Well, we’re on to the first Iris Murdoch novel I ever read. Aged 14, I borrowed it from my neighbour, Mary, supplier of much of my teenage reading material and many of my long-lasting favourites. Appropriately for International Women’s Day, Mary was a huge heroine of mine who encouraged me to think and explore the world, and as well as Murdoch, she introduced me to Virago Books, Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, Barbaras Pym and Comyns and Anita Brookner (whose books I think my Triad Granada “Severed Head” resembles.

I’m really not sure what I would have made of – or understood of – this novel back then. I do recall feeling that it – and therefore I, in reading it – was terribly sophisticated, reading this rather rude book with terrible, posh goings-on in it. Of course I’ve refined my reaction over the many times I’ve read it.

I’ve got four copies of this one – but do please share with me any alternative cover images you’ve got of your copies of this. 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 – “A Severed Head”

(14 October 2017)

The introduction to my Vintage copy, by Miranda Seymour, refers this book back to the first novel, “Under the Net” and it does have something of its European nature, small cast and obsession with rattling around London, also the humour. It feels lighter than the other books – I’m not sure there are any big lectures or sermons or discussions, just a load of people trying to justify and explain how they feel and in the main hide their true feelings. One major thing I noticed this time was just how like a play it is – all dialogue and farcical diving through French windows, and talk of acting and plays and scenes. I think this is because we listened to a dramatisation of it on the radio a few years ago, and  of course it was adapted into a play by Murdoch and J.B. Priestley.

It’s funny – of course it’s funny. Honor making her first entrance accompanied by more than a whiff of sulphur, Martin lynching the gibbon by trying to be the most rational human being in the world and repressing his animal side, only to have it all burst out of him. And of course there’s the deep black humour of the layers upon layers of adultery in the Lynch-Gibbons’ oh-so-civilised marriage.  He even describes himself as being “really magnificent” at one point (p. 162).  There’s lots of doomy prefiguring, for example when Martin has dreams offering him “certain horrors, glimpses of a punishment which would perhaps yet find its hour” (p. 10) and him being “stripped, sahved, and prepared as a destined victim; and I awaited Honor as one awaits, without hope, the searing presence of a god” (p. 166), but these seem to me quite funny and almost a bit “Cold Comfort Farm”-y. I loved the two women in the Lynch-Gibbon wines office, perhaps heirs to the efficiencies brought in to Rainborough’s office in “The Flight from the Enchanter”. They are funny as well as being a matter-of-fact introduction of a lesbian couple, perfectly normally, although flirted with by the hapless Mytten. This office part was an aspect I’d forgotten. In a couple of sentences reminiscent of “The Bell” when Dora resolves not to give up here seat on the train, we read:

‘Well, I’m not going to introduce you to Antonia, and that’s that.’

‘Antonia, this is Georgie Hands. Georgie, my wife.’ I found these incredible words passing my lips. I was able to speak without stammering or choking. No one fainted. (p. 85)

And the funniest line in the book perhaps shows IM’s own attitude to psychoanalysis: “I led Georgie out, leaving Palmer to use whatever were now the most up-to-date psychological methods for dealing with hysterical women” (p. 89) (Honor also talks about “a good analysis” in a way that makes Martin think of “a good thrashing” (p. 110).

There’s serious stuff about marriage, of course, with the statement about there being a selfish and an unselfish partner in every marriage (p. 11) and later the description of the reassurance of the taken-for-granted:

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship; and after all, in spite of all that had happened, Antonia and no one else was my wife.(p. 188)

Murdoch is once again cruel to a carefully created and self-curated woman, Antonia, “her face taking on that look which is sometimes described as ‘ravaged'” (p. 14), although Martin is at pains to explain this makes her more attractive rather than less. She also makes Antonia and Rosemary feed off scandal and pain, which makes them quite unattractive and negative (Georgie’s fate perks Antonia up so much that she buys three hats!).

We have the Murdochian themes – although there are maybe no stones and there’s not much water. Georgie’s hair is of course reddish and of course gets chopped off along the way (severed hair as opposed to a severed head). Georgie also has the only room-cave, with its dimly descried treasures, and she has Chinese incense holders which chime with the Japanese possessions of Palmer. Usually Eastern bits and bobs belong to saints, though, and that doesn’t really apply here; although Georgie is perhaps messy enough, she definitely passes on pain rather than absorbing it. She does have “remarkable detachment and lack of worldly pretention” (p. 5), so maybe she’s a saint who just gets pushed over the edge. Palmer has animal fur for hair, not uncommon in Murdoch, and I’m sure there’s another rangy American (perhaps someone in a baggy monster coming later). London is a character, as is the fog (which we will meet again in “The Time of the Angels”, and I loved the detail of the dolphin lamp-posts on the Embankment, still there today. There are complicated arrangements for breaking into a house, when Martin goes to Cambridge and here we find the common theme of a figure standing in the garden, looking in, which we find so often.

Siblings abound, of course, the triumvirate of Martin, Alexander and Rosemary, Honor and Palmer. And there are many contrasts and pairs, from three sets of Christmas decorations to Georgie and Antonia being one perfect woman if you somehow glue them together. Palmer also has two colds – is the first one, when Martin goes to collect Honor, a fake, as he doesn’t seem ill in between then is shown in a bit of a state when Martin visits him on Antonia’s behalf later on. Pictures move around, the Audubon bird prints back and forth between the Lynch-Gibbon properties and Palmer’s Japanese pictures around his house.

There aren’t so many echoes of the other books, however I was pleased to note that Martin does run out and hear receding footsteps as Honor runs out in to the dark night at one point, after their encounter in the cellar. Antonia wants to keep Martin in her “loving net” even after running off (p. 193).

Talking of saints and enchanters, Palmer does seem to be an enchanter, with his ability to bend everyone and everything to his will and his ability to “set people free” (is Mischa Fox said to have this talent, too?). Georgie, the voice of reason until she’s pushed too far, points out that Martin is “always looking for a master” (p. 3) and he finds one in Palmer and then Honor. Palmer is described as a magician by Martin – Alexander, who wins everything in the end, has interestingly never liked him. Honor is the severed head, a god and a fearsome avenging deity with a sword, but very much seems to claim this role for herself rather than having it placed upon her. Is Martin an enchanter to Georgie? Certainly, “Georgie’s stoicism had helped to make me a brute,” (p. 175) but does that make him an enchanter? She seems to need a man to hang off, so maybe she goes around creating her own mini-enchanters.

The feeling of a play comes at the end, with Martin’s last letter to Georgie, with the almost Shakespearian:

I feel as if we had been actors in a play, and there must be some exchange between us for the drama to be complete. (p. 197)

What did I get out of this on this re-read? It is a farce, isn’t it, and, as the introduction states, a book to be enjoyed only with the intellect. Although this seems a bit cruel when Georgie, at least, is a real, warm and hurt human being. I did enjoy it immensely and I see I’ve written quite a lot about it for such a little book!

P.S. I was going to list this book in my Reading Ireland challenge, but that seems a bit wrong when the only mention of the place is when Martin “retain[s] a sentimental sense of connexion with that poor bitch of a country” (p. 12). Maybe not, then!

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.