The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Ruth the Betrayer, or, The Female Spy (1862-1863)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Ruth the Betrayer; or The Female Spy was written by “Edward Ellis,” the pseudonym of Charles H. Ross. Ross (c. 1834-1897) was a prolific author of penny dreadfuls and plays who is best-known for his comic creation Ally Sloper.
Ruth the Betrayer begins when two Guardsmen harass a mysterious woman. She reveals that she has the authority of a policeman and cows the pair, and then meets with a police sergeant and takes charge of a stake-out. She tells the police to stay back and goes alone into the building they are watching. The man inside is Jacob, a particularly tough criminal. She cozies up to him, pretending to be his friend and making small talk, but when Jacob mentions that Jack Rafferty, a.k.a. “Skeleton Key,” is back in town, Ruth goes pale. Jacob begins drinking, and when he falls asleep she grabs his gun. But he wakes up when the police charge into the building. Ruth throws the gun away and then throws a saucepan of boiling liquid in his face. This does not incapacitate him, however, and he draws a knife and tries to kill her. They wrestle, and she tries to tear his throat out with her teeth. The police reach the room and knock Jacob out. Unfortunately, a crowd of locals has gathered outside the building and they see Jacob being carried out by the police. The locals liked Jacob, and when they see Ruth they blame her for his capture and attack her. She is captured and about to be ripped apart when she is rescued by a handsome stranger. Ruth sees that the stranger is Skeleton Key, who she sent to jail five years ago and who vowed to kill her. As Skeleton Key realizes who he rescued she runs away. She eludes Skeleton Key and returns home to a Society party and her real identity: “Mrs. Belinda Belvidere, who was the widow of a general, was enormously rich, and gave the best supper parties in London.”1 Jacob Stone escapes from the police on the way to jail. Skeleton Key and Jacob Stone begin hunting her, and eventually they discover where she lives. During a particularly orgiastic party they break in to the house, meaning to rob it, but Ruth pulls a gun and chases everyone except Jacob Stone away. Ruth intends to bring Jacob to the police, but when he tries to escape from her she shoots him.
Ruth visits the corrupt, wealthy lawyer Mr. Earthworm and subtly teases him and leads him on with the implied promise of sex. She is currently kept by a French prince, but she hints that for the right sum of money Earthworm could be her new patron instead of the prince. (Ruth hates Earthworm, but she hates poverty more). When Earthworm momentarily leaves his office she searches it and finds his blank checkbook. She decides to steal it, intending to cash a check and run away to the New World and find peace, but Earthworm catches her with the checkbook in hand, and she has to content herself with borrowing twenty pounds from him. When he is getting the money for her she sees that he has a great deal of money in the office and contemplates stabbing him in the back, but resists the temptation. However, when he is escorting her out of his house they pass a well, and she impulsively pushes him down it. He catches the lip of the well, forcing her to first try to stab him in the face and then stamp on his fingers. Skeleton Key shows up and rescues Earthworm, and Ruth runs away. Skeleton Key follows her. Ruth returns to her house but sees that the police are searching it (her parties tend to end up with young aristocrats drugged and robbed). She decides to get as much money from the French prince and then leave London. Ruth eludes Skeleton Key again and finds the prince in Hyde Park. Unfortunately, while speaking with the prince Ruth flirts too much with other men, including the prince’s friend, cavalry Captain Charley Crockford. The prince takes Ruth and Charley for a ride in his carriage and then strands the pair far outside of London.
Charley and Ruth walk until they find an inn and take a room there. The landlord and his ruffian friends intend to murder Charley and Ruth, but one of the female servers warns Ruth about the landlord’s plans. When one of the men sticks his hand into Ruth’s room, she stabs his hand. When he runs into the room, she kills him with an axe, then shoots his compatriot in the jaw. The next day Charley and Ruth continue walking toward London, and they hit it off so well that Ruth, who is a hard woman, begins to fall in love with him. By accident they discover the house of Martin Hawkstone, Ruth’s father, who is dying and about to sign his entire estate over to Ruth’s estranged sister, Lady Darcy. Ruth is not well-inclined to her father. He mistreated her mother, beating and raping her when she refused to be his mistress, but she was so beautiful that he ended up loving and marrying her. Ruth tries to get her father to change his will to benefit her, but he dies before the will can be altered, and Lady Darcy coldly throws Ruth out of their father’s house. Ruth and Charley return to London, and she tries to get him to marry her. But though he is in love with her he is not interested in marriage, only a more casual arrangement, and when she refuses to be his mistress he tries to rape her. She pulls a dagger on him and sends him away. She is hunted by both the French and the English police. The French police capture her and turn her over to the prince, who intends to have her put on a stranded ship so that she will starve to death. Ruth kills several of her guards in an escape attempt. It fails, but she is sent to a convent rather than put on the ship. At the convent she is treated badly by the other nuns. In a replay of a scene from The Three Musketeers Ruth attempts to seduce her guard using her supposed piety, although Ruth fails where Milady de Winter succeeded. Ruth eventually escapes and returns to England. She begins wandering from city to city, trying various criminal schemes. They fail, and when they do she inevitably kills or tries to kill those who failed her; when a jockey refuses to rig a race for her, she kills the horse and stabs the jockey to death. Ruth forms a gang, but they betray her to the police. She stabs her jailer and escapes, and after further adventures is captured by Skeleton Key. Trying again to escape, Ruth falls from a high window. She is left crippled, disfigured, and mentally broken. Skeleton Key forgives her, and Ruth is sent to the convent of Saint Sorebones. Ruth the Betrayer ends with Ruth trapped in the convent, insane, and compulsively mutilating herself.
