Vintage Read: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Brian Moore's bleak novel was published in 1955. Dame Maggie Smith played the part in the film. Moore died in 1999.
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Brian Moore's bleak novel was published in 1955. Dame Maggie Smith played the part in the film. Moore died in 1999.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore

If you are feeling a bit low, this is not the book for you, for Judith Hearne is a tragic character and life has not been kind to her. She lost her parents at a young age and then had to care for her aunt, who was selfish and manipulative, thereby losing the best years of her life. She is just north of 40, which apparently is past it, and she is not fair of face. There was no money left when her aunt died and she barely makes a living teaching piano and embroidery. 

We meet Judith when she has just moved into a new boarding house in Belfast. There she meets James Madden, who is the landlady's brother, lately from New York. They chat over breakfast and become acquainted. Each of them is guilty of making false assumptions, or more aptly great leaps in logic, about the other. After the odd coffee or movie together - where, by the way, nothing happens - Judith fancies herself in love, thinks he's interested in her and even starts hearing wedding bells. James, by contrast, thinks she's well off, misjudging her expensive though faulty watch and education. He is looking for money and a business partner. They are both horribly mistaken.

Miss Hearne is also a secret drinker. With her fresh start at the boarding house, she suppresses this with some degree of success. However, when things unravel with James Madden, she betrays herself rather publicly. She is one of those drinkers who don't stop until the bottle is empty and whisky was her drink of choice. 

On this occasion, Miss Hearne hits rock bottom and she questions her life and faith. She confronts her loneliness and admits to herself she has no real friends or family. Her life has been unfair, without reprieve, it seems. She does reach out to the church only to find it wanting. However, once the church realises late in the piece that she is questioning her faith, huge pressure is brought to bear.

The tragedy of Judith Hearne was that there was no joy in her life, nor had there ever been. The only time she sang or laughed or was happy was when she was drunk. Judith Hearne didn't know who she was, much less how to do anything about her situation. She had constructed a life that was a facade and when it cracked, she drank. She would then make a new start, carefully reconstructing her facade and then repeat the cycle. Acquainting yourself with her life is excruciating and you feel by turns embarrassed, sad and fearful for her. The author was masterful in pushing his character to the extreme, stopping just short of the unbelievable. 

I also found myself wondering why a man, and a relatively young one at 34, was writing about a middle-aged spinster. I can only surmise he had someone in mind, for she was so well drawn. Some of his comments about his hometown of Belfast were pretty hard-hitting as well. 

Moore emigrated from Belfast to Canada, eventually settling in the United States. He was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize three times and was described as "one of the few genuine masters of the contemporary novel". He has a very long list of published titles. The book was made into a film with Dame Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins and I know Smith would have done justice to this character. This book is a rugged read and not for the faint of heart!

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