I realize it has taken me a very long time to follow up my post on Aunt Joan with one on Aunt Ruth. Family demands have been the reason. A colleague of mine once told me that family keeps interfering with one’s work. This blog isn’t exactly work, more a labor of intellectual entertainment. Still, I try to keep up with it.
Ruth’s relationship to Martin has been very different from what Joan’s has been. While Joan had taken Martin under her wing and helped provide love and a refuge from his horrible parents, Ruth has never spent much time with M on an individual basis. She has memories of him as a child, and she speaks to him every year at Christmas time, but there’s no evidence that she and Martin have any close ties. Their ability to communicate is based on their choice of professions and on their similar approach to personal interactions. She’s the middle child between charming but artificial and demeaning Christopher and warm and totally disarming Joan, and she has a little of both of them in her. They’ve all grown up in a family that Ruth describes as “distant mother, overbearing father.” We also know she was never allowed to call her father “Daddy.” Ruth mentions to Bert that because of her profession, she’s always on the lookout for personality disorders, that it’s an occupational hazard. Well, there were many members of her own family who had personality disorders. It may seem too stereotypical to say that she went into psychiatry because of her own emotional difficulties, but it’s something to consider. The fact that she decided to enter a side of her profession that deals with very disturbed individuals, the criminally insane, tells us that she chose an area of psychiatry in which there is less talk therapy and more medication therapy. She must approach her cases with a degree of detachment greater than most psychiatric care and her personality is suited to that. I would argue that her general manner of interpreting situations is clinical, quick to identify essential factors, and objective, although there are moments when she has breakthroughs of emotion. Throughout this show, we are presented with the dichotomy of emotional responses against rational ones and asked to weigh which one works best. The character of Ruth brings that comparison more into the foreground.
In contrast to her siblings, Ruth has never married or even had much of a love life. The only indication that she’s had any sex in her life is when she tells Louisa that she had a “succession of quasi-sexual encounters at a very young age.” That doesn’t have a positive implication and she may have been scarred by these in some way. It’s a leap to say too much about that, but the message is that she really doesn’t know much about love and intimacy.
Everyone in the family seems to dislike Christopher, so they all have that in common.
Our introduction to Ruth is when she arrives for Joan’s funeral in her blue, old model Mercedes. She approaches Martin, who is standing with Louisa and the baby, and says “condolences and that sort of thing.” She has suffered a loss as much as Martin, but she treats Joan’s death as if Martin has lost a lot more than she has. Martin does not reply in kind, which seems to indicate he, too, considers Joan’s death more of a loss for him (or that he always finds it hard to express sympathy). Ruth has heard about Louisa and the baby from Joan, but Louisa has never heard about Ruth. When Martin asks Louisa to accompany Ruth into the church, we get more of Ruth’s cynicism and frankness. She tells Louisa not to lie about having heard about her, or, if she chooses to lie, she should do it with more conviction. Once seated in the church, Ruth tells Louisa that she isn’t much good at small talk, that her “upbringing gifted her with a chronic case of social awkwardness,” and that she “either alienate(s) or overshare(s).” She also has no hesitation in asking Louisa if she plans to try to marry again, and says she looks the type. Her question is great because it exhibits her social awkwardness while also expressing something we viewers wonder too. After the funeral we learn that Joan has chosen to leave the farm to Ruth even though it was Martin who salvaged it for Joan, but Ruth remarks that Joan “was determined to get me out of London.” (Ruth also notes that she only gave Joan slippers for Christmas, a remark that’s both funny and another sign that Ruth has a cynical approach to life.)
She plans to stay for a week at first, but eventually decides to stay on and write a book. Soon after her arrival in Portwenn, Martin bumps into Ruth outside the green grocer. She has not yet adapted to life on the farm, but it’s her cough and overall appearance that Martin notices, along with her evasiveness about her health. This is also when Ruth makes the important observation that she is proud of Martin for doing “serious medicine” again. I enjoy her equation of being a GP with doing “serious medicine” as opposed to whatever doing surgery is. She has a vastly different opinion of Martin’s current medical practice than either of his parents has, or what he himself has. As they part company, Ruth sends her love to the family. Her tone carries a touch of formality and another of amusement. On the show there is an ongoing difficulty with defining who comprises one’s family, and her comment is a reminder of that.
