I was already looking forward to this one (unlike last month’s read) and it didn’t disappoint. I must have read it early on in my Murdoch discoveries and love the Gothic qualities of the novel. Back in 2008, I did such a small review it’s not worth sharing, but wrote loads of notes to share in my discussion group – we all liked this one. As usual, there were some differences from my memories of other readings of the book, but it in no way disappointed, so another good month.

I’ve had the same cover image sent to me by Peter Rivenberg and David Mahon, the disturbing 1960s paperback with a face looking into a mirror – does anyone have any others?

Iris Murdoch – “The Unicorn”

(27 February 2018)

Oh, the opening to this book is the most gothic thing ever, isn’t it – the journey to a mysterious place to be a governess of all things, the mysterious pick-up at the station and odd characters to travel with, the wild castle and appalling scenery (just like “The Bell” and “rebarbative”, this book is definitely brought to us by the word “appalling/appalled”). By the way, I can’t understand why I didn’t realise before it was set in Ireland – lots of things point to that but I’d managed to ignore them before. Just shows what a re-re-reading can do. There’s plenty of doom and gloom and even slightly “Cold Comfort Farm”-y warnings – “No one swims in this sea. It’s far too cold. And it is a sea that kills people” (p. 12). The mentions of seven years being up are frequent and everything does seem fairy-tale and overly patterned, and indeed Gerald mentions “the pattern that is what has authority here” (p. 151)

Once Marian is installed, she tries to work everything and everyone out, as we do, and I felt like this passage was almost a commentary on how we find reading Murdoch’s works ourselves (I didn’t draw out a family tree for this one but started last time quite soon after this!):

There were many matters for puzzlement in the big self-absorbed house and she found herself still, sometimes disconcertingly, unable to ‘work out’ the relations of the individuals to each other. (p. 30)

Marian’s journey from thinking “This is mad” (p. 64) falling under Gerald’s spell as much as if he’d beaten her is fascinating and a portrait of what can happen when you get isolated from real, sensible living conditions and people. It’s a kind of mass hysteria which is fascinating but unsettling to read about. In a way, the small and tight community with its slightly sinister woman overseer reminds me of “The Bell”, but without that book’s honest and useful sense of purpose.

Who is the enchanter? Is it Peter, holding the strings from so far away, Gerald, manipulating and controlling everyone, or Hannah? Max seems to be Effie’s enchanter figure, along with Hannah perhaps, although Effie has come away from the blind adoration he had for Max as a younger man. Hannah is described near (although not at) the end of the action as having “so beautifully sent them all away in their different directions” (p. 208) – although she’s something of a blank at the centre of the novel, used for characters to project their feelings onto, some of them do create her as an enchanter for themselves, Marian and Effie chief among them, and maybe also Max, who is inexorably drawn to Gaze.

One really important feature here is perhaps the first real mention of “Ate” (p. 98-99) and the idea, so central I think to Murdoch’s novels that-

Good is non-powerful. And it is in the good that Ate is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on.

Also important to Murdoch’s themes is Effie’s vision, which unfortunately fades,

Love holds the world together, and if we could forget ourselves everything in the world would fly into a perfect harmony, and when we see beautiful things that is what they remind us of. (p. 173)

However, this does get a bit lost and there is no love left at the end, is there, with everyone dispersed, whereas there’s an important hint that Denis is the saint of the novel:

And with Denis’s words she had an eerie sense of it all beginning again, the whole tangled business: the violence, the prison house, the guilt. It all still existed. Yet Denis was taking it away with him. He had wound it all inside himself and was taking it away. Perhaps he was bringing it, for her, for the others, to an end. (p. 262-3)

There is humour still, although maybe not so much as previously (savage irony seems to rule the roost in this one, especially in the plot denouements near the end). I did like it when Effie meets Pip, Denis, Marian and Alice, Jamesie and Gerald and “bristled with dislikes” (p. 85). There’s also a rather amusing scene when Effie, quite unnecessarily, attempts to let Marian down gently.

Looking at our themes, of course water in the form of rivers and particularly the sea is very strong here, and the descriptions of the sea, starting at the beginning, are just magical and amazing. Does anyone write the sea like Iris Murdoch does? I loved the encounter with the seal, too. Hannah has the red curly mess of hair and Jamesie the boy’s curls, although I think Pip’s baldness/wisps are unique. We have the common duality of the two houses, Riders and Gaze (one suggesting movement and activity, one stillness and passivity) and the contrast of town and country in Effie’s horror at being lost in the countryside (his scene in the bog, though, lasted a shorter time and came earlier in the narrative than I’d remembered).  The bog scene is doubled by Marian’s loss of her shoe in the bog early in the novel, and she finds the glutinous pools similar to those Alice and Effie encounter near the end of the novel.

Max is an academic and Effie was and is now in the civil service, with a frighteningly efficient female underling, two very common Murdochian careers, reminding us of “The Flight from the Enchanter”. Stones are represented by Alice’s shell woman on her bed, and there’s a doubling when Alice resembles this herself later on’ the shells in that scene are described as glittering like jewels, echoing back to Hannah’s scattered jewels, left out on the table on the terrace. There’s another echo of the trinity of women encountered after Effie’s bog experience which I can’t really mention without a huge spoiler: don’t read the Introduction in the Vintage edition if you haven’t read the book before!

In links to other books, we don’t follow any women in pale dresses through the gloaming, although we see Hannah flitting away through the gardens. Marian and Effie’s big plan echoes Dora and Toby’s in “The Bell”. Max Lejour is perhaps a precursor of the tutor whose name I can’t recall in “The Book and the Brotherhood” or John Robert Rosanov in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” or even Bruno in his  yellowing age. Hannah’s psychological entrapment is perhaps hinted back to in “The Message to the Planet” when Patrick Fenman has a mystery illness attributed to another character.

Effie’s Humber getting stuck in the mud at the gates of Gaze recalls very strongly Rain’s Morgan getting into the river in “The Sandcastle” and I do love Murdoch’s slight obsession with cars. More subtly, doesn’t the “mahogany erection containing a mirror surmounted the fireplace and reached almost to the dim ceiling in a converging series of shelves and brackets upon which small complicated brass objects were clustered” remind us of James Arrowby’s similar arrangement in his flat in “The Sea, The Sea”? And there’s a very small mention of a mask, when Effie is too scared to look at a figure in case he sees on the face, “laid thereupon, like a hideous mask, the likeness of his own features” (p. 256). He’s also sent away with a Japanese print – does this mean he’s gained some sort of enlightenment, or is it just a decorative feature for him?

So, a powerful and mature work, frightening, engaging and very readable. A fairy-tale where things seem to drive to an inevitable conclusion which is Shakespearean or Jacobean in general in its savage irony of the events that fly in front of us one after the other. The Introduction to my copy agrees with me on the significance of the house names but sees practical “dear” Alice as the saint and as Denis having to go off to redeem himself; there’s more to it than that and I would like to re-read A.S. Byatt’s thoughts, but that’s for another time.

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.