Archiving the pandemic


Francis J.H. Jenkinson by John Singer Sargent (1915), Cambridge University Library

‘His long librarianship was uneventful on the whole’ (Gaselee)

In an April blogpost, I described how in 1915 Cambridge University Librarian Francis Jenkinson began work on a groundbreaking project to commemorate the First World War. Throughout the war years he gathered a huge collection of flyers, posters, pamphlets and books in English, French & German to produce as detailed a documentary record as possible of the European conflict. Cambridge residents were invited to take part in the project. “Such flying pieces as those which are dropped from aeroplanes or posted on hoardings would be particularly welcome”, read a 1915 advertisement in the Cambridge Magazine.

The material that was amassed by members of the public and Jenkinson’s worldwide contacts (one librarian was even sent to France to buy material) includes trench journals and pamphlets in German, French and English, produced by soldiers at the front line, magazines from internment camps, official histories and reports and propaganda posters. The collection was carefully preserved at the University Library as the ‘War of 1914-1919 Collection’ or War Reserve Collection, and today most of the material is so fragile that it has to be consulted on microfilm.

Now Francis Jenkinson’s unique archive has inspired a new collaborative project at the Cambridge University Library, which aims to document our experiences during the coronavirus crisis. Called “Collecting Covid-19”it involves the University and the wider Cambridge community in collecting material that will be used by future historians. It is organized by Caylin Smith, the UL’s Digital Preservation Manager, and Jacky Cox, the Keeper of the University Archives. They want to collect all kinds of digital and physical materials, including (but not limited to) videos, photographs, leaflets, journals and diaries. In London the Wellcome Collection is expected to coordinate efforts to collect similar material on a nationwide basis. We are all invited to act as our own archivists, and to store our individual collections safely until the libraries and museums open their doors again.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 3 May 2020

Sources: Stephen Gaselee, ‘Francis Jenkinson, 1853-1923: an address to the Bibliographical Society, 15 Oct. 1923’, Trans. Bibliog. Soc. . N.S.; v. 4, no. 3, Oxford, 1923

More about Francis Jenkinson’s War Reserve Collection here:

‘Collecting Covid-19’ Cambridge University website:

Endell Street


In 1915 Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson were the first women doctors to be formally sanctioned to run a military hospital for the British Army. They were life partners and active suffragettes who, before war broke out in 1914, were considered enemies of the state. But their pioneering medical work throughout the Great War at Endell Street, the army hospital they set up in a former workhouse in Covent Garden, earned them the respect of medical men and the wider public alike. They were featured in newspapers hungry for ‘good news’ stories during the time of national crisis. In 1917 the Tatler called them Murray and Anderson “men in the best sense of that word, and yet women in the best sense of that word also”, while the Daily Star described Endell Street as “no amateur hospital, though it may be run by mere women, and without masculine interference.” I’m delighted that today, another newspaper (The Guardian) has published my review of Wendy Moore’s book Endell Street: The suffragette surgeons of World War One: here’s a link to the online version.

The ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ of 1892: a detective story

A guest post by Carolyn Ferguson (textile historian, independent scholar and Adviser to the Board of the Museum of Cambridge), which examines the clues in a historic quilt. This post is based on a talk that Carolyn was to have given at Cambridge University Library as part of ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ series. Unfortunately this has had to be postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, so I’m delighted that Carolyn has provided us with this account of her fascinating detective work.

Whole coverlet

In 1985 an important piece of Cambridge history came up for auction in London. It was not a written document or a painting or a piece of pottery but a textile that had been given the moniker ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’. In 2012 the Museum of Cambridge acquired it (Museum of Cambridge Collection: 1.2014). An embroidered ‘1892’ suggested a likely date but who made it, and why, was a mystery. As an inveterate quilt and fabric researcher I have been lucky enough to be able to study this historic textile closely during the past eight years. Along the way there have been many red herrings and blind alleys; it has been quite a journey, involving both hard graft and incredible good luck.

