Book review – Iris Murdoch – “An Unofficial Rose” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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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.

“A Severed Head” round-up and “An Unofficial Rose” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s #IMReadalong update time – today I’m going to be sharing the reviews of “A Severed Head” that have come in so far (and will add more as they appear) and then have a chat about April’s read, “An Unofficial Rose”

“A Severed Head”

Excitement started building on this one as early as my introductory post at the end of February, so I knew a few people would be taking part.

I managed to get it reviewed earlier in the month than the last couple, and had some great comments on my review.

The cover images have been coming in again, with Peter Rivenberg submitting this really lovely image of the American Viking hardback:

Alice Libbey Griffith sent me this Penguin cover, which again I really like (I have some paperbacks in this edition, but not this one):

And both Peter and blogger Bookish Beck (more on her review in a moment) sent me cover images of this AWFUL film tie-in cover …

Isn’t it just HORRIBLE! Peter let me know some more details – I haven’t seen the film:

[This] is from a 1974 version with an image from the film based on the novel and play. It shows … Martin and Antonia (Ian Holm and Lee Remick) in the foreground with Palmer (Richard Attenborough) in the background. Not my idea of Palmer at all. And I’ve read that Murdoch was not happy with the film.I went back and reviewed scenes from my DVD of A Severed Head (I bought it from Turner Classic Movies out of curiosity about a year ago) and realized the book cover is not exactly a dream sequence but more an image that comes to Martin as he is contemplating his situation. The film is likely to be a disappointment to anyone who has read and loved the book. At times the characters speak lines from the book and at other times new lines have been invented that fall flat to my ear. Georgie, bizarrely, works at some kind of loom, perhaps an allusion to the Lady of Shalott. Necessarily the film needs to do away with a lot of the book’s complexity but the sequence of events is more or less intact.

Moving swiftly on to the reviews, there have been some great comments on my own review here. Bridget from A New Look Through Old Eyes (with whom I’m planning a sort of project on paper book / audio book reads) has posted this excellent review of her experience with the audio book (with the absolute perfect narrator). Bookish Beck has posted a great and funny review here. Liz talks on Goodreads about how the themes and the way they’re portrayed contrast, and Jo has a good meaty Goodreads review  which does contain mild spoilers but goes into a lovely lot of detail.

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“An Unofficial Rose”

Moving on to our April read, I have three copies of “An Unofficial Rose”. I thought I first read it when I discovered Murdoch and read my way through everything she’d written until then (this was in around 1986, so I would have had access to the paperbacks up to about “The Philosopher’s Pupil” but the note inside the front cover of my Penguin copy says I bought it on my 23rd birthday in 1995. I really don’t recall whether I’d already read it; I know I snapped up Murdochs with Christmas and birthday book tokens as I went. I know I read it when I went through them all in my 20s and again in the 2000s; I also know that I have never considered it a favourite, but I can’t explain why.

Here are my three copies: a Chatto & Windus first edition (not a first printing as it has a note that it’s a Book Society Choice), a Penguin edition bought in 1995 and very faded, and my new Vintage copy:

Here are the blurbs to entice you, from the earliest, talking about one of those Murdochian webs of love:

and do we have a potential Saint already in Ann, absorbing everyone’s strains and pains? Shorter and to the point with the Penguin:

and interestingly concentrating a lot more on Hugh and Emma. And the most recent one:

Well, here they’ve gone back to that first blurb in a lot of ways, haven’t they?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “An Unofficial Rose” along with me? What’s your favourite so far?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Severed Head” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well, we’re on to the first Iris Murdoch novel I ever read. Aged 14, I borrowed it from my neighbour, Mary, supplier of much of my teenage reading material and many of my long-lasting favourites. Appropriately for International Women’s Day, Mary was a huge heroine of mine who encouraged me to think and explore the world, and as well as Murdoch, she introduced me to Virago Books, Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, Barbaras Pym and Comyns and Anita Brookner (whose books I think my Triad Granada “Severed Head” resembles.

I’m really not sure what I would have made of – or understood of – this novel back then. I do recall feeling that it – and therefore I, in reading it – was terribly sophisticated, reading this rather rude book with terrible, posh goings-on in it. Of course I’ve refined my reaction over the many times I’ve read it.