It turns out that Ruth’s evasiveness is due to her suspicion that she is dying from lupus. We learn this because she must seek Martin’s help after she cuts her finger. While treating her deep cut, M discovers that she doesn’t feel pain and eventually manages to get R to reveal her suspicions about her health. We also see her get emotional for the first time. She’s brought to tears about the prospect of dying and reacts with uncharacteristic affection when M tells her his very different and much less dire diagnosis. The enthusiastic hug she gives Martin after he tells her she has Sjogren’s and not lupus is the only time they have any physical contact. The overt affection he and Joan shared is not a part of his relationship with Ruth; however, Ruth and he share a trust and compatibility he can’t find with anyone else. Ultimately, he looks to Ruth for advice and guidance that Joan would have been less capable of giving him.
Although S5 is very much about how Martin and Louisa deal with living together with their baby, Ruth has little to say about them as a couple until E5 when M takes the baby to Ruth’s for breakfast. It is then that Ruth observes that Louisa won’t like moving to London and that Martin and Louisa shouldn’t stay together for the baby’s sake. Her comment seems to take M aback and he denies that that is the reason they are staying together. I find this a stark contrast to the way Joan relates to Martin about Louisa and the baby. Joan is anxious for Martin to tell Louisa how much he wants to be with her and the baby; she seems certain that M is quite attached to both of them. The other thing that happens during this breakfast is that Ruth feels the need to point out to M that his baby wants his attention. She seems to be indicating that he’s not attuned to his son. For me, the fact that he has taken the baby with him to give L a break, dressed him, and gone through the rigamarole of getting him in and out of the car and stroller is evidence that he’s responsive to his baby.
E6 opens with Martin, Louisa, and James Henry having dinner with Ruth at the farm. Ever practical Ruth immediately asks who will look after the baby while L is at work. L answers that her mother will be taking that on, but M expresses doubts about her reliability. Ruth then wants to know about the back-up plan, which prompts L to ask if R is offering to help. Of course, R has no desire to help with the baby and the conversation deteriorates when M and L disagree over whether L could take him to work on occasion. There’s no escaping the tension between these parents. Dinner is followed by a trip to a shed where R wants to show them some items J was keeping: a clock that M remembers from his childhood and pictures of M as a young boy. This venture marks the first time L hears anything directly from R about M, and that M tells her anything directly about his childhood. M informs L that he went to boarding school at age 6 3/4 and took a taxi, then a train, then a bus. When L remarks that M doesn’t look very happy, R tells her he was happier at school than at home.
Later in E6 there’s more tension when M brings L a pamphlet about a boarding school at which he wants to hold a space for James. M has chosen a particularly bad time to bring up the boarding school idea because L is about to leave JH and go to work, and the whole idea horrifies her. They drop it for the time being but there’s more trouble ahead because when L gets home after a rough day, she discovers that M has moved the chocolate digestives and that he would like her to lose some weight. Ruth arrives just as L accuses M of calling her fat. Walking into this maelstrom puts Ruth in a difficult position. She has come to bring Martin the key to the clock and to bring L more pictures of M, and she certainly doesn’t wish to get in the middle of their discussion. Nevertheless, she can’t help noticing the school brochure and knows the previous headmaster had to leave because of embezzlement charges. Ruth innocently mentions another boarding school, which prompts L to snap about the whole idea of sending JH to boarding school at all. Thus, R is once again caught in the middle and the psychiatrist who habitually judges other people appears stunned and off balance.
