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Irish Woman, Over 40, Weeping

January 31, 1988|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

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.' "

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