Demons In Her View: The Ruth Rendell Information Site

Ruth Rendell on A Judgement In Stone

On August 28 2003, Rendell appeared on the BBC World Service program World Book Club, discussing her classic 1977 work A Judgement In Stone. Fans living in the London area were invited to attend the recording of this program and put a question to the author, while more remote enthusiasts (including me!) submitted questions via phone and email. The program was recorded on August 25.

The half hour special was broadcast on August 28 at 0930 and 1430 GMT, and is now available on the BBC Web site. Further details on the World Book Club program can be found here. Note: As this is not an official transcript, I've very likely made mistakes in the spelling of some of the questioners' names and locations. Corrections are most welcome!

World Book Club, BBC World Service, August 28 2003
Ruth Rendell, A Judgement In Stone

Presenter: Harriett Gilbert
[RR = Ruth Rendell, HG = Harriett Gilbert, AM = audience member, other speakers identified by their initials]

HG: Hello, welcome to the BBC's World Book Club, where every month a leading author answers questions put by an audience and sent in by you, the listeners, about one of their best-loved books, and today's special guest, here to talk about her chilling novel A Judgement In Stone, is the internationally respected and popular British crime writer Ruth Rendell. [applause]

It wasn't easy deciding which of Ruth Rendell's dozens of books to choose, not least because she writes three very different kinds. On the one hand, there are her addictive but more or less traditional detective novels featuring Inspector Reginald Wexford, who first appeared in 1964 in From Doon With Death, and most recently in last year's The Babes In The Wood. Then under the name Barbara Vine Ruth Rendell writes brilliant mainstream novels such as A Dark Adapted Eye and then, under her own name again, she writes crime novels in which neither detection nor the police in general really feature, where the person we're focused on is the criminal.

A Judgement In Stone is that kind of book, and going by the response we've had to our request for questions about it, it's one that particularly haunts readers. The story of an illiterate housekeeper who with a woman friend guns down the family of four for whom she works, it's even had two films made of it. One in 1995 by the great French director Claude Chabrol, and an earlier one that boasted the attention-grabbing tagline 'She cooks. She cleans. She kills.' [laughter]

Well, Eunice Parchman, the housekeeper in question, does indeed do those things, as we're told right at the beginning of the novel, and Ruth Rendell, I wonder if you'd start by reading just the opening paragraphs of A Judgement In Stone.

RR: "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman's disability was made known not to a mere family or a handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished nothing by it but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing. And yet, although her companion and partner was mad, Eunice was not. She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman."

HG: Thank you Ruth Rendell. Now that opening to A Judgement In Stone has prompted our first question from a World Service listener, an email from Laura Hislop in Zandam in the Netherlands who's given us her telephone number, so she is on the telephone to ask the question herself. Laura, I have Ruth Rendell here sitting with me. Could you ask her your question?

LH: Having re-read your book recently, I was taken by the fact on the first page the murderer and the identity of the murderer - [that] was fairly radical in the seventies. What gave you the inspiration to write it in this way?

HG: What gave you the inspiration to start straight in with the murder?

RR: I thought that this was hardly ever, if ever, done and I wanted to try it, to see if people would still go on reading, because I felt that that particular kind of suspense, that 'whodunnit' suspense, need not necessarily be in my kind of book, and so I did it, and although I had a couple of letters from people who protested quite angrily about this, on the whole people liked it. I don't know if I succeeded in doing this but that's what I aimed at, that people would still be sufficiently interested in the characters and the way the novel progressed not to need the suspense.

HG: Laura Hislop, does that answer your question?

LH: It does. Actually it leads me on quite neatly to my second question which was to say that your murderers were unstable and unpleasant characters, whilst your victims were an average, likeable middle-class family. This also diverts of course from the old formula of the murder victim being unlikeable or rich or both. Whilst reading the book, I knew what would happen, but nevertheless, this did not make it any less exciting. How did you manage to keep the tension in the story?

RR: I think I must tell you that this is the only book I have ever written in which I became myself upset at the prospect of the fate that awaited these people. I knew that they must die but I liked them. Usually I am quite detached from this but I was not, and I was quite distressed at the thought that they must die without my altering the whole plot structure, and I wasn't prepared to do that.