The so-called ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ is an embroidered coverlet with a chequerboard design of alternate ‘Turkey red’ and white blocks. It belongs to the genre of ‘signature quilts’ where individual blocks have multiple names or initials that are written with ink or stamped or embroidered on to the fabrics in some way. Signature quilts form important primary historical documents that give insights into communities, neighbourhood groups, relationships, family history and important historical events. They were made either for fund-raising or for commemorative purposes, and in the UK the heyday of production was the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


There was no provenance to support the name, other than scant information from the seller’s family. The ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ differs from the norm as each block has an embroidered motif and/or initials. I have studied the iconography of its 475 embroidered blocks, about half of which have initials as well as stitched motifs, and I now believe that there were more than 200 individual stitchers – a much larger group than the 13 or so Cambridge Master’s Wives that existed in 1892! I have discovered that the quilt’s makers also included wives of Fellows and other University employees and town dignitaries, as well as women members of charitable organisations and neighbourhood and friendship groups. In addition there are initials of children.

What clues can be found in the individual blocks? 55% of them illustrate the Victorian love of flowers. Their content is, as we might expect, symbolic; there are daisy motifs representing the innocence of young love (and also the floral emblem for Girton College); ivy for fidelity and marriage; tulips for romantic love; corn to give riches and fertility and pomegranates for fertility and marriage. As an emblem of the Christian Church pomegranates represent hope for eternal life; in the near East, the abundance of seeds gives it the meaning of fertility.



Birds and animals also feature; love-birds, swallows, swans and storks all echo the sentiments of love, good fortune and fertility. Horse-shoe blocks suggest good luck wishes, and there are blocks that show 1890s fashions in sporting pastimes and motifs from oriental china and fans. There are also national flags for the US and Germany, religious symbols, Cambridge college crests and symbols  and hot air balloons.


Many people do not know that Cambridge has a history of ballooning. In 1829 saw the first balloon ascent in Cambridge, from the Seven Sisters Brewery in Newmarket Road. Thereafter this became an annual event. At Queen Victoria’s Coronation celebration, on Parker’s Piece in 1839, some 30,000 people saw a balloon ascent by Britain’s most famous balloonist, a Mr Green. This ascent cost 70 guineas – about £6000 today – and so was clearly very special. A balloon ascent also featured at the public festivities to celebrate the wedding on Prince George, later King George and Princess May (Mary of Teck) in July 1893.

It seems likely that this ‘Masters’ Wives Quilt’ of 1892 was made to celebrate a wedding, and that given that the quilt’s makers were important people from Cambridge town and gown, this wedding must have been significant. Two blocks offer important clues: one containing an obscure Welsh runic alphabet and another, poorly executed block of a slightly different colour, with a simple chain stitch cross. It’s likely that this ‘cross’ block was a replacement for an earlier one identifying the recipients. This suggests that the wedding never took place, as it would have been bad luck to keep the couple’s initials in place.

Cross block

There is a further vital clue in the Welsh runic block (see below), which follows the ‘Coelbren Y Bierdd’ or Welsh Bardic alphabet. The words ‘duw a digon’, translate as ‘God is enough’ or ‘God and Plenty’. Additionally this block has the initials, ‘m’ and ‘e’ above the runic letters and the initials AWT below. The top initials might represent ‘m’ for Princess May (Mary of Teck) and ‘e’ for Eddy, the name by which Prince Victor Albert of Wales, Duke of Clarence was commonly known.

RUNEAt the time of their engagement in early December 1891, Prince Albert Victor was second in line to the throne and would have been Prince of Wales after the death of Queen Victoria. The Welsh motto has a royal connection, for the National Trust collection has a George V Jubilee mug of 1935 showing a picture of the King and Queen with a ‘duw a digon’ inscription. I suggest that the quilt was made as a wedding gift by the Royal Borough of Cambridge for the royal marriage between Prince Victor Albert and Princess May (Mary) of Teck, due to take place on 27 February 1892. After the engagement was announced, committees were set up in December 1891 by societies, royal boroughs and masonic lodges across Britain, all keen to contribute to impressive wedding gifts.

As we know, this royal marriage never took place because the Prince died of influenza some weeks before the wedding date. You might say that the time between the news of the royal engagement and the projected wedding was too short to complete such a detailed quilt. However, given the timing of the engagement in just such an influenza epidemic as we are experiencing today, perhaps the women who made it were at home trying to amuse their children and needed a creative outlet. You, the reader, must make up your mind as to whether my argument is convincing or not.

