The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

The readalong that Cathy of 746 Books is hosting for Brian Moore’s centenary was just the excuse I needed to try his work for the first time. My library had a copy of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, his most famous work and the first to be published under his own name (after some pseudonymous potboilers), so that’s where I started.

Judith Hearne is a pious, set-in-her-ways spinster in Belfast. As the story opens, the piano teacher is moving into a new boarding house and putting up the two portraits that watch over her: a photo of her late aunt, whom Judith cared for in her sunset years; and the Sacred Heart. This establishment is run by a nosy landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice, and her adult son Bernard, who is writing his poetic magnum opus and carrying on with the maid. Recently joining the household is James Madden, the landlady’s brother, who is back from 30 years in New York City. Disappointed in his career and in his adult daughter, he’s here to start over.

Moore’s third-person narration slips easily between the viewpoints of multiple characters, creating a dramatic irony between their sense of themselves and what others think of them. Initially, we spend the most time in Judith’s head – an uncomfortable place to be because of how simultaneously insecure and hypercritical she is. She’s terrified of rejection, which she has come to expect, but at the same time she has nasty, snobbish thoughts about her fellow lodgers, especially overweight Bernard. The dynamic is reversed on her Sunday afternoons with the O’Neills, who, peering through the curtains as she arrives, groan at their onerous duty of entertaining a dull visitor who always says the same things and gets tipsy on sherry.

An unfortunate misunderstanding soon arises between Judith and James: in no time she’s imagining romantic scenarios, whereas he, wrongly suspecting she has money stashed away, hopes she can be lured into investing in his planned American-style diner in Dublin. “A pity she looks like that,” he thinks. Later we get a more detailed description of Judith from a bank cashier: “On the wrong side of forty with a face as plain as a plank, and all dressed up, if you please, in a red raincoat, a red hat with a couple of terrible-looking old wax flowers in it.”

Oh how the heart aches for this figure of pathos. James’s situation, what with the ultimate failure of his American dream, echoes hers in several ways. Something happens that lessens our sympathy for James, but Judith remains a symbol of isolation and collapse. The title also reflects the spiritual aspect of this breakdown: Judith feels that she’s walking a lonely road, like Jesus did on the way to the crucifixion, and the Catholic Church to which she’s devoted, far from being a support in time of despair, is only the source of more judgment.

Alcoholism, mental illness, and religious doubt swirl together to make for a truly grim picture of life on the margins. The novel also depicts casual racism and a scene of sexual assault. No bed of roses here. But Moore’s writing, unflinching yet compassionate, renders each voice and perspective distinct in an unforgettable character study full of intense scenes. I especially loved how the final scene returns full circle. I’d particularly recommend this to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor, and fans of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. I’ll definitely try more from Moore – I found a copy of The Colour of Blood in a Little Free Library in Somerset, so will add that to my stack for 20 Books of Summer.

My rating:


The “P.S.” section of the Harper Perennial paperback I borrowed from the library contains a lot of interesting information on Moore’s life and the composition of Judith Hearne. After time as a civilian worker in the British army, Moore moved to Canada and became a journalist. Later he would move to Malibu and write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

The protagonist was based on a woman Moore’s parents invited over for Sunday diners in Belfast. Like Judith, she loved wearing red and went on about the aunt who raised her. Moore said, “When I wrote Judith Hearne I was very lonely, writing in a rented caravan, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning almost no money as a reporter and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.” The novel was rejected by 12 publishing houses before the firm André Deutsch, namely reader Laurie Lee and co-director Diana Athill, recognized its genius and accepted it for publication.

21 responses

  1. Everybody who has read this book told me I would love it – and I’m sure I will, but in a way I am also slightly afraid of reading it. I can almost see something of myself or a possible future for me in that character, if you know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It could be just your sort of book, if you find the right mood/moment for it. Loneliness is a struggle for so many of us, not just during Covid. If I was ever widowed I know I’d be in danger of becoming a recluse.

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  2. How mad, we both posted our reviews at the same time! I love how you’ve pointed out the pathos in Madden’s situation too and the comparison between how both he and Judith are lying to themselves as much as to one another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I hope I didn’t steal any of your thunder! I’d lost track and thought maybe you weren’t doing a review of your reread this month. It looks like we brought out a lot of the same things. This was a great book; thanks for the encouragement to read it!

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      1. Not at all! I loved your take on it. I was very late with my Moore this month because my vaccine has floored me! So glad you enjoyed it. If enjoyed is the right word 🤣

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      2. Endured, perhaps 😉 But also admired very much. Sorry to hear the vaccine has hit you hard. We’re biding our time and have heard different accounts from people in the USA and UK receiving various brands.

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  3. I didn’t know about the Readalong, but suddenly, everyone – including me – is reading Brian Moore, and specifically Judith Hearne. I agree wholeheartedly with this sympathetic review. It’s one of the few Grim Reads I’ve managed , and enjoyed – if that’s the right word – during the pandemic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s Patricia Highsmith’s centenary this year, too. A good excuse to read both authors. I’m glad you found this one worthwhile as well. Not an easy read, that’s for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I know I’ve read this many moons ago – probably when the film came out, but I think I’d get a lot more out of it now. A super review – really makes me want to re-read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂 With Maggie Smith starring, the film must be unmissable!

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      1. I didn’t remember Maggie Smith – only Bob Hoskins!!!

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  5. I do want to read this sometime, and I do LOVE Quartet in Autumn and Elizabeth Taylor, so that makes me more interested!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just so long as you know not to expect a cheerful read, you should be fine 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That is a really interesting detail about how Judith was inspired by a family friend. I wonder if the Moores were like the O’Neills in the book. My edition had a very brief afterword, I could have done with a bit more background!

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    1. I appreciated having the extra material. He did make it sound like his family resented this old bag’s visits. (Poor Judith!)

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  7. […] Read Cathy’s review here, and Bookish Beck’s here. […]

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  8. It was amazing to me that the book could be so entertaining and depressing at the same time. It was so funny and realistic the way the kids acted whenever Judith came to visit, but also completely uncomfortable and heart breaking!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The fact that readers can see everything from multiple perspectives brought out the humour and the pathos, I think. Such a skilful character study.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint | Reply

    The only one of his I’ve read is The Luck of Ginger Coffey (which is not actually too far removed from the tone and style of this one, by the sounds of it) but I’ve always meant to read more. Black Robe is considered one of his unmissable novels over here, as is Judith (but I happened to have a copy of Ginger). I can’t remember if we’ve chatted about Diana Athill before, but I recall that she spent some time working with him, discussed in Stet I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read all of Athill’s books and love Stet. I wasn’t familiar with Moore at the time I read it, so wouldn’t have paid much attention to any parts about him, but I was so interested to see her name mentioned in the endmatter here.

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