Soon after, Louisa runs into Ruth in town and they talk about the pictures of M. Louisa is troubled that Martin always looks so sad, but R says it was always pointless to ask M to say cheese. She follows that with a comment that people don’t change, an echo of what Joan once said to M, and mentions the christening date. Once again L chooses to lie (without conviction) to R, and acts as though she knows about it. There’s no doubt that R notices. So far Ruth has accidentally inserted herself between Martin and Louisa all too frequently.
It’s hard to say whether Ruth has strong feelings about Martin and Louisa, but she has her doubts. She must notice that they both care about each other, but she also recognizes the significant differences between them. Since Ruth’s general approach is to be objective, and because of her own deficiencies when it comes to male/female relationships, I think she must be concerned that M and L are struggling as a couple. However, we have now reached E8 and M and L go through all sorts of challenges in this episode with R very much along for the ride. R gets involved only because she happens to see Penhale lose control of his car and jump the retaining wall. She then accompanies M and Penhale to the pharmacy to get JH from Mrs. T and get Penhale the correct eye drops. R is valuable because she explicates the medicine, finds the note Mrs. T has left, and reminds M that he needs to tell L what’s happening. She and Penhale accompany M to the school to get L and then join the search for Mrs. T. R is not much comfort at this time as she can’t help giving a clinical analysis of Mrs. T’s condition which includes a degree of uncertainty about the safety of JH. But in the hotel, R takes control, tells M and L to stop bullying the desk clerk and tells the clerk “a child may be in danger so grow a backbone, check that damn machine, and tell us if anyone has checked in with a baby or not.” She helps them look for Mrs. T. in the hotel, reminds them that Mrs. T. is not thinking rationally, and tries to calm M when he gets a phone call from Mrs. T. At this stage, R’s sensible approach keeps M and L from getting too heated about the circumstances.
Once they reach the place where Mrs. T. is holding the baby, R joins them at the entrance door. Here she is both a voice of reason and the person they can both react against. She continues to make an effort to keep them from getting too worked up and argues with both of them at times: she argues with M about what to do and she argues with L over how to respond to Mrs. T. R continues to be clinical while L just wants her baby back. R stands next to L while M talks to Mrs. T., and there are several occasions when she and L appear to have the same reaction to what they are hearing. However, the two women clash significantly about what M should tell Mrs. T. Louisa argues for a much stronger expression of M’s feelings for Mrs. T. than R recommends. M takes L’s advice and tells Mrs. T. that he had Penhale come with him “because he wanted to share our wonderful love.” Since Mrs. T. still hesitates, L tells M to say something even stronger and shushes R when she says that L knows nothing about psychology. M follows L’s advice again, and although R has one more warning about L’s errant advice, M’s expression of love works and Mrs. T brings down the baby. What has really taken place is L guiding M to tell her his true feelings. Through L’s success, we have witnessed emotions, in the person of L, winning over reason, in the person of R. Ruth’s final act is to usher Mrs. T. away from M and L and leave them to finally talk things out with each other.
We still have S6 to get through, and Ruth has a larger role in this series. My overall sense of Ruth’s assessment of Martin and Louisa in S6 is that, despite her continuing doubts that they belong together, she now wants to help them stay together. She expresses reservations before and during the wedding, but offers to help with JH so they can have a night alone, is available to both of them for talks and assistance, and has become a very important member of their family. She is protective of Louisa when Mrs. T. returns and tells L she will check on Mrs. T. when she gets back to the pharmacy. She wants to help M deal with his hemaphobia by recommending a good psychologist, and she is protective of him when his mother returns. The scene when Ruth tells Margaret she’s worried about the pain Margaret can still inflict on Martin, and to go home, is priceless. And, of course, the last episode makes us abundantly aware that Ruth is the person Martin can turn to in his anguish. She sets him straight about his insomnia and blood phobia, motivates him to confront his mother, encourages him to go after Louisa, and is where Martin wants Penhale to take JH when they arrive at the hospital. She hasn’t become any more emotional, but her common sense approach has softened just enough to show true affection for M and L.
Originally posted 2014-04-06 21:07:27.