WHH Short Fiction: “Judge Barclay’s Wife”

Review: “Judge Barclay’s Wife”, William Hope Hodgson, 1912.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

This is another of Hodgson’s stories set in America though the location, apart from being some gold rush setting out west, is unknown.

One gets the feeling – though, again, the paucity of biographical material makes this mere speculation – that Hodgson did not have a high opinion of most institutions in Britain. He seems to have broken early with his Anglican faith, disliked the Mercantile Navy, and, in his Captain Gault stories, has a smuggler as a hero. The idea of criminal justice (and he doesn’t seem to particularize this to American justice) and the “Machinery of Correction” comes in for criticism here.

“Justice, the Fetish of all perfect man” is symbolized here by the title character who frequently tries to henpeck her husband into being less lenient with those he sentences. It’s strongly suggested that her lack of compassion springs from having no children.

The story centers around one Jem Turrill, a man sentenced to death for murder (it was actually self-defense) and theft. Turrill is sullen and not very eloquent and known for bouts of drunkenness. The Judge can’t get him to make the defense he suspects might be available.

Under his wife’s influence, he sentences Turrill to death. Turrill escapes and there is a scene where he is recaptured and about to be strung up.

His mother pleads for his life. The Barclays see this, and maternal instincts are awakened in Mrs. Barclay. She actually takes one of the deputies’ guns and puts a stop to the hanging and helps Turrill escape.

The story ends on a typically Hodgsonian note of the whole affair being hushed up since it credits no one. But, despite or because of being held at gunpoint by Mrs. Barclay, the sheriff and his deputies have a new respect for her. The Judge is secretly glad Turrill escaped and that it was good his wife “witness the working of the unmitigated Justice that she had so often upheld”.

It could be argued that a lot of Hodgson’s realistic stories are concerned with justice and show its workings as very seldom involving officialdom. This may just be an interesting convention of fiction, or it may show Hodgson’s skepticism about institutions.

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