Irish novelist Brian Moore placed a nearly insuperable obstacle in the path of his first novel, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," published in 1957. Taking a risk that ought to have made the book unconvincing or unappealing or both, he made his heroine a woman over 40, homely, impoverished, essentially without talent (though she tries to give piano lessons), narrow-minded (though she prides herself on her refinement), conventionally pious and a closet alcoholic.
In American fiction, such a character might turn up in a story by Flannery O'Connor, but O'Connor, with an almost sadistic glee, would make her as antipathetic as possible. She would make her an affront to civilized sensibility, as if to say, "Take that , gentle reader!" Moore, by contrast, is tender with his heroine. He does not loose her upon us like a freak and watch her make us flinch. Against the odds, he invites us to like her; and to that end, he reports in detail on her interior life. No human mind, he implies, is too small to have a few thoughts. You just have to listen close.
It is notoriously difficult for a writer to portray the interior life of the opposite sex. It is equally difficult for the well-educated and cosmopolitan to portray the interior life of the ill-educated and provincial. And it is supremely difficult, finally, for the agnostic to portray the interior life of the believer. For all three reasons, when a woman like Miss Hearne turns up in a novel written by a well-educated, cosmopolitan, agnostic male writer, she is usually a part of the setting, not a part of the core action. In a novel set like Moore's in a Belfast boarding house, her few lines might serve to establish the backdrop of starchy public virtue and sorry private vice against which the more interesting action would then unfold. Moore's novel is different. It is a novel in which, as it were, a piece of the scenery steps forward and starts talking.
" 'O Moira,' Miss Hearne begins, in the book's climactic confession, " 'you always were the lucky one, a husband and children around you, you'll never know what it's like to be me. . . .' "
Miss Hearne is talking to the wife of a man whom, years earlier, she herself had hoped to marry. By a cruel irony, Mrs. O'Neill is the only person who has shown the aging Miss Hearne any reliable kindness. Her last hope for marriage now torn from her, Miss Hearne turns to Mrs. O'Neill for comfort:
" 'Do you know how long I've waited to be married, Moira? Do you know how many years, every one of them twelve long months? Well, I'll tell you, it's twenty odd years, Moira, if you count from the time I was twenty. O, I know I didn't think about it all that time--when my aunt was ill, I gave up thinking about it for a while. But a woman never gives up, Moira, does she? Even when she's like me and knows it's impossible, she never gives up. There's always Mr. Right, Moira, only he changes as the years go by. At first he's tall, dark and handsome, a young man, Moira, and then you're not so young and he's middle-aged, but still tall and handsome. And then there's moments when he's anybody, anybody who might be eligible. O, I've looked at all sorts of men, men I didn't even like. But that's not the end, that's not the worst of it.'
"Her fingernails dug into the flesh of Moira's arm. She leaned forward, across the table, her dark nervous eyes filled with confessional zeal.
" 'No, no, I'm going to tell you the whole thing, Moira, the whole thing. Because I have to tell it to somebody; somebody must listen. That's not the worst when he's just anybody who might be eligible. You might as well forget about eligible men. Because you're too late, you've missed your market. Then you're up for any offers. Marked down goods. You're up for auction, a country auction, where the auctioneer stands up and says what am I bid? And he starts at a high price, saying what he'd like best. No offers. Then second best. No offers. Third? No offers. What am I bid, Moira? And somebody comes along, laughable, and you take him. If you can get him. Because it's either that or back on the shelf for you. Back to your furnished room and your prayers. And your hopes.' "
The passion is a common Catholic expression for the last sufferings of Christ, and that phrase echoes in Moore's title. And yet if "The Lonely Passion" is a religious novel, its protagonist is most unlike the usual protagonist in such novels. She is unlike, for example, Querry in Graham Greene's "A Burnt-Out Case." Querry is an admired European architect, famous above all for the meditative beauty of his churches, privately dissolute, despairingly so, but theologically sophisticated. When he arrives in the Congo, seeking nothing, just fleeing his own empty life, he finds his way to a medical mission where an idealistic doctor, an atheist, works alongside a missionary. They talk. Later, he finds a corrupt, wife-abusing ex-Jesuit in the same jungle area. They talk too. The interest of "A Burnt-Out Case" lies in the interest of the talk among such interesting characters.
