“There are those who choose to leave home vowing never to return and those who, forced to leave for economic reasons, remain in thrall to a dream of the land they left behind,” the Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore (1921-1999) wrote in ‘Going Home’, his last, posthumously published essay. “And then there are those stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled vast, varied and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home. I am one of those wanderers.” Below is my article “Coming Home’ (first published in Slightly Foxed and republished here with their kind permission) about Brian Moore’s sense of home and why, in the end, he wanted to return to Ireland.
Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.
Ann Kennedy Smith
We first meet the eponymous heroine of Brian Moore’s novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) shortly after she has moved into her new lodgings. As she carefully unpacks a silver-framed photograph of her Aunt D’Arcy and a religious image of the Sacred Heart, we sense her 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’.
Judith Hearne is an unmarried, middle-aged woman living on precarious means in the 1950s. Both Miss Hearne (as she is always known) and the boarding-house have seen better days, but she does not dwell on her reduced circumstances for long. She takes pride in her neat appearance, devout Roman Catholicism and grammar-school education. The sparse furniture in her rented room can be moved to hide the stains, and her two pictures are comforting talismans: ‘When they’re with me, watching over me, a new place becomes home.’
Belfast is the setting for this modern classic about self-delusion, spiritual crisis and an awakening to a new truth. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne made its author famous and put the city on the world literary map. For the latter part of the twentieth century, however, Northern Ireland was a place associated with bitter conflict, not bleak social comedy. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a peaceful seaside town there, but when I first read Moore’s novel in the 1980s, Belfast had long been ravaged by the Troubles. Perhaps it was because of this that Bruce Beresford’s 1987 film of the book relocated the story to Dublin. Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins are excellent actors, but the book’s essential Northern Irish geography is missing.
Brian Moore was born in 1921 and grew up in Clifton Street, then an affluent part of Belfast close to busy Royal Avenue. His father was a prominent surgeon and the first Catholic to be appointed to the Senate of Queen’s University; his mother Eileen was a nurse from Donegal, twenty years younger than her husband. Dr James Moore’s surgery was on the ground floor of their tall Victorian house, while Brian (always pronounced ‘Bree-an’ in the Gaelic way by his family) and his eight siblings spent their days in the spacious rooms above with their mother, nursemaid Nellie and two maiden aunts. Moore later described it as a ‘house of women’. Just opposite was the Central Orange Hall with a statue of a conquering King William III on horseback on the roof, a constant reminder of the social and religious divisions of the city.
‘Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties,’ Moore wrote. ‘It is time to leave home.’ Aged 22, having failed at university and abandoned his Catholicism, he knew that to become a writer he would have to leave Ireland, just as his literary hero James Joyce had done before him. The Second World War gave him the opportunity. In 1943, as German bombs rained down on Belfast, he joined the British Army and served as an administrator on the edge of war zones in North Africa, Italy and France.
After the war, he worked for the United Nations in Warsaw. This international experience introduced him, as his biographer Denis Sampson observes, ‘to a world without national or ethnic borders’ and made a lasting impact on his imagination. In his later novels he often returned to those places that he called his ‘emotional territories’, and explored his fictional characters’ inner conflicts in times and places as far apart as seventeenth-century Canada in Black Robe (1985), 1940s eastern Europe in The Colour of Blood (1987) and modern-day Haiti in No Other Life (1993).
In 1947 Moore settled in Montreal, where he found a job as a journalist and wrote a series of bestselling thrillers under pseudonyms. He married Jackie, a French-Canadian fellow journalist, and just before their son Michael was born in 1953, he became a Canadian citizen. By then, he was already at work on his first serious novel, one in which he would return to Belfast to ‘write it out of my system’, he thought. Only later did he realize that as well as setting out the bitter reasons why he had left Ireland, his novel touched on his own loneliness as an exile.
It was thanks to Diana Athill that Judith Hearne, as it was originally called, was published in London in 1955 (ten American publishers turned it down). As co-director of André Deutsch, she passionately championed Moore’s book when others doubted, and in her memoir Stet she recalls meeting its author: ‘a small, fat, round-headed, sharp-nosed man resembling a robin, whose flat Ulster accent was the first of its kind I had heard’. They became good friends and remained so until 1967 when, in the wake of a bitter divorce, Brian Moore abruptly ended their personal and professional relationship. Deutsch had published Moore’s first five novels, including The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) and The Emperor of Ice Cream (1965). Others that he wrote later are ‘outstandingly good’, Athill writes, ‘but to my mind he never wrote anything more moving and more true than Judith Hearne’.
