The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne – Brian Moore (1955)

Judith HearneAbsolutely definitely one of the best books that I have read this year, I am not sure where I came across this title or what it was that pushed me to get it through ILL, but suffice to say, I did and I loved it. A novel in the same realm as “Stone Angel” or perhaps one of Doris Lessing’s characters (or Muriel Spark), this protagonist is a middle-aged unmarried woman in the 1950’s in Belfast. During this time period, there were some options (but not many) for women who were not that well educated and unmarried.

Miss Judith Hearne is a part-time music teacher, but this is not enough to fill her  bank account or her long days and hours that she has to spare whilst she moves from one boarding house after another. It’s from the PoV of Hearne, and it’s interesting to see how Moore matches her speech to her thoughts (as it would in real life). She has a secret habit in her life, and as this becomes more and more of a problem, the reader is allowed to see this in Judith’s speech. (I don’t really feel right calling her “Judith” – she’s more of a “Miss Hearne” to me).

“Around the table the guests sat in semi-gloom, silent except for the tiny crash of tea cups and the tearing of toast…”

(What a perfect description of life in a dreary boarding house on a rainy day!)

And here is a description of Miss Hearne’s landlady at tea one day:

“…[she] drooped her huge bosom over the table like a bag of washing…” – what a great choice of words! The heaviness of laundry, the domesticity of it all…  And the landlady also had a “wicked parrot smile” — what an image that is.

Her life has not been that easy, and it is this sense of doubt of where she has and what she had done with her life that pervades this story. It’s a life that seems hopeless in many ways with no way to change or go a new direction. Miss Hearne’s Catholic religion plays a huge role in her life, but with some problems come some doubts and to those around her, her voicing these doubts is threatening and uncomfortable. Despite her religious belief, she is extremely judgmental and yet, like Hagar in “Stone Angel”, despite her being unlikeable, the reader can’t help but understand her and sympathize with her on some levels.

It’s a grey, rainy and inner-city novel – full of wet cold days and characters much the same. Miss Hearne does make her own problems worse, it is true, but at heart she is very lonely, poor, unwanted and sad. She’s not malevolent but her actions can be misunderstood and so her usual shield against the comments of others is defensiveness. However, I couldn’t help but feel for her – what other choices had she had in her life?

“The habits of her years, the constant counting of the cost, the careful measuring of pounds, shillings and pence, wondering if there will be enough to last the week…”

And then this description of another part of Belfast that Miss Hearne visits one night:

“the gritty gloom of evening, down grey drab streets, fringed by row upon row of mean little working class houses, brick red, stone grey, each and every one the same. At each window, between fraying lace curtains, a coloured vase, a set of crossed Union Jack flags, or a figurine of a little girl holding her skirts up to wade, set like little altars, turned towards the street for the edification of the neighbors…”

There is a lot of mention about alcohol – its effects, the drinking, the pub environment – and so I thought it was quite appropriate that in the middle of the book there were some cigarette burns and drink spills.

I was mulling over why the title was called “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” and why they used the word “Passion”. After some thinking, I think perhaps it was for several different meanings. First, Miss Hearne is inexperienced with love and so has an almost dreamlike quality to how she thinks life would be with her True Love (whoever that might be). Passion is made to be shared, I think, and so the title emphasizes her lone role in life. The plot also revolves around her religion, so perhaps it could be argued that there is the “passion for Christ” side of things. And then she has that secret passion which she thinks no one knows about…

Secrets also play a huge role in this novel – everyone has secrets and many people more than one. Bernie and the maid, Maddon and the maid, Maddon and his true past in the States, the question of money (and who has how much) for Miss Hearne and Maddon. Bernie is obese so it might be argued that he is hiding behind that, but what is he hiding? His lack of success as a poet? His unhappiness at living at home as a grown adult? Does his obesity keep him safe and therefore living without risks? The other resident teacher in the boarding house is always hiding behind her books at meal time – is she hiding her true feelings? For whom? And then curtains and doors play a large role as well – people hiding behind them, listening…

Seriously, this is a fantastic read. It’s not a happy one, by any means, but it’s a well written one.

Judith Hearne movie

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