I’ve got four copies of this one – but do please share with me any alternative cover images you’ve got of your copies of this. Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Iris Murdoch – “A Severed Head”

(14 October 2017)

The introduction to my Vintage copy, by Miranda Seymour, refers this book back to the first novel, “Under the Net” and it does have something of its European nature, small cast and obsession with rattling around London, also the humour. It feels lighter than the other books – I’m not sure there are any big lectures or sermons or discussions, just a load of people trying to justify and explain how they feel and in the main hide their true feelings. One major thing I noticed this time was just how like a play it is – all dialogue and farcical diving through French windows, and talk of acting and plays and scenes. I think this is because we listened to a dramatisation of it on the radio a few years ago, and  of course it was adapted into a play by Murdoch and J.B. Priestley.

It’s funny – of course it’s funny. Honor making her first entrance accompanied by more than a whiff of sulphur, Martin lynching the gibbon by trying to be the most rational human being in the world and repressing his animal side, only to have it all burst out of him. And of course there’s the deep black humour of the layers upon layers of adultery in the Lynch-Gibbons’ oh-so-civilised marriage.  He even describes himself as being “really magnificent” at one point (p. 162).  There’s lots of doomy prefiguring, for example when Martin has dreams offering him “certain horrors, glimpses of a punishment which would perhaps yet find its hour” (p. 10) and him being “stripped, sahved, and prepared as a destined victim; and I awaited Honor as one awaits, without hope, the searing presence of a god” (p. 166), but these seem to me quite funny and almost a bit “Cold Comfort Farm”-y. I loved the two women in the Lynch-Gibbon wines office, perhaps heirs to the efficiencies brought in to Rainborough’s office in “The Flight from the Enchanter”. They are funny as well as being a matter-of-fact introduction of a lesbian couple, perfectly normally, although flirted with by the hapless Mytten. This office part was an aspect I’d forgotten. In a couple of sentences reminiscent of “The Bell” when Dora resolves not to give up here seat on the train, we read:

‘Well, I’m not going to introduce you to Antonia, and that’s that.’

‘Antonia, this is Georgie Hands. Georgie, my wife.’ I found these incredible words passing my lips. I was able to speak without stammering or choking. No one fainted. (p. 85)

And the funniest line in the book perhaps shows IM’s own attitude to psychoanalysis: “I led Georgie out, leaving Palmer to use whatever were now the most up-to-date psychological methods for dealing with hysterical women” (p. 89) (Honor also talks about “a good analysis” in a way that makes Martin think of “a good thrashing” (p. 110).

There’s serious stuff about marriage, of course, with the statement about there being a selfish and an unselfish partner in every marriage (p. 11) and later the description of the reassurance of the taken-for-granted:

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship; and after all, in spite of all that had happened, Antonia and no one else was my wife.(p. 188)

Murdoch is once again cruel to a carefully created and self-curated woman, Antonia, “her face taking on that look which is sometimes described as ‘ravaged'” (p. 14), although Martin is at pains to explain this makes her more attractive rather than less. She also makes Antonia and Rosemary feed off scandal and pain, which makes them quite unattractive and negative (Georgie’s fate perks Antonia up so much that she buys three hats!).

We have the Murdochian themes – although there are maybe no stones and there’s not much water. Georgie’s hair is of course reddish and of course gets chopped off along the way (severed hair as opposed to a severed head). Georgie also has the only room-cave, with its dimly descried treasures, and she has Chinese incense holders which chime with the Japanese possessions of Palmer. Usually Eastern bits and bobs belong to saints, though, and that doesn’t really apply here; although Georgie is perhaps messy enough, she definitely passes on pain rather than absorbing it. She does have “remarkable detachment and lack of worldly pretention” (p. 5), so maybe she’s a saint who just gets pushed over the edge. Palmer has animal fur for hair, not uncommon in Murdoch, and I’m sure there’s another rangy American (perhaps someone in a baggy monster coming later). London is a character, as is the fog (which we will meet again in “The Time of the Angels”, and I loved the detail of the dolphin lamp-posts on the Embankment, still there today. There are complicated arrangements for breaking into a house, when Martin goes to Cambridge and here we find the common theme of a figure standing in the garden, looking in, which we find so often.