LH: I quite agree with you, I liked the victims as well and was quite hoping that you would change your mind near the end and save one or two of them.[laughter]

RR: I think that this is always done in anybody's novels, and in some I'm sure far better than I do it, by making the characters themselves likeable or very interesting so that people care what happens to them. If you don't care, well you don't care, and I hoped that people, various different people, would care about separate characters of the two young people, the older man and his somewhat younger wife, and that people would respond to these characters particularly and care individually about what happened to them. I hope that happened.

LH: Yes it did. Thank you very much for a lovely book.

HG: Thank you very much, Laura Hislop in the Netherlands. And now we have another question from a listener to the World Service, and this one comes from Argentina from Malvina Paricio, who also gave her telephone number and because of the time difference, we recorded Malvina's question earlier.

MP: This is Malvina Paricio from Argentia. I'm very happy to have the possibility to ask you a question and to hear you. I was thrilled by the book A Judgement In Stone. I wonder how you got the idea of making illiteracy the prime motivation for crime in the protagonist? And I found it electrifying, partly because I'm a teacher, partly because I more or less identify with the girl in the family when she got it into her head to teach her reading. That's my question, and also I send you my admiration from Argentina.

RR: I was living in Suffolk at the time, and also in London, and I used to go out there often by train from Liverpool Street station in London, and once I was standing -- most of my ideas come to me like this -- I was standing at Liverpool Street station looking at the departures board and I thought -- I don't know why -- I thought 'Suppose I couldn't read, how would I ever know the time of these trains and where they were going?' So I went up to some official person and said 'What time is there a train to Ipswich?' and he said 'Can't you read?' [laughter] And there I think you are answered, the rest followed.

HG: Well, we have a question from France this time, again on the telephone picking on the subject of illiteracy which is so central to the novel. And this one comes from Delphine Sangalle in France. Delphine, what is your question for Ruth Rendell?

DS: I was wondering Ruth Rendell being a writer and somebody dealing with words fluently all day long, I was wondering if it was easy to imagine what an illiterate person would think and how she would act.

RR: If you're a writer of fiction, I think you must have a very fertile imagination, it's a prerequisite. And having that, and I hope I have it, we should be able to imagine pretty well how people who are very different from ourselves react. We have all perhaps also come across illiterate people and seen how they try to disguise their illiteracy and how they are ashamed of it, which is the sad thing, and that's how I thought myself into the character, as I do into all characters who are perhaps, as in this case, very different from myself. How I succeed, if I succeed, I don't know.

HG: Delphine Sangalle, thank you for that. We've got a question here from a listener in Warrington, in the north of England, Patrique Chapatelle and her email says this: "I read A Judgement In Stone some time ago and I have to admit I was very frightened by it. Initially I thought your portrayal of illiteracy was cruel and unjust because my grandmother is illiterate and she is full of warmth and stories. Then it occurred to me that your story is an allegory of modern times: philistinism and ignorance taking the place of religion and culture and religious fanaticism and violence are becoming a common thread. Is this what you were thinking?"

RR: Probably it is what I was thinking. I've had quite a lot of protest from people saying that this is cruel, including various societies who are proponents of illiterate people and who champion them, but I don't think it's cruel because I particularly feel that it's unjust to say that I am stating that every illiterate person is likely to commit murder, which was alleged against me. It's no more really than saying that every woman in my books where there is a female murderer is capable of murder, or every man is in that case. I don't think it's cruel but I do think, and I hope this isn't harsh, that any illiterate person who feels burdened by his or her illiteracy can go to classes to learn to read. There are ample opportunities, even more these days than whenever I wrote that book, which I think was 1975.

HG: Well, I wonder if anyone here in the audience at the World Book Club studio has got a question, maybe picking up on that about the illiteracy. I mean Eunice Parchman is it seems to me certainly, somebody who is, she's a nasty piece of work anyway. She murders her father before this novel's even begun, and she blackmails anyone who comes into contact with her, but there is an implication that her illiteracy makes her unimaginative or prevents her from identifying with other people. I don't know if anyone's got a question about that. Yes, you in the back?

AM: I was wondering in your book if Eunice was based anybody that you know, or was she a mirage [mixture?] of several different characters.

RR: I would say that none of my characters is based on somebody I know. I believe that Harriett is right when she says that there are other aspects of Eunice's character that perhaps make her a psychopath, and it's not necessarily her inability to read, though perhaps the psychopathy has something to do with her refusal to learn to read and write. I think this is quite a deep question which I am not competent to answer.

HG: Other questions from the audience here at Bush House. In the front row?

