Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2021

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore

I’m over a week late with this review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne for the Brian Moore at 100 Read-Along hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and the official Brian Moore at 100 team.  The read-along is one of a number of events celebrating the work of Northern Ireland author Brian Moore, in his centenary year. Ah well, better late than never…

Reminiscent of the grim stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, but set in the postwar era in Belfast, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the story of a bleak life unravelling.  Judith Hearne is in her forties, and alone.  When the novel opens Judith’s aunt has just died leaving her homeless, so she has moved into one of those dreary boarding houses that provided shelter but not much else.  She is in straightened circumstances.  She gave up her job to care for this aunt through the terminal stages of dementia for many years, and, based on what her aunt had said, had reasonable expectations that provision had been made for her.

Her aunt D’Arcy had never discussed money.  A lady does not discuss her private affairs, she used to say.  And the D’Arcys never had to look where their next penny was coming from.  There had been the house on the Lisburn Road.  She had thought that would fetch quite a bit.  And then her aunt had said that Judy wouldn’t have to worry, there  would be plenty until the right man came along and even if he didn’t.  That was a long time ago, she said that.  Ten years.  More, thirteen, if I’m to be honest about it, Miss Hearne thought.  First, there was the mortgage on the house.  And then the money we owed Dan Breen.  And the annuity she left me, it was small then, and nobody in the whole length and breadth of Ireland could on a hundred pounds a year nowadays. (p.37)

All that stands between Judith and abject penury is an annuity of £100 a year, and a small income from teaching piano.

Mrs Henry Rice is a poor host.  Although she cooks splendid breakfasts for her grotesque son Bernie, breakfast for her boarders consists only of toast and tea, with kippers at the weekend.  Judith has to buy her other meals and to make ends meet, she is often hungry.  The highlight of her week is a lavish afternoon tea with the O’Neills on Sundays, which also provides Judith with the illusion that she has a family of sorts.  The novel is written from varying points of view, and so the reader soon learns that the O’Neills dread her visits.  Mr O’Neill abandons the warmth of the sitting-room to ‘work’, Una finds study that has to be done, and while little Kathleen is too little to mind much, Shaun has to be commanded to stay and be polite by his mother (for whom this weekly penance is a Good Deed.)

Into these grim routines bursts James Patrick Madden, fresh from America and boastful of his exploits.  The brother of Mrs Henry Rice, he has come home from an artfully concealed unedifying career because he’s had a bit of luck with compensation for an injury.  While his bragging exasperates the other members of this motley household, Judith is fascinated, and he, not realising the extent to which she is hiding her difficulties, senses an opportunity to lure a potential partner into his investment plans.  She, not realising that he was only a doorman at the hotel business he says he’s in, starts to believe that the relationship she has yearned for, is about to blossom.  Her fantasies are excruciating:

But when the big trunks were opened and their trays were laid out on the bed, Miss Hearne knelt in silence on the floor, abstracted, her hands idle, her mind filled with what had happened that morning.  He had been so glad to talk to her.  And he had looked so big and stern and manly, hammering his fist on the table while he laid down the law to her.  A big handsome man with that strange American voice.

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel.  He took off his jacket and hung it up.  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.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute.  Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.  (p.33)

Her desperation is such that her ‘romancing’ includes tolerating domestic violence, alongside fantasies about Mr and Mrs James Madden sailing from Southampton in the Queen Mary with a honeymoon at Niagara Falls.

As this tragedy plays out, Judith’s life spirals out of control.  It is unbearably sad to witness the way she self-sabotages what pitiful resources she has.

Like Joyce, Moore shows how his character is marooned in misery because of the stultifying atmosphere in which she lives.  Devout all her life, she has plodded through the years believing that her endurance and piety will are at God’s command and that she will be rewarded in the next life.  Her religion is a stern and unforgiving one, as exemplified by Father Francis Xavier Quigley:

…tall, ascetic, hollow white, pointing an accusing finger at his parishioners.

‘Quiet!’ he shouted, ‘And let me tell those people who just came in at the back of the Church that they’re late for Mass, that they’ve not fulfilled their obligation and that they should be ashamed of themselves.  They’d better leave now because they’ll have to come back to twelve o’clock Mass to fulfil their duty.’