© Text and photographs by Carolyn Ferguson, all rights reserved 14 April 2020. (Next post: about the quilt’s makers)

Carolyn Ferguson’s publications include ‘A weave of words: fabric print and pattern in mid-nineteenth-century women’s writing’ in Fashion and Material culture in Victorian Fiction and Periodicals ed. Janine Hatter and Nickianne Moody, Edward Everett Root, 2019, p 67 – 85.



Francis Jenkinson and the quiet storm


Like many people, I felt sad when Cambridge University Library had to close its doors last month because of the coronavirus pandemic. I miss the Manuscripts department, the friendly tea-room and the generous presence of librarians, archivists and staff. But it’s good to know that the library remains open online. This blogpost is my take on a personal crisis in the life of Francis Jenkinson, who was University Librarian from 1889 until 1923.

At the end of 1891 Francis Jenkinson, aged 38, had been working at the Cambridge University Library for just over two years. Then in its original location in the Schools building near King’s College, the old library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way’ (Whitelock). Jenkinson’s prestigious position of University Librarian was the job he had been born to do. He had been mentored by a previous holder of the post, Henry Bradshaw, and knew the contents of every book in the library; as well as deeply knowledgeable about early printing, Jenkinson was practical and had a warmth and generosity that made him as popular with his colleagues as he was with scholars and students. He had an uncanny, almost symbiotic connection with the library itself. One friend recalled how ‘he would rise from his bed when his subconscious mind told him there was a window left open, and go down in the small hours to shut it’ (H.F. Stewart). But during the darkest part of the winter of 1891-92, Francis Jenkinson seriously considered giving it all up.


Francis Jenkinson, 1880s

He had taken up the role of University Librarian during a time of great personal sadness. His wife Marian Sydney Wetton had died aged thirty in January 1888, just six months after they married. Marian was one of seven sisters from a musical family who lived in Surrey: her older sister Jennie had married Jenkinson’s friend, the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. After Marian’s death, Jennie and her unmarried sisters remained in close contact with Jenkinson, often dropping in at his home on Brookside, near the Fitzwilliam Museum, to play the piano and sing together. Early in December 1891, Francis confided in his friend Ida Darwin a momentous piece of news. He had fallen in love with Marian’s younger sister Mildred Wetton, a twenty-eight year old governess who worked in London, and they planned to marry.

Ida had met Francis shortly after she moved to Cambridge as a new bride in 1880. Jenkinson was a Trinity College fellow at the time, and supplemented his income by teaching Classics to students at Newnham College, one of the first women’s colleges. He tutored Ida in Ancient Greek and she and Francis became good friends, united by their love of music and gardening as well as literature. Francis was a frequent visitor to the Orchard on Huntingdon Road, where Horace and Ida lived with their three young children.

In early December 1891, love was in the newspaper headlines. Prince Albert Victor, who was Queen Victoria’s twenty-seven year old grandson and second in line to the throne, became engaged to Princess Mary of Teck on 3 December 1891. The royal family heaved a collective sigh of relief. Albert Victor was usually associated with rather more unwelcome publicity, including affairs with chorus girls and his name being linked to the Cleveland Street scandal after a male brothel there was raided by police. What Queen Victoria privately described as Albert Victor’s ‘dissipated life’ began when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1880s. It’s not known what Francis Jenkinson thought of him, but one nameless tutor complained that the college’s royal student ‘hardly knows the meaning of the words to read‘ (Magnus, 178). After Albert Victor’s unsuccessful stint in the army and lengthy trips overseas, it was decided that he needed to settle down with a sensible wife, and his distant cousin Princess Mary of Teck fitted the bill perfectly. Their marriage date was set for 27 February 1892.


Prince Albert Victor, late 1880s

The royal engagement was the good news story that the nation badly needed. That winter the papers were full of reports of a new wave of influenza that was killing people in England in ever larger numbers. This was the second of two epidemics that followed on the heels of the so-called ‘Russian flu’ of 1889-90, the pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. In 1890 Winston Churchill, then a fifteen-year old schoolboy at Harrow, wrote a poem called ‘The Influenza’ about it: ‘The rich, the poor, the high, the low/Alike the various symptoms know/ Alike before it droop.’ As Mark Honigsbaum writes in ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’, ‘the Russian flu was extensively documented and seen to spread rapidly between European capitals via international rail, road and shipping connections in a westward progression that was the subject of widespread commentary in both the daily and periodical press.’ According to a report published by the Wellcome Institute, 1892 was characterized by ‘a marked excess of deaths from influenza and pneumonia.’ It was a frightening time for people of all social classes, as the young Churchill was aware.

