First published in 1955, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a novel by the Northern Irish writer, Brian Moore. It’s a book I’ve been saving for quite a while, thinking that it might be my kind of read. Turns out I was right, as it’s definitely one of the best novels I’ve read in recent months, if not this year. It also features a rather marvellous boarding-house setting, an element that generally ticks all the right boxes for me.
The story itself is achingly sad, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a down-at-heel boarding house in a poor area of Belfast in the 1950s. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live.
Having devoted most of her adult life to caring for her selfish, somewhat senile aunt (now deceased), Judith is struggling to make ends meet between her dwindling income as a piano/needlecraft teacher and a pitiful annuity from Aunt D’Arcy’s estate. With a limited education and lack of a husband to support her, Judith is not cut out for the working world of the 1950s in which opportunities for women are slowly starting to open up. To make matters works, poor Judith has very few friends – only the O’Neill family whom she visits every Sunday afternoon, an occasion that proves to be the highlight of her week, prompting her to save up various stories to share with the family over tea (more about these excruciating teatimes later).
As the novel opens, Judith has just moved into her new lodgings, an establishment run by the rather nosy Mrs Rice who dotes on her lazy, good-for-nothing slob of a son, Bernard, an aspiring but frankly hopeless poet. Also in residence at the house are Mrs Rice’s brother, James Madden, recently returned from America under uncertain circumstances, two somewhat idiosyncratic fellow boarders, Miss Friel and Mr Linehan, and the young maid, Mary.
In her desperation and naivety, Judith is rather captivated by James Madden with his tales of America and the hotel business in Times Square. Nevertheless, she knows Mr Madden is likely to find her a dull proposition, especially when they are left alone to make small talk over breakfast – as Judith sees it, he is bound to make his excuses, just like all the other men before him.
The dining-room with its cold morning light, its heavy furniture, its dirty teacups and plates, became quiet as a church. Alone with this lonely stranger, she waited for his fumbled excuses, his departure. For now that the others had gone, it would be as it had always been. He would see her shyness, her stiffness. And it would frighten him, he would remember that he was alone with her. He would listen politely to whatever inanity she would manage to get out and then he would see the hysteria in her eyes, the hateful hot flush in her cheeks. And he would go as all men had gone before him. (p. 26)
But, much to everyone’s surprise, James Madden appears to show some interest in Judith, inviting her to the pictures and the occasional outing or two – and before she knows it, Judith is fantasising about a future life with Madden, back at his fancy hotel in New York. As a consequence of her loneliness, Judith is living in something of a dream world, periodically hoping that fate will offer her one last chance at romance and a life of happiness.
Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena. The honeymoon? Niagara Falls, isn’t that the place Americans go? Or perhaps Paris, before we sail. (p. 29)
Little does Judith know that Madden was actually a doorman at the hotel in New York, not a manager or proprietor as she has assumed from his carefully judged comments. To complicate matters further, Madden is also under a misconception about Judith, imagining her to be wealthy and knowledgeable from the jewellery she wears and her interest in America and the broader world in general.
He smiled at her. Friendly she is. And educated. Those rings and that gold wrist watch. They’re real. A pity she looks like that. (p. 35)
(Interestingly, Moore offers us direct access to other characters’ thoughts at various points in the narrative, a technique that adds considerably to our understanding of their impressions and motives alongside Judith’s.)
In light of this belief, Madden is hoping to ‘play’ Judith by persuading her to invest in his new business venture: a plan to open a US-style hamburger joint in the middle of Dublin to tap into the tourist business. However, while Judith has very little money of her own, she does harbour a terrible secret – a private passion which she tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to keep under wraps.
When Judith’s dreams of a future with James Madden start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, leading to significant tensions and gossip in the house. As a consequence, Judith seeks solace in the Catholic Church, her one guiding light during the many years of darkness. But when the priest on duty fails to grasp the true gravity of her concerns, Judith’s faith in God begins to fracture, adding considerably to her sense of desperation. It’s a testament to Moore’s skill and insight as a writer that one can really sense the overwhelming nature of Judith’s anxiety when her religious conviction is put to the test.
