This is such a funny one for me to review. Because I studied it for half of my research project (find out more here), I know more about what other people think of this book than certainly any other Murdoch, and probably any other book in the world. The thing that surprised me most about the outcomes of getting 25 book groups to read the book is that so many of them saw it through the lens of modern-day events and preoccupations, some describing Michael as a predatory paedophile, with many fewer taking exception to the much more clearly evidenced instance of drunk driving. While there has been writing about Michael (notably by Pamela Osborn) I still push back against his actively predatory nature.

Reader Peter Rivenberg has sent me some fabulous cover images from his copies, including our first French one! The first one has an image from the BBC production, which I’ve never seen. Is that supposed to be Dora and Paul?

Do please share any other cover images you’ve got of your copies of this one – although surely there can’t be any MORE editions? Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Iris Murdoch – “The Bell”

(14 October 2017)

Another delight to read (fortunately – I think I’ve settled in to realising I’m not going to come to the conclusion I’ve stopped loving IM’s novels now). And once again, my allegiances have shifted. I used to think Dora was the heroine, and she is allowed to grow and change and develop into service and perhaps deeper thought and less frivolousness. I’d completely forgotten that she actually had an affair with Noel, and IM is pretty horrible to her, with lots of asides of things like of course she hadn’t bothered to look up the railway timetable. I used to have more time for Michael, but I became annoyed with the way he falls into issues and scenes because of not thinking things through or considering the consequences, surely an example of IM’s keenness on ‘attention’. We see his thought processes over Nick and Toby, changing his mind and bringing himself round to be in the right. But I can’t see him as predatory or an actual paedophile as such, as Nick is 15 (yes, I know, but we’re not talking children) and Toby 18. He is also described as “having no time for philosophical speculation” (p. 118) just as he starts examining what it is to be good. I used to find Mrs Mark amusing, but she’s AWFUL, isn’t she. Coy and passive-aggressive and just dreadful.

Of course I still love the nuns, aquatic and otherwise, with their no-nonsense good humour and firm but simple faith. They pay attention to what’s necessary and step in only when needed.

The Murdoch themes are all there, curly hair, cut hair, twins / siblings, stones, water, complicated arrangements, the contrast of London and the country. There are lots of echoes, from the three sermons (James’, Michael’s and Nick’s twisted one) and Dora loses her shoes twice, there are two bells, and Imber and the Abbey, of course.

There’s humour again, of course, as there always is (isn’t there?). For example, Dora on the train:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady, ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’ (p. 11)

I find Dora’s reaction to her first sight of the nuns really funny, too:

… she now made out with an unpleasant shock a shapeless pile of squatting black cloth that must be a nun. (p. 28)

The use of the word “rebarbative” was noted by my group of friends who did the last chronological read, and by my study participants. But what I hadn’t realised is that it’s only ever Toby who is associated with this word, which serves to remind us when we’re seeing things through his eyes. This reminded me that certain scenes are also only seen through the eyes of a perhaps more unreliable narrator, Michael. So even though there’s supposed to be an omniscient narrator here, we are constantly in the characters’ heads, meaning that truth shifts and can be doubted.

There are some lovely little nods to other novels. Hugo Bellfounder cast the original bell (cf. “Under the Net”). When Dora leaves Catherine in the garden, picking apricots, she refers to her as “the figure under the net” (p. 70). And we have yet another chase of a women in pale garments in the darkness of a forest, when Dora pursues Catherine.

Who is the enchanter in this novel? Well, the Bell itself certainly enchants Dora,

She had communed with it now for too long and was under its spell. She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will. (p. 277)

and Michael seems to attract devotion, but only perhaps from those who are unstable in one way or another (Catherine, about to break down, and Toby, still sorting out his own personality; I don’t think Dora counts as she loves him at the end of the book in a different and perhaps purer way).

The saints are not easy to find, either. Perhaps Patchway is our saint – when we first meet him, he’s described as

A dirty looking man with a decrepit hat on, who looked as if he did not belong and was indifferent to not belonging. (p. 33)

He is described later has having the ability to stand by and say nothing, “and yet existing, large, present, and at ease” (p. 152) and at the climax of the procession scene, stands deliberately in a place where he can’t see.

Perhaps Tallis is shadowing my readings, but dirt and indifference to tend to make a saint. James feels like an early foreshadowing of James Arrowby and other soldiers, but he’s very rigid in his beliefs as well as being humble. Peter Topglass communes with animals and seems to have a magic touch with birds, and also exhibits

… detachment, his absorption in his beloved studies, his absence of competitive vanity … he was a person who, like Chaucer’s gentle knight, was remarkable for harming no one. (p. 124)

Neither Patchway or Topglass do anything but absorb events then pass on through their own lives, not passing on any pain, a sure sign of a Murdochian saint. James has to go back to his vigorous Doing Good in the East End (does he run into Henry or Carel, I wonder?).

AS Byatt’s introduction to this novel in my edition is so long, scholarly and full of references that it would take an essay to write about it itself, so I’m going to leave it here. What a rich, satisfying and memorable read this was.  I’m glad it was the one I introduced my book groups to.

OK, over to you! Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.