The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

Brian Moore at 100

This is my second read for the year long read along of Brian Moore novels organised by Cathy at 746 Books. Previously I read Lies of Silence, which I very much enjoyed and next up for the month of May will be The Doctor’s Wife.

Review

Brian Moore at 100 Northern IrelandAll I can say is thank goodness that’s over and wonder what I can read to mitigate the toxic absorption of reading it and being amidst a pack of inhumane characters and a main character set up for incarceration due to her having had her way in life taken from her after the prolonged and dutiful care of an unappreciative and domineering Aunt.

We meet Judith Hearne as she is moving into yet another boarding house, having lost her youth and employment prospects to the years of caring for her Aunt in the postwar years, despite her initial resistance.

Her only connection to family, she places a framed photo of her in view, a symbolic gesture of creating a sense of home. Judith is capable and talented, but worn down by those lost years, anxious about her dwindling prospects and bitter in her thoughts on account of suppressed resentments.  Despite regular religious observance, she is discovering that faith too has abandoned her.

“Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift.”

She turns towards three people and a vice, the landlady’s brother Jim, recently returned from decades of living in New York, her local priest and her family friend Moira. The novel explores these encounters and Judith’s deterioration as she seeks solace and loses control with alcohol.

Men Writing Women in the 1950’s

From the opening pages I couldn’t shake off the fact that this 40 year old woman is being created by a man, that the mind looking out from behind her eyes isn’t a woman, but a man living in exile with grievances to bare and an unconscious bias, by virtue of being part of and conditioned by the dominant sex/race of an Irish Catholic flavour.

Written in an era where if women hadn’t been subdued by marriage, tamed by employment, shipped off or upholstered in the habit, they were indeed on a slippery slope towards disillusionment, realising that society did not value them outside certain roles, and by this age had indirectly cast them aside, or put them on a shelf, as the saying went, perpetuating the cultural myth. 

The Outsider(s)

I could believe she might momentarily look upon the returning emigrant Jim Madden with interest, curious about his life elsewhere, but the gaze of them all upon her, as if her considering him a possible suitor were an abominable thought, the weight of all that judgement – it is a world portrayed that lacks care or empathy, disapproves of adventure, lacks imagination and excitement and instead lures the lonely towards oblivion, thus destroying the few threads of potential that have kept this one woman going till now.

The one light of hope comes from her friend Moira, in whom we find thankfully, a small thread of humanity, kindness and consideration.

The Bottle and the Cloth

brown wooden upright piano in shallow focus lens

Photo: Maria TyutinaPexels.com

I found the extreme indulgence in her whiskey bottles totally unrealistic. She was so straight-laced and God fearing, that one bad experience surely would have been sufficient, but the heavy hand of the author deeply imprinted on her back pushed her onward. He had a beef with the church and by God he was going to make his victim confront it. And then have her put away, as they did with any woman who acted with impropriety and lacked a moral (or male) sponsor.

I think Judith was unjustly portrayed, if she were to write a first person account of her story, we would see a more nuanced character, disillusioned yes, but a more perceptive perspective from within, than those who depict her from without, and a society ready to discard her. 

I went looking for Moore’s inspiration, certain that Miss Hearne was not just a creature of his imagination and discovered that he had cherry picked parts of her character from a family visitor Miss Keogh, asking his obliging sister for memories and details. Colm Toibin writes:

“However, he disregarded most of what he was told. (The original Miss Keogh had a job, for example.) He used merely the ‘speech and mannerisms’ of the original and he surrounded them with something else, elements of his own isolation as a non-achiever in a family obsessed with achievement, and as an emigrant in Canada. His own loss of faith becomes hers, and his memory that his original had ‘a little weakness for the bottle’ becomes her alcoholism.” Colm Tóibín

He  also admits that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never.

Dis Empowerment

Judith Hearne never found her passion, it was conditioned the hell out of her, ensuring she’d never yearn for, seek or ever become aware of how she might empower herself above or out of her situation. 

“In a society that was merely half-formed and had no sense of itself, a society in which the only real choice was to leave or live in a cowed internal exile, the failure to create a fully-formed male character in fiction was emblematic of a more general failure.” Colm Tóibín

Further Reading

Article: Gaelic Gloom by Colm Tóibín

 

14 thoughts on “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

  1. Pingback: Lies of Silence by Brian Moore – Word by Word

  2. Very interesting. I must say I didn’t think she was an unrealistic character. Not even the alcoholism. She’s not a true believer but someone who is pious because that’s what’s expected. All that repression from the Catholic Church might lead to this just like some priests abuse boys.
    Apart from that, yes, he sets her up for failing and I’ve seen other readers, in other contexts, making similar observations. I’m sure some authors change the main character’s gender to write about themselves more freely.
    I liked many elements of the book – the details of the shoes for example.