AM: You mentioned earlier that you actually liked the family who were the victims. I actually didn't, I felt they were quite despicable, because they were very patronising and they think they know best and they're very snobbish as well, and I wonder if you think that Eunice became a monster because of people like them.

RR: Yes, I think you're right and we know that this is what inflamed Eunice to behave like that. She couldn't bear the fact that they were patronising to her. If they had been less so, none of this might have happened, but only imagine what sort of a novel it would have been if they had been egalitarian and altogether sympathetic towards her and so on, I don't think that would have been possible.

HG: A very short novel.

RR: Yes, indeed.

HG: Well, can I just, picking up on the subject of the family, this sort of pleasant, well-meaning, indeed very snobbish, patronising family, Ruth Rendell, I wonder if you'll read a passage from the book, this is where the daughter of the book, Melinda, suddenly realises that Eunice can't read. Now Melinda is this very well intentioned, sort of liberal-y wants to help everyone young woman, whom Eunice has reason to believe is hiding an illegitimate pregnancy from her parents, and this is the point where Melinda suddenly grasps, 'Oh, Eunice can't read'.

RR: "'Why didn't you tell us?" she said as Eunice got up. "We'd have understood. Lots of people are dyslexic, thousands of people actually. I did some work on a study of it in my last year at school. Miss Parchman, shall I teach you to read? I'm sure I could. It'd be fun. I could begin in the Easter holidays.'

Eunice took the two mugs and set them on the draining board. She stood still with her back to Melinda. She poured the remains of her tea down the sink. Then she turned round slowly and, with no outward sign that her heart was drumming fast and heavily, fixed Melinda with her apparently emotionless, implacable stare.

'If you tell anyone I'm what you said, that word, I'll tell your dad you've been going with that boy and you're going to have a baby.'

[NB A small section of text from the novel was ommitted here in the broadcast]

Abuse wasn't Eunice's forte but she managed. 'Dirty little tart, that's what you are. Dirty interfering little bitch.'"

HG: I think that scene is both very funny, I mean, 'abuse was not Eunice's forte', but also it is seriously chilling. The next question from a listener to the World Book Club comes from the Netherlands. It's from Ine Jacet and her email says: "I've read all the books of Miss Rendell and here is my question about A Judgement In Stone. On page 74 of the Dutch edition, Miss Rendell describes two friends: Eunice, and her eventual accomplice in murder, Joan Smith, and she says: 'Deep down they both thought the other looked ridiculous, but that wasn't derogatory to their friendship. Friendship often blooms at its best when one friend is convinced that they are superior to the other.' Could Miss Rendell please explain this statement?

RR: Does it really need explanation? I'm sorry to say that I think it is true that we derive some kind of pleasure and comfort from thinking, seeing our friends as wrong, as making mistakes, as doing foolish things because it gives us a sense of superiority. I wish it were not so. If I see it and figure it in myself I try to crush it, but I doubt if I succeed. I think that when Joan sees Eunice as fat, as ill-dressed, as frumpish, she feels a great superiority because she considers herself to be elegant and smart and rather dashing and so on, she feels good, and Eunice when she sees Joan in her ridiculous high heels and short skirts and so on at her age, thinks how glad she is that she is a sensible woman who dresses suitably. But that won't st- in fact it will rather enhance their relationship I think, because they can feel a kind of sympathy, pity and superiority -- a marvellous combination for a friendship.

HG: This question comes from Australia, from Sydney and it's from Angus Kidman and because of the time difference with Australia, this one has also been pre-recorded.

AK: My name's Angus Kidman, I'm from Australia, I've been a fan of your work for many, many years and something that really struck me is actually, for a book with such a serious and nasty story to it, there's an awful lot of incidental humour about a lot of the characters, lots of little asides about them. I was wondering whether that was a deliberate technique that you'd kind of adopted to soften the blow of what eventually occurs, or whether it was just something that had happened subconsciously?

RR: I think it's necessary in something like this, but also because I very much enjoy making things funny, I hope I have, I think, a great sense of humour, and I want my books to have a lot, an element of laughter in them. This book would be very grim and very dark if it had none of that. Perhaps people think it's dark and grim anyway, but I do think it has to have that. And I think some of the characters, notably for instance the boy Giles, a lot of the things he does and says, particularly those extraordinary quotations which he hangs up all over his room, I think they're funny. Without that humour the book would be even darker than it is.

