The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
A novel by Brian Moore, first published in 1955; re-published in 1988 by New Canadian Library
"The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" is one of Brian Moore's earliest novels, published originally in 1955 to rave reviews. This book launched his career as a novelist and it was made into a 1987 film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.
Set in Belfast, Ireland, in the early 1950s, it tells the tragic story of a plain-looking spinster who suffers a crisis of faith and identity in her early forties. As a child, Judith was orphaned after the death of her parents. She was taken in and raised by her aunt D'Arcy. When Judith was in her late twenties, her aunt suffered a stroke and, for the next 15 years, Judith became her primary caregiver, forsaking her own dreams and happiness in the process.
The novel opens a short time after Aunt D'Arcy has passed away and Judith is moving into another cheap rooming house. Soon she is introduced to the housekeeper's brother, James Madden, an ex-pat who once worked in America and who has returned to his native Ireland. After accompanying Madden to church and to the movies, Judith thinks that Madden has taken a liking to her, and she entertains the possibility of a budding romance, possibly marriage.
She wonders if all the years of sacrifice, caring for her ill aunt, and her faith in God, will finally lead to happiness, a dream that has eluded her for years. But James Madden is not what - or who - he pretends to be, and Judith's hopes of a romance are dashed. She views Madden's rejection - along with his mother's alleged complicity in that rejection - as the last straw in finding true happiness, and respectability.
Madden's rejection triggers Judith's slow, sad mental breakdown. She resorts to drink to dull the gnawing realization that she will probably never find true happiness, and then begins to question her faith. Moore depicts that decline through Judith's eyes and through the eyes of her roommates, friends, all of whom are portrayed as selfish, greedy, cruel and uncaring. Even her local priest, Father Quigley, seems more interested in putting in his time at the pulpit: He'd rather chastise his congregation for attending movies than provide human compassion to a parishioner who needs help.
One feels empathy for Judith, a caring and sensitive women whose best years have passed her by, who is ridiculed and pitied by those closest to her, and whose remaining years will likely be filled with more loneliness and rejection. With each passing day, Judith becomes painfully aware that she's reached a point in her life where she is unloved, alone, afraid, and beyond hope.
Through the use of occasional interior monologues, Moore takes readers into the minds of his characters to reflect on their personal biases and their attitudes towards Judith. Here is Judith's interior monologue in the midst of her decline, while she is sitting in the back of a taxi:
"Oh, I'm in trouble, in awful trouble. And nobody to help me. Where? I've got to talk to somebody, some friend, someone who can advise me, the faith, I've lost my faith, I've burned my boats and it will happen soon, it will happen. Now, if You're there, she screamed wordlessly. Now show me. Anything, a bolt of lightning, strike me down, anything. But don't leave me, don't leave me alone."
By the end of the novel, poor Judith has clearly lost her faith, her dreams, and her way in the world. Alongside Judith's heartbreaking predicament, Moore also explores the themes of class struggles, the passage of time, and the social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the early '50s.
In Judith Hearne, Moore has created a fictional character who is deserving of our empathy, a character who will resonate with readers long after the book is closed. In my opinion, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" ranks as a great fictional narrative from one of the 20th century's great - and sadly underrated - storytellers.