Siblings abound, of course, the triumvirate of Martin, Alexander and Rosemary, Honor and Palmer. And there are many contrasts and pairs, from three sets of Christmas decorations to Georgie and Antonia being one perfect woman if you somehow glue them together. Palmer also has two colds – is the first one, when Martin goes to collect Honor, a fake, as he doesn’t seem ill in between then is shown in a bit of a state when Martin visits him on Antonia’s behalf later on. Pictures move around, the Audubon bird prints back and forth between the Lynch-Gibbon properties and Palmer’s Japanese pictures around his house.

There aren’t so many echoes of the other books, however I was pleased to note that Martin does run out and hear receding footsteps as Honor runs out in to the dark night at one point, after their encounter in the cellar. Antonia wants to keep Martin in her “loving net” even after running off (p. 193).

Talking of saints and enchanters, Palmer does seem to be an enchanter, with his ability to bend everyone and everything to his will and his ability to “set people free” (is Mischa Fox said to have this talent, too?). Georgie, the voice of reason until she’s pushed too far, points out that Martin is “always looking for a master” (p. 3) and he finds one in Palmer and then Honor. Palmer is described as a magician by Martin – Alexander, who wins everything in the end, has interestingly never liked him. Honor is the severed head, a god and a fearsome avenging deity with a sword, but very much seems to claim this role for herself rather than having it placed upon her. Is Martin an enchanter to Georgie? Certainly, “Georgie’s stoicism had helped to make me a brute,” (p. 175) but does that make him an enchanter? She seems to need a man to hang off, so maybe she goes around creating her own mini-enchanters.

The feeling of a play comes at the end, with Martin’s last letter to Georgie, with the almost Shakespearian:

I feel as if we had been actors in a play, and there must be some exchange between us for the drama to be complete. (p. 197)

What did I get out of this on this re-read? It is a farce, isn’t it, and, as the introduction states, a book to be enjoyed only with the intellect. Although this seems a bit cruel when Georgie, at least, is a real, warm and hurt human being. I did enjoy it immensely and I see I’ve written quite a lot about it for such a little book!

P.S. I was going to list this book in my Reading Ireland challenge, but that seems a bit wrong when the only mention of the place is when Martin “retain[s] a sentimental sense of connexion with that poor bitch of a country” (p. 12). Maybe not, then!


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.

“The Bell” round-up and “A Severed Head” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome to this month’s #IMReadalong update, where I’m going to start collecting people’s views on “The Bell” (time has told that a good few reviews come in after the end of the month, for reading or reviewing scheduling reasons, and that’s of course FINE) and then share images of my four copies of “A Severed Head” and their blurbs.

“The Bell”

Various people got to discussing “The Bell” as early as my introductory post last month, especially because I was a bit late with my review (I’m starting “A Severed Head” tomorrow to avoid having this issue again). Do have a look at the comments, especially Maria Peacock’s long note.

I had some lovely cover images from Peter Rivenberg which I shared on my review post, and there has been a bit of discussion there. Jo has put up another excellent review on Goodreads and I particularly liked her contrast of Dora and Toby.  Liz also reviewed it on Goodreads and wasn’t so keen – which is fine, of course, and I’m sharing here to reassure anyone else who had trouble with it. Any more reviews or links to reviews on people’s blogs and Goodreads accounts will be shared them here when they come in.

So if you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review. Oh, and do pop over to my “Flight from the Enchanter” round-up where I’ve just had to add a picture of the very sweet Penguin I acquired the other week.

“A Severed Head”

Moving on to our March read, this is, almost inexplicably, the first Iris Murdoch novel I read, at the age of 14 (an only child who went to an all girls’ school and led a pretty sheltered life), and which got me hooked on IM. What on earth did I make of it? It was loaned to me by my lovely neighbour, Mary, who was a bastion of left-wing, wine-making, vegtable-growing, borrow-any-book-on-my-shelfness who introduced me to so many of my still-favourite authors.

I have four copies: the hardback first edition, a 1964 Penguin whose cover I LOVE, a 1984 Triad Granada which I bought in about 1986, and the new Vintage edition.

