'The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne' is an Exquisitely Painful Read

Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is one of the saddest books I’ve read this year, a book that should send you calling that maiden aunt of yours -- or perhaps AA.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Publisher: The New York Review of Books
Length: 230 pages
Price: $14.95
Author: Brian Moore
Publication Date: 2010-06

Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, recently reissued by the New York Times Review of Books, was first published in 1955. It remains shockingly contemporary. Moore’s work is reminiscent of Barbara Pym’s, only where Pym enjoyed mocking her amusingly foolish characters, Moore’s Judith is frighteningly pathetic.

A woman “of a certain age”, that is, well past 40, Judith Hearne is unmarried, alone, without friends, family, looks, or money. An orphan, she was raised by her Aunt D’Arcy, whom she nursed until the old woman, having run through the family wealth, finally died, leaving her niece a tiny annuity.

Judith—or Judy, as she calls herself in her many reveries—is in many ways a product of her upbringing. A convent school education and deeply provincial Catholicism rule her judgments, particularly of her fellow Irish Protestant countrymen.

Trained in the womanly arts, she teaches a bit of embroidery and gives the occasional piano lesson, but neither occupation goes smoothly. Judy Hearne longs, above all else, to marry and have a family. She is hideously lonely. She abhors the furnished rooms she is obliged to rent but cannot afford better accommodations.

When the book opens, she has just moved into the boarding house of a Mrs. Henry Rice, an equally righteous Catholic soul who skimps on her boarders’s meals the better to overfeed and needlessly coddle her adult son, Bernie. Bernie is truly sickening. Though a talented poet, he refuses to assume the mantle of adulthood, preferring his mother’s overly worried ministrations as he works on his “epic poem” and sleeps with the teenaged maid.

The only other boarder of interest to Judith is Mrs. Rice’s brother, James Madden, lately returned from America. Madden is full of stories about life in New York City, which he is happy to share with Judith. Judith, in her misguided longing, mistakes Madden’s attentions and spends a goodly portion of the novel dreaming of the awaiting nuptials.

The couple will return to New York, Judy fantasizes, where James Madden will once again “work in the hotel business.” Madden will be the kind of man she longs for, a man not above striking his wife, but one who makes it up to her afterward. She will be able to call herself “Mrs. Madden.” Respectability and a modicum of financial stability will finally be hers.

So what if Mr. Madden is a bit coarse around the edges? What of his limp, of his specially-fitted shoe? She is a woman of a certain age now, and must overlook these things.

There are problems with Judy’s shining dreams, though. Beneath the primly religious facade is a woman powerless before what the Irish call “a wee drop”. This tiny, undernourished creature, whose finances force her to skip meals, is capable of imbibing enormous amounts of cheap whiskey. When Judith’s control slips, it is nothing for her to consume three bottles, recalling little afterward.

What she does recall—or learns of from enraged landladies—is her proclivity to sing and yell day and night, until she passes out. Hence the string of increasingly down-at-the-heels boardinghouses. Drinking has affected her income as well, costing Judith her embroidery course and most of her piano students. She is rapidly sinking into poverty, and strives mightily to abstain. Efforts to speak with the parish priest, the self-involved, sanctimonious Father Quigley, do not go well.

The second problem is Madden. He surveys Judith Hearne’s careful dress, her good jewelry (a legacy of her Aunt, leftovers from better days) and thinks the prim spinster wealthy. Madden has returned to Ireland with a little cash and great dreams of opening a “real American Hamburger Joint”, the likes of which will not only shock the natives but entice homesick tourists longing for Manhattan diners.

Unfortunately his chunk of cash, a payout received after a bus accident that damaged his leg, isn’t enough to open a diner. He needs an investor. Thinking he sees one in Judith Hearne, he begins squiring her about town, talking all the while about America, about his selfish daughter, generally confiding in such a way that feed Judith’s misbegotten dreams.

The other boarders are scandalized, as only the truly sanctimonious can be. Bernie, upset that his mother’s attentions are diverted by her ne’er-do-well brother, wants his Uncle James out. Like many sociopaths, Bernie is a patient man. His opportunity will come—both to get his Uncle in (deserved) trouble and to tell Judith the unfortunate truth.

The novel is unbearably sad, for Judith’s willful misperceptions of herself and the people around her lead to pain and humiliation. When her control slips and she becomes loudly drunk, she is met with jeering fury but no compassion.

Her Sunday visits to the O’Neill family, old friends, are a travesty, for Owen and Moira O’Neill tolerate their old acquaintance out of weary duty, while their children, whom Judith tells herself are her “little nieces and nephews” all but openly laugh at her. As the novel draws to a close and Judith tires of hiding her alcoholism, the entire charade cracks in a mortifying visit involving numerous glasses of sherry.

This being Ireland in the '50s, the Church holds tremendous power. Judith, fallen to the lowest depths, lacking a helping hand, repeatedly goes to church seeking some sort of help, be it human or divine. She waits for a sign. When none appears, she begins doubting the faith that heretofore defined her life. Appeals to Father Quigley are useless. So is a terrible, unannounced visit to Moira O’Neill’s. Left to her own devices, Judith finally shatters, and is neatly disposed of, a shell of what might be.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of Eleanor Rigby (granted, a dated reference itself), the woman who “keeps her face in a jar by the door”, then “died in the church and was buried along with her name/nobody came.” The truth is that while times may have changed, the world remains thronged with lonely people, with a particularly hellish spot reserved for middle-aged and older single woman.

Yes, there are lone women who are happy to be so, who are quite comfortable in their own company. Sadly, there are also Judith Hearnes, whose fading looks and lack of finances exclude them from marriage.

In Plan B” Further thoughts on Faith, writer Anne Lamott, in her 50s and coping with a body that is no longer bikini material, likens herself to the cheese course of an elaborate meal: she may no longer possess the taut beauty of youth, but she’s still viable, “with much nutrition to offer, and still delicious.”

Of course, Lamott has some advantages over Judith Hearne: she has conquered her alcoholism, is nourished by a deep religious faith, and is financially stable after years of writing. While Lamott readily admits in her autobiographical works that she longs for a long-term, stable relationship, she hasn’t allowed her single status to destroy her. (Caveat: so far as I know, as of this writing, Lamott remains unmarried. She has always been discreet about boyfriends).

Judith Hearne did not have Lamott’s choices or the support that might have halted her drinking. Any one of us -- that includes the men out there -- could more easily end up becoming a Judith Hearne than have the good fortune to be an Anne Lamott.

All of this makes The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne one of the saddest books I’ve read this year, a book that should send you calling that maiden aunt of yours or perhaps AA. Don’t forget to take a good, long look at the novel’s cover, a masterpiece of terrifying, exquisite design. Look closely, lest you miss the woman blending, literally, into the wallpaper. She merits your attention.


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