In the 26 years since he published his acclaimed first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore has worked with quiet industry to create a body of fiction that has a significant place in contemporary literature. The Temptation of Eileen Hughes is his 13th novel, a short but highly concentrated work with only three main characters. Bernard McAuley, 34, is a successful businessman, the richest Catholic in Lismore, Northern Ireland. His wife, Mona, is clever, beautiful and hard-edged: a woman who was lured by his money, and enjoys the privileges and the power that go with it. Completing the triad is Eileen Hughes, a shy, convent-educated girl who is employed by the McAuleys in their department store in Lismore.
It is typical of Moore’s subtlety as a novelist that the character of Bernard McAuley is revealed through the eyes of Mona and Eileen. With his famous ability to penetrate the female psyche, Moore takes us into the minds of these two very different women, the one jaded and worldly, the other naïve and innocent. By skillfully controlling the point of view, Moore gives us a composite picture of an outwardly successful man whose inner life is a shambles—he is spiritually and emotionally maimed. Bernard has come to believe that “sex isn’t love . . . it’s the opposite of love. Love, real love, is quite different from desire. It’s like the love a mystic feels
for God. It’s worship____” Consequently,
he turns away from physical relations !
with his wife, preferring to masturbate in his study. Bernard transfers his love to the attractive Eileen, and for a year and a half worships her from afar, while she has remained totally unaware of his devotion.
In London he declares his love to the astonished girl in wild, quasi-mystical terms, and asks her to live platonically with him and Mona in a splendid country house. Eileen rejects him with a mixture of disgust, bewilderment and pity, and Bernard attempts suicide in a scene that is harrowingly described. Recalling that he had once entered a monastery, Bernard tells Eileen: “I offered
myself to God once. I wasn’t wanted____
So I rejected God then. And now, you’re my God.” This is one of Moore’s favorite preoccupations: the survival or defeat of a person whose God has failed, and who must now face the desolate loneliness of a life without the consolation of religion. For the celibate Bernard McAuley, “love is a religion whose God is fallible,” and that God is Eileen. To Mona, Eileen is something quite different: “the new bad angel in their lives, the new third partner in their marriage.” Moore is fascinated by the conflict between strong women and insecure, churlish men. In most of his novels the men escape with bruised and lacerated egos; in this case the man is destroyed.
Eileen’s triumph is to extricate herself from the power of the McAuleys, whose wealth has allowed them to manipulate and arrange the lives of others to suit themselves. When Eileen resists the temptation to fall in with their plans, she realizes that she has broken free of the spell cast by their money.
When we leave her at the end of the story she has grown in moral stature, and is invested with a tragic dignity she did not possess before.
The mood of this novel is elegiac; the scenes are acutely observed, the dialogue beautifully judged. The writing is spare, lucid, deceptively simple—a prose that moved Kingsley Amis to remark that Moore “can write most of his contemporaries into the ground.” The Temptation of Eileen Hughes may not rank with Moore’s best work—it hasn’t the sustained intensity of An Answer From Limbo (1962), or the perfection of Catholics (1972)—but it is a fine novel nevertheless. And it should serve as a useful corrective for those who have complained (since the huge financial success of The Doctor’s Wife in 1976) that Moore has “gone commercial.” In this, as in all his other novels, there is none of the esthetic surrender or capitulation of personal standards that such a charge implies. Whether he chooses to tell his story as a conventional narrative, or in the form of a parable (Catholics), or allegory (The Great Victorian Collection, 1975) or a Gothic tale with hints of the supernatural ( The Mangan Inheritance, 1979), Brian Moore remains a magician who keeps pulling new surprises out of his hat. The only thing predictable about him is his excellence as a novelist.
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