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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
by Brian Moore
Brian Moore’s unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.
Judith Hearne – or Judy she calls herself when daydreaming – is a 40-something year old spinster. An orphan with no relatives, few friends and little money. All she has is her faith and a dream that one day she will meet a man who remove her from her dreary life into one of married bliss. She has a clear picture of this man and their life together:
He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.
Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.
When the book opens she has moved into a shabby room in a Belfast boarding house in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city.” Here she expects to spend most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.”
Her one treat is a weekly visit to her friends the O’Neill family. She views their children fondly as her “little nieces and nephews”, unaware that they mock her and their parents tolerate her out of a sense of duty.
Dreams of Mr Right
The only bright spot on the horizon is a fellow guest, the landlady’s brother James Madden who has just returned to Ireland after many years in America. Before long she’s imagining him as a future partner and her new life in New York.
Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena. The honeymoon? Niagara Falls, isn’t that the place Americans go? Or perhaps Paris, before we sail.
But then, as so often in the past it seems, she has woefully misread the signs. Her life slips once more towards humiliation and pain. Just when she needs it most, her beloved Church fails her; her appeals to the parish priest simply brushed aside.
Solace lies in a bottle. In one of the most powerful, painful scenes of the novel she retires to her soulless room and opens the bottle locked away in her trunk.
A drink would put things right. Drink was not to help forget, but to help remember, to clarify and arrange untidy and unpleasant facts into a perfect pattern of reasonableness and beauty. Alcoholic, she did not drink to put aside the dangers and disappointments of the moment. She drank to be able to see these trials more philosophically, to examine them more fully, fortified by the stimulant of unreason.
In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore gives us an arresting but disturbing portrait of a woman forever chasing a dream only to have hope crushed over and over again. What we come to suspect is that she has had drunken episodes before, having to leave previous boarding houses when her raucous singing upset
A Constrained Life
It’s a terrific portrait of loneliness and despair. The Ireland of the 1950s is a bleak place for a woman like Judith Hearne. Her convent education has given her few skills to offer on the jobs market yet without an income (and no savings to fall back on) it’s a struggle to keep up a veneer of respectability.
There are few options to occupy her time that are both cheap and respectable beyond window shopping and church services. Nor are there friends to gossip with or share experiences and memories. In a life without excitement every incident assumes momentous importance, something to be savoured and perhaps exaggerated.
All The Lonely People
It’s uncomfortable reading because you know that although this is a fictional character, you also know that there are many Judiths today who are just as lonely and despairing.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a terrific book. The characterisation is excellent but the sense of Ireland at this point in time is superbly evoked. James Madden sees it as a dull place, lacking the vibrancy and ambition of New York, a city where even a lowly hotel doorman can feel alive. While Judith is the star of the show Brian Moore gives us two especially distasteful characters in the shape of the morally questionable James Madden and the landlady’s slobbish son Bernard.
Without question, this is a book to savour.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: End Notes
I read this novel as part of my Classics Club project. Only 3 more to go.
This was the debut novel of Brian Moore, the novel that brought him to public attention. It was rejected by ten American publishers before being accepted by a British publisher.
Published in 1955, the book won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and was immediately optioned for the film rights.
The novel was originally titled simply Judith Hearne. The longer title was adopted after the film version issued in 1987 and starring Maggie Smith.
Brian Moore wrote the novel after leaving Northern Ireland for Canada, in part because of the religious conflict in his native country. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1975 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976 (The Doctor’s Wife), 1987 (The Colour of Blood) and 1990. (Lies of Silence)
He died in January 1999.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.
The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly. Whether you view him as a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian, won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.
Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces. Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.
Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939. I’ll hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.
Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.
Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.
Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”
Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.
And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes. You can follow these on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.