Then whirled, with a swinging lurch of vestments, back to the altar.  The congregation practised silence.  But Mr Madden turned his head towards Miss Hearne and winked.  No laughing matter, Miss Hearne thought.  Father Quigley seemed like a terribly stern man.  (p.69)

Very little actually happens in this novel but Moore’s observations astutely show how Judith is paralysed by the uneventfulness of her days.  It is only when she lets go of her iron-willed self-control that the pace picks up and the novel moves inexorably towards its devastating conclusion.

Thanks, Jonathan at Intermittencies of the Mind, for the recommendation!

Author: Brian Moore
Title: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2007, first published 1955
ISBN: 9780007255610
Source: personal library



  1. Beautiful review, Lisa! I’m hoping to read this book this month. It looks like a heartbreaking book though, from your review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊


    • It is heartbreaking. The world for single women used to be very cruel in western societies: they were unwanted, dogsbodies for anyone who needed them, and often left high and dry when they were no longer needed. I don’t know what would have been worse, the scorn or the pity.
      I used to tell my girls at school—get an education that fits you for a proper job so that you can always support yourself and then you have *choices*. So many of them, even today, still think that there will be a Mr Right.


      • Very sad to know that, Lisa. Hope things are better today. I loved the advice you gave your students. Thanks for sharing.


  2. I’ve not read this but its really interesting to read different bloggers responses to this novel this month. It sounds very powerful, a tough read though.


    • Ah, that is the mark of a really good book, IMO, that many will read it and respond in different ways. There is so much within the pages of this book, one could write the whole review just about the way Moore gets stuck into religion!
      Because really, it’s not the braggart Madden, who is the villain of the piece, nor the other sleazebag either. It’s the religion that taught Judith her place in life, (which was to serve her ungrateful aunt and thus lose whatever independence she had) and that she was to stay in it. It taught her that her only resource was prayer…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a truly astonishing book, Lisa. What I really loved about it was that it made me empathise with a character that was pathetic and unlikeable. Great writing.
    This reminds me that I had a couple of books earmarked for this project.


    • Hi Jonathan, you were so right to recommend this book to me!
      Your comment reminds me in a way of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, the one about the lonely school teacher, where, plot aside, the narration makes it clear that she is completely deluded about how other people respond to her.
      I look forward to seeing what you read next!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Lisa. I’m currently reading an excellent book on the novel between 1600 and 1800 by Moore (Steven, not Brian).


        • That sounds rather scholarly. Is it required reading for something?

          Liked by 1 person

          • No, it’s for the general reader. It’s an interesting read. I’m going to read the earlier volume (novels up to 1600) afterwards.


            • I didn’t know there was any such thing as a novel before 1600!


              • He uses the term broadly which is why he subtitles the volumes ‘an alternative history’. He’s trying to get away from the definition of the novel in terms of 19thC realist fiction.


                • You will write a blog post explaining all this, yes?

                  Liked by 1 person

                • Maybe. 😁

                  Liked by 1 person

  4. Your review has tempted me to reserve this from the library. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovely review Lisa, I love how you highlight how Judith self-sabotages her life – that’s what I found most heartbreaking.


    • Yes… because it’s the only time she takes control of it and does what she wants to do and to hell with the consequences.


  6. This is the most painful and depressing book, but I loved it anyway. I can only attribute that to the writer!


    • It is, as is any story of a wasted life. That’s the heartbreak of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It must have been over 40 years ago that I read this novel, and I remember finding it very impressive, although I have now forgotten every detail of it. To my amazement I was able to find my old copy on my shelves, so now, stimulated by your review, I intend to re-read it. Many thanks!


    • That, Paul, is the perfect reason why we should never cull our books!


  8. I’d never heard of Brian Moore when I found a rather battered copy of this book in a charity shop. I didn’t expect it to be as powerful. The scenes where she turns to the church for support only to feel completely rejected, were heart breaking.


    • Yes, that’s the amazing thing about the church in Ireland (and elsewhere, as far as I know). It preaches the unconditional love of God, but in practice, support for women was conditional, always.


  9. […] My thanks to Lisa, whose review led me to read this. Lisa’s review is at: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


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