West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a 1,000+ page book on Yugoslavia, written just before the start of World War II, is magnificent – part travel book, part history, part memoir crammed with close, sensitive portraits of the people she met there.
The Judge is a strange book, well-wrought and overwrought. Its two parts are, deliberately, distinct from one another in terms of mood, weight, outlook, even protagonist – with the difference between them echoed by the difference in the landscapes in which they are set. Book One is set in Edinburgh, but the landscape of the Pentland Hills, outside of Edinburgh, where Book One’s heroine habitually makes excursions with her mother, and where she brings her lover, sets that section’s mood.
Our heroine, Ellen Melville, might have been imagined by Jane Austen, if Austen had been writing in 1922 about Edinburgh in 1908. Ellen Melville is pert, bright, funny, sensitive and idealistic, although – and this is what makes Ms. Melville eminently Austenesque – even as a 17 year old suffragette, she does not allow her principles to get in the way of her sense of humor.
Unlike an Austen heroine, Ellen Melville is gorgeous, with a striking mane of red hair. And there is another thing, which Austen might not touch on when she wrote, and which one does wonder about when it comes to Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennet and other Austen belles: Ellen Melville does not know how babies are made. She is completely ignorant of the physiological facts of life. The novel’s hero – a sophisticated man of the world, who not only is thoroughly versed in the facts of life, but is a connoisseur of them – is Ellen’s “lover” only in the sense that he is in love with her and she, soon enough, with him.
(I doubt that more than a handful of people ever will read this, and that any of that handful will go on to read The Judge, but I should here sound what is called a spoiler alert. I’m going to reveal some plot details that future readers of the book might not want to know beforehand.)
Ellen’s virginal ignorance gives a certain comic weight to the plot when narrated from her point of view. When the lover, Richard Yaverland (where did West come up with that name?), tells her the story of a South American acquaintance who made an altar of his dead wife’s bed, at which he prays nightly, Ellen wonders about it (to herself) and comes up with the notion that certainly, if the man loved his wife that much, he must have gone into her room to gaze at her while she was asleep, thus his adoration of her bed. As a suffragette and a feminist she knows that unwed mothers are a social problem, but she is in the dark and curious about how the phenomenon occurs.
The second part of the book is high gothic instead of the high romance that the first part is, devolving into pure melodrama, with a suicide and a murder in the last 15 pages.
The murder is fratricide, committed by Richard (in defense of Ellen’s good name, incidentally). Once the deed is done, he knows that the police will soon be on his trail and that his arrest is inevitable. He and Ellen enjoy what they are assuming is their last embrace.
“There’s nothing left,” says he.
“So go on kissing me,” says she.
“Wait,” he says. “There’s something still.” If they had been characters in a cartoon strip, a light bulb would have appeared over Richard’s head.
He asks Ellen to accompany him to a deserted tidal island, so they can have time alone together before he is arrested. After a moment of virginal hesitation, she agrees.
At the end of the book she is waiting for him to return from borrowing “waders” (an unfortunately pedestrian word – pardon the pun – to include in what is intended as a heart wrenching finish) from some fishermen, so they can cross to the island. The one-sentence final paragraph of The Judge is: “She sat and looked at the island, and wondered whether it was a son or daughter that waited for her there.”
One closes the book in a reverie filled with all sorts of delicious images of the many possible variations of Ellen’s reaction, once Richard pulls down her drawers and unbuttons his trousers – after they have taken off their waders, of course.
The protagonist of Book Two, which is set in the Essex marshes, is not Ellen, but Marion Yaverland, Richard’s mother.
Have you ever had a period where you keep encountering the same sort of person, as if your little world were going through some sort of mild karmic storm which has blown your way, for example, a plethora small bald men with simian faces? The last two books I read and the movie I saw on television last night, Bye Bye Birdie (awful, incidentally), all deal with grown men who have not been able to cut the apron strings attaching them to neurotic, domineering mothers.
(The other book was a biography of Jack Kerouac.)
Marion Yaverland is an intense, disappointed, Medea of a woman who has directed all her passion – since she was thrown over by a married lover thirty years earlier – towards her son, Richard. The introduction to my Virago edition of The Judge, by Jane Marcus, stresses the Freudian elements in West’s handling of the Yaverland mother-son relationship. I did not catch it as I was reading the book, caught up as I was in the strange dynamics of Marion and Ellen’s conflicted sentiments about each other, but once it was pointed out to me by Marcus (I generally save introductions and prefaces until I have finished books), I could see that West was working in Basic Oedipal Complex.
Despite the snide and uppity attitude I seem to have taken in the paragraphs above, I’d call The Judge rewarding. The best thing about it – and in this way it harks forward to the travel book element in West’s masterpiece about Yugoslavia – is its description of landscape, which acts almost as a Greek chorus to the unfolding tragedy.