HG: A question now from the audience.

AM: In your book, you make it clear that TV can have a massive effect on a person. Are you ever worried that somebody could have a similar response to a suggestion or a character in your book?

HG: Do you mean might they, having read the book, go out and do a bit of mass murder?

RR: I know what she means. My characters who commit murder or do dreadful things usually come to a bad end. There is not that kind of amoral atmosphere in the book or about them so that they triumph or they come through successfully. Nobody would really want to do what Eunice and Joan do if they saw themselves coming to the kind of end that these two come to.

HG: Question here in the front row.

AM: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the character of Giles that you mentioned earlier, as a counterpoint to Eunice and her illiteracy and the volumes that he reads. As he's so important in that way, he seems a little incidental in the family. Is that a particular contrast, were you styling him that way? He was a character I was rather fond of, but actively in the story. He preferred to read.

RR: He is of course, yes, a counterpoint to Eunice, and that is one reason why he's there. He's also there because after all if I am an author I'm also a human being and I like to get a bit of fun out of what I write. You know, if you have dull pedestrian characters, you do reach a point in a book where you feel that you don't really want to go on with it, because you don't care.

HG: Another question?

AM: How much of a moralist are you? Maybe all writers of detective stories are moralists, but how moralist do you feel you are?

RR: I don't know. How can I answer such a question? I feel obliged to take a moral stand when I'm writing, but how moral I am, I don't know. Am I more moralistic than other writers? I don't know.

AM: I think that's what I meant, the fact that you do take a moral stand.

RR: Well, I'm certainly thinking about it, of course, and I don't know how one could fail to. I think I would think about that in all my books.

AM: Do you think the detective genre is very moral? Is that what it's all about?

RR: Well, I think that it is both very moral and extremely immoral, or it used to be. Less so now, I think it has become very much more moral, because I think perhaps in a strange way, except sexually, we have become more moral. When you think of all those detective stories that were written in the twenties and thirties of the last century, they were flagrantly immoral in that they were simply about people being killed and there was no kind of moral stand taken about them at all, on the whole. It was simply a matter of finding out who did it.

HG: We have now a question from a World Service listener in Singapore, from Nifia Devan. Nifia, your question for Ruth Rendell about A Judgement In Stone.

ND: I was interested to find out if you could set A Judgement In Stone in a contemporary setting, in 2003, because Eunice tries very hard to hide the fact that she's illiterate in the book, and up to a certain point she succeeds, but with the rising rate of illiteracy now and the sort of dumbing-down culture, do you think this would have had the same effect now and would she have killed the Coverdales for the same reasons?

RR: I think she probably would have done. I know what you mean, and I know about of course the rising tide of illiteracy, but if she had been in the same sort of family, and there's no reason to think she wouldn't have been, she presumably would have felt the same. But of course I'm not going to reset it in a contemporary setting, and I do try to choose themes and plots that are particularly suited to the time in which I'm writing. I think that A Judgement In Stone was very well suited to 1975, and the sort of innocence there is about Eunice, and the ignorance and so on, I think that today there would be other things coming into play which your questioner mentions. For instance, there's the Internet. I don't know how that would have affected things but I'm beginning to imagine how it might have done. I know that it would not have been a theme that I would have chosen. If I had, Eunice would have come from a different background for one thing. I think that she might with her peculiarities have gone to a school catering for children with special needs.

HG: Thank you. Now we have a question here from a listener in Argentina, Samantha Maranca, and this is a very simple straightforward question. "Dear Ruth Rendell, why is the novel A Judgement In Stone called that way?"

RR: I hate to confess this, but it is the only book I've written that I did not name myself and I was so desperate to find a title that when a reader at my publishers came up with this title, I thought 'OK, let's have it, it'll do'. [laughter] But in fact I don't think it's a good title, but anyway most people, except your very percipient questioner, have accepted it.

HG: That's all the questions we've got time for, but before we end I'd like to announce that after much deliberation, this month's prize for the star question, a signed copy of Ruth Rendell's A Judgement In Stone, goes to Ine Jacet from the Netherlands. But for now, thank you to the audience for World Book Club, thank you to you, the listeners, and thanks especially to this month's guest, Ruth Rendell. [applause]

World Book Club with Ruth Rendell discussing A Judgement In Stone was presented by Harriett Gilbert. The program was produced by Colin Grant and it came to you from the BBC World Service here in London.


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