Note: This post discusses the entire plot of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, including the ending.
How much you like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne depends on how well you respond to paragraphs like this:
. . . . 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 great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodations 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 had read about, they all had to be collected 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. And that was why even a queer fellow like this Bernard Rice was a blessing in his own way. He was so funny and horrible with his ‘Yes, Mama’ and ‘No, Mama, ‘ and his long blond baby hair. He’d make a tale for the O’Neills at Sunday tea.
I respond very well to such paragraphs, and indeed I loved this book all the way through. I could quibble with some plot developments — I wasn’t that interested in the plot, and I’m not sure Brian Moore was either — but I thought that the character development of Judith Hearne was nothing short of brilliant. Take that paragraph, for example — it’s in the first chapter, and already you know so much about Judith Hearne: her self-consciousness about being single, her ready acceptance of the idea that she was uninteresting on her own, her desire to ingratiate, her insistence that her “solitary life” included “great rewards”. Yes, Judith can be off-putting with her insistence on conventional mores–she’s scandalized by a joke about Mary Magdalene–but she’s heart-breaking, too.
Because I was writing about The Painted Veil while I was reading this book, I could not help but see Judith Hearne as the photo-negative of Kitty Garstin: Judith plain where Kitty is beautiful, dull where Kitty is charming, neglected where Kitty is spoiled. Based on the publication dates of these books, Judith would only be about a decade younger than Kitty and it’s not hard to imagine that her fate is exactly what Kitty feared when she rushed into marriage. Kitty being wealthier, her future wouldn’t have been quite as bleak as Judith’s, but by Judith’s age an unmarried Kitty who had lost her looks and charm would still have faced a lonely life filled with people who didn’t particularly want to talk to her.
It was for this reason that I find the descriptions of Judith Hearne that you see in so many reviews to be entirely wrong-headed. NPR, for example, calls her “an alcoholic looking for love.” And indeed, Moore treats her alcoholism as a huge revelation midway through the book. But to my mind, her alcoholism is a symptom of her distress, not its root cause. She is lonely, trapped in a world where a middle-aged single woman has no worth, unable to make a man care about her and unable to envision a satisfying life without a man who cares for her. One of the saddest passages of the book, for example, shows Judith fantasizing about a husband who would dandle her on his knee and, possibly, smack her if she said something irritating. But then he would be contrite! This is Judith’s idea of marriage, and the worst part of this fantasy is how much she longs for it. Judith’s life is not bleak because she is alcoholic; she is an alcoholic because her life is bleak, and she can’t think of a way to fix it. All she can do is hope that a man someday looks her way, and in the meantime she can dull her pain with alcohol. And if she’d never touched a drop she’d be just as unhappy and just as unable to break out of her unhappiness.1
As the book went on I began to sympathize more with the piety that I had originally found grating. Catholicism is her mainstay; the Sacred Heart oleograph she displays in her room is the only proof that her life matters at all. The very worst thing to befall Judith Hearne may be near the end of the book, when she begins to lose her faith:
O God, I have sinned against You, why have You not punished me? I have renounced You, do You hear me, I have abandoned You. Because, O Father, You have abandoned me. I needed You, Father, and You turned me away. All men turned from me. And You, Father? You too.
The painted Mary smiled from the side altar; blue robed, with white virginal tunic and delicate painted hands uplifted in intercession. O Mary Mother, why did you not intercede for me? Why do you smile now? There is nothing to smile for. . . .
And now? What will become of me, am I to grow old in a room, year by year, until they take me to a poor-house? Am I to be a forgotten old woman, mumbling in a corner in a house run by nuns? What is to become of me, O Lord, alone in this city, with only drink, hateful drink that dulls me, disgraces me, lonely drink that leaves me more lonely, more despised? Why this cross? Give me another, great pain, great illness, anything, but let there be someone, someone to share it. Why do You torture me, alone and silent behind Your little door? Why?
“I hate You,” she said, her voice loud and shrill in the silence of the church.
Where is Judith at the end of the book? She is, indeed, living in a house run by nuns, at the mercy of their rules and regulations, with her only consolation the oleograph of the Sacred Heart that she displays in her room (but not hung up, of course, because the nuns don’t like to spoil the walls). The only grace Moore allows his protagonist is that as her story ends, the Sacred Heart oleograph has started to work its old magic and she is beginning to recover something of her old faith.2
When I was in college studying women’s history, I read an anthology of women’s letters that included a deeply sad missive from a nineteeth-century teacher living alone, weeping beside her fireplace for the husband and children she suspected she’d never have. That letter came back to my mind again and again as I read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Instead of weeping, Judith employs a stiff upper lip, a nearly delusional belief that she can still have what she wants, and, of course, a flask. But her misery is just as palpable.
1 Of course her life would have been much happier if she had been an iconoclast: a writer or an activist or a career girl. But Hearne is far too conventional for any of that; it’s hard to imagine anything like that ever entering her head. return
2 It’s interesting that both The Painted Veil and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne show their protagonists turning to religion as the books draw to a close. (Kitty doesn’t explicitly talk about religious belief, but she does aspire to be more like those Chinese nuns.) So many nuns in these books! And yet neither of them is aspiring to a happy or fulfilled life, only a bearable one. return