Ruth is an orphaned seamstress. One day, while repairing ladies' dresses at a ball, she meets Henry Bellingham, an aristocratic young man who accompanies his proud partner to the seamstress' room. Circumstances throw Henry and Ruth together and the two become close friends; innocent Ruth has no idea of the trouble into which this affair is leading.

Henry invites her one Sunday to walk with him out of town to her old family home. She is blissfully happy during the trip, but on their return, they are overtaken by Ruth's employer who jumps to conclusions about the couple and fires Ruth on the spot. Pressed by circumstances, Ruth accepts Henry's offer of help. She travels with him to Scotland and the two become lovers. While in Scotland, Henry becomes ill. His mother is called and as soon as her son is well he returns to London with her, leaving the disgraced Ruth behind.

Ruth is ready to kill herself but is stopped by Thurston Benson, an invalid who pities Ruth and finds her a place to stay as she falls ill in her despair. When Thurston and his sister Faith find out that Ruth is pregnant, they have her move in with them, presenting her to their friends as a widow. Ruth bears a son and everything goes well for many years. Ruth's piety and goodness win the respect of her very traditional neighbors.

About this time, Henry Bellingham is campaigning to represent the district in which Ruth lives. He recognizes Ruth and tries to win her again, even offering marriage, but she will not listen to him. Soon after, a jealous woman in the town discovers Ruth's secret. Ruth is fired from her position as governess and despised by the townspeople. All her goodness stands for nothing in the face of her early mistake.

Ruth struggles on for her child's sake, even helping in the hospital during a typhus epidemic. She learns that Bellingham is nearby, deathly ill from typhus. She helps cure him, but leaves his bedside before he can recognize her. She, however, contracts the disease and dies. Bellingham comes to see her body.


The novel is useful for demonstrating attitudes toward unwed mothers. Ruth is considered evil despite her goodness. The highest mark of her goodness is her willingness to act as a nurse for typhus victims, even treating Bellingham who purposefully deceived and ruined her. The townspeople appreciate her nursing care, for she does not speak down to them or lecture them. She simply recognizes their needs and supplies them.


First published: 1853


Smith and Elder

Place Published