Ida was worried for Horace and their small children as well as their household staff, as more and more people they knew fell ill. But she was aware that, if word about Jenkinson’s engagement got out, it would cause a scandal in Cambridge no less shocking than Albert Victor’s rumoured visits to Cleveland Street. Under the Marriage Act of 1835 it was illegal in the United Kingdom and colonies for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife. In his book, Marianne Thornton   17971887: A Domestic Biography (1956) EM Forster wrote about how much unhappiness this law caused, describing it as  ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’ (see my article here). Throughout the Victorian period the issue was hotly debated every year in parliament, but Anglican bishops in the Lords helped to ensure that the prohibition remained until the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907.

If the law did not change, Francis and Mildred would have to go abroad to marry and would be ostracized if they ever returned to England; any children they might have would be considered illegitimate in the eyes of most Anglicans. Ida was afraid that if others heard of his engagement, Jenkinson might lose his job as University Librarian. The situation would have to be managed in the most inconspicuous way possible. Ida needed to stay at home to care for her household, and so was not able to go to visit Francis as much as she would have liked. So she did the next best thing: she wrote to him, hoping that she could change his mind.

All through December and into January, letters flew back and forth between Brookside and the Orchard. The normally mild-mannered, bookish Jenkinson raged against the Anglican Church and its bishops, while Ida remained calm and sympathetic, soothing him like a feverish child. The only other people who knew about the crisis were two family members who could be trusted to be discreet: his sister Nelly Jenkinson, and his distant cousin Daisy Stewart. Daisy had grown up in Edinburgh but now lived in Grantchester, where she worked as a music tutor. She had been in love with Francis for years, but accepted that he saw her only as a friend. She hated to see him so unhappy.

Why did he behave so recklessly, and risk losing the job he had worked so hard for? I think that the answer might lie in how the repeated flu epidemics affected the way that people thought during this time of national crisis. Jenkinson’s appointment as University Librarian in 1889 had coincided with the ‘Russian flu’ pandemic, which was the first recorded outbreak of influenza in England since 1848. Four million Britons fell ill and 127,000 died. Then another killer wave of flu struck the country in May 1891. Six months later, as the third epidemic reached Cambridge, Jenkinson must have wondered if he would live to do the work that he wanted to do. Overwork and anxiety were considered to be contributing factors in those who caught the flu, and for all his energy, Jenkinson had frequent bouts of illness. In 1890 The Times warned that the influenza’s impact on the imagination was ‘disproportionate to its actual destructiveness’ (Honigsbaum), but the fear that gripped everyone was very real. The number of deaths peaked in London in the third week of January 1892, when it was recorded that over five hundred people died of influenza and pneumonia. The poor suffered most, of course, but no one was safe. Prince Albert Victor became ill with flu symptoms at a shooting party at Sandringham in early January. Pneumonia set in, and he died a week after his twenty-eighth birthday on 14 January 1892.

There would be no royal wedding that year, and the nation went into mourning. In the months following Albert Victor’s death, his younger brother George, the Duke of York, became close to his (almost) sister-in-law. There was no taboo on their love, and in May 1893 they married with Queen Victoria’s blessing. In 1910 he was crowned George V, and she became Queen Mary (the present Queen is their granddaughter). Some twentieth-century historians have rather unkindly suggested that Albert Victor’s early death was ‘a merciful act of providence’ (Magnus, 239) allowing his sober brother and his equally responsible wife to steer the country through the crises of World War One and the depression of the 1920s and early 1930s.

By the middle of January 1892 in Cambridge, there was a gap in the storm clouds for Ida, as her household slowly recovered from the flu. Now she decided to take action. First, she wrote to Mildred, who replied with a subdued note of thanks and promised not to visit Brookside for a while. Then she wrote to Mildred’s older sister Jennie. Her husband Charles Stanford’s mother and two of aunts had died of the flu just a few weeks before, and Jennie herself had been very ill, so it’s likely that Ida did not want to involve them earlier. But now the Stanfords took charge. It seems that they talked sense into Francis, and by February the idea of an engagement was quietly dropped. The storm had passed, and most of their friends, family and work colleagues never even knew that it had happened.


