Brian Moore’s unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne 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 portrayal 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
About the book: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne 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.
It was originally titled simply Judith Hearne but changed to the longer version after a film version was issued in 1987 with Maggie Smith in the lead role.
About the author: Brian Moore was born into a large Catholic family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He emigrated to Canada in 1948, later acquiring Canadian citizenship. It was in Canada that he began to write, publishing thrillers under pseudonyms but it was Judith Hearne that he considered his first true novel. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1975 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times: in 1976 for The Doctor’s Wife, 1987 for The Colour of Blood and 1990 for Lies of Silence. He died in January 1999.
Why I read this book: I found a second hand Virago Modern Classics edition while browsing in a National Trust bookshop. I’d never heard of the author but the plot sounded promising. I then added it to my Classics Club project.