The Judge by Rebecca West: An Appreciation


Although this painting by John Everett Millais is entitled “Christmas Eve,“ its ominous Gothicism would well befit Marion Yaverland`s house in Rebecca West`s 1922 novel The Judge.

Although even an infrequent reader has many pleasures as he saunters slowly through the well-tended gardens of indubitable classics or rushes through the intoxicating pages of a thriller or detective story, it is the devotedly voracious reader who will in the end gain most enjoyment from the printed word. The reason for this is simple and logical in the extreme; the ranks of so-called “classic“ fiction will be decimated by a career reader, so to speak, in a fraction of the time that an occasional reader will take. For example, an occasional reader might read a Dickens or Austen novel in college, be charmed, and make a resolution to read more of that author, dutifully working through another volume in his late twenties, and perhaps repeating the process a few years later. His more literarily active comrade, however, will have torn through the entire works of Dickens or Austen in his salad days, and will therefore have the leisure and great good fortune of reading the less acclaimed yet often equally fascinating novels which have also journeyed from a writer`s mind to the printing press.

This eloquent outburst springs from a joyous discovery made by the present writer, the discovery of a 1922 novel entitled The Judge and written by Rebecca West. West, who was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892, and died a Dame of the British Empire in 1983, was one of those extraordinary women who combined deep intelligence and vast knowledge with an adventurous life and often questionable romantic relationships (the most famous one was with H. G. Wells). West`s once resonant fame–she was a literary critic, feminist,  and novelist who, among other things, penned a book on St. Augustine and took a deep interest in politics–has become a  thing of the past, although some of her fiction still enjoys a measure of popularity. Her most widely-read novel remains her first, the very slim 1918 The Return of the Soldier, a story about a shell-shocked WWI soldier.

But it could be argued that West`s second novel, The Judge, is even more fascinating. It is a lengthy work, running slightly over four hundred pages in my copy, its pages solid with West`s complex, vivid, highly intelligent writing. The story is, in some ways, highly melodramatic; in lucid moments, the reader may admit that it is a little overwrought, and the ending has often elicited shocked protest in readers. Yet I`d wager that few have put down the book before reaching that ending. It`s a bizarre book, a real oddity that should be savored by those who appreciate a glimpse into a brilliant mind and the pleasures of an unforgettable story.

The novel opens with the introduction of Ellen Melville, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in Edinburgh with her widowed mother and is a devoted suffragette. She meets the dashing Richard Yaverland, they fall in love with each other, and she goes to visit his mother, Marion Yaverland, who lives in a marshy corner of England and has such a close emotional relationship with her son that it promises to create trouble in his relationship with his new fiancee. This intense maternal and filial love has arisen due to Marion`s manner of raising her son; she has a past worthy of the most sensational Victorian novel you have ever read, except that it`s a past so sensational (in its way) that no decent Victorian could have published it.

And there you have one of the most interesting things about the book; it`s written in a brooding, heavily analytic, often lyrically descriptive manner that recalls much of Victorian fiction (the Brontes or Hardy, for example) and yet has a certain frankness and honesty that were permitted only in the twentieth century. The writing, however, is richly dense and the book`s structure often deviously serpentine in form; West will interrupt a scene with extensive “flashbacks“ detailing a character`s past experiences, creating an almost dream-like intensity of tone. Her leisurely story-telling, which may owe something to Henry James as well as her Victorian forebears, is an occurrence both surprising and delightful to find in the age of Hemingway and his imitators.

One of the most refreshing elements of The Judge is West`s intelligence as a novelist, insofar as she eludes many easy, obvious approaches to situations and characters. Knowing the active role West once played in the Suffrage movement, for instance, one expects her to treat Ellen`s Suffragette tendencies with dull, enormous respect; on the contrary, she also sees the humorous side of the girl`s youthful infatuation with the movement and even fashions several very funny moments from it. There are undoubtedly some Freudian elements in the book, especially in Richard`s attitudes towards his parents; while some authors would have made Marion blind to this fact and turned her into the villain of the piece, the reader is taken on a more complex and rewarding route. West`s occasional leaning towards lush writing leads one to expect platitudes and a certain amount of ponderous cliches about human nature, and so it is doubly surprising when she dissects, in a few swift sentences, the characters who in another writer`s hands would so quickly have become puppets and cliches. All the people in The Judge are well-rounded, interesting, surprising, moving, unique in the annals of fiction.

One can feel in every line of the book the fine quality of West`s acute intelligence, the intellectual honesty and great visual power of her imagination. Like Hardy, her frequent landscapes are intrinsic to the plot and not hindrances to it; like Charlotte Bronte, the inner moods and feelings of her characters are akin to or shaped by them. West`s affinity with her Victorian and Romantic predecessors is shown by her astonishing power of creating strong visuals, of describing a scene so that you not only see it but also remember it, as you would remember a place where you had walked and which you had touched. Her characters have that same quality of realness, as does the picture of the world which West communicates through her writing. Like all truly important and worthwhile writers, she presents a set of beliefs and convictions through her writing, an inwardly coherent view of reality which may clash with the reader`s, which might seem to him lacking or incorrect in some respects, but which in the end is the product of a great mind seeking the truth, and so must be examined in that light. And unlike many more famous yet duller authors, West does so while spinning a memorable and highly unusual story as well.

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