The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore for #BrianMoore100

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.

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.

Brian Moore 100

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

39 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I have never read this book, but it sounds so sad and depressing, not what I want to read right now. Wonderful review Cathy. I hope you feel better soon.

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  2. I did read ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’ a long time ago, and don’t remember it too well. The Brian Moore novel that has stayed with me is ‘Black Robe’ about the early explorers of Canada and their interactions with the natives.

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  3. I’m sorry to hear the jab knocked you over. It will hopefully get better soon. It was interesting to read your review after Claire’s who did make interesting observations. Like you, I felt he was on her side. In any case, it’s a powerful book. I can’t imagine it will let anyone cold.

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  4. I’m clearly not getting around to rereading it this month. Well, I’m a little afraid of it! But this does remind how great it is, and the quotes are nicely chosen to show Moore’s lovely spare style.

    Congratulations on getting your first jab! I figured feeling a little bad meant it was working…

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  5. Hi, I read and reviewed The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne for the Brian Moore at 100 Read-Along this month. I loved the writing but found it a hard read. This was only my second book by Brian Moore, after Black Robe, which was also hard to read. I do plan to make my way through more of his books, but have none on hand so have to decide what to choose and acquire next.

    My review is at my blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery. I tried to include the link but my comment did not show up. That happens to me sometimes at WordPress blogs.

    I hope you have recovered from your vaccine shot. My reaction to both shots was fairly light but my husband was in bad shape for one day following the second shot.

    Thank you for motivating me to read Brian Moore this year.

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  6. Wonderful review, Cathy. I love all the quotes you highlighted, and “pitiless clarity” is just right. Thanks for hosting the readalong — I look forward to trying more of his work later this year.

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  7. This does sound desperately sad, but I’m glad there’s some hope and resilience too. This is definitely on my list but I think for another time when I’m feeling more resilient myself! Hope you feel better soon Cathy.

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  8. Sounds like a tough read, especially at a time when more of us will be suffering from loneliness than usual. Sorry the vacc hit you so hard – as an early commenter said, the upside is that apparently means it’s working! Feel better soon. 🙂

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  9. Not rambling at all, far from it! You’ve written incredibly incisively and eloquently about this novel, definitely a piece that contributes something interesting to the conversation – and many thanks for linking to my post, much appreciated. I think the range of responses and insights Judith Hearne is evoking as part of your readalong is a reflection of the novel’s complexity – and also Moore’s skill as a writer. If it were a simple or straightforward book, we would all be responding similarly, drawing the same conclusions or perceptions. The fact that readers are ‘seeing’ it in different ways – some of them troublesome — makes it seem all the more interesting to me.

    (PS Sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well after your first jab, but hopefully things will improve fairly soon. I had a bad time of it too, particularly for the first 10 days, coupled with ongoing fatigue for 4 weeks. My response was unusual but not unheard of — my GP practice has had a handful of similar cases over the course of that last few months – but I would still go through it all over again to get the protection! Take care of yourself – fingers crossed you’ll feel better before too long.)

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    • Thanks for that Jacqui and I agree about the different responses to the novel. I’m starting to come around now, 5 days after the vacinne and was so surprised by how badly it hit me. Glad to hear you too are over the worst – as you say I’d go through it again (and might have to!) for the protection.

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  10. Well I think this is a great review! We came to pretty similar conclusions about the book, though it was new to me. I was also waylaid by a vaccination hangover, when I tried to review it last weekend! Mine will be up a little later today. I love the way you summarized the book and laid out the themes.

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  11. Wonderful review of a fantastic book. Moore’s brevity is spot on, Judith Hearne is wonderfully nuanced character. Sorry the vaccine knocked you about, hope you’re feeling a bit better now.

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  12. Sorry to hear about your vaccine reaction. Is it that this time round the hope was more apparent at the ending? I was discussing this with my friend in the school library, how many young people find it difficult when there isn’t an overtly happy ending. (Don’t feel you have to answer this if you are still feeling too terrible.)

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    • I read the book so long ago and remember thinking it was just incredibly sad and hopeless. This time though I felt Hopeful for Judith, that she would persevere regardless. I feel a lot better now thanks, but it was a rough few days.

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  13. For such a depressing book, I really loved it. Somehow it’s depressing and entertaining at the same time.
    If I had time I would love to read all these with you! I’m excited to get to mine!
    I hope you’re feeling better! I get my vaccine next week.

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