Ann Leary’s latest book is The Good House.
I tend to read funny books when I’m happy and tragic books when I’m sad, but when I’m truly depressed, when I want to be fully immersed in the horrible splendor of the most desperate human suffering, I always return to Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
Judith Hearne, a middle-aged Irish spinster and the protagonist, is an alcoholic. But this novel isn’t really about drinking. No, this book is about the underlying conditions of alcoholism — fear, shame and a desperate need to love and be loved. It’s a short book about a lifetime of longing.
Moore uses brilliant economy in his writing; it’s as if words are as scarce and precious as sunshine in this gloomy section of post-war Belfast, and by the end of the second paragraph, we know almost everything we need to know about poor Miss Hearne. She has moved to a small room in the latest of a series of cheap lodging houses and is unpackingand arranging her most cherished possessions — a silver-framed photograph of her deceased aunt and a cheap oleograph image of the Sacred Heart.
She carefully places the renderings of these, her harshest critics, where she can see them, and she is always aware of their presence. Aunt D’Arcy’s photo is placed on the mantle. “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 is situated.” The image of Jesus is placed at the head of her bed. “His fingers raised in benediction, His eyes kindly yet accusing.” Is it any wonder that, alone in her room, she awkwardly squirms into her clothes beneath the modest cover of her nightgown, never, in all her adult life, exposing her naked flesh before those dead, reproachful eyes?
As Miss Hearne, who was raised by her well-to-do aunt, but is now poor, politely attempts to settle in amongst her rather crude and in some cases, monstrous fellow lodgers, her awkwardness is almost too painful to witness. When she finds herself at a loss for words, she seeks comfort by peering down at her long pointed shoes, which have little buttons on them, and the buttons amuse her by “winking up at her like wise little friendly eyes. Little shoe eyes, always there.”
Her painful awareness that others are entirely uninterested in her is heartbreaking, but it is impossible not to love Miss Hearne for her quiet determination to press on, her meek refusal to abandon her dream that despite her advancing age and plain looks, an opportunity for love might still come her way.
After a brief breakfast conversation with a fellow lodger, Mr. Madden, just back from America, Miss Hearne is launched into this reverie about his returning home to her, to their home — sometime in the future, when she would be his wife: “He put his dressing-gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.”
Yes, I cringe each time I read this and other passages — but I still want to read it again. I know what’s going to happen to poor Miss Hearne, but it’s like picking up a drink after swearing it off. It just tastes so good when it’s going down.
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