With her belief system in tatters, Judith turns instead to the people she has always considered to be her true friends, the O’Neills. In reality, however, the O’Neills dread Judith’s Sunday afternoon visits, making fun of her behind her back and arguing over whose turn it is to do their duty that week. In her heart of hearts, Judith knows that she is thought of as a rather fussy and silly old woman, especially by the younger members of the O’Neill family, Una, Shaun and Kevin; nevertheless, in spite of this, she still believes the O’Neills are kindly people, even if they understand little of the realities of her life. Moore injects these ‘teatime’ passages with considerable humour, but it is a painfully dark kind of humour due to the tragedy and narrowness of Judith’s world.
‘Well, really, I shouldn’t. But it’s so good.’
She drank a second glass quickly and young Una lifted the decanter. ‘Let me fill your glass up, Miss Hearne.’
‘No, thank you, I couldn’t really. Two is my absolute limit.’
There! She’d done it again, saying something she always said. She saw the small cruel smile on Una’s face – like the day I came into the room and she and Shaun were saying over and over, imitating me. ‘Your mother will bear me out on that, won’t you?’ Over and over, and it’s what I always say – well, I won’t say two is my absolute limit ever again. Anyway, a child like her, what does she know about life? Or life’s problems? (p. 77)
As the novel reaches its shattering conclusion, Judith’s mind begins to spiral out of control as she loses her grip on reality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is a certain inevitability about the story which comes full circle towards the end. We see Judith adopting an air of resignation in her new home, another room in which she carefully places the two symbols that follow her everywhere: the silver-framed photograph of her aunt and the coloured oleograph of the Sacred Heart. As readers, we can only imagine what the future may hold for her.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an outstanding novel (probably one of my top three for the year), but it’s also a devastating read. The characterisation is truly excellent, from the nuanced portrait of Judith, complete with all her flaws and complexities, to the immoralities of James Madden and Bernard Rice. (In a novel not short of damaged and dishonourable characters, James and Bernard definitely stand out.) It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to the loneliness of a life without love. Very highly recommended indeed.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy
And there is the little clue when I asked myself I wonder how you came across this gem of a novel,an NYRB classic, the place of so many underrated books that get a second chance and so on to become favourites. It’s interesting that you read this now too, after Anna Burns writes of another aspect and era in Northern Ireland, one that may one become a modern classic. This does sound wonderful Jacqui, the nuance of character depicted so well just in the quotes you share, that cathartic effect on the reader, sensing and feeling that overwhelming nature of her anxiety. Love the cover too!
Ha, yes – another winner from NYRB! I love how you’ve expressed their raison de etre as a place where so many underrated books (and writers) get a second chance, often introducing them to a whole new audience or readership. They really do know how to curate a terrific selection of books. Also interesting to see how you’ve made a link to Anna Burns and The Milkman, a book that may well spark a resurgence of interest in literature from Northern Ireland. I know that Cathy posted something about this a few weeks ago when the winner of the Booker was announced. There seems to be a lot of exciting work coming out of Ireland these days, both North and South of the border!
Lovely review Jacqui and so glad that you loved this novel. I read this some years back when I was new to both Brian Moore and NYRB Classics, and thought it was brilliant, making me want to explore more of his work. I will admit that I was floored by that wonderful book cover too!
Another Brian Moore I highly recommend is The Doctor’s Wife, a novel that I think about even today!
I think in both these novels he did a great job in the portrayal of the female protagonists when faced with an internal crisis.
Yes, that’s it exactly, Radz. His portrayal of the state of mind of a deeply troubled middle-aged woman is very impressive, all the more so for a male writer in his twenties!
Many thanks for the recommendations – that’s really helpful as I was beginning to wonder where to go next with Moore if and when the opportunity arises. As you may have seen from the various Twitter conversations this afternoon, The Doctor’s Wife seems to be very highly regraded, so you’re definitely in excellent company there. On the wishlist it goes!
