This novel is primarily the story of two strong women. Ellen Melville is 17 years old, working as a typist in an Edinburgh legal office by day and participating in suffragist meetings and demonstrations nights and weekends. She is outspoken and confident, and naive enough to be surprised by hostile crowds during demonstrations. She is also completely unaware of her effect on the opposite sex. The men in the office treat her as an object, except for Richard Yaverland, a client of the firm. Richard is much older than Ellen, and more worldly, but also more liberal in his political views. When Ellen and Richard decide to marry, they journey to the south of England to meet Richard's mother, Marion.
The first half of this book is Ellen's story; the second half belongs to Marion. Richard and his mother are extremely close -- in fact, their relationship borders on the unhealthy. Marion has strong, mixed emotions about Richard and Ellen's relationship. She professes to love Ellen almost at first sight, and yet inwardly wrestles with the impact that marriage will have on Marion's relationship with her son. Just as I was asking myself, "What is this woman's problem?", Marion's "back story" was revealed in the form of one long, sleepless night filled with memories going back to Marion's youth. She had been in love with Harry, a young squire, who left for military service. Then Marion learned she was pregnant. She was subject to public shame, including an incident in which she was stoned by townspeople. For her own safety she entered into marriage with a man who offered her security and didn't even require that they live together. Marion doted on the illegitimate Richard, and found herself completely unable to love a second child borne of her marriage. As the two children came of age they were treated quite differently, and this had serious consequences when they reached adulthood. As Marion herself said, "Every mother is a judge who sentences the children for the sins of the father." (p.346)
Rebecca West was a pioneer in feminist literature who knew from personal experience what it meant to be an outspoken, strong woman. Published in 1922, The Judge portrays two such women and shows how society failed each of them. However, while the book is well-written, the prose is dense and requires concentration. The ending is abrupt and felt somewhat contrived. I would not consider this West's best work, but for those who would like to read more early 20th century novels written by women,it's worth a try. ( )