There is no such interest in Judith Hearne's talk. We are drawn into the urgency of her situation despite the fact--and Moore makes this abundantly clear--that she is both pathetic and boring. Miss Hearne's conventional faith and her perhaps equally conventional loss of faith grip us because they are of a piece with her most inescapable physical needs. She needs shelter: Because of her alcoholism, she has been evicted from a series of boarding houses. She needs food: Her income from an inheritance is so small that much of the time she is literally hungry. She needs a man, as she reveals so shamelessly to Mrs. O'Neill. Most of all, she needs a drink. "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" contains what may be the finest description in English of the trembling moment--exquisitely prolonged in Moore's telling--when an alcoholic determined to remain sober surrenders to the bottle.
Miss Hearne is never more religious than when these needs are most intense. She speaks to the picture of the Sacred Heart on her bedroom wall as she begins her binge. She takes her hunger for a man to, of all people, her confessor. But juxtapositions of the sacred and the profane that in another writer would be made for the comic effect--like a flatus during a sermon--have a very different effect in Moore. If the quintessential modernist move is to laugh at the solemn, then Moore is the quintessential post-modernist: He presents the laughable but arrests the laugh. Miss Hearne is without irony. The poor thing, as Mrs. O'Neill calls her, means everything she says and does, and Moore has eliminated the comic distance between her and us. In his later career as a writer, he has performed this feat again and again.
I am writing this column in part because on New Year's Day, 1988, Calendar ran an inside feature which it announced on Page 1 as "an interview with the man who wrote 'The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne'." The article turned out to be an interview not with Brian Moore, however, but with Peter Nelson, who had written the screenplay for the new movie version of the novel. Writer Len Klady included a photograph of Moore and a long opening paragraph on him before turning to the too-typical industry story of how film rights were bought and sold and lost and found as the years passed.
In short, Klady got the facts quite right, but the anonymous author of the Page 1 announcement may have made, all unknowing, the better prediction. I mean that because more people watch movies than read novels, Peter Nelson's version of "The Lonely Passion" will become the only one for many more people than ever will hear the name Brian Moore.
By all accounts, the movie is a good one; but good as it may be, it has twisted and softened the novel. Sheila Benson, in an otherwise enthusiastic review of the movie, drew attention to at least one instance of this. In the movie, Miss Hearne (Maggie Smith) delivers a bitter and pleading confession of the pain of her single state to the man (Bob Hoskins) whom she hopes to marry. Benson thought that this confession was just not one that a woman would ever speak to a man, much less to the man she hoped to marry. It was the sort of thing a woman would only say to another woman, Benson thought, and she was right. In the original, this speech is indeed spoken to a woman. It is the long speech quoted, in part, above. As written, it gains enormously in poignancy by being addressed to a woman who has what Miss Hearne yearns for and to whom Miss Hearne has always secretly condescended. A bit drunk as she arrives at Mrs. O'Neill's door, Miss Hearne says, "I have come to you. You of all people. And I never liked you, Moira, that's the truth, I never liked you."
In my limited experience, screenwriters suffer immensely more over what directors do to their scripts than novelists ever suffer over what screenwriters do to their novels. For this and other reasons, there is no need to defend Brian Moore. The film version of "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" is a tribute to him, in the end, not an attack upon him. Nonetheless, after you have spent your $10 for a pair of movie tickets, consider spending $6.95 for the Atlantic Monthly Press paperback edition of the novel. The Book of the Month Club, during its 60th anniversary year, voted "The Lonely Passion" one of the 60 best novels published during the Club's existence (1926-1986). It contains in germ all the themes that have flowered in a literary career that is both long-running and not yet over: "The Color of Blood," Moore's most recent novel, about a kidnaped Polish cardinal, has just been named Book of the Year by the London Sunday Express.