I haven’t read Brian Moore in a long time. His books are so varied. But I want this —and this cover! Most of his books including this one have a Canadian publisher (since we like to lay claim to him for the years he lived here) but a local indie with an extensive NYRB section has this edition so i might just have to… :)
Go on, you know you want to! Isn’t it just the most fabulous cover? As soon as I saw this, I knew I had to have it.
Interesting to hear about the somewhat diverse nature of Moore books, an aspect I wasn’t aware of until now. In some respects, that can be a good thing as it suggests an element of breadth or range. On the other hand, it could lead to the odd disappointment or two, especially if the reader is hoping for another Judith Hearne (or whatever). Anyway, The Doctor’s Wife seems to be very highly thought of, so I may well give that a go at some point. We’ll see…
John Self read a fair chunk of Moore’s novels for his blog at one point and that led me to Catholics, a futuristic novella about a group of isolated Catholic monks trying to hold on to old traditions in a radically modernized (imagined) future church. And here in Canada Black Robe, a historical novel about the meeting of Jesuit missionaries and the Huron (perhaps dated in presentation of Indigenous peoples) was made into a glorious dark film and is always my first association with Moore. But I think he wrote 20 novels.
Oh, wow – that’s very helpful, Joe. Many thanks. I’ve seen a fairly recent reissue of Black Robe in the shops over here, so there’s clearly still a level of interest in Moore’s work. Nice to know that he drew on his time in Canada as well as his Irish background.
The protagonist does sound terribly sad and lonely. She also sounds well crafted. Boarding houses can make such good settings for fiction. I think that I would like this book. Terrific commentary as always.
Yes, incredibly well crafted. On the basis of Judith Hearne, I’m struggling to think of another male writer who seems to have such a deep understanding of the inner life of a troubled woman as Brian Moore. Colm Toibin is probably the nearest, or possibly William Trevor? There must be something about these Irish writers that enables them to capture these woman so accurately and insightfully. It really is very impressive.
Brian Moore’s one of those great unsung writers. I read this way back when I was a bookseller and recommended it to lots of customers who’d never come across his writing before. Delighted to see that his work has been taken up by NYRB.
Hooray! I’m delighted to hear that you’re a fan of his work. Well, as you can tell, I thought this was just superb, so brilliantly captured down to the finest detail. I bet your customers in the bookshop were thankful for the recommendation!
Well, I’d love to tell you I’d made it into a bestseller but the discerning few were pleased. Gorgeous jacket on your edition.
That’s the main thing. It’s the quality of a bookseller’s recommendations that make all the difference. And yes, the cover is rather spectacular, isn’t it – so evocative!
Great review, Jacqui! This book sounds amazing: a character study, set in a boarding house, with a protagonist who ultimately loses her grip on reality – this is just my cup of tea. I have it on my shelf, and now I am tempted to read it as soon as possible. :)
So good to hear that you already have a copy, Juliana, as I agree it’s right up your street. There’s something about the boarding-house setting that makes it the perfect environment for this type of character study – it must be a magnet for a range of deeply damaged personalities!
This might be way too depressing for my current state of mind, but it does sound very, very good and worth reading. I think I will read this together with Milkman, great suggestion by Claire!
Definitely an interesting comparison in the making there, Marina — and I’d love to see a post on this from you, although I hear what you’re saying about the bleakness being a potential barrier right now. It really is pretty devastating for Judith, particularly towards the end.
You do make this book sound very enticing! I’ve always thought of Moore more as a Canadian writer who happened to have been born elsewhere (as with so many Canadian greats), although reading about this book has made me realize how deep his Northern Irish roots go (pretty sure he was already living in Canada when he wrote it though!) The Luck of Ginger Coffey is another great one (and much more specifically Canadian in its content).
Thanks, Nat! It really is a superb book. You know, I only really discovered that Moore had lived in Canada for a number of years when I looked him up on wiki as background for my post – until then I had pictured him as being NI through and through. The book itself definitely feels very rooted in the Northern Irish culture and way of life, so I wonder if it was based on someone that Moore knew? (My mother’s family come from Cork in the south of Ireland, but even so, I’ve heard them talk about women with elements of Judith in their personality. That passage on Sunday teatimes with the O’Neills rings completely true).
