Judith Hearne (or as my edition has it, The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne) is a 1955 novel by Brian Moore centred on the eponymous Judith Hearne. Miss Hearne is a plain middle-aged spinster living in digs in Belfast. At the start of the novel, she has just moved into new accommodation, a room let out by Mrs Henry Rice. Mrs Henry Rice (and her grown son, Bernard) live in a part of Belfast that was very genteel when Miss Hearne was growing up, but has declined in social status in the intervening decades. In this way it echoes Miss Hearne herself: in an older novel, I think she might have best been described as “a lady in reduced circumstances”. This is a wonderful novel – I’m so glad Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month finally prompted me to pick it up!

The novel begins with Judith Hearne unpacking in her new room, and from the first sentences we get a glimpse at the forces that have dictated and will continue to dictate her life:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantelpiece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture, and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

Along with the photo of her aunt, she hangs a picture of the Sacred Heart of Christ, which is described as having looked over her for half her life. Her aunt was a wealthy, domineering woman, living in the upper-middle echelons of Belfast society; Judith nursed her through a years-long decline, starting in her late teens and running into her thirties, so that she missed out on opportunities for work and marriage. We find out as the story goes along how exactly the aunt’s character shaped Judith’s circumstances – I won’t get into it in this review. The other looming picture is, of course, representative of Judith Hearne’s Catholic faith. If we gradually find out how her aunt has let her down in the past, we also find out how the Catholic church lets her down in the present. Judith Hearne has built up all sorts of ideas about her aunt and about the church, and we see both sets of ideas unravelling over the course of the novel.

Though the novel was originally called Judith Hearne, lonely passion is such a good description of her. Judith Hearne is so desperate – so hopelessly, terribly desperate – for any kind of love or affection. At the start of the novel, the high point of her life is her weekly Sunday visits to family friends the O’Neills. She spends much of the week trying to work out how she can be good company for them – how an encounter with Mrs Henry Rice’s son Bernard can be turned into an amusing anecdote, for instance. She stores things up to share with them – for she knows, really, that she is tolerated rather than liked by the O’Neills. Having tea with Miss Hearne is a chore traded off between the O’Neills’ assorted children, who make fun of her behind her back and resent the time they spend with her. Moira O’Neill is probably the only character in the whole novel who shows genuine kindness and affection to Judith – and yet the fascinating thing about it is that, because we are so closely in the latter’s perspective, we are asked to resent Moira with her big house full of children and her happy marriage. Testament to amazing skill on the part of the author!

For a slim novel, there is more packed into it than I could possibly get into this post. Much of the story centres on Judith’s relationship with Mrs Henry Rice’s brother, James Madden. James has lately returned from New York after many years living and working there. He tells Miss Hearne that he was “in the hotel business”, which she takes to mean that he owned a hotel, though he was in fact a doorman. In turn, he assumes that her genteel manners and the couple of bits of jewellery she inherited from her aunt mean that she is wealthy. The two of them immediately strike up a connection, but it’s clear that they want very different things from it – and it’s just so sad to read. I think she really believes James Madden means to marry her, though I have seen other reviewers disagree and say that she knows this is a fantasy. Either way, it’s painfully clear to the reader that he’s not after anything except money and possibly friendship (the first thing we hear him think is that she seems like a nice woman, shame she looks like that).

This is one of those novels where I spent much of the time wishing I could step into the story and save Judith Hearne from herself. It’s easy to see how she ended up in the terrible position she’s in, but you can also see how she contributes over and over to her own downfall. Miss Hearne is really her own worst enemy – it’s easy to see how, in real life, I would be dreading her Sunday visits right along with the O’Neills – but somehow Moore manages to generate immense sympathy for her. Overall, this is masterfully written. I look forward to reading more of Moore’s work – though I think this one might be too depressing for me to come back to it!