Sunday, 24 November 2013

Penguin no. 1343: The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne
by Brian Moore

For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift... Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about...But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn't want to hear how she managed things like accommodation and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she read about, they all had to be collected and gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation.

Brian Moore achieves something quite remarkable: he takes perhaps the most uninspiring of topics, the unhappiness of a middle-aged woman, and he creates a story which is compelling and heart-rending. Miss Judith Hearne's unhappiness is a product of her loneliness; she has fantasies of being someone of significance and she has been known to recount events as though drama surrounds her (while telling herself that she must remember not to boast), but the reality is that there is no one to whom her existence is of any consequence. Unexciting, unattractive, and not even very likeable, Miss Hearne is endured out of Christian charity but she is not loved. There is no one in this novel who cares about her silent suffering.

But Brian Moore seems intent on ensuring that his readers, at least, are interested in her plight, and he tells her story with such sympathy and compassion that is impossible to feel anything other than pity for a woman so ill-equipped to cope with the situation in which she finds herself, and from which there seems no possible escape.

The narration slips between the third and first person, and so the reader is given some insight into what lies beneath that plain and prim exterior. It is often a pithy and critical assessment of someone she has met or something she has seen, but she is far too well-mannered to let such views show. We also know her memories, her fantasies, her hopes and dreams, her unthinking prejudices, and her anguish. This is principally a story about loneliness and insignificance, the regrets of middle-age, and the suffering of the overlooked woman, but Moore would appear to have Belfast and the Church in his sights as well.

Miss Judith Hearne has never married, and she has now reached an age where, given the era and city in which she lives, it has become unlikely that she ever will. The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne is set in Belfast in the 1950s, with Belfast portrayed as a drab and unappealing city, a place no one would choose to live if they had any option, and where decent men are apparently at a premium; a plain, middle-aged woman really has no chance at all. But Miss Hearne has not quite given up on the dreams of her girlhood, of finding a husband, of a honeymoon in Paris, of a home filled with children; and even now, on the wrong side of forty, she clings to a belief that there is still time. A man, any man, might yet rescue her from her poverty, her empty days, her loneliness and her misery.

Lately she has pinned her hopes upon James Madden, the brother of her landlady. He too is lonely: he has recently returned to Ireland after living most of his adult life in New York, and his conversation tends to concentrate on the wonders and opportunities of the new world, a topic which wins him few friends in the land of his birth. He is partly-crippled, garishly-dressed and vulgar in speech, and Miss Hearne must censor all the criticisms and objections which arise unbidden in her mind to suggest that he is that most unbearable of things, 'common'. Marry him first, she thinks, and change him after, but even this is not to be. Madden has no thoughts of marriage, and when Miss Hearne learns this truth she has nothing to fall back on but a bottle of whiskey hidden in her trunk.

A desperate Miss Hearne is counselled to remember that it is not this life which matters, but the next, advice she has been hearing ever since she reached adulthood and found herself a plain young woman required to care for her ailing, well-to-do aunt. To some extent, she is a victim of the attitudes and beliefs which are artefacts of her upbringing, and which have limited her experience of life and ill-prepared her for what she has become, a woman of genteel pretensions living in a squalid bedsit in an unfashionable part of Belfast with barely enough money to feed herself. But this would appear to be her high point, and the reader must watch on as she disintegrates even further.

The Dusty Bookcase: The Mysterious Judith Hearne

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, quite remarkable. Moore was a master and had an extraordinary ability to write from the viewpoint of the opposite sex.

    This Penguin is an odd bird (sorry, couldn't resist) in that it's the only edition to feature "Miss" in the title. Curiously, the spine (on my copy, at least) drops the honorific. If interested, I've written a bit about this and other retitled Moores here.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...