Francis J.H. Jenkinson by John Singer Sargent (1915), Cambridge University Library

Francis Jenkinson worked as University Librarian for the next thirty years, until shortly before his death in 1923. His contribution to the library was immense. He sorted and catalogued valuable acquisitions, including 140,000 fragments of the ancient Cairo Genizah and the contents of Lord Acton’s library, and appointed one of the University’s first woman librarians, the Sanskrit scholar and former Girton student, C.M. Ridding. In 1910 he was sent a collection of suffrage posters, which he carefully preserved in the library’s archives. This rare collection was recently displayed at the UL to mark 100 years since some British women got the vote (read more here).

Unusually for the time, Jenkinson was passionately interested in collecting ephemeral matter such as flyers, postcards, and posters. He felt that such “unconsidered trifles” told stories about people’s lives that would be lost otherwise. During the First World War he gathered a huge collection of this so-called disposable literature, and his War Reserve Collection is now an invaluable source for researchers. In 1915 the American artist John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint Jenkinson’s portrait to mark his twenty-five years as University Librarian, and this beautiful painting still hangs in the library today.

In 1902 Jenkinson married his ‘dear friend’ Daisy Stewart. The couple spent over twenty happy years together, travelling to the Alps with Ida and Horace and marking Mozart’s birthday with a piano concert at Brookside on 27 January every year. Mildred Wetton continued to teach English literature, and eventually became headmistress of her own private school in Kensington. She never married. In his biography Francis Jenkinson (1926) Hugh F. Stewart reflects that, until his second marriage, his brother-in-law lived a solitary life on Brookside, ‘save for the occasional presence of his sister, or of a sister-in-law, or of a scholar on bibliography intent.’ Perhaps this fleeting mention is a quiet acknowledgement of Mildred’s ephemeral, but important, place in Jenkinson’s life.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 2 April 2020 (all rights reserved)

Notes: My warm thanks to Frank Bowles, Karen Davies, Carolyn Ferguson, Eve Smith and Jill Whitelock for their help. Any errors are my own.

Online sources (all accessed 2 April 2020):

Karen Bourrier ‘If this be error: marrying the sister of a deceased wife was illegal in Victorian England’ History Today, 11 April 2018,

Stephen Gaselee, ‘Francis Jenkinson, 1853-1923: an address to the Bibliographical Society, 15 Oct. 1923’, Trans. Bibliog. Soc. . N.S.; v. 4, no. 3, Oxford, 1923

Mark Honigsbaum,  ‘The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893’, Social History of Medicine, Vol 23, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 299–319

Mark Nicholls, ‘A Reason for Remembering: Francis Jenkinson and the War Reserve Collection’, Jill Whitelock, ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blogpost

‘Albert Victor, Prince, duke of Clarence and Avondale (1864–1892)’ and ‘Jenkinson, Francis John Henry (1853–1923)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

‘Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health, London 1892’,

‘The modern library’ on Cambridge University Library’s website;

‘Francis John Henry Jenkinson’ memorial on Trinity College Chapel website

‘Mr F.J.H. Jenkinson’, obituary in The Times, 22 Sep. 1923.

Books: Margaret Clifford Jenkinson, A Fragrance of Sweet Memories [Reminiscences of Francis Jenkinson], unpublished memoir, Cambridge University Library; P. Magnus, King Edward the Seventh (1964); H. F. Stewart, Francis Jenkinson: a memoir (1926); Francis John Henry Jenkinson by H.W. S[impkinson], Marlborough , 1923 [1 v.] ; 19 cm. Repr. from The Marlburian, 28 Nov. 1923.

Cambridge University Library Archives: Jenkinson, FJH to Ida Darwin, MS Add 9368.1: 16513 & ff.; letters from Jenkinson, Margaret Clifford ‘Daisy’ (1858-1933) née Stewart to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/40; from Jenkinson, Eleanor Louisa ‘Nelly’ (1855-1948) to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/42; Wetton, Mildred to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/70; Stanford, Jennie to Ida Darwin, MS Add.10286/1/67; FJH Jenkinson’s diaries and letters held at Cambridge University Library.


Brian Moore: a sense of home

Brian Moore

“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.

Coming Home

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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