Naming and Narrating in Women’s Fiction, 1750-1880
Chapter One. Folklore as a Critical Tool 1
C H A P T E R O N E Folklore as a Critical Tool EARLY in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), a curious scene occurs. The hunchback Mr. Benson appears like some magical gnome and, throughout the rest of the novel, acts as a fairy godfather to the heroine. When Ruth and Benson discuss the beauties of the Welsh countryside, the kind parson ex- plains that the locals believe the fox-glove to be a favorite flower of fairies: “Its Welsh name is Maneg Ellyllyn—the good people’s glove; and hence, I imagine, our folk’s-glove or fox-glove.” “It’s a very pretty fancy,” said Ruth, much interested, and wishing that he would go on, without expecting her to reply.”1 His observation associating the plant, a cardiac stimulant and poison, with fairies rings true for Celtic folklore in the nineteenth century. As late as 1895, healers advised Irish parents to put juice from the fox-glove in the ears and mouth of a child suspected to be a changeling.2 When Ruth’s seducer, Mr. Bellingham, hears of the forest encounter, he seeks out the stranger. Curiously enough, his reaction to Mr. Benson refers to fairies as well: “Ruth,” said he, when he returned, “I’ve seen your little hunchback. He looks like Riquet-with-the-Tuft. He’s not a gentleman, though. If it had not been for his de- formity, I should not have made him out from your description; you called him a gentleman.” (70) This allusion to the malformed prince of Charles Perrault’s eponymous fairy tale...
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