#29 of 2011 ▪ The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
Miss Judith Hearne, faux-genteel spinster fallen on hard times. Oh, poor Judith Hearne. I suppose she’s one of them literary standbys: the old failure, wretchedly so. Can’t get a break, you’d say, if such fresh language were allowed in her presence. In a drunken ramble, though, Miss Hearne permits herself:
“You’ve got no hopes left, then you’re like me. You’ve got daydreams instead and you want to hold on to them. And you can’t. So you take a drink to help them along, to cheer you up. And anybody who so much as gives you a kind word is a prince. A prince. Even if he’s old and ugly and common as mud. Even if the best he can say for himself is that he was a hotel doorman in New York. Would you believe that now, would you believe it?
. . . That would be bad enough now, wouldn’t it?” Miss Hearne cried. “Bad enough, yes, you’d be ashamed of yourself. And rightly so. But there’s worse yet. What if that doorman turned you down? TURNED YOU DOWN!”
The catalyst, so to speak, of Miss Hearne’s string of misfortunes—ah, sorry, the misfortune that broke the camel’s back—is the “courtship” between her and James Madden. As one of the minor characters observes, it’s all just “one ould fraud suckin’ up to the other”—Miss Hearne lonely [and desperate], Madden in need of a business partner [and desperate].
Oh, poor Judith Hearne with her loneliness and her daydreams and her delusions. And her constants too: her alcoholism and her religion. See, the devout Miss Hearne likes to drink her whiskey and sing into the wee hours of the night, Miss Hearne needs to drink.
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.
But although this fatal flaw is fun, it’s her religion that’s damning. Specifically, the crumbling of her beliefs, her faith. What makes Miss Hearne’s spiritual and religious doubts so destructive is that they’re among the few things she can hold on to.
And now, she wails at the locked tabernacle, “Was there nothing to pray to?” Is she really all alone, has she been forsaken? Or had she been fooling herself all along? Creating an illusion for herself—allowing herself to be swept up into the illusion? And look where it got her. Look, Miss Hearne rails:
“And now? What will become of me, am I to grow old in a room, year by year, until they take me to a poor-house? Am I to be a forgotten old woman, mumbling in a corner in a house run by nuns? What is to become of me, O Lord, alone in this city with only drink, hateful drink that dulls me, disgraces me, lonely drink that leaves me more lonely, more despised? Why this cross? Give me another, great pain, great illness, anything, but let there be someone, someone to share it? Why do You torture me, alone and silent behind Your little door, Why?”
Only bread, Miss Hearne realizes when the awaited bolt of lightning does come crashing down on her. The locked tabernacle, all the pomp and gold, and kneeling and hushed prayers, and hopes—bread, only bread. It’s as shattering to the reader when Miss Hearne breaks under this epiphany.
* The stimulant of unreason = Alcohol, religion, fanaticism, love, loneliness, the last chocolate kiss, the teetering towers of books. It’s all the same, no?
That cover is absolutely gorgeous. Called Dreaming Rose by Cecilia Paredes—and although I’m pleased as punch that lurid-against-chintz wallpaper could be so beautiful, for some reason, I prefer how NYRB Classics used it for their design, rather than the painting itself. Am I making sense?
This beauty was sent to me from NYRB Classics HQ.