The Brian Moore at 100 Read-Along continues this month, with his debut and best-known novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. I’ve had a hard time pulling my thoughts together to review this, for several reasons.
Firstly, a lot of people have already shared their thoughts (very eloquently) on this, Moore’s most read and most revered book, and I wasn’t sure if I had anything constructive to add. Secondly, this was a reread for me and it was a very strange experience to see how my reaction to it changed from reading it at the age of 19 to reading it again at the age of 49. And finally, I got my first Covid vaccine this week and have reacted quite badly to it and am not feeling well at all, so if my thoughts here are rambling, then I’ll use that as my excuse!
Miss Judith Hearne is a single Belfast woman in her ‘early forties,’ and at the opening of the novel she has just moved to a small room in the latest of a series of cheap lodging houses and is unpacking and arranging her meagre and most cherished possessions — a silver-framed photograph of her deceased aunt and a framed print of the Sacred Heart. These pictures are the cornerstones of her life, but they bring her little comfort. With a striking use of brevity, Moore captures Judith’s life in a few pages. She is poor, but not destitute, plain but not ugly and she is, above all, lonely.
Sunday was the great day of the week. To begin with, there was Mass, early Mass with Holy Communion, or late Mass where you were likely to see a lot of people. The special thing about Sunday Mass was that for once, everyone was doing the same thing. Age, income, station in life, it made no difference: you all went to Mass, said the same prayers and listened to the same sermons. Miss Hearne put loneliness aside on a Sunday morning.
An orphan, brought up by her well-to-do Aunt D’Arcy, Miss Hearne nursed her aunt through her final years and now lives on a pittance of an annuity, making up the shortfall by teaching embroidery and giving piano lessons. Her dull weeks are punctuated only by her devout attendance at Mass and a trip to some old family friends on a Sunday – the O’Neill’s – where she is tolerated more than loved. She wants nothing more than to be married, but as the years progress, she knows that this prospect is becoming more and more unlikely.
For as the years wore on, there was not much to be cheerful about, old friends dying off, young men a thing of the past. .
And all the things Miss Hearne used to dream about in those lonely years with her poor dear aunt: Mr Right, a Paris honeymoon, things better not thought of now, all these things were slipping farther away each year a girl was single. So she cheered herself up as best she could and if she overdid it, it was a private matter between herself and her confessor, old Father Farrelly, and he was understanding, he liked a drink himself, right up to the end . . .
Judith’s troubles come to a head when she meets James Madden, brother of her new landlady Mrs Rice. James has just returned to his home in Northern Ireland after years in New York. He is brash and loud, but shows an interest in Judith. It is a relationship built on mutual misconception. Judith believes that James has owned a hotel in new York when he was, instead, a doorman, and James believes that Judith has money and can help him in his scheme to open a restaurant in Dublin.
As Judith’s romantic relationship with Madden begins and painfully ends in a matter of weeks, the full extent of her troubles become clear. In the face of humiliation, both personal and public, Judith begins to unravel with devastating consequences. It is testament to Moore’s skill that this breakdown is treated with a heartbreaking clarity. He is a master of pace, keeping his narrative measured and controlled.
The novel features some incredibly powerful and often painful scenes involving both Miss Hearne and the other boarders in the house, and Moore makes the interesting choice to tell some of the story from the point of view of other characters, showing us the reality of how Judith is perceived versus how she perceives herself. As he showed in Fergus, Moore is skilled at capturing different characters in only the lightest of sketches and there are many characters here, including Mrs Rice’s overbearing pseudo-intellectual son Bernard, who could belong in a novel of their own.
Everything that Judith once thought of as a comfort in her life, fails her. As her self-awareness grows she finally admits that the O’Neill’s are not really her friends and that her Catholicism is unable to offer her any succor. To my mind, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is predominantly about the loss of faith and how that loss can devastate a life around which is has been built. Here, faith suppresses rather than sustains and when Judith needs it most, it is gone from her. Moore depicts the Church as a hollow institution, a place of ritual and performance rather than authentic connection or support.
If you do not believe, you are alone. But I was of Ireland, among my people, a member of my faith. Now I have no — and if no faith, then no people. No, no, I have not given up. I cannot. For if I give up this, then I must give up all the rest.
What Moore does wonderfully here I think is to show Judith as both a victim of bad luck and circumstance, but also as an agent of her own destruction. Her own self-awareness is what makes the book such a painful read at times. This complexity makes for a fascinating and encompassing character study and although Moore is hard on his protagonist, one feels that he is ultimately on her side.
This is a measured exploration of a life in free-fall, despite dipping into melodrama at the denouement, but I was struck reading it for the second time, by the little seed of hope that Moore plants at the end. As the novel comes full circle, Judith, for all her faults, is still trying to make the best of a bad situation, whether through resignation and habit rather than through genuine belief, and I found that both devastating and in some small way, comforting.
That The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne was Moore’s debut is quite breathtaking. It is a painfully sad book, shot through with sly dark humour and a pitiless clarity, featuring one of the most striking character studies I have ever read.
You can read some other great reviews of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which talk about the book much better than I have.
- Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal
- Ali at HeavenAli
- Simon at Stuck in a Book
- Claire at Word by Word, who writes about how she struggled with the book and makes some really interesting points
- John Self at The Asylum, who has also reviewed a lot more of Moore’s work
- Karen at Booker Talk
- Naomi at Consumed by Ink
- Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life
- Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
- Catherine at 3sixtyfive Blog
- Rebecca at Bookish Beck
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Brian Moore’s 1976 novel The Doctor’s Wife.
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!