I read William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault for Reading Ireland Month last year. One thing, just one thing went wrong in Lucy’s life, and it fell over like a row of dominoes. She lost her childhood, she had to live like a fugitive in her own house, she deprived herself of ordinary pleasures, and above all, she was weighed down by guilt, and self-imposed solitude. I loved Lucy.
Now, an hour after reading Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne for Reading Ireland Month this year, I can’t stop thinking about how women were the protagonists of both the novels, how they were different in the way they coped with loneliness, but how they were alike to let it drag them down the drain. My heart bleeds for both of them.
It’s Belfast. Judith Hearne was in her early forties. Single. Lonely. Desperate. Religious. She spent all her youth to look after her aunt, who raised her after her parents passed away. Hearne wanted to go to college, learn more crafts, but her aunt wouldn’t allow for she fell sick and coerced Hearne into caring for her. When she was finally free to live her life, Hearne had lost her friends, job offers, and… time.
Hearne, a piano teacher, supported herself on the meager income she made by teaching and on the tiny sum that her aunt left for her. She moved into a modest lodging, where she was greeted by a judgmental landlady and lodgers who were gossip-lovers.
Moore showed an Ireland where one could have no private life. His Ireland was cold, cloudy, and rainy. Perhaps, it was the metaphoric representation of Hearne’s life.
For Hearne, home meant three things — her aunt’s sepia portrait, a picture of Sacred Heart, and two tiny buttons on her shoes. They were always there for her, even when the landlady judged her for trying to date her brother from New York, even when her friend’s children laughed at her for employing same responses over and over again, even when she loathed herself for being deplorable.
Miss Hearne ate her biscuits, cheese and apple, found her spectacles and opened a library book by Mazo de la Roche. She toasted her bare toes at the gas fire and leaned back in the armchair, waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.
Moving into the new lodge made Hearne hopeful. She began daydreaming; she wanted to marry the landlady’s brother, sail to New York, have children, and live a life that she was denied. But Mr Madden, who was torn between America and Ireland, whose ideologies were way different from Hearne’s, could see her just as a potential business partner, while Hearne was indulging in her embarrassing dreams.
Madden detested Hearne’s advances, turned her down, when he found out that Hearne was a humble piano teacher and that she would never be able to invest in his business. Hearne’s heart was broken; she began to seek comfort in her old friend — alcohol.
A drink would put things right. Drink was not to help forget, but to help remember, to clarify and arrange untidy and unpleasant facts into a perfect pattern of reasonableness and beauty. Alcoholic, she did not drink to put aside the dangers and disappointments of the moment. She drank to be able to see these trials more philosophically, to examine them more fully, fortified by the stimulant of unreason.
Hearne was wrong. Alcohol removed her from her own life. Because of the row she created at the lodge, she was asked to leave. Her relationship with her only friend became strained for she chose not to betray her emotions and confessed that she never liked her friend but visited her every Sunday only to be in the company of her children. She revealed that she envied her friend as she had all that Hearne longed for. A husband, a bunch of children, and… a home.
Above all, what uprooted Hearne’s life was her lack of faith. She barely missed the Mass on Sunday. Since she befriended satan (alcohol) and drinking was a sin, she despised religion. What was the point of religion and priests, when she was not heard, when her pain was not alleviated, when she wasn’t offered guidance, when she couldn’t gather her life again?
Hearne hated herself more when she began questioning the existence of God. The spiritual crisis and alcohol fuelled Hearne’s loneliness, and she ended up at a hospital after a series of unfortunate, awkward events.
She was feeling tired. Why, the Mass was very long. If you did not pray, if you did not take part, then it was very, very long. If you did not believe, then how many things would seem different. Everything: lives, hopes, devotions, thoughts. If you do not believe, you are alone.
All the characters — to me, it didn’t matter if they we were likeable — were memorable in their own ways. They tormented Hearne but Moore allowed me to get into their heads for a while and made me realise that they were hurting themselves too. From the young maid of the landlady to Hearne’s friends, each character was extraordinarily developed. At one point in time, I wasn’t sure why I had to learn about everybody. But they all held the mirrors which showed the myriad reflections of Hearne’s suffering. I needed their participation to empathise with Hearne.
While the whole book broke my heart, one particular scene made me feel heavier. Hearne stayed at a luxurious hotel. She relished the drink, loved the view from her room, and enjoyed sinking in the bed. The moment was perfect. She was losing her head; she was perennially inebriated, but the moment was just perfect. Something held Hearne’s shoulders and shook her. A thought. She had nobody to share that moment with.
Let me make a confession here. I couldn’t ask Hearne to be strong. I couldn’t ask her to find a purpose in life. I didn’t want to taunt her with the painful phrase — move on. I didn’t judge her for wanting to be loved and cherished. She was depressed. She was lonely. She was directionless. And it was okay to be all of that; she was only being human.