubious social reputation. Although we might have felt sad that Ruth met a premature death - when she still had so much to offer her world - we nonetheless admired her for the way she remained incorruptible, dedicated to God, her family and friends.
By contrast Bellingham, for all his desire not to behave "unhandsomely," was an unreconstructed snob, who thoroughly disliked Ruth's family and friends for their modest social circumstances. To him Benson was "an ill-bred puritanical fellow," completely devoid of social graces and (in Bellingham's view), unable to keep Ruth in the circumstances to which she was entitled. Bellingham received his just deserts; despite his offer of money and prospects for young Leonard after Ruth's death, Benson contemptuously rejected them. Ruth was worth more than that; her integrity could not be bought off.
Such qualities were particularly significant in a world where fate invariably dictated the course of the characters' lives. When Ruth went to live with Benson, she took a new identity as a married woman; despite the suspicions of those around her, she managed to live a stress-free life - that is, until Bellingham unexpectedly reappeared as a prospective parliamentary candidate. Despite Ruth's best attempts to reinvent herself, her past kept coming back. However Dryden showed how faith gave her the strength to overcome such reversals, as she overcame Bellingham's attempts to intimidate her. He might possess physical and verbal power (calling her an "artful and bold" woman), but she had the mental strength to resist him.
At the end of this enthralling adaptation, we understood that money and class-distinctions did not really count for much; what was more important was that individuals should maintain their personal integrity, irrespective of their background and circumstances.