Having acquired, via the wonders of online marketplaces, copies of all of Brian Moore’s books recently – over half are out of print – I thought it was time to return to his 1955 debut, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It remains his most famous book, even though the over-explanatory title was added only on release of the film version in 1989: for the first 34 years it was titled simply Judith Hearne. Now we’re told what to think about the title character before we meet her, which is a shame and, with Moore’s precise destruction of her character, needless.
Someone once suggested that Judith Hearne, among other Moore titles, offered reasons why Moore had left his native Belfast in the 1940s: the city and its society in the mid-20th century does not come out of the book well. We see it not only from Miss Hearne’s viewpoint, but also that of James Madden, who – like an embryonic Ginger Coffey in Moore’s third novel – left Northern Ireland for north America, and who failed too in a less comic way than Coffey. As a result Madden has nothing but contempt for the home (“an insult to senses attuned to immensity”) he has been forced to return to:
Walking alone, he remembered New York, remembered that at ten-thirty in the morning New York would be humming with the business of making millions, making reputations, making all the buildings, all the merchandise, all the shows, all the wisecracks possible. While he walked in a dull city where men made money the way charwomen wash floors, dully, alone, at a slow methodical pace. … In the city’s shops housewives counted pennies against purchase. In the city’s banks, no great IBM machines clattered. Instead, clerkly men wrote small sums in long black ledgers.
One of the refreshing features of the novel is Moore’s ability to slip from one character’s thoughts to another’s, without ever seeming clumsy or muddling the point of view. Madden was, for me, an interesting enough character in his own right, and there are frequent diversions for us to see the world through others’ eyes, but always in the end Moore returns faithfully to the object of their fascination, derision, and horror, his title character.
Miss Judith Hearne is a Belfast woman in her ‘early forties,’ and at the beginning all we know of her is that she has moved to a new lodging house, in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city,” and where she spends most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.” She suffers, as we know, from loneliness, cripplingly so, though it is not her only ailment. She shuttles between her church, unloved and unloving friends, and useless hopes built on a man she has just met. The depth of her desperation is made cruelly clear by Moore when he shows us her daydreams of married life:
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.
What Moore gives us is a harrowing but vivid and gripping portrait of a woman chasing after the end of her tether as it disappears from view. There are some exceptionally powerful scenes involving both Miss Hearne and the other boarders in the house (a motley crew who sometimes recall the wartime misfits of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude), which it would be scandalous to reveal. Faith, in this mid-century Ulster where religion stifles all, is always an obligation and never a comfort. Moore has the cold eye and courage of Richard Yates, and rather more ability to mix a compelling plot with his devastating character portrayals. In fact it is the storyline which reveals the occasional weaknesses of the book, with a couple of forced developments along the way, and almost too much neatness by the end for such an otherwise beautifully messy tale.