Many thanks for recommending Ginger Coffey, I shall definitely look that one up!
I’m so glad you enjoyed this Jacqui – it’s such a stunning novel. I read it when I was quite young (my Dad was a massive Brian Moore fan) but feel I could get a lot out of rereading it now I’m older. A beautiful review of a beautiful book.
Thanks so much, Cathy. That means a lot coming from you, especially with your understanding of literature from the area. I’m absolutely convinced that this book is strong enough to stand up a second reading. Our perspectives on certain characters and situations can change quite markedly as we age, and I suspect that may well be the case here…
I can see why you were so taken with this. The extracts you’ve used drew me in so much I went off to look for a copy. Found some at very low prices – unfortunately the covers are nowhere as attractive as yours…
Oh, excellent – although I’m sorry you weren’t able t find a modestly priced copy of the NYRB. It really is a spectacularly good cover. At least the writing will be the same quality, irrespective of the edition you select!
the cover is clearly so good that everyone is holding on to their copy so nothing doing yet in the re-used suppliers
As others have said, BM’s output was so varied in range, theme, subject, etc. I’ve only read and posted about Black Robe and I Am Mary Dunne – which could hardly be more different. Must read more of his, including this one. Been researching Boarding House literature a bit more: there’s been quite a lot of academic/scholarly work on it. Must pull together some materials to share with you. Your synopsis of this novel puts me in mind of Pym and E Taylor…
The diversity thing is so interesting…I had no idea that they were all rather different from one another. I’ve seen a copy of Black Robe in a couple of bookshops recently, a rather brightly coloured one which seems to be a newish edition of some sort. Were either of your two in a similar vein to JH? (There is definitely a hint of Elizabeth Taylor in this one, possibly even Barbara Pym with those teatime rituals.)
Mary Dunne is closer to it than B Robe – totally different
Thanks, Simon. I’ll take a look at you review of that.
Oh, and I meant to add earlier but forgot…Yes, please do share your research on novels featuring boarding house, I’d love to see that. Maybe I could encourage you do do a post on it as I’m sure others would be interested in it too? I suspect someone’s done a dissertation on this topic at some point, far more interesting than my research into making new antibiotics back in my Uni days!
Yeah but without the antibiotics there might be fewer of us around to do the boarding house research…
Ha! Too true. The overuse of antibiotics is one of the biggest issues of our time…
Wonderful review Jacqui. You really convey the power and sadness of the book and almost have me thinking I should rush out and get a copy, even though I really don’t need any more… And yes, another boarding house book! :)
Thanks, Karen. It’s a very affecting book, one that leaves the reader in no doubt on the desperation that characterises Judith’s situation. There’s definitely something about these boarding houses – they really are repositories for lost and damaged souls
Oh I should like this one! Great review.
Thank you! I really hope you like it.
As bleak as this book sounds, I’m attracted to novels with aging spinster protagonists so have just ordered a used copy with that lovely cover.
Fabulous! I very much doubt you’ll be disappointed, Grier, particularly given your tastes in literature. I do hope you enjoy.
This sounds absolutely wonderful. I can just imagine the achingly sad nature of the story. I shall look forward to reading this soon – I just bought a copy.
Fantastic! I think you are going to love this, I really do. Just make sure you have something cheerful lined up for afterwards, the literary equivalent of fluffy bunnies or cats on the internet. :)
I loved this book. I also saw the film years ago with Bob Hoskins and Maggie Smith. May I recommend The Feast of Lupercal as a good follow up; I thought of it as a book about a ‘male Judith Hearne’.
Isn’t it just the most brilliant book? An achingly sad portrait of a woman on the margins of life – I’m so glad to hear that you loved it too. You know, I’m a little bit afraid of watching the film as I already have fully-formed view of the characters and particular scenes in my head. Maybe I need to wait a while, at least until those images start to fade. That said, the cast list looks pretty good…
Oh, and many thanks for the recommendation – a male version of Judith sounds great!
