I am leading a discusssion of Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell in a week’s time. I did the same several years ago for the Central Library’s book club, together with a librarian and close friend, now retired, who was my chief “partner in crime” and fellow mystery enthusiast.
So…I have just finished reading Judgement for the third time. Does it still have the power to disturb? Boy, does it ever.
First, I have to say that I am awestruck by Rendell’s achievement in this tight little novel. There’s not a wasted word or scene; events move forward with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I was also struck this time by her use of narrative techniques. One minute she’s inside the head of one or another of the characters; the next, she’s the omniscient storyteller, commenting, often in a voice heavy with irony, on the foibles, misjudgments, and general haplessness of those same characters.
Despite the fact that Rendell gives the game away in the first sentence of the novel (See Discussible -and eminently readable! – police procedurals), I nevertheless read on with a mounting sense of dread. I guess this goes to show that sometimes dread is not a product of your not knowing what is going to happen, but of your knowing all too well what is going to happen. Fatalism is the terrible swift sword that hangs over this narrative. The dread is heightened by foreshadowing, which becomes especially intense as the inescapable climax approaches. Oh, how you want to shake the Coverdale family out of their oblivious complacency, to somehow warn them that the fiend in human is at their gate; no, it is already inside their house!
Rendell makes you aware every chance she gets that things did not have to turn out the way they did, that the terrible outcome of this story was the result of choices made deliberately, in most cases in what seemed like an entirely rational manner. Often these decisions were based on fundamental, crucial misperceptions. I think one of the most fatal of these results from Jacqueline Coverdale’s view of Eunice. She accepts her behavior on its face as being appropriately subservient and declines to delve into it any further. Why? Because it suits her needs precisely. Melinda, on the other hand, has vague notions of befriending this poor member of the under classes and later, fatally, of “helping” her. She – Melinda – is a relentlessly bouncy, cheerful, happily ignorant college girl who is so overprotected that she hasn’t the slightest concept of the evil that can and does dwell in the human heart. No one in that family has any notion of the vast shame that Eunice attaches to her illiterate status. It is that shame, and the way in which that deep sense of humiliation has, over time, warped her entire personality, that leads to the final tragedy.
Of course, the disaster might still have been averted if Eunice had not been “taken up,” as Henry James would have put it, by Joan Smith. As drastically different as these two personalities were, they are both seriously damaged individuals, and Rendell makes their peculiar friendship believable. It was a relationship that satisfied the specific needs of each woman. Eunice, stolid and unresponsive, just needed a friend who would make no demands and ask no questions. Joan’s needs were more complex. With Eunice, she acquires what appears to be a docile acolyte, with the added bonus that she can provide inside information concerning the goings on of the Coverdales of Lowfield Hall. The friendship of Joan and Eunice engenders what is sometimes called a “folie a deux”: two people, thrown together intensely, convince each other that something entirely crazy is entirely normal. ( The film Heavenly Creatures depicts this phenomenon at its most frightening; the events portrayed are based on a true story.)
You could say about Judgement that it is also a novel of class, and class differences. Jacqueline and George Coverdale play to perfection the part of the country squire and his wife. They make certain more or less accurate assumptions about their superior status in the community – this, despite the lack of lineage that would have disqualified them in former times. Perhaps because of that lack, they are not egregiously snobbish. Certainly their children, the ones still living more or less at home, are not snobs in any sense. Melinda has the egalitarian leanings so typical of college students of the time. As for Giles, well, he is so oblivious to his surroundings that he almost doesn’t count! I think Giles is present in the novel primarily for purposes of comic relief. Anyone who has ever lived with a teen-ager who spent most of the day and evening holed up in his or her room will smile at Rendell’s depiction of Giles. It occurred to me on this reading, though, that the depiction Giles’s bookishness, hyperintellectualism, and religious longings is one of the most dated aspects of a book that generally speaking betrays very little datedness. One thinks of today’s teen-agers, with their ipods and cellphones, and Giles seems like a species from another planet, or at least some sort of throwback to an earlier, less electronically dominated era.
This actually brings up an interesting question that has occurred to me in the course of this reading: Does literacy still carry with it the same enormous importance that it did thirty years ago? Rendell states that “Literacy is in our veins like blood. … It is next to impossible to hold a real conversation … in which reference to the printed word is not made or in which the implications of something read do not occur”. George and Jacqueline do seem almost hyperliterate, what with their reading and re-reading of the classics and subsequent discussion of the characters in those novels. But they do not, after all, have the distraction of computers and the internet, although these huge mega-leaps in technology were just over the horizon. For myself, I have been extremely lucky to live and work among people who revere the printed words and read avidly, but I don’t kid myself about how widespread this phenomenon is – or is not – in the general population, at least in this country, at the present time.
I was deeply affected on this reading by Rendell’s allusions to the works of Dickens and Shakespeare, allusions which she often intermingles with her own not inconsiderable powers of description. Chapter Two opens thus:
“The gardens of Lowfield Hall are overgrown now and weeds push their way up though the gravel drive. One of the drawing-room windows, broken by a village boy, has been boarded up, and wisteria, killed by summer drought, hangs above the front door like an old dried net. Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
“It has become a bleak house, fit nesting place for the birds that Dickens named Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.
Here again, later in the novel, when matters have turned ominous:
“Winter had stripped bare the woods and the hedges, and screaming gulls followed Mr. Meadows’ plough. The magical light of Suffolk became wan and opalescent, and the sky, as the earth turned its farthest from the sun, almost green with a streaking of long, butter-coloured clouds. Blood is nipped and ways be foul and nightly sings the staring owl. From cottage chimneys the smoke of log fires rose in long grey plumes.
Finally, I felt on this reading that my head was full of questions – such as:
1. This story is told in retrospect. When did the actual events take place? (Eunice was evacuated just prior to the war. She’s 40, or slightly older, when she goes to work for the Coverdales. Judgement was written 1975 or 1976, so the events as narrated must have happened fairly recently.)
2. Why doesn’t Eunice just take off after the murders?
3. Is the police investigation at the end anti-climactic? Would it have been better, more effective, to end right after the murders, or after Joan Smith’s accident?
4. What is the meaning of the title?
5. Finally – What do we take away from the reading of this book about the presence of evil in the world? Is Judgement to some extent an allegory, in which the forces of anarchy and fanaticism are shown to triumph over beauty and reason? It is certainly apt that while fate is bearing down upon them, the Coverdales are watching Don Giovanni, an opera in which the devil himself makes an appearance. (And such an appearance, to such harrowing, magnificent music!) Think of the names of Miss Flite’s birds in Bleak House: they start with hopeful, civilized values, gradually darken and ultimately become meaningless gibberish.
All this, in less than two hundred pages!