Brian Moore’s 100th birthday was this week and I’m continuing my centenary read-along with his 1981 novel The Temptation of Eileen Hughes.
The Temptation of Eileen Hughes is another of Moore’s lean character studies, with a tight focus on a few characters and a moment of crisis which upends several lives. It lacks some of the depth of his really impressive novels, but is an intriguing exploration of devotion and the complications it can bring.
Eileen Hughes is a twenty year old Northern Irish girl who lives in the market town of Lismore with her mother. She is quiet girl, inexperienced and sheltered, working in the local department store as assistant to its owner, Mona McAuley. Mona’s husband, Bernard, who once studied to be a priest, is now the richest man in town. The couple are childless yet glamourous, living a lavish lifestyle featuring parties and frequent travel. They have taken an interest in Eileen, treating her to an all-expenses paid weekend in Dublin, and as the novel opens, the three are checking into a hotel on another trip, this time to London.
Eileen is under the impression that she is a protégée of Mona’s, however, it is actually Bernard who has fallen for the unassuming girl. Mona is going along with his infatuation for the sake of her standing and financial security, just as Bernard turns a blind eye to Mona’s sexual encounters with other men when the pair are away from Lismore. The situation comes to a head when Bernard, despite earlier promises to Mona to the contrary, reveals his feelings to the guileless Eileen. What is even stranger is that Bernard is not looking for a sexual relationship with Eileen.
“You don’t have to worry. Listen, sex isn’t love. I know that. It’s the opposite of love. Love, real love, is quite different from desire. It’s like the love a mystic feels for God. It’s worship. It’s just wanting to be in your presence, that’s enough. It’s everything there is. That’s what it’s been like for me since the first day I saw you in there, working in the shop. I’ve worshipped you. In silence. In devotion.”
For Eileen, this is even harder to deal with. She is a young woman, wanting nothing more than to meet a young man to build a life with, and despite Bernard’s protestations that he just wants her near and nothing more, she can’t accept his feelings. The fact that Mona is willing to go along with this doomed scenario makes things even worse and causes Eileen to question everything she knows.
Over the course of the next few days, Mona’s jealousy grows, Bernard offers to set Eileen up with her own home and business and Eileen has encounter with a young American man – events that will push them all to the brink.
Despite being as readable as anything Moore has written, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes feels a bit slight. The set-up is an interesting one, taking the usual older man/ younger woman romance and turning it on its head. Bernard is a fantastic character, using his feelings for Eileen as an outlet for his religious fervour, and as a way to explain away his failed attempt to become a priest.
“I’m trying to save myself, not save the world. I told you, when I was twenty I wanted to be a saint, to save the world, to love God, to do good. But it seems I wasn’t wanted in that way. And until now, I never knew in what way I could make sense of out of my life.”
However, Eileen is slightly insipid as a lead character and Mona, arguably the most interesting of the three, remains somewhat clichéd. I couldn’t help wondering how much more interesting the book would have been if narrated in the first person by Bernard, or even Mona.
As a novel though, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes remains thematically timely, exploring how Bernard, and to an extent Mona, gaslight Eileen, take advantage of her vulnerability and put her into the middle of a situation that then becomes her responsibility to resolve. Mona suggests that it is Eileen’s fault that Bernard is cruel to her. Bernard suggests that if Eileen just allows him to go on ‘loving’ her, he will set her and her mother up for life financially.
Was Mona right that she had led him on? Could a person be guilty of a thing even if they didn’t know they were doing it? She felt shame when she thought of him hitting Mona because of her.
Eileen may be naïve at the outset, but Moore explores how the attitudes of this selfish couple present her with a fascinating moral conundrum, and questions where the power actually lies in this complex relationship.
As is always the case with Moore, the novel is eloquently written and he has such a skill with pacing and plot, that the book remains hard to resist, driving forward to the expected, but still emotionally satisfying outcome.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 339
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Brian Moore’s 1965 novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream
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!