Friday, January 2, 2009

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Brian Moore published The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (originally called simply Judith Hearne), in 1955 after he had left Belfast for Montreal. For this book Moore won the Author's Club First Novel Award (although it wasn't really his first novel). The book appears on the Guardian's list of 1000 books 'everyone must read'. A 1988 movie of the same name starred Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins. Graham Greene apparently called Moore his 'favourite living novelist' (though I can't find the source of this quotation). Here's more about Moore by Ralph McInerny, and a review of this 1955 novel by John Self.

Moore here plumbs the turbid soul of a desperately lonely woman who's on the verge of becoming an old spinster. She's done in by the repressive mores of her culture, which she has internalized and of which she's largely uncritical. (Moore based Hearne loosely on one of his mother's friends, Mary Judith Keogh.) The other character whose thoughts are probed at length is James Madden, Hearne's last chance at a husband. He, too, has outlived his dreams and (like Hearne) drifts though his days in fear and frustration, which are relieved only by vices that promise short-term relief but long-term doom.

Moore's story is marred by some heavy-handed symbols (an empty church, e.g.), and I grew impatient with the protracted torments to which the author subjected poor Judy Hearne. Nevertheless, the book is a thorough and disturbing study of the corrosion and eventual demolition of a life by loneliness.

Hearne seeks refuge from her isolation in weekly visits with a happy and prosperous family whose patriarch she has known since childhood. She half knows that the family members generally dread her visits, but she goes to them anyway out of sheer desperation for some human contact. These portions of the book are pretty painful, for Moore makes it clear that the family members don't take Hearne seriously as a person. They treat her more as an ongoing bad joke.

This dismissiveness is echoed near the end of the story by the other tenants in Hearne's rooming house. Hearne drops from even this sad little society after a night of drinking that leaves her singing and talking to herself for hours on end in her room. After that, her housemates stop taking her seriously. They see her as a 'nutter' who needs to be evicted. As in her visits with the happy family, then, she's surrounded by people who don't respect her as a somewhat rational agent roughly on a par with themselves. Instead of recognizing her as a person, they see her as a nuisance and soon-to-be outcast.

In the end, Hearne is deposited in a residential hospital, where her interactions are largely with people who are, well, paid to interact with her and the other patients. In a cruel paradox, her life is now marked by not only a dearth of meaningful relationships but also a lack of privacy.


Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

Hmmmmm . . . this is on a couple of the lists I am working on over on Rose City reader, but I keep putting it off because it seems pretty grim.

I am pleased to have found your blog. I am working my way through the blogroll on Wuthering Expectations, looking for bloggers who share similar reading tastes with me. Looks like I found one!

praymont said...

Hi Rose City Reader! Thanks for your note. Your blog looks interesting. I esp. like your reviews of Malamud, who I've been meaning to read.

John Stiles said...

I recommend "After Leaving Mr Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys. It is about a former dance hall girl who is losing her looks and struggling financially and relying on the diminishing interests of men. She is a little more worldly that Judith Hearne, but the medication on loneliness is similar in poignancy.