I loved reading the blurbs, as they all seem to riff off each other. Here’s the first edition first:

It’s great that it’s so enthusiastic, but the references to Treasure Island and Adolphe I find a little odd.  Moving on to the orange Penguin:

I love the comparison to Jacobean tragedy and Restoration comedy on that one. The Triad Granada was a bit more restrained, but still full of the Daily Mail:

… and the Vintage has a puff from Elizabeth Jane Howard of all people, and a mixture of all the previous blurbs.

So, are you going to be reading or re-reading “A Severed Head” along with me? Which was your first Iris Murdoch novel and which was the one that got you hooked?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Bell” #IMReadalong

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This is such a funny one for me to review. Because I studied it for half of my research project (find out more here), I know more about what other people think of this book than certainly any other Murdoch, and probably any other book in the world. The thing that surprised me most about the outcomes of getting 25 book groups to read the book is that so many of them saw it through the lens of modern-day events and preoccupations, some describing Michael as a predatory paedophile, with many fewer taking exception to the much more clearly evidenced instance of drunk driving. While there has been writing about Michael (notably by Pamela Osborn) I still push back against his actively predatory nature.

Reader Peter Rivenberg has sent me some fabulous cover images from his copies, including our first French one! The first one has an image from the BBC production, which I’ve never seen. Is that supposed to be Dora and Paul?

Do please share any other cover images you’ve got of your copies of this one – although surely there can’t be any MORE editions? Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Iris Murdoch – “The Bell”

(14 October 2017)

Another delight to read (fortunately – I think I’ve settled in to realising I’m not going to come to the conclusion I’ve stopped loving IM’s novels now). And once again, my allegiances have shifted. I used to think Dora was the heroine, and she is allowed to grow and change and develop into service and perhaps deeper thought and less frivolousness. I’d completely forgotten that she actually had an affair with Noel, and IM is pretty horrible to her, with lots of asides of things like of course she hadn’t bothered to look up the railway timetable. I used to have more time for Michael, but I became annoyed with the way he falls into issues and scenes because of not thinking things through or considering the consequences, surely an example of IM’s keenness on ‘attention’. We see his thought processes over Nick and Toby, changing his mind and bringing himself round to be in the right. But I can’t see him as predatory or an actual paedophile as such, as Nick is 15 (yes, I know, but we’re not talking children) and Toby 18. He is also described as “having no time for philosophical speculation” (p. 118) just as he starts examining what it is to be good. I used to find Mrs Mark amusing, but she’s AWFUL, isn’t she. Coy and passive-aggressive and just dreadful.

Of course I still love the nuns, aquatic and otherwise, with their no-nonsense good humour and firm but simple faith. They pay attention to what’s necessary and step in only when needed.

The Murdoch themes are all there, curly hair, cut hair, twins / siblings, stones, water, complicated arrangements, the contrast of London and the country. There are lots of echoes, from the three sermons (James’, Michael’s and Nick’s twisted one) and Dora loses her shoes twice, there are two bells, and Imber and the Abbey, of course.

There’s humour again, of course, as there always is (isn’t there?). For example, Dora on the train:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady, ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’ (p. 11)

I find Dora’s reaction to her first sight of the nuns really funny, too:

… she now made out with an unpleasant shock a shapeless pile of squatting black cloth that must be a nun. (p. 28)

The use of the word “rebarbative” was noted by my group of friends who did the last chronological read, and by my study participants. But what I hadn’t realised is that it’s only ever Toby who is associated with this word, which serves to remind us when we’re seeing things through his eyes. This reminded me that certain scenes are also only seen through the eyes of a perhaps more unreliable narrator, Michael. So even though there’s supposed to be an omniscient narrator here, we are constantly in the characters’ heads, meaning that truth shifts and can be doubted.

There are some lovely little nods to other novels. Hugo Bellfounder cast the original bell (cf. “Under the Net”). When Dora leaves Catherine in the garden, picking apricots, she refers to her as “the figure under the net” (p. 70). And we have yet another chase of a women in pale garments in the darkness of a forest, when Dora pursues Catherine.

