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

 

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

Brian Moore at 100

Lies of Silence was the January read for the Brian Moore at 100 year long read along hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, which I introduced and will link my reviews back to here. A political thriller, it was originally published in 1990 to much acclaim and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, losing to A.S. Byatt’s excellent novel Possession.

Northern Irish Literature Booker Prize shortlistedIt is the story of a disenchanted man, a man who reluctantly returned to Northern Ireland from London with his wife Moira, who was keen to return. Now he is the manager of a hotel, a job he doesn’t particularly like, having left his poetry aspirations far behind him, following in the footsteps of his father, a man he feels resentment towards.

Unsurprisingly, his personal life has become entangled and just as the unspoken issues simmering below this relationship are about to boil over, he and his wife are taken hostage in their own home, he to be used as a pawn in what unfolds as a complex, thought out plan.

In the midst of the initial drama Michael sees his neighbour, a retired bank manager leave with his dog for a walk, seeing in him the average, everyman and woman who just wants to get on with life without interference from “men in woolen masks”.

Watching him go off with his dog, Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his and Mr Harbinger’s birthplace, sick with a terrible illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustice of Ulster’s status quo. Angry, he stared across the room at the most dangerous victims of these lies, his youthful, ignorant, murderous, captors.

Under threat, as he moves towards doing what has been asked of him, he faces an excruciating moral dilemma, and a situation that spirals him into further confusion and deliberations over what the “right thing to do” is.

It’s something of a page turner, while not holding back on expressing the tensions and opinions of various characters in this complex, often not well understood political environment.

The Freedom of Self-Imposed Exile

There are also subtle hints to Moore’s own yearning for places beyond the hills of home, as seen in this passage, as he gets off the telephone from his American boss:

Brian Moore Lies of Silence Belfast City Northern Ireland

Cave Hill Mountain Overlooking Belfast City towards Belfast Lough

Dismissed from Keogh’s busy, money-breathing world, Dillon stood looking out at the mountain which reared up like a stage backdrop behind the city. Long ago, in school, daydreaming, he would look out of the classroom window and imagine himself in some aeroplane being lifted over that grey pig’s back of mountain to places far from here, to London, New York, Paris, great cities he had seen in films and photographs, cities far away from the dull constrictions of home.

It’s also clear that Moore was as keen on seeking revenge with his pen, as much as his characters do with whatever is at their disposal, his distance from the home country giving him a freedom and inclination to provoke, inform and stir the troubled pot, so to speak. In particular, the denouement.

Further Reading

You can read recent reviews here: Cathy at 746 Books, Ali at HeavenAli, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Kim at Reading Matters

February’s novel was Moore’s 1957 novel The Feast of Lupercal, whose pragonist is a 37 year-old teacher at a Catholic boarding school run by priests in Belfast during the 1950s.  I don’t have this one, though it sounds excellent according to these enticing reviews, which you can read here: Cathy at 746 Books, HeavenAli.

In March, they will be reading Fergus (1970).

I will join in the reading in:

April with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

May with The Doctor’s Wife.

I hope more of you might be able to join in this next one, which is one of his more well-known and popular titles.

Brian Moore Read Along 2021

#BrianMoore100

During 2021, Cathy at 746Books, the team at Brian Moore at 100 and Northern Irish author, playwright Jan Carson (whose latest book The Last Resort will be published on April 1st) join forces to celebrate the work of one of Northern Ireland’s enigmatic writers and wanderers, Brian Moore, in his centenary year.

Northern Irish Connections

I have a personal interest in Northern Ireland, having discovered in my twenties that my biological father (unknown to me at the time) was born there. I spent some years doing my own private research that resulted in discovering a whole line of family, so reading a variety of literature from this part of Ireland is a form of distant connection for me.

When I looked at what Cathy was proposing reading for the year (see the list below), I looked up Brian Moore was interested in what I learned and managed to source about 5 of the suggested 12 novels. Another of the reasons I decided to participate, was the intrigue and recognition evoked by a statement Moore wrote shortly before his death:

“There are those stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled vast, varied and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home. I am one of those wanderers.”

Brian Moore, Irish Author (1921 – 1999)

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish

The Young Author & Wanderer Brian Moore

Brian Moore was born into a large, middle-class Catholic family, the fourth of nine children, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father was a surgeon and lecturer, and his mother had been a nurse.

In 1940 he became an Air Raid Warden, their role to enforce blackouts and report on bombing incidences, a role that would inspire the third in his ‘Belfast’ trilogies The Emperor of Ice-cream (1965). He also worked for the British Ministry of War Transport with postings to Algiers, Naples, Toulon and Marseille. After a period working for the United Nations in Poland he left Europe in 1948.

After following his lover Margaret Swanson to Canada, he would work for the Montreal Gazette, marry, become a Canadian citizen, begin to write stories for a weekend magazine and pulp novels for Harlequin under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Bryan (1954-1957). Around this time, he wrote his first literary novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne a story of an alcoholic Catholic spinster, set in a boarding house on Camden Street in Belfast.

Looking back, he said, “I was very lonely, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning no money and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.”

Cross Genre Rule Breaker

Brain Moore 100 Northern Ireland

Photo by Lina Kivaka on Pexels.com

He wrote short stories, pulp novels, literary novels, screen plays and explored a wide variety of genres including magical realism, historical fiction, thrillers and social realism. The context of his writing covered World War II,  the Northern Irish “Troubles”, Second Wave Feminism, Vatican II and other shifts within the Catholic Church and the Cold War.

His early rejection of the Catholic church filtered into much of his work, and his experiences during the war likely contributed to a pessimistic view of humanity. His isolation and ‘outsider’ perspective gave him unique and provocative insights, perhaps without fear or care of consequence.

He wrote 26 novels over the span of 50 years, living most of his life in Canada and the US, writing at a distance from his native land. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1975, the inaugural Sunday Express Book of the Year award in 1987 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. His first four (mainstream) novels were banned in Ireland.

Brian Moore at 100

Though his work makes such an important contribution to the historical era and commentary on issues, and received both critical and public success, much of it is now put of print, this project attempts to revive interest by reaching out to scholarly critics, readers and the general public. The project is run by Sinéad Moynihan and Alison Garden.

The Read Along Titles for 2021

Here are the books that have been chosen for the ReadAlong, as I read those that I have (in bold) I’ll link my reviews back to this page. I’ve just started Lies of Silence and it’s already gripping.

January Lies of Silence (1999)
February The Feast of Lupercal (1957)
March Fergus (1970)
April The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)
May The Doctor’s Wife (1976)
June No Other Life (1993)
July Cold Heaven (1983)
August The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981)
September The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965)
October The Dear Departed: Short Stories (2020)
November Catholics (1972)
December The Magician’s Wife (1997)

As a novelist, Moore was a shape-shifter who never seemed anchored to any specific nation or historical period; he only belonged to the characters he created on the pages you couldn’t stop turning. Scott Bradfield

Have you heard of Brian Moore or read any of his novels?

If you are interested, why not find one of these titles and join in the Read Along? You can also follow the project on twitter @brianmoore100

Northern Irish Author Canadian Brian Moore