Judith Hearne is a spinster past her 40s, living alone in Belfast after her only relative, her aunt died. The two items that she always puts in her room are her late aunt pictures and the Sacred Heart picture. The devotion to the Sacred Heart (of Jesus Christ) is a well-known Catholic devotion, and Miss Hearne, like most Irish in the book, is a devoted Catholics. She had never missed Sunday mass, she had made the Nine Fridays every year, she went to evening devotions regularly, and she never missed her daily prayers.
Miss Hearne found comfort in her religion, she was assured by its guarantee of eternal happiness, that every pain is a cross human must bear, that she too will someday be blessed with a husband and a family. She did not give up this hope even after 20 years.
At the beginning of the story, Miss Hearne just moved to a boarding house owned by Mrs Henry-Rice. There, she met the other tenants, Mr Madden (Mrs Henry-Rice’s brother), Miss Friel, Mr Lenehan. There are also Bernard Rice (the son of Mrs Henry-Rice) and Mary the maid. Upon meeting with Mr Madden, Miss Hearne’s imagination ran wild. Knowing that he had lived in America for years, working in the hotel business, and also the fact that he showed interest in her, made Miss Hearne daydreaming of being Mrs Madden, sailing to America.
It is so painful to read how Miss Hearne is aware of how men react towards her:
He stared at Miss Hearne with bloodshot eyes, rejecting her as all males had before him.page 9
She smiled, waited for his male movement, the turning away, the rejection.page 23
and even the people she considered friends, the O’Neill, whom she visited every Sunday noon after church, found her boring and an object to make fun with.
Shaun O’Neill lifted his head from a book and glanced at the ornate, painted clock on the mantelpiece.
‘Five minutes,’ he said. ‘Or maybe ten. Let’s say ten minutes at most before the advent of the Great Bore.’page 70
Miss Hearne earns her living as a piano teacher, but lately, she’d been losing pupils in the last six months. She had to ration her food, and sometimes she skipped supper so she could save money.
Her situation made her even more desperate and she saw Mr Madden as a way out of her miserable life. When Mr Madden asked her to walk to the church one Sunday, Miss Hearne was positive that this was God’s answer to her prayer.
For she was in church, after all these years, with a good man kneeling beside her, not the youngest or the handsomest surely, but a man who had not forgotten her in the moment of meeting, who had kept his faith and said his beads and had not been turned away from God’s love by bitterness or evil or any sinful temptation.page 60
But Mr Madden did not see Ms Hearne in that way. He was not the man that Ms Hearne had imagined him. After learning the bitter truth, bit by bit Miss Hearne fell into dark depression – and this is where the story starts to get very exciting. We learned that Miss Hearne also had a secret, and slowly Brian Moore reveals to us what Miss Hearne feels about her lives, her friends, her aunt, her landlady and the other tenants.
Towards the end, we will see Miss Hearne who had lost her faith. She tried to save it, went into a confession, asked for help to the priest, but she got none.
She saw the Pope, Christ’s Vicar on Earth, tall, white-robed, his fingers extended in blessing. Surely he a saint of God, would have helped her. But what if he could not? What if there was no God?page 174
She stood up, staring at the tabernacle. She stepped out of her bench. She did not genuflect. She turned away from the altar and walked slowly out of the church. Her hand, from the habit of a lifetime, found the Holy Water font, dipped two fingers in it. But she did not make the Sign of the Cross.
Show me a sign, she said.page 175
I closed the book (the ending was terribly painful) and thanking my lucky star that I had heard of this book, thanks to NYRB classic with its stunning cover. This book is a perfect novel. It’s only 223 pages long, but all words were written serve its purpose. Just in one paragraph or sentence, Brian Moore could describe a character, an emotion, distress, in such a simple efficient way. Just like this first paragraph of the book:
The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantelpiece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.Page 1
As a woman, I could say that Brian Moore touched some deep, hidden fear most women possess: to be seen unattractive, to be left alone, to grow old without love, to have no one and have so little. Judy’s imagination of being Mrs Madden, to live in America, to open a business with Mr Madden, is definitely natural. You can ask women what they thought about the first time they met their husband. They might say: I did not expect that he would be the one! But I can tell you that was a straight lie. Women measure men the first time they meet them: jobs, social class, education, family, table manner, the way he dresses, etc etc and this often ends up in seeing herself as his partner/spouse/wife. I’m not saying that this should be done because I think this is borderline prejudice. But how much women can tolerate in men is also very surprising – Miss Hearne herself was ready to lower her expectation for Mr Madden. And this is the fear speaking.
It would be better to be with someone (even though he was, as Mr Hearne put it, common as mud) rather than to be alone. Reading the book in 2020 I felt a bit sad for Miss Hearne, for her potentials, her kindness, her strength that all went to waste in one disappointment after another. I thought: modern women would not let this happen! But obviously, that is not true – I have known personally several Judith Hearnes, who sacrificed their lives for religion, men, marriage, family and put themselves in a position that men would not have taken.
A five-star read.
This edition is published by New York Review Book, 2010