Although I’ve always intended to read more, the only Moore that I’ve read is The Luck of Ginger Coffey, set in Montreal. It won the 1960 Canadian Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction (by a Canadian writer). As Joe said, we Canadians really want to claim Moore as ours. ;-)
I can understand why, especially given his success in your territory! Many thanks for suggesting Ginger Coffey – I’ll definitely take a look.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years. Sounds like Olivia Manning, only sadder. It is a terrible thing to say, but I have never read Moore, even though, as a young bookseller, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Moore and his wife (they were touring for his novel set in Haiti, I forget the name). I had no business being there, but they were so lovely and kind.
Oh, wow – what a lovely thing to have experienced, and so good to hear that they were generous with their time. That’s wonderful.
I know I shouldn’t say this, but you have to read this, Dorian. It really is very, very good. Olivia Manning is a touchstone for sure — but for me, the writers that immediately come to mind are Elizabeth Taylor, William Trevor and Colm Toibin. Moore writes with real insight and compassion about loneliness and isolation, capturing so perfectly the emotional crisis Judith is experiencing here. A brilliant and devastating book – just superb.
Sold! Moving it up the queue.
Marvellous! Let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear.
All this and in one of those yummy NYRB editions as well! I’ve been telling myself for decades I ought to read some Brian Moore and never quite getting round to it, as so often happens. Your review may have pushed me over the edge . . .
Hooray! Apparently there’s a film of this with Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins, directed by Jack Clayton no less – so, the pedigree is impeccable. That said, I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch it as I loved the book so much! Plus, I already have particular impressions of Judith’s character in my mind, images and perceptions I’m a little reluctant to mess with! A tricky business, isn’t it, a film adaptation of a much-loved book…
Hm. I haven’t seen the movie, but I see Janet Maslin of the NYT disliked it so it’s definitely worth checking out. But this sounds like an instance in which I’d prefer to read the book first. The trouble is, as always: When?
Crashing this conversation to say that this comment made me laugh out loud! I don’t mind Maslin so much, but there are other critics I feel just the same way about. (Anthony Lane, say.) And that last question rings so true! My life is really getting in the way of my reading!
Me too, and I don’t even know who Janet Maslin is! The legendary Philip French (of The Observer) was one of my favourites. I had the pleasure of seeing him at the BFI a few years ago, selecting and discussing clips from some of his favourite films, Sadly he died only a year or so after retiring, a massive loss to filmmakers, filmgoers and fellow critics alike.
I rated French pretty highly too. I was sorry to see him go.
He always seemed such a gentleman…
The critics with whom one habitually disagrees are actually quite useful — almost as useful as the reviewers one trusts. It’s the reviewers who don’t present an argument for their views who’re the real menace.
Very true on both counts. There are times when I find Mark Kermode too heavily wedded to his own opinion of a film, unwilling to listen to other perspectives however solidly supported they happen to be.
Yeah, his ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ type of attitude does annoy me.
Ha! Like Dorian, I couldn’t help but laugh at your comment – we all have our personal bete noirs, particularly in this kind of field. :)
Nice to make someone laugh for the right reasons, for once . . .
See, you just did it again!
It’s years since I read this, but it has stayed with me ever since. Poor Judith. How many women there must have been in the 1950s, having done their “duty” to elderly relatives and then left alone to live in poverty and quiet desperation. It’s such a wonderfully written book, and it’s definitely on my Best 100 Novels list. I’m glad you liked it.
Oh, I’m so glad to hear that you loved it too, Violet. That a real testament to the quality of the writing, the fact that the book has stayed with you all through the years. The ‘doing one’s duty to elderly relatives’ element reminded me a little of Janet O’Neill’s novel Tea at Four O’Clock, also set in Belfast in the 1950s. As you say, so many women’s lives were crushed by the weight of familial expectations back then, it’s painful to think of what might have been for them…
This sounds so wonderful! I’ve had it on my shelf for a long time – seven or eight years – though sadly in a much less attractive edition. I am very tempted to discard all my current reading and pick this up, as it sounds so perfectly up my street.
