Review: The Testament of Judith Barton
I hated Jane Eyre. I resented every moment of my ninth grade life that was wasted on reading that book. And then I was delighted to learn that another author had written a novel about Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys’ novel serves as a prequel to Jane Eyre, and posits an explanation of how Bertha ended up in that attic. And she’s far more interesting than stick in the mud Jane. So imagine my delight when I learned of The Testament of Judith Barton by Robin McLeod and Wendy Powers, a first-person novel about Judy Barton, Scottie’s object of intense obsession in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. If I care about a tertiary character in a novel I loathe, I’m ecstatic to revel in the inner life of one from a film that I love.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a good book, but setting literary quality aside, it’s an intriguing concept. Our collected literature is littered with Bertha’s – characters pivotal to plot, objects of intimate first-person obsession – who stand starkly in the foreground, yet remain murky and unknown. As humans we live an inward life, privy to only our own first person narrative view, but the empathetic soul will constantly postulate and project, search for the view point of “the other.” So it is with our most loved, most moving, or most profound novels and films. I’ve always wanted to hear from Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example. Twain avoids drawing a caricature, but while Huck was on an adventure, Jim was running for his life and his freedom. There’s got to be a story in there. Vertigo‘s Judy Barton has always dangled the same tantalizing possibility to this viewer of Hitchcock. Who is she? How and why did she get swept into this drama?
In Vertigo, Hitchcock deftly draws us into the maddening spiral of Scottie’s obsession, and we feel the same dizzying disorientation when he discovers dead Madeleine’s look alike in Judy Barton. She’s almost, but not quite, right. As he sets about on his Quixotic task of remaking Judy from Kansas in Madeleine’s image, we feel a twinge of sympathy for the poor girl. She is a human being, after all. But then, of course, she isn’t. Plot reveals her to be merely a co-conspirator in a diabolical plot and we feel nothing when Judy get’s her comeuppance. The Testament of Judith Barton offers Vertigo fans the first opportunity to get inside of Judy’s head and heart and motivations.
In The Testament of Judith Barton, Judy’s character feels pretty true to Hitchcock’s presentation of Judy. My only quibble is the fast forward over the love affair between Madelaine and Scottie. Judy is clearly in love with Scottie, but I don’t feel like I know why. The author’s are relying on a kind of shorthand that would depend on viewing Vertigo. But because we never get to know anything about Judy in the movie, I don’t get any fresh insight into her feelings for Scottie, just exposition that she does indeed feel them.When I picture Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak and that passionate kiss in the sea spray, I get it, but that’s the movie, not the novel.
Most interesting is the portrayal of Judith’s relationship with her father. It is drawn in rich and believable detail, and gives full expression to subtle hints dropped in Vertigo. Indeed, as Hitchcock ever so slightly suggestions, Judy’s relationship to her father is critical to understanding her character. In fact, Judy’s entire family dynamic is crucial to where she eventually travels and her sad fate. I also personally applaud the decision of McLeod and Power’s to make Judy intelligent, skilled, and talented. She’s not a bit of feminine fluff blown on the breeze of male whim.
As was so often the case with Hitchcock and his blondes, Vertigo‘s Madeline/Judy character is a fuzzy focal point of male obsession. In the movie, it’s is idea of the women, not the women themselves, that drive the both the plot and the male actors. We can look through every facet of the Hitchcock’s prism at Judy, yet we never see an entire picture. Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod have created a fine, compelling and fascinating portrait of Judy Barton. Agree or disagree with their characterization and conclusions, The Testament of Judith Barton is thought provoking and a must read for fans of Vertigo.
You can find out how to get your own copy of The Testament of Judith Barton and learn more about the novel and its authors at the official website, http://www.thetestamentofjudithbarton.com/.