Judith Earle is the only fully realized character in Dusty Answer. Having led a protected and isolated early life, Judith is seen in juxtaposition to her childhood friends, the Fyfe cousins, who are presented only in their relation to Judith. When Judith goes up to Cambridge to begin her university career, she is an idealist, an innocent. She has spent the better part of eighteen years in introspection and in solitary activities. One has the sense that she has never really known her parents, who remain shadowy figures throughout the novel, her father appearing in it only through Judith’s allusions to him, and her mother appearing only peripherally toward the end.
Certainly the most interesting element of Lehmann’s characterization is that which has to do with Judith’s growing lesbian relationship with Jennifer Baird. Jennifer is the most beautiful, outgoing, and utterly desirable girl the shy, introspective Judith meets at Cambridge.
In counterbalance to Jennifer is Mabel Fuller, a dull, homely, ungainly girl who is ridiculed by the other girls. Judith, secure and happy in her relationship with Jennifer, becomes Mabel’s friend, largely out of sympathy for her. Yet, in Judith’s eyes at least, she eventually is to Jennifer as Mabel is to her. It is Mabel who begins to elicit jealousy in Judith by mentioning Jennifer’s seeming attachment to Geraldine Manners, a visitor who has come to stay the weekend with Jennifer but whose stay is extended long beyond that.
Mariella Fyfe is presented only sketchily. Her story, however, is an interesting one. She actually loves her cousin Julian, but Julian does not return her love. When Julian’s brother Charlie must go to war, Mariella marries him, much to his brother Julian’s dismay. The two quarrel over the marriage and do not make their peace before Charlie is killed. Julian’s remorse leads him to be overly protective of Charlie and Mariella’s son.
The careful characterization of Judith Earle in the novel is sustained through four of its five parts. Unfortunately, the last part of the book becomes melodramatic and the characterization is less than convincing. Indeed, at the very end of part 4, which presents Judith’s reaction to Martin’s drowning, the book slips into the melodramatic, and from that point until the end of the book, the author’s control over her material and characters decreases.