Well it’s that time again – for the last time! I can’t believe it’s the end of our readalong of all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in order, started back in November 2017. What a wonderful time it’s been, and I’ve so enjoyed everyone’s comments, especially Peter, Maria and Jo’s who have read and commented on every single book (and massive extra kudos to Jo, who has been reading them all FOR THE FIRST TIME! One a month for 26 months!).

I was slightly dreading this one, and I have got two more fun IM books to look forward to this month, but in fact it wasn’t as awful a read as I feared. I am pretty sure I’ve only read it twice before, once when it came out in paperback and once when I read through all the books with Ali, Gill, Sam et al. in 2009-11.

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 – “Jackson’s Dilemma”


We meet the central characters of the novel on the eve of the marriage of Edward Lannion and Marian Berran. Benet feels connected to everyone and wants to make sure it all goes off well. But something goes wrong and for the rest of the novel we are either looking back at how it came to this or rushing around London looking for Marion. Meanwhile Benet becomes burdened with the marriage plans of several previously seemingly unrelated couples and has to finally come to terms with his relationship with his mysterious manservant, Jackson.

It’s shorter than IM’s previous ten or so novels, and some parts seem almost in note form. There’s a terribly sad note of loss and confusing running through the whole text, and however much I cling to Reception Theory and try to only take note of my own personal reaction to the novel you can’t help but read IM’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis into moments here and there, especially when we’re inhabiting Benet’s and Jackson’s consciousness. I’m not going to dwell on those, but on the rest of the book: as I discovered in my research on “The Bell” and book groups, IM’s legacy seems divided between her being a “difficult” writer and a poster girl for dementia. Let’s just find the Murdochian elements in the book for a while.

The characters’ descriptions are all classic Murdoch, from Edward with his hair “slightly curling, thickly tumbling down his neck” to Anna and her complicated bun and Mildred with her combs and Owen with his big, wet face. The sea and stones are there, the stones right from the start, a special one having broken Edward’s window. Religion and the form of religion one should follow are discussed in the same way as in other books, finding a personal Christ or perhaps going to India and squatting in a sari among the gods there. There are no dogs or cats, but Spencer the retired horse is a saint-figure in animal form, absorbing tears and murmurs and providing a refuge between the two big houses. Benet is trying to write a book on Heidegger and the dead Lewen was writing a book on history which Bran might finish. London and birds are constant presences, and as in “The Green Knight” the characters seem to be constantly crossing and re-crossing the city on foot and in taxis.

Dualities abide, of course. There are the who houses, Hatting Hall and Penndean, reminiscent of the two houses in “The Unicorn”, maybe.  Benet has the two houses, one in London, one in the country, and then the London house has itself and its adjunct lodge where Jackson lives. Edward had his brother, Randall and Cantor has a brother on the sheep farm, who Jackson claims to be in order to gain access to him. Uncle Tim is the brother of Benet’s dead father (I think?).  Tuan’s father has a sister he loses in the Holocaust. Then Marian and Rosalind are sisters. Edward goes twice to the beach, once to remember his brother’s death.

There are a few saintly characters in the book, although most seem flawed. Benet has netsuke but only rearranges them on the mantelpiece and was given them by Owen. He tries to do good but realises he’s just meddling in people’s lives. Owen has a chaotic room but only one room, so the netsuke don’t really indicate saintliness from his end, either. Mildred is stated as visiting the sick and assisting the homeless but she enjoys the attentions of her priest and seems more allied to the social worker types in other novels than a proper saint. Uncle Tim remains “absolutely childish” (p. 9), has lived in India, is something of a sketched-in mystic and always sees the best in people – or, indeed, kindred spirits. As he has died by the time of the action, he almost takes on the role of those saintly fathers we come across from time to time (Charles Arrowby’s, for example). Is it Jackson, then? He does seem to absorb stories and guilt, which is always a good sign, moving quietly in the world and doing good in it. But also is he a mystic, a James Arrowby, with his selection of ages? At the end, he’s letting a spider pass across his hand: another good sign.  But he’s also mentioned as an enchanter: Uncle Tim is “enchanted, taken over” by him (p. 86).

Still those feminist points have a habit of creeping in. Anna has to hide her husband’s infertility and her mother had to give up her musical ambitions when she married an unmusical man, something that then also happens to Anna. Farce is alive and well at Owen’s house when everyone comes round to see him, not realising Jackson is there. And while this is clearly not the funniest book in the world, we smile at Owen’s dream of being a slug: “… when he tried to wave his horns at them, he suddenly realised that slugs do not have horns. Not even that, he thought in his dream” (p. 241).

I marked the mysteries in the book to check they are rounded up safely – Edward’s third awful deed after his brother and Marian is the encounter with Anna and Tuan tells the secrets he keeps about the Holocaust and his wealth to his bride.

In links to other novels, Moy’s feyness seems to have crept through into Edward, with his Cornish roots giving him his. Randall’s death in the sea seems to echo Moy’s near-drowning very closely – but also all the other times people have got into trouble in the sea. I like to see the Australian character all grown up and getting the girl – payback for “An Unofficial Rose”, I wonder. Rosalind dressing as a boy recalls any number of boyish women throughout the novels. Is the bronze statue of Shiva on Benet’s desk the one out of “The Book and the Brotherhood”? People fly away, Marian to Australia, but Mildred never makes it to India, lodging doing good in the East End, surely there running into several characters from others of the novels. Owen shows Jackson the Post Office Tower from his top room and we’re whizzed back to “The Black Prince”. The picture, the Flaying of Marsyas, is mentioned when Owen is discussing art, shame and pain with Benet and Mildred. Edward and Randall buy a book by John Cowper Powys, and at least two characters were reading him in “The Green Knight”. The Holocuast is exacting its price of memory from the next generation on from Marcus Vallar, in Tuan.

This review seems piecemeal and slightly lost, maybe like the book, and me reaching the end of this project (not long till I’m in my 50s and can do it all again, though …). I did enjoy it, though it will never be my favourite. And watch this space for other IM books this month and an opportunity at the end of the month to discuss our top 5 from the whole readalong!

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.