The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore for #BrianMoore100
This event is being hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, who is known for celebrating all things literary and Irish. Moore’s Irish connections are always jarring to me, as he’s well known as a Canadian author here. In reality, he was a wanderer, living in many places in Europe and North America, and spent more time in the United States than anywhere. So I guess it’s not that odd that I read a “New Canadian Library” edition of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book about Ireland, with an afterword by Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital. Actually, Hospital lived in Ontario for thirty years, later moving to the States, sharing a claim on Canadian identity and a nomadic spirit with Moore.
Hospital uses that connection, and familiarity with being “from away”, to bring forth themes of displacement in her brief afterword to this edition. Miss Hearne lives a very circumscribed life in Belfast, but Hospital shows us that she actually goes on an epic journey, including romance, hope, dashed expectations, and a crisis of faith. The afterword was illuminating, but to me the more interesting themes were those of hunger, desire, and rage – or, you know, passion – and specifically the rage of the middle aged woman. These themes reminded me of Jean Rhys’s writing, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the same editor who shepherded Wide Sargasso Sea into the world, Diana Athill, was a champion of this book.
Miss Hearne’s dreary bedsit put me in mind of Good Morning, Midnight‘s heroine Sasha’s awful hotel rooms. Both characters are without family, of little means, near starving, drink to excess and fall prey to depraved men. If anything, Sasha had less hope than Miss Hearne, lacking an object for her anger (other than herself), with no church to storm and no one to ask for forgiveness. Sasha had only lately fallen on hard times, while Miss Hearne had been sidelined her whole life, first by her tyrannical Aunt, and then by poverty. In The Lonely Passion, we see a woman who has been made invisible her whole life finally demand to be seen.
We don’t know exactly how old Miss Hearne is, though a minor character thinks she “will never see the fair side of forty again” and Sasha is similarly, vaguely “middle aged”. The invisibility of women once they enter middle age has been a hot topic for a while, but lest you think this is anything new, I am currently reading a book published in 1778 in which a man declares, “I don’t know what the devil a woman lives for after thirty: she is only in other folk’s way.” (Evelina by Frances Burney).
So while Miss Hearne, and Sasha, are definitely displaced and without a home, like their authors, I think Moore’s choice of a female protagonist is significant, and not just as a “mask” for autobiography, as Hospital speculates. I want to be careful about reading any feminist intent into this book, though. Moore’s novel of first contact between Jesuits and Indigenous people in 1600s Canada, Black Robe, was (still is?) celebrated here, taught in schools and everything, despite criticism of its colonial perspective and outright racism (remember when The Orenda was though to be the non-problematic successor to Black Robe? Oy!) so putting this book on a feminist pedestal doesn’t seem like a good idea. But as a woman who will never see the fair side of forty again herself, this book is at once frightening and triumphant. As Hospital says, Moore shows us “the immeasurable importance and the fearful insignificance of an individual life”.
This is such a good review Laura, I love your focus on Judith’s rage, which I think brings her character to vivid life, and I like the idea that the novel is a journey for her. Thanks for reading and sharing your views.
Ah, good point about Athill being a link between Moore and Rhys! I’ve only read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I know that alcoholism was a thing in Rhys’s other work (and life). I like how you’ve zeroed in on the theme of passion in midlife.
Interesting point about her going on a journey in the novel. I hadn’t picked that up on my reading of it a few years ago but yes I can see how that would apply.
I hadn’t heard of Brian Moore previously and had picked this book up in a charity shop purely because it was a Virago copy (we seldom see them anywhere near my home). But what a tremendous read it was.
I know what you mean about reading too much into a feminist lens in these older books, sometimes if they aren’t outright offensive towards the female gender it’s easy to label it as ‘forward thinking’ when really it just left out some parts. I can also relate to the anger of middle age, but at this point, because I’m 36, I’m really just feeling the anger of a working mother and how little credit we are given LOL