Carrying on with the #IMReadalong, we’ve had two of the “minor” novels in a row here, with “The Red and the Green” being I feel one of the less-read novels. It’s Murdoch’s only specifically historical novel, treating the events of Ireland’s Easter Rising and taking a close look at Anglo-Irish and Irish identity. I’m not sure myself that it entirely works as either a historical novel or a novel, but there are of course lots of Murdochian themes and complicated relationships to enjoy, and a less successful Murdoch novel is still a good novel in my eyes.

Iris Murdoch – “The Red and the Green”

(27 February 2018)

I’d forgotten that the sea plays such an important scene-setting role in this book, with beautiful descriptions as usual for IM. Almost immediately we’re looking across Dublin Bay with Andrew Chase-White, in a view that’s “intensely familiar and yet disturbingly alien” (p. 10) – a description it seems of how the Anglo-Irish characters feel when in Ireland (and perhaps in England, too). And we soon meet his cousin, Pat Dumay, the very reason he’s joined a cavalry regiment and grown a moustache. It does feel a bit creaky to have a plot that sets cousin against cousin in the struggle for Home Rule, but then again these things do happen and it enables IM to make some useful points: does the personal outrule the political / military in people’s hearts (yes). While there are plenty of confusing siblings, with pairs marrying each other and a few outliers, Andrew is without siblings and longs for that relationship.

With these confusing siblings, Murdoch actually once again describes the confusion of reading her books:

‘We Anglo-Irish families are so complex,’ Hilda used often to exclaim with a kind of pride, as if complexity in families were a rare privilege. (p. 18)

Checking that quotation, I noted Millie’s assertion that “we’re practically incestuous,” used to greater effect right at the end of the book, of course.

We have plenty of civil servants in the book and also plenty of doubling. Both Barnabas and Christopher have given up civil service jobs to write books. Christopher’s an interesting character, seeming to be quiet and sere and all pulled together but then effectively destroying himself through sudden impulsive actions. Is this the contingent winning over the pattern? Pat and Andrew both fear sex and loathe women, with Andrew being very naive about their motivations. Of course they then, and Christopher, are after the same woman. Andrew and Barney are both virgins and it’s clear they both fail in this respect (I think it’s clear with Andrew).

Pleasingly, we find both people staring into houses through windows – Frances and later Frances and Christopher, and we even find Frances flitting across the lawn in her “whitish” dressing-gown, carrying on the tradition of pale-clad women fleeing through the dew.

It’s quite clear to me that we have two enchanters in Millie and Pat Dumay, and one saint in Kathleen. Kathleen is actually described as the good woman to Millie’s bad woman at one point (p. 108). Kathleen is indifferent to her surroundings and lives in mess and chaos, wearing shabby clothes (in contrast to Millie’s showy dressing-up). It’s explained that her lack of attention to the house is down to her being too busy helping people in distress. Christopher describes her as an independent character and no slave, and respects her for this. Barney goes further, describing her (like Ann in “An Unofficial Rose”) as having “a negative quality in her, an un-life, in the presence of which ordinary healthy persons, such as myself and my step-sons, quite perceptibly shuddered” (p. 213). It’s good to see that she and Frances prevail uninjured to the end of the epilogue, Kathleen still taking in waifs and strays.

As for Millie, Christopher is unable to prevent himself falling in love with her and has been “helpless”. Barney, similarly, “A few kind words, a touch, from Millie re-established and confirmed his servitude” (p. 110). She collects admirers and is “simply incapable of refusing a devotion however absurd” (p. 84), thus being another enchanter whose role is created by their subjects. However, she does also go out of her way to lure Barney when he’s training for the priesthood – “She simply wanted this black-robed priestling as her slave, a pet to fondle and caress” (p. 105). I’m not sure Pat manipulates people in the same way: everyone appears to be in love with him, but he doesn’t do anything to encourage that. Cathal complains of being “enslaved” (p. 125) but continues their bathing ritual past when he could have stopped, and Andrews’ idolising of him means that “the spring of power was broken inside him” (p. 308). So maybe he’s the true enchanter.

As well as goodness we are introduced to ideas of freedom – in Pat’s case “a real loss of tissue in the Self” but associated with pain and masochism and mixed up with his idea of his role as Ireland’s liberator.

Back to that water, we have the sea (notably, Barney visits it with Frances and fails to give his rifle up to it), and also the incessant rain – Millie is practically constantly slightly damp around the skirts (and dampens Pat’s trousers with her “tears or kisses” (p. 180). Water even falls through the conservatory roof onto the tablecloths and there’s always something dripping. When Millie drops her earring inside Andrew’s shirt, it immediately begins to pour with rain. She and Frances also have complex buns, as characters have to have in IM, although I’m not sure anyone’s hair is cut (Millie’s comes down at a pivotal moment). Kathleen and Barney and also Millie have chaotic and busy rooms and there are two mentions of masks (Pat when observed by Cathal). There are complicated arrangements for war but a very Murdochian sudden slew of detail on exactly how to gag someone effectively but safely.

There are discussions of women’s issues which I don’t recall being to the forefront in the other novels (though we do have the efficient secretaries who take things over in “The Flight from the Enchanter”). Millie demonstrates a masculinity which makes her an attractive boy to some characters, but it’s Frances who pushes against the boundaries and raises questions (and who escapes the clutches of Ireland).

Although it’s very much a novel of deep ironies (most strongly the fact that however much one wants to act in a certain way, one’s deep human relationships will always prevail – see Pat and Cathal; Andrew and Pat), there’s not a huge lot of humour. I did like a point about Millie which almost (and I know I don’t usually espouse linking books to their authors’ private lives) seemed to echo Murdoch’s:

A popular woman who enjoys her admirers and is also kind-hearted will naturally want to keep her friendships strictly sealed off from each other. (p. 78)

The inability to do just this gives her the funniest line in the novel, much later:

Well, a woman caught in my situation has got to adopt some tone, and it’s not easy to combine devastating frankness with calm dignity. What tone do you suggest? (p. 251)

The Epilogue is necessary, I think, and of course gives some more doubling and patterning with the coming of the Second World War and Frances’ worry about her son’s friend going to the Spanish Civil War. There’s some slightly heavy-handed discussion of what history will remember, the historical novel side of things intruding once more.

The introduction in my copy mainly covers the psychological aspects of the novel, apparently informed by its 1960s time of writing, which influenced some other works about the Easter Rising. So the historical aspect is prime there, whereas I tend to see the novel as an IM novel with history inserted into it. Not a bad read by any means, not a work of historical document, and I’m glad we move back to the dank mists of religious England for the next work.


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.