Who is the enchanter in this novel? Well, the Bell itself certainly enchants Dora,

She had communed with it now for too long and was under its spell. She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will. (p. 277)

and Michael seems to attract devotion, but only perhaps from those who are unstable in one way or another (Catherine, about to break down, and Toby, still sorting out his own personality; I don’t think Dora counts as she loves him at the end of the book in a different and perhaps purer way).

The saints are not easy to find, either. Perhaps Patchway is our saint – when we first meet him, he’s described as

A dirty looking man with a decrepit hat on, who looked as if he did not belong and was indifferent to not belonging. (p. 33)

He is described later has having the ability to stand by and say nothing, “and yet existing, large, present, and at ease” (p. 152) and at the climax of the procession scene, stands deliberately in a place where he can’t see.

Perhaps Tallis is shadowing my readings, but dirt and indifference to tend to make a saint. James feels like an early foreshadowing of James Arrowby and other soldiers, but he’s very rigid in his beliefs as well as being humble. Peter Topglass communes with animals and seems to have a magic touch with birds, and also exhibits

… detachment, his absorption in his beloved studies, his absence of competitive vanity … he was a person who, like Chaucer’s gentle knight, was remarkable for harming no one. (p. 124)

Neither Patchway or Topglass do anything but absorb events then pass on through their own lives, not passing on any pain, a sure sign of a Murdochian saint. James has to go back to his vigorous Doing Good in the East End (does he run into Henry or Carel, I wonder?).

AS Byatt’s introduction to this novel in my edition is so long, scholarly and full of references that it would take an essay to write about it itself, so I’m going to leave it here. What a rich, satisfying and memorable read this was.  I’m glad it was the one I introduced my book groups to.


OK, over to you! 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.

“The Sandcastle” round-up and “The Bell” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome to the new #IMReadalong update, where we’ll have a quick update on “The Sandcastle” and then move on to “The Bell”, which is probably my most-read Murdoch (which is yours? I’d love to know!).

“The Sandcastle”

I’ve had some good and interesting comments on my own review of this one (read it and the comments here). I know at least one person who is reading along plans to post a review soon, and as I’ve said, it’s absolutely fine to post reviews and comments after the month in question; it’s helpful if you can let me know about your own blog posts and Goodreads etc. reviews, either by posting a link in the comments on my review here or by linking to my review in yours.

Jo has posted an excellent long review on Goodreads (with any spoilers cleverly hidden) and Liz has also posted a review on Goodreads with interesting thoughts on the point of view. Buried in Print reviewed it along with “Under the Net” (read it here), with some great covers.

I’ll add more links if any come in in the meantime. If you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review. As well as my lovely first edition with this adorable back cover, I have three paperback copies of “The Sandcastle”, seen below. If you have any covers to share of these or any others of the novels, do pop them over via Twitter, Facebook or email (find contact details for email on the Contact Me page).

“The Bell”

The reason “The Bell” is my most-read Murdoch is because I did my research on Iris Murdoch and Book Groups on it. You can read about that project and see a copy of the book I wrote here.

I have three copies of this one: a sweet first edition, a 1980s Penguin from my first flush of Iris Murdoch reading and buying, and the pretty new Vintage paperback:

Here’s the spine of the hardback, featuring a rather excellent nun:

Fancy reading this one but not sure? Here’s the blurb from the first edition:

The blurb from my Penguin edition makes it sound weird, as if they’re in a set of tents instead of a perfectly normal building:

and the blurb from the new edition recycles that somewhat:

Is it actually thrilling? Hm, not sure. But it’s a good read and I hope a few of you are ready to carry on through the oeuvre with me. Are you up for it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along. Who’s starting “The Sandcastle” soon? Have you read it before?

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Sandcastle” #IMReadalong

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We’re on to Book Three in the Great Iris Murdoch Readalong and it’s time for “The Sandcastle”. I had these three copies to begin with and added a lovely hardback to the collection, but if you have yet a different cover, I’d love to see it. Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Again I’ve found a real change in my attitudes to the characters in these ones – although it turns out my earlier reviews are less than deep and instructive, and even my notes in my old Yahoo Group from my last readalong are not that helpful! Lucky I can remember how I’ve felt about all of the novels over the years!