Like Fanny White Ruth the Betrayer was one of the penny dreadfuls that provoked such animosity and opprobrium from the English press and opinion makers. The modern reader will not immediately see why. Ruth begins by stressing the mystery of Ruth’s character and deliberately leaves it ambiguous whether she is a heroine or a villain. Ruth taunts an orphan with the prediction that he has no fate except Newgate in his future, but Ruth is also an experienced “spy” for the police and confronts Jacob Stone out of duty rather than pleasure. Even after she begins acting badly, her background remains unclear, so that the reader is not sure whether Ruth is a Wicked Woman or a Good Woman Gone Wrong. It is not until well over halfway through the novel that Ruth settles in to her role as a villain, from which point forward the death toll in the novel rapidly mounts and Ruth begins displaying a startling ruthlessness. As a villain her acts are unforgivable, but the reader will be forgiven for rooting for her to triumph in the end. She demonstrates drive, determination, and ingenuity, and the reader is continually aware that there were numerous moments earlier in the novel dreadful when, but for bad luck, she could have remained on the side of good and been happy.
Ruth does not, of course. She begins as a police detective (see: Female Detectives) but quickly becomes an adventuress, and a particularly merciless and unsympathetic example of the type. Ruth uses sex to get money, she tries to marry wealthy gentlemen, and she robs and murders. In mid-century mainstream fiction, a character like that is usually killed, although occasionally she is allowed to reform through the power of love (see: Armadale). In penny dreadfuls of the time, such a character is punished far more brutally. Ruth is not raped, as Fanny White (see: Fanny White and Her Friend Jack Rawlings) is, but the author robs her of her looks, her health, and then her sanity. Wilkie Collins’ punishment of Lydia Gwilt was tempered with mercy and Collins’ own regard for Gwilt; Charles H. Ross does not allow his respect (if he has any) for Ruth to ameliorate society’s symbolic revenge against the adventuress.
The modern reader may find Ruth the Betrayer frustrating. The novel’s vicious, demeaning ending wastes much that is good in the rest of the dreadful. Ruth the Betrayer is far better told than many penny dreadfuls and story papers. It lacks the sly, winking humor of Fanny White, but has a ferocious. formidable main character who demands the reader’s respect, if not their affection. Ruth the Betrayer is told more efficiently, and with much less hysterical rhetoric than many other penny dreadfuls. The author includes a great deal of introductory information in the early chapters, but the information appears as narrative asides rather than clumsy infodumps. The novel’s premise is intriguing, and for many chapters the reader is unsure where the plot is going. The second half of the novel feels padded, as if the author was writing for the money, but the first half of Ruth the Betrayer seems complicated rather than needlessly expanded. And Ruth the Betrayer is, like Fanny White, proof of the theory that “too much is too much, but way too much is just enough.” Besides the plot elements of the typical adventuress story, Ross includes elements from detective fiction, from Society novels, and especially from the Gothics, including the Mysteries Of The Convent plot, a nun being whipped, a nun’s baby being kidnapped, an evil Abbess, and a Jesuit plot against royalty. (Unfortunately, like the Gothics, Ruth the Betrayer includes two antisemitic stereotypes).
Of note is the fact that Ruth is beautiful and blonde. Like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which came out roughly simultaneously with Ruth the Betrayer, Ruth features a bad blonde woman–a shocking fact for Victorian society, which was used to sin being associated with black hair rather than blonde. It’s possible that Charles H. Ross was influenced by the success of Lady Audley’s Secret and decided to make Ruth an imitation of Lady Audley, but more likely Ross had the same inspiration that Braddon did regarding inverting the usual cliché of women with black hair being sinful and blondes being pure.
Also of note is the fact that before she goes bad Ruth works for the police in an official (if second-hand) way. One of the policemen describes her as
a female detective—a sort of spy we use in the hanky-panky way when a man would be too clumsy...she’s a very proud, haughty, cold-blooded sort of woman...and when she is off duty, lives in some magnificent house in the west...and has her carriages and horses and flunkeys in livery...some call her Ruth Trail...but most people call her Ruth The Spy.2
This is not accurate, however. She is “attached to a notorious Secret Intelligence Office, established by an ex-member of the police force, and her services were only rarely employed, as upon the present occasion, in connection with the regular police.”3 Even so, she is a detective of sorts, one preceding Forrester’s Revelations of a Lady Detective by two years. The portrayal of Ruth as a “betrayer” and “spy” who goes very wrong is not unusual in the descriptions of both women detectives and police in British literature of the time: “This ambivalence is not for women detectives alone. The police...were both admired and distrusted. Early-nineteenth-century fiction, together with its eighteenth-century forefathers, had understood the law to encompass punishment, not detection, and its professionalism had a negative connotation: money corrupted justice."4
Print: Edward Ellis, Ruth the Betrayer; or, the Female Spy. Richmond, VA: Valancourt Books, 2019.
1 Edward Ellis, Ruth the Betrayer; or, The Female Spy (London: John Dicks, 1863), 16.
2 Ellis, Ruth the Betrayer, 3.
3 Ellis, Ruth the Betrayer, 3.
4 Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (New York:Thomas Dunne Books, 2013), 299.