Posted by: Jeanie F | August 20, 2011

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

First published in 1955 and recently re-released by the New York Book Review, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne has been identified by UK’s The Guardian as “one of the 1,000 books you should read in your lifetime.” 

Judith Hearne is a character who, superficially, seems to be an anachronism – a thing of the past. She’s a virginal spinster, well into her 40s, who lives on a small trust from her deceased aunt in Belfast, Ireland. She resides in a boarding house, where she rents a single room. Her only personal adornments in the room are a silver-framed picture of the dead aunt and a “colored oleograph of the Sacred Heart. His place was at the head of the bed, His fingers raised in benediction, His eyes kindly yet accusing.”

I say that she appears to be an anachronism because it might be hard to find a single woman like her today. Today she would probably be employed, certainly not virginal, not likely to keep the Sacred Heart at the head of her bed. But before we write her off, I think you’ll find if you examine her more closely you’ll see that the isolation, the loneliness, the desparation that Ms. Hearne’s experience is not really a thing of the past.

Judith Hearne yearns for only one thing – a human connection, someone who cares about her. The other boarders are indiffierent, the dead aunt was her only living relative, the landlady thoroughly loathesome. At one time Miss Hearne worked part-time at a trade school teaching embroidery. She has a small handful of piano students. Both occupations seem to be dwindling out of her life for reasons that become apparent late in the story, so she seems to have no real purpose.

The only people with whom she has regular social contact is the O’Neill family, the family of a childhood friend, who she visits on Sunday afternoons. This is “the big event of the week”. We learn that she dresses carefully for these visits, rehearses stories that she hopes will interest them, considers the four O’Neill children to be “her nieces and nephews.” Sadly, the O’Neills do not anticipate her visits as enthusiastically. Son Shaun O’Neill sums it up for the family when he announces, just before Miss Hearne’s visit, ” Five minutes, or maybe ten. Let’s say ten minutes at most before the advent of the Great Bore.” Although his mother chastises him, he is saying what they all are thinking.

Into this bleak life appears a man – Mr. James Madden, the brother of the boarding house landlady. Mr. Madden is recently returned to Ireland from America, where he was in “the hotel business” in New York City. Mr. Madden befriends Miss Hearne, and she begins to weave intricate fantasies about him. She imagines them married and returned to America:

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 on his dressing-gown 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.

Even in her fantasies, Judith Hearne cannot imagine a life in which she’s being treated with affection and respect.

Mr. Madden has his own reasons for encouraging Miss Hearne’s affection, but we soon see him for the brute that Judith Hearne obviously subliminally sensed . Although we know that she’s better off without him, the collapse of their “friendship” is the last straw for her.

Things don’t turn out well in this brutal, heartbreaking story. It would be comforting to think that the world today is a kinder place for the Judith Hearnes among us, and maybe it is. Maybe more doors are open to an unattractive, middle-aged woman, maybe she would have more resources to help her fashion a life that didn’t require dependence even on those who despise her. Those of us with friends, loved ones, interesting work, nice homes should take a moment to be grateful for all we have. I can’t help but suspect that the world is still populted by Judith Hearnes who would trade places with us in a heartbeat.

Grade: A


  1. This sounds like a very interesting book! Thanks for bringing it to my / our attention. It’s going on my wishlist as it seems just the book for me. although I think you probably do have to be in the mood for this kind of book.

  2. Yes, I think you have to be in the mood for this kind of book – it is dark, but well worth the time to read it. Hopefully you won’t identify too closely just because you have the same name! 🙂

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