Iris Murdoch – “The Sandcastle”

(14 October 2017)

On this multiple re-read, I felt like this was more like a traditional novel than the first two, with a traditional setting, although schools and other institutions have come up. But I have changed my opinions on many of the characters.

I had a weird change in my reading preferences when I got married (long-term readers of this blog will have heard this before). Even though I’d been with my husband for years (over a decade) before we got married, even though we have never had this issue in our relationship, suddenly, upon having that ring on my finger, I was unable to bear to read about marriages being threatened by affairs. I did manage to cope with this theme in this book (we’ve been married almost 4 years now so the upset of reading of such things has worn off a bit!), however it seemed clearer to me this time how much the book is a portrait of the tiny relationship shifts, power battles and feelings that any long marriage or relationship is made up of: consider this, once Nan feels she has to confront Bill, “In ordinary life all her talk with Bill was planed down into simple familiar regularly recurring units. Any conversation which she might have with him was of so familiar a type that they might have talked it in their sleep” (p. 199). Murdoch skewers Nan and Bill’s marriage, highlighting every tiny fault line. I’d actually forgotten how much of Nan’s point of view we got, and how much of her vulnerability, and I found myself much more on her side this time.

Rain I recall originally finding very cool and attractive. I’d forgotten how defenceless she does seem at times, and how insecure. I do wonder how people will read her and Mor’s relationship through the lens of current discussions of abuses of power etc – if you have read this book more than once, did you find your attitude changing with the times? I could see how people’s could, without necessarily seeing Mor as predatory – they seem to encounter and fall for each other – or use each other – equally, to me. Mor is pretty pathetic, though, now, to me: !he talked and talked … He was able to explain how and why it was that he no longer loved his wife” (p. 207).

The good old themes are here – weird siblings and our first magic, maybe? Dogs, of course, with the lost / ghost Liffey, and we can note that Rain is shorn of her plaits between a painting at the exhibition and now. The sea comes in, and that powerful image of magic and the sea down in Dorset. Men with large heads and old men, and of course art. The theme of chasing a woman through the night came up again with Mor and Rain’s rose-picking exploits near the start of the novel. We have detailed descriptions of complicated arrangements, whether that’s the access to the school grounds, Felicity’s spell or the climb and rescue near the end (reminiscent of “The Nice and the Good, maybe?). I thought Bledyard had more sermons and speeches than he ended up having, which is interesting. And I ended up much fonder of him this time.

It’s funny, again, of course, from Mor leaving his bicycle “in a place where bicycles were forbidden ever to be” (p. 154), Everard becoming more chubby and conciliatory as Demoyte becomes grimmer and more sarcastic (p. 169), or Felicity being very good at interpreting Tarot cards to her wishes.

I’m not sure there’s an enchanter here, unless it’s Rain or even her father. But surely, and I don’t recall thinking this before, Revvy Evvy is actually a Murdochian saint. He’s benign and always in a muddle – a classic thing that reminded me of Tallis in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”. He’s described as “so gentle and unselfish” but Mor can “hardly summon up any affection at all for poor Evvy” (shades of Tallis, again).  He doesn’t care for matters of precedence and gets everyone in a muddle even when moving from room to room at the banquet. Is he thus a saint? Notions of good and freedom do come up, with Mor struggling to define freedom, not wanting it to be the absence of external restraint but more self-discipline to dominate our selfish desires, settling for it meaning absence of tyranny, trying to make it all political. When Bledyard talks about freedom, however, he says “Real freedom is an absence of concern about yourself” (p. 217). Is he being the saint here, or is he merely describing sainthood? He certainly stands in judgement and tries to interfere with matters, as does Demoyte, and unlike Everard. But he does “[accept] the storms that so often broke over him without surprise but also without interest” (p. 252) during his lectures.

There are some beautiful descriptions of the human condition. I particularly liked “The real pain after all was not that the world had fallen into little pieces. That was a relief from pain. It was rather that the world remained, whole, ordinary and relentlessly to be lived in” (p. 194-195)

I feel like this book gets a little forgotten in the oeuvre, but it’s a complex and minute study, the first of Murdoch’s novels to be very tied to one place, with only a few forays out, maybe. I very much enjoyed my re-read.


OK, over to you! 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.

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