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    • I guess we all bring our own experience or reference to the reading and to me, her relationship with alcohol seemed sudden and extreme and not something that had been slowly building over time with regularity, which is how I perceive alcoholism to develop. And also her choice of drink, knocking back whiskey like it was a bottle of wine – that lacked credibility for me, but perhaps it was meant to be exaggerated.

      “true believer” sounds almost like an oxymoron, up until her crisis, she considered herself a believer, even if others might have judged her differently.

      There was so much judgement of others, in thoughts, words and deeds by nearly all of the characters, almost of a vendetta nature, that seemed unwarranted and tipped in favour of a negative view of humanity that I found skewed. When she visits her friend Edie, there was an opportunity to explore something that felt natural between two women who’d become victims of a harsh world, instead self-destruction is pursued.

      The motif of the shoes and the framing of the book with the framed pictures and what they represented were interesting elements, I agree.

      I just found it emotionally disturbing to read, even if intellectually I can then look at it in a more detached way and try and understand the purpose and intent.

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      • I realize it’s been a while since I read it so a lot isn’t that present anymore but now that you mention her drink of choice – yes I found that odd too and with hindsight sudden.
        I can’t remember Edie at all.
        I remember I did find it very bleak.

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  3. This is a really interesting response Claire. I’ve just started to reread it and I’m finding it a much harder experience given that I’m not a similar age to Judith and when I initially read it I was 19. I’ll let you know how I get on once I’m finished.

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    • I was wondering how you were getting on with it as we started at the same time and I had been struggling while reading, just the despondency or pessimism inherent within it, which is hard to shake off. Equally hard to try and put that into words, that feeling. I think had I read this 20 years ago I might have had a different response then too.

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  4. Such an interesting response, Claire. I’ve seen many praise it for the quality of the writing, but have always felt myself that it would be too bleak. What you say about her being seen through the lens of a male writer of that particular period in time resonates, and I think for that reason I wouldn’t want to read it and would find it ultimately unconvincing. And far too bleak at the moment….

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  5. I appreciate your honesty about your feelings when reading this and your insights into what made it an unsatisfying read for you. It’s a book that’s been in the background of my reading consciousness for many years but I’ve been put off by the bleakness though tempted by the high opinions of the book.

    I do wonder if it was particularly difficult for a man who grew up in that time and steeped in Catholicism to really *see* women. The way the church viewed them wouldn’t have helped.

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    • Yes, I think it was quite daring of him to try and portray the inner life of a woman and having just read Riane Eisler’s text on the social systems we have been living under and how they shape our brains, those ways of ‘seeing’ women and showing the dsyfunction that results if they don’t fall into the model what society expects of them was intrinsic in so many elements, church, state, education, families. There is a reference to Mary Magdalene, ironically, perpetuating another myth, symbolic of how far back the rewriting of narratives about the corrupt nature of women ventures.

      It was interesting to read Colm Toibin’s take on it, to realise that creating a woman’s point of view, enabled him to imagine something he couldn’t do in a male character.

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  6. Although this book is indeed bleak, I did feel it was entirely realistic. The negativity round the judgmental characters, the way that she tumbles so comprehensively into alcoholism tie in with other tales (real ones sadly) that I’ve come across.. Judith’s relationship with Catholicism, and indeed the ‘men of God’ whom she encountered seemed all too real. Yes, it was depressing, particularly at the moment, but this is the first Brian Moore I’ve read – and I shall read more.

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  7. What interesting discussions/comments on this classic Moore. I’ve not read it myself. I regularly think that I have, but it’s The Luck of Ginger Coffey I’ve read (the titles are only vaguely similar but I’ve been making this mistake for years and simply need to read Judith so that I can trust I’ve read them both LOL). Ginger’s story (told from the male POV) could also be described as bleak, but there are moments of humour along the way. I enjoyed it and it did leave me wanting to explore more. The only thought I have to offer on the details is that it might be tempting to overwrite drink of choice with matters of flavour or selection, but whiskey would be a much quicker trip to oblivion and, so, if she is coping with alcoholism, it makes sense to me that she’d’ve chosen the most direct route.

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