This read was a bit of a revelation for me. I’ve always said I feel a bit “meh” about this, that it was a typical Murdoch novel with red hair, weird love quadrangles and the like but a bit forgettable. Well, I must have forgotten about it to an extent, as it was an excellent read!

As mentioned in my introductory post, my copy of it is dated January 1995 inside the front cover so I’m not sure if I’d read it before my early 20s, when I bought this copy. I read my neighbour Mary’s copies of the early books so I might have. I certain read it during my first, incomplete, chronological read-through and my second one in my 30s (I wrote an entirely unsatisfactory review of it in 2008!). Anyway, it IS a classic Murdoch, though with no stones and disappointingly only a fleeting reference to pursuing somebody through a night-time wood/garden.

I’ve had one rather odd cover from the Triad series sent to me but do share with me if you have any more (the first edition cover isn’t great, is it!). Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form. And of course do pop a link to your own review or just a full review in a comment below – I know I’m quite early this month but don’t worry, you officially have until the end of the month and really until whenever to read and review this one!

Iris Murdoch – “An Unofficial Rose”

(28 February 2018)

What a complicated and engaging novel this is. Do we really LIKE any of the characters? Does it matter?

This would probably be the first of IM’s novels where it would be handy to draw out a diagram of who loves whom and who’s related to whom – I did this when doing my last readalong, but not for this one. We’re thrust into a world of two houses, one muddled, one pristine, and movements between the two, and am I right in saying this is the only novel set in my own home county of Kent? It’s nice and redolent of the marshes and Dungeness and fairly obviously somewhere Murdoch had actually seen. Of course London has to feature, all those extra flats that everyone seems to have, and the London weather and rain pressing in on the windows.

The opening of the book is very forceful and memorable, based around the words of the funeral service, and we start off in the mind of Hugh Perronet, one of many heads we will live inside during the novel. It feels like we have more experiences of more consciousnesses in this one than we have before, although that’s coming from “A Severed Head”, narrated by one character.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Both women, I think. Randall thinks he’s the centre of things but is constantly outwitted and realises who’s the boss. But Emma Sands feels she controls everything, holding all the strings from her nest in her messy flat, constantly restocking it to tempt her companions. Unlike other enchanters, though, she seems more overt and proactive, drawing people into her web and controlling them rather than being created by them as their overlord. Is this a feature of female as opposed to male enchanters? (or can we compare her to Julius in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, another manipulator? Naughty conniving Mildred also acts as a lesser manipulator, operating mainly from Kent). Randall does create Emma and Lindsay as his captors, “He idolized the serene quality of their egoism” (p. 59) and he’s also “instantly enslaved” but Lindsay, but I think it’s clear that’s just a standard attraction. Emma’s almost inert, too, she doesn’t join in flattering Lindsay or teasing Randall but just sits there. Hugh is also described as having been Emma’s slave, and this comes flooding back as soon as he considers her again.

Ann is described a lot as being quite “nothingy”. She doesn’t attribute blame and thus blame rushes into the vacuum that is her. She’s “worthy and deserving” but “there was no compulsion of warmth”, thinks Hugh, early on (p. 14).  She has also never had a conception of doing what she wanted (p. 240) and is unpractical and never grasps for anything. Both Felix and Randall see her as quite a negative force. Does this make her a saint? She ends up with nothing except a load of broken mess and a damp cat … But at the end, she will endure and carry on:

She did not know herself. It was not possible, it was not necessary, it was perhaps not even proper. Real compassion is agnosticism; and we must be compassionate to ourselves too. Tasks lay ahead, one after one after one, and the gradual return to an old simplicity. She would never know, and that would be her way of surviving. (p. 280)

Or is it Felix, who only wants to help, tries his best (though trying and striving isn’t usually a Murdoch saint attribute) and quietly removes himself, blaming being “an officer and a gentleman”? He also says that we have a duty to keep on living, as if we’ve been assigned life as a military operation, but maybe as a foil for what I’ve just said about Ann.

There is of course a lot of hair, with Lindsay having the usual coils and also flat metallic hair and Miranda holding up the redhead baton (Ann has faded, of course). No stones, but there is a pond to represent water, odd children and siblings (Miranda and Steve, Mildred and Felix; Penn of course has many siblings but is removed from them). There’s lots of doubling, both overt and subtle: the two houses, the two turret bedrooms at Greyhallock, but also Lindsay with her chin pointing at the ceiling both when being grabbed by Randall and sleeping in Venice.

The descriptions of marriage, which I might be more aware of now, having become married since the last time I read through all of these. This one was pretty damning, on Humphrey and Mildred’s (rather fake) union:

He and his wife understood each other very well. Their relation was intimate yet abstract, a frictionless machine which generated little warmth, but which functioned excellently. (p. 66)

and of course Humphrey is another in the group of career civil servants / soldiers who have sullied their own reputations with a scandal.

There’s plenty of humour – particularly when Mildred visits Hugh to press her suit on him – as soon as she’s in his flat, she’s getting rid of vases in her mind, reorganising things and, while talking to Hugh –

At the same time she observed the shabby state of the loose covers, decided that all the chairs needed re-covering, decided where this should be done and approximately how much it ought to cost. (p. 83)

(one can only assume Murdoch got this from somewhere else, as she doesn’t seem to have had such concerns herself). Of course, this is part of a savagely funny/ironic scene where Mildred totally misreads Hugh’s intentions, which has an element of farce. Murdoch also pricks the bubble of Penn’s love:

While Penn glided after her in tune with the music of the spheres, Miranda was more concerned about the hedgehogs. (p. 206)

We also end up having both sides of a phone conversation but in two halves, something I hadn’t noticed before and which is most amusing. I also liked the touch at the beginning of Part Five where Murdoch points out,

There are few persons, even among those most apparently straitlaced, who are not pleased by the flouting of a convention, and glad deep inside themselves to think that their society contains deplorable elements. (p. 186)

Links with other books are lesser but still nice. Ann is described as needing to keep Randall in her “net” and there’s a fleeting reference to pursuing someone through a dark wood in Randall’s dream in Venice. Although no one really stares in the windows, Hugh spends time out on the lawn when Emma visits Greyhallock. Most noticeable is the point at which Mildred and Felix drink a bottle of Lynch-Gibbon Nuits de Young 1955 (Lynch-Gibbon being the wine merchants in “A Severed Head”. Like in “A Severed Head”, the characters are described as being “like personages in a play” (p. 128), and there is also a business that has been built up but is then pretty well abandoned by a major protagonist. When Ann is struggling with having two loves that seem complementary and both necessary, you’re reminded of Martin and his complementary mistress and wife in “A Severed Head” – these two books do seem quite linked.

So, a better read than I’d remembered. I’d forgotten Steve and a lot of the humour, and thought there was more of the painting and the roses. What did you think? Was this a re-read or a first read?

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.