It’s totally brilliant, and I think you’ll like it a LOT! I’m still marvelling at Moore’s ability to get inside the head of a deeply distressed woman with so much insight, nuance and accuracy. It really is quite an achievement for a young (male) writer, very impressive indeed.
I remember reading this and other books by Brian Moore from the library when I was still at school. You have me thinking that I really should start looking for copies and read them again.
Oh, how lovely that you discovered Moore at such a young age. I feel terribly late to the party now that my schooldays are very much in the dim and distant past! Still, better late than never as they say. As for reading him again a little later in life, I think that’s a fine idea. On the strength of the characterisation here alone, I’d say he’s definitely worth revisiting even if it’s just to refresh your memory.
It’s outstanding, isn’t it? I think it made my best of list last year or the year before. I still remmeber her looking at her shoes and finding solace in the little buttons or something. What a treagic character. I read Black Robe. Very different. I think Lizzy has him among her “completist” projects. So there should be many reviews on her site. Now I’m off to write an email.
Absolutely brilliant. Yes, the buttons on her shoes! It’s funny how little details like that serve to highlight the narrowness of Judith’s life – tragic is the word, for sure. So much of this book reminds me of one or two of the women my mother and aunt used to talk about back home. (They came from Ireland – the south rather than the north – but still, so many things about these characters ring true, particularly their inner thoughts and the dialogue between them.) Thanks for tip about Lizzy’s site. I must take a look at her Moore archive at some point – it’s good to know she’s a fan.
Oh, and thank you for your lovely email earlier today. I’ll probably reply at the weekend if that’s okay, once I have a little more time.
Of course. Whenever you’ve got time.
About Moore – you’ll be surprised to see how diverse he is. That said, this book is quite unique. In some ways I was gladI started with Black Robe because the other way around I might have been disappointed, even though it’s very good but so different.
So it seems! You know, I had very little appreciation of the diversity of Moore’s work until the responses to this post started to come in. It’s very useful to know as I’ll need to chose carefully when the time comes to look at some of his others. Lots of people seem to favour The Doctor’s Wife and The Luck of Ginger Coffey, so they’re definitely on the shortlist. From what I know of it, Black Robe does sound very, very different!
Black Robe was s very different but Catholicism is so important in it. Another facet of Catholicism, so it ties in well with the rest of his work.
Thanks. That does seem to be a recurring theme…
I don’t think I could take this!
I can totally understand that! It is pretty bleak, but beautifully captured.
As I was reading your review ‘devastating’ was the word that sprang to mind and then you used it in your final paragraph! It sounds desperately sad, but so well written.
Yes, absolutely. Devastating is the word, particularly wrt developments towards the end. It really does leave the reader in little doubt as to the desperation of Judith’s situation.
I’m not sure I’m in the right mood for that but it sounds excellent indeed. There’s something about these boarding houses settings…
Yes, definitely – they make great environments for all manner of interesting fiction. I think it’s a combination of the seediness of the settings and the assortment of misfits they tend to attract that makes them so appealing – to me at least!
They do. It’s an excellent pretext to put together people who wouldn’t have met.
Their only common point is the state of their finances, otherwise they wouldn’t have ended there.
Yes, exactly. The impoverished/reduced circumstances are key factors, adding as they do to the tragic nature of the occupants’ lives.
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Great to see so much love for Brian Moore on here. I also notice that a few of his books are back in print. I read many of his novels years ago (Lies of Silence, The Statement, The Doctor’s Wife…) I wonder if I still have my copies. I suspect his varied output didn’t benefit him in sales. Definitely due a comeback!
Isn’t it just! I’ve been bowled over by the response to this post, both here and on Twitter. There’s definitely a lot of love for him amongst the online bookish community. Can you recall if you had a favourite from the novels you read a while ago? Several people have recommended The Doctor’s Wife to me, so I’m sure that must be one of his best.
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