The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955) NYRB Classics (2010) 230 pp
I admit that I bought The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne primarily because of the great cover NYRB Classics gave it on their recently released edition. Of course, it helps that the book is an NYRB Classic. When you trust an imprint as much as I trust them, you can afford to select their books based on their covers. It also helped that Moore was Booker shortlisted three times in his career, and that several of my favorite bloggers rate him highly. But really, the cover was the kicker.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne takes place in Belfast in the middle of the century. Miss Hearne is just over forty. She was raised to be the wife of a wealthy man, though none have ever paid her much attention. To make things worse, when her aunt was growing older, Judith sacrificed her most eligible years in order to take care of her. Her powerful aunt didn’t give her much choice in the matter. But for Judith, this might just have been a good way to excuse away the fact that at forty she is not married, has no prospects, and has little skills she can use to earn some money to pad her meager annuity.
This may sound familiar. We’ve encountered women in this situation before. This is similar to the fate left to Lily Bart (my review of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth here), though at least Lily was beautiful and had some pride; she had many chances and could blame society for much of her downfall. Judith lives with the repressed knowledge that she’s unattractive to men. Judith’s mind has developed all sorts of ways to delude herself. She also gets comfort from the protection and love she receives from two figures given life by her imagination; these figures also render judgment. It’s horrifying, really, and the first few paragraphs lay the horrors out nicely as Judith moves in to a new flat.
The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantelpiece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bedsprings, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.
After she had arranged the photograph so that her dear aunt could look at her from the exact centre of the mantelpiece, Miss Hearne unwrapped the white tissue paper which covered the coloured oleograph of the Sacred Heart. His place was at the head of the bed, His fingers raised in benediction, His eyes kindly yet accusing. He was old and the painted halo around His head was beginning to show little cracks. He had looked down on Miss Hearne for a long time, almost half her lifetime.
Moore begins the book perfectly! Not only is his writing captivating but in a few short paragraphs we get a sense of how damaged Judith is as well as the a glimpse at some of the elements that hold such strong power over her.
All of that is superbly done, but the book is made even better by the additional damaged characters. The home Judith has moved into is ran by Mrs Henry Rice. Mrs Henry Rice’s son Bernard is a fat drop-out with long curly hair who believes he is the next great poet. His greatness gives him license to live off his mother, which she doesn’t deny. In another softly horrifying scene, Judith goes downstairs to find Mrs Henry Rice washing Bernie’s hair in the living room, Bernie half naked by the tub of water. Those two characters are terrifying forces who eventually set themselves up against Judith.
The reason they come against Judith is Mrs Henry Rice’s brother, James Madden. Madden has recently returned from America. Thinking Judith must have some money, he pursues her interest for business gain. She, of course, misunderstands — or is misled.
Her busy hands flew, unpacking the linen sheets, putting them away in the dresser drawer. But she paused in the centre of the room. He noticed me. He was attracted. The first in ages. Well, that’s only because I’ve been keeping myself to myself too much. Go out and meet new people and you’ll see, she told her mirror face. And the face in the mirror told it back to her, agreeing.
When Madden learns that Judith has no money, he stops. There’s worse to Madden, though, and this is tied to an ugly secret he shares with Bernard. Bernard wants Madden to leave, so he convinces Judith that she should pursue Madden more directly.
If it seems that I’ve given away a lot of the story, I can assure you I haven’t. There’s much more to it. There is also more to this book than the sad story alluded to above. Moore’s writing is exceptional. There are multiple perspectives, all clearly defined. He describes the setting in such a way that the reader can feel physical discomfort:
There, under the great dome of the building, ringed around by forgotten memorials, bordered by the garrison neatness of a Garden of Remembrance, everything that was Belfast came into focus. The newsvendors calling out the great events of the world in flat, uninterested Ulster voices; the drab facades of the buildings grouped around the Square, proclaiming the virtues of trade, hard dealing and Presbyterian righteousness. The order, the neatness, the floodlit cenotaph, a white respectable phallus planted in sinking Irish bog. The Protestant dearth of gaiety, the Protestant surfeit of order, the dour Ulster burghers walking proudly among these monuments to their mediocrity.
And there are may echos of James Joyce, from the actual syntax and diction, where we often catch a glimpse of “stately plump Buck Mulligan,” to the interior dialogue, to the blur between the physical and mental world.
No, she said, smiling at the bottle. You’re behind the times. There is, she told the bottle, no earthly reason to feel sorry. Because there is no heavenly reason to feel guilt. At least, nobody has shown me that there is. And I’m waiting to be shown, dear bottle. I’m waiting patiently. It’s five o’clock already.
Too much, the black bottle said. Nearly empty. You are drunk. You drink too much.
Drunk? And why not, nobody’s to mind, nobody minds if I’m anything. Nobody, not a single soul. I’m free. I’m — falling.
The bed, not mine at all. The hotel. The drink spilled on the bedspread. I’ll have to pay, who cares? Only money as Dan Breen used to say. Only money. And meanwhile, as long as I’ve fallen on this bed, I might as well sleep. My shoes, I should take off. Off with my shoes. Sleepy shoes.
Sleepy smiling shoes.
This book actually took me quite a while to read. At just over 200 pages, I expected to breeze through it, but it demanded that I slow down — in a good way. The language and the cadence of the story, at first delicate and then raucous, made it impossible to read quickly. The best thing about this book is not the cover.