It’s a book that takes you into the heart of a claustrophobic postwar Belfast, a city where – in this novel at least – it never seems to stop raining.
The rain began to patter again on the windows, growing heavier, soft persistent Irish rain coming up Belfast Lough, caught in the shadow of Cave Hill. It settled on the city, a night blanket of wetness.
Judith Hearne is all too familiar with the city’s rain-sodden streets and chilly bedsits, moving as she does from one sordid lodging to another. Now in her forties, she has spent most of her adult life looking after her ‘dear aunt’, who selfishly made sure that her niece never married or went to secretarial college. Her aunt’s death has left her vulnerable and alone, eking out a meagre living as a piano teacher. Her religiousness takes the form of observance rather than faith, and she snobbishly refuses to mix with lower-class Catholics. Her Sunday afternoon tea with the O’Neills, a university professor and his family, is the only bright point of Miss Hearne’s week, but certainly not of theirs. The O’Neills’ comfortable home is based on Moore’s memories of his own family’s house in Clifton Street.
Judith Hearne is a victim of forces beyond her control, and her self-delusion and snobbery are all that keep her afloat. She worships the bullying parish priest Father Quigley while looking down on the professor’s kindly wife Moira. Her busybody landlady Mrs Rice and pampered son Bernard are unpleasant characters, as are her fellow lodgers, but one seems different. James Patrick Madden is uneducated and loudly dressed, but unlike every other man, he does not reject Judith at first glance. He is a recently returned emigrant, having spent most of his working life in New York, ‘in the hotel business right on Times Square’, as he puts it. With his brash manners Madden is out of place in Belfast, but Miss Hearne recognizes that underneath his bluster he is as lonely as she is. She begins to dream of marrying him and finding the security and happiness she craves, until the illusions that have sustained her are punctured one by one.
The sense of desperation in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is set alongside nuanced observations and moments of pure social comedy. The landlady’s morning hair, ‘sticking out from her head like a forkful of wet hay’, a dejected greyhound ‘moving his tiny padded feet in discomfort at the cold’ and the damp misery of Belfast are conveyed brilliantly, and we feel the texture of a life lived out in this unfriendly environment. The almost invisible Miss Hearne becomes a woman who refuses to be ignored, with a voice that becomes more honest and braver, never more so than when she has nothing left to lose. As Diana Athill says, Moore’s view of life in this novel is tragic, ‘but one that does not make a fuss about tragedy, accepting it as part of the fabric with which we all have to make do’. Judith Hearne has something in common with that other flawed literary heroine, Emma Bovary. We sympathize with her, not for her likeability, but because of the way that Moore captures her inner life.
Graham Greene called Brian Moore his favourite living novelist, and it’s easy to see why: Moore’s nineteen novels range from political parables to metaphysical thrillers and historical fiction. His best novels, for me, are the ones that centre on a woman’s consciousness, including I Am Mary Dunne (1968), The Doctor’s Wife (1976) and his last published novel, The Magician’s Wife (1997).
Apart from occasional visits, Moore never went back to Belfast, and he spent most of his later life writing in relative seclusion in California with his second wife Jean. Even though he became internationally famous, and won many literary honours, he was not always recognized in his native Ireland. He told the story of how, in the 1990s, he went into a bookshop in Dublin and asked if they had anything ‘by the Irish writer, Brian Moore’. No, the assistant said, after checking the computer, but they did have several novels by a Canadian writer of that name.
Moore might feel differently about the welcoming, cosmopolitan city that is Belfast today. Go and see it for yourself if you can: the Lough and surrounding hills look beautiful in the sunshine after the rainclouds have passed. Moore wrote his essay ‘Going Home’ after visiting the grave of a long-dead family friend in Connemara. There, looking out to sea, it struck him that, after a lifetime of travelling, he had made his peace with Ireland. ‘And in that moment I know that when I die, I would like to come home at last to be buried here in this quiet place among the grazing cows.’ It was the last essay he wrote, published posthumously in February 1999.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Ann Kennedy Smith 2020
This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 65, Spring 2020.
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