I read a lovely old 1887 version of this book which I found on ebay for about £8. The "cheaper" illustrated green cloth, and black and gold gilt versions which are always easy to find for Thackeray, but this was the first one I saw for Mrs. Gaskell. The book had 5 stories
Ruth, The Gray Woman, Morton Hall, Mr. Harrison's Confessions, and Hand and Heart.
Ruth was very enjoyable. A story that was quite controversial at the time, apparently burned by a member of her husband's congregation. It is interesting to go back and look at the morals and hypocrisy of the time. Gaskell spoke out that a woman who'd "fallen" did not have to be branded for life, and that they could, even after such a "disastrous" start turn into loving Christian women. In the contemporary responses to the book, the biggest criticism seemed to be that the Dissenting preacher came up with the "lie" that Ruth was in fact a widow and let her live that way.
While she spent a great deal of time talking about how good Ruth was, and how much she later conformed to the virtuous woman stereotype, Gaskell did also mention that Ruth herself felt no different from when she was younger. To me my favourite time was just before and during her fall when Ruth felt like she was doing no wrong. Just when she decided to give up her virginity to Mr. Bellingham was never addressed, they went from walking after church on a Sunday, to "living in sin" in a hotel in Wales with no explanation, or even any details that they were involved sexually till later when it turned out that Ruth was pregnant.
Despite being overtly moral in tone this book was lots of fun. The main characters all had their own strengths and weaknesses and were highly amusing at times, above all they seemed very human.
The Gray Woman
This story I did not quite like as well as I should have. It was a lovely plot about a young girl married to a murderous aristocrat who had to escape with her maid. While it was quite tense in places, particularly when the girl was hidden under the table next to the corpse, the rest of the tension didn't seem to play out quite so well.
This story was brilliant. A short story about the woes and lives of the county squire and his family through several generations. It was hilarious, creepy and tragic. All the things Mrs. Gaskell does best in a short 40 page story.
Hand and Heart
This seemed to be a children's Sunday school lesson. It was about a little boy who by helping others was able to make the family better and happier. It reminded me of the sort of stories they'd tell us at Bible Camp about how if we were good Christians we'd offer/want to help with the washing up. I never wanted to help with the washing up and therefore thought I wasn't a very good Christian. Needless to say I didn't enjoy this story very much. It was far too over the top. I guess even Mrs. Gaskell can eventually get too religious for me.