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Rebecca West's Ironic Heroine: Beauty as Tragedy in The Judge ANN NORTON Columbia University IN "THE JUDGE Reexamined: Rebecca West's Underrated Gothic Romance," Philip E. Ray claims that this novel published in 1922, West's second, which "has been severely and consistently criticized" for "lapses in the handling of. . . subject, style, structure, and characters," should be read differently.1 He argues persuasively: that at least some of these "lapses" are actually conventional features of Gothic fiction; that if The Judge has long seemed to the general reader and the professional critic an incompetent piece of literary craftsmanship, the reason may be that both have been applying to it the wrong kinds of standards, those appropriate for use in the discussion of the "serious" or "mainstream" novel. The standards appropriate to the discussion of the Gothic romance have the advantage of making The Judge appear to be a competently constructed work of literature.2 Ray goes on to demonstrate how neatly this works, addressing in particular prior critics' complaints that the novel's two parts—Book I being mostly Ellen's story and set in Edinburgh, Book II mostly Marion's and in Yaverland's End—are too jarring to make for good fiction. It is just this contrast, Ray asserts, that gives The Judge its power as a Gothic tale: "such transitions from an orderly universe in which virtue and sanity prevail to a nightmare universe in which vice and madness undermine all order" are "primary characteristic[s] of Gothic fiction."3 An earlier critic, Motley Deakin, sees The Judge as a "sentimental" novel that should be "anathema" to feminists, since it "presents women as creatures subject to the tortures and tender worship that men impose upon them."4 He cites Clarissa as a precursor, and seems surprised that West—whose feminism he accepts as orthodox—would adopt such a fictional form. Ray mentions Deakin only in his notes, coupling him with 295 ELT: VOLUME 34:3, 1991 Jane Marcus as one of the critics who "apply the wrong standards" to The Judge.5 Yet Ray, in his discussion of Gothic conventions, also points out the fact that Ellen is subject to tortures of a kind: "there must be a lord of the castle, usually male, and persons, predominantly female, owing him obedience"; Ellen is the "victimized heroine."6 But that victimization, while beginning with Richard's changed attitude, becomes most acute because of the Gothic "castle" that is Yaverland's End, and because of Richard's mother: "That the Ellen Melville who has charmed the reader for so long suddenly dissolves and vanishes to be replaced by another Ellen Melville is a sign not of the failure of Rebecca West's literary craftsmanship but of the fact that there is something wrong with Marion Yaverland and her house."7 Ray's thesis is sound, and I do not disagree with it. But I would like to suggest that there is another dimension to the way in which West manipulates the conventions of Gothic fiction: a dimension that includes Deakin's acute if incompletely explored observation that The Judge is a sentimental novel whose heroine is an innocent seduced. To corroborate my point, I would like to look first at a book written fifty to sixty years later. In 1987, four years after her death, Rebecca West's Family Memories was published. For devoted readers of The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund, this collection of "Parental Memoirs" (her original title) was a fascinating chance to learn more about the real-life Clare and Piers Aubrey, Isabella Mackenzie and Charles Fairfield. But these stories about the childhoods and courtship of West's mother and father are more than biography, and less; "illusion and reality join," Faith Evans writes, and "it is more like a sequence of inter-related novellas than a verifiable history. . . . therefore, like so much of Rebecca West's work, [it] is only acceptable within its own terms."8 West's "terms" include the inevitable, and fierce, presence of her major preoccupations—familial (and especially male) betrayal, women's personal and artistic sacrifices and the injustice of a social system that demands them, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 295-308
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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