It’s been an unexpected and rather disquieting fact that this time around re-reading all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in chronological order, in my mid-to-late-40s (last time I did it was in 2008-10) I’ve discovered that many of the characters who I previously considered as ‘adult’, certainly older than me, have been slipped past and are now younger than me. This was again the case here, with the central, adult figures, Gertrude and Guy, being in their early-to-mid-40s and most of the constellation of ‘cousins and aunts’ similar. I’ve noticed I’ve had slightly less tolerance for the caperings of the young, so I hope I don’t end up unable to respect anyone apart from Bruno or (insert other very elderly characters here). It’s not a problem as such, just interesting.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “Nuns and Soldiers “

(31 December 2018)

I think this one gets left out a bit as the follow-up to “The Sea, The Sea”. Certainly, based on the Introduction to my edition, it wasn’t received that well by the critics. But I’m very fond of it; I love the scenes in the French house, and I’ve certainly not tired of Anne Cavidge (so much more successful than Ann Perronet).

We open with Guy dying and his wife Gertrude surrounded by friends and family. The chorus of relatives demands particular behaviour when a circle of suitors manifests itself. While she tries to escape – to the north, to France – unprepossessing Tim seems to claim her heart while the distant satellite, a Polish “count” holds still with his love hidden. Who will Gertrude choose, and will she stick with her choice? Over the course of a year we watch Gertrude being courted, other constellations moving around her, and time passing in a circle.

Who is the saint? Anne or the Count are really the candidates, aren’t they? The Count is doing penance for his father’s anti-Semitism by page 4 (“and for much else”) although it’s worth noting that he does pass on gossip where a true saint would absorb it. His life is “a conceptual muddle” which is always a good sign. He also notes that “It’s not for me to judge” about Tim (p. 323) while also confronting Tim about his morals and seemingly planting ideas of integrity and honour into his head (p. 380).  Anne is of course an ex-nun who has a vision of a somewhat Buddhist Jesus and she effaces her love for the good of others. Gertrude says of her, “She is not a Saint, she is not even an Abbess!” (p. 52). I do love the portrait of their long and complex friendship, by the way, a massively attractive feature of this book for me. Manfred and Mrs Mount consider then to be “a spineless pair” who should have ended up together (p. 497). Is our saint Daisy, who absorbs things then pops off to be an American feminist? Tim is described as taking everyone’s blame by the chorus, but that’s because he’s a scapegoat, not a saint.

Are there any enchanters? Gertrude seems to have an effect on people but only in a loving way. Are the chorus of aunts and cousins which turn out to be manipulating things rather a lot in the late scenes a sort of joint enchanter, making things happen as they wish?

Murdoch is much more positive about marriage than in “The Sea, The Sea”. Gertrude and Guy’s bond was so close “They had never seriously quarrelled, never been parted, never doubted each other’s complete honesty” – presumably why she’s so very upset when Tim shows up as a liar. I loved the description of both Tim and Gertrude feeling a little superior to each other but transforming that into protective tenderness. There’s probably a lot to be said about Gertrude’s inability to appreciate art and Tim’s various issues in the art galleries, but I’m not sure I’m equal to that!

In other more common themes, Guy was writing a book of course, which is never finished. Daisy is writing a novel which is more successful. Anne has a short fur of hair, while Gertrude has tangles of brown and Tim of red. Once more, older women are described disparagingly – Daisy has become “prematurely haggard”. Gertrude grows older in Tim’s eyes, greying and with eyes displaying signs of crying. The descriptions of the sea in the north and the rivers and pools and canal in France are beautiful. The rain and thunderstorms play a major role. Stones are a big feature, with the beach ones hampering Anne but Jesus giving her a special stone. Anne observes Tim in the garden in France and he looks through a window and sees what he should not see. There’s discussion of how to be good and Jesus Himself sums it up:

Do right, refrain from wrong. (p. 298)

In this context, I also loved Anne’s statement to the Count that it’s best not to take your own life in case you could have done some good for somebody in later life. She’s passing on a good message here. Cats and dogs feature with all Tim’s cat paintings and Tim and Daisy’s story being bookended by Barkiss the dog disappearing and appearing.

Doubling is everywhere – Gertrude has two husbands, Tim has two tests in the canal and Anne one in the sea. In France and London are opposing house, one constrained and one free (or is it?). There are two dogs in the canal – one dead, one alive, both turning to show a raised paw, and two fountains (the face and the moss fountain). As well as Tim’s ordeal, he and Gertrude count themselves as having had one when they separate. There are two big break-up scenes (Tim and Gertrude, Tim and Daisy). I loved the times that Tim and Anne almost run into each other, walking in London.

There’s not much actual humour in the book but great sayings such as “There is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race” (p. 37) and on Gertrude and Anne’s friendship: “She and Anne would always be riding together in that indestructible chariot. Only since it was so indestructible there was perhaps no need to let it run over her dreams” (p. 281). I also loved the assessment of Tim:

Like many instinctive uncalculating liars Tim was too lazy to think out his lies with care, and faced with exposure tended perhaps, as a token gesture to his conscience, to tell the literal truth. (p. 340).

Daisy’s feminism and swearing opposition to pretty well anything is both brave and amusing. Tim caught in the brambles is also pretty funny.

In relation to other books in particular, Gertrude and Tim breaking up at the end of one chapter and then being found in the process of getting married at the beginning of the next always reminds me of when Dora in “The Bell” is resolving not to give up her seat on the train then doing so. The discussion of the meaning of Guy’s dying phrases, including the one about “the upper side of the cube” turning out to be about hitting a tennis ball rather than some kind of deep philosophy recall Dorina in “An Accidental Man” suddenly recalling that “Pliez les genoux” was about skiing lessons rather than the imprecations of some holy man.

A good read, I think, with lots of drama and adventure and a lovely denouement when we suddenly look at everything through Manfred and Mrs Mount’s eyes.

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.