“The Good Apprentice” round-up and “The Book and the Brotherhood” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I really enjoyed re-reading “The Good Apprentice” and it’s stayed near the top of my list, even though I have switched allegiance on a few characters. Here’s my review with the usual comments and discussion (I will admit to have not replied to the lovely long comments yet – sorry!). Jo has contributed a very interesting review on Goodreads which pulls out some very good points.

If you have any juicy paperbacks or alternative covers, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted. I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book, so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time! It’s always good to talk about Iris Murdoch! I just added one from someone who’d read and reviewed “Henry and Cato”, for example

“The Book and the Brotherhood”

This has always been one of my top favourites, and includes my all-time favourite character, so no pressure for this one to live up to, then. It also has the best parrot, though brace yourselves …

I have the usual three copies although I fear this is almost the last time I’ll be posting three as the final two books didn’t get republished by Vintage. Can you believe I was pulling a book off the bottom shelf of my IM first editions? I will be very sad when this readalong is over.

The first edition is very special to me, because it was the first IM first edition I bought! I went to a shop in Cecil Court in central London and bought it for £16 in January 2004, a birthday present to myself. I had a vague plan of buying them all, birthday by birthday, but the prices were still a bit high – I’ve amassed most of the rest of them over the last two years. I have the slightly more modern (and very 1990s somehow) Penguin, which I bought on 30 December 1994, presumably using Christmas book tokens. And I have to say I do love the cover of the Vintage edition.

The blurbs are quite similar … here’s the first:

Here’s the Penguin:

and here’s the Vintage:

which is less derivative than some of them and concentrates on the opening – which is marvellous. I can’t wait to get stuck into this one!

Oh, and I finally got round to buying this lovely:

It is available from the Second Shelf Bookshop in particular, and other real-life bookshops of course, in person, or the usual online booksellers, and has new photos and lovely-looking pieces by people who knew Iris Murdoch. I’ve decided to save it to read after I’ve finished “Jackson’s Dilemma” in December, to give a nice treat to the end of the year. Who else has it?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Book and the Brotherhood” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?

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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Good Apprentice” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


It’s funny what you remember and don’t remember about books you re-read, isn’t it? I’d remembered very clearly Stuart being described as a white grub, and scenes at Seegard, and I recall finding Middge an attractive character (something of which I’m less sure this time round) but I had no memory of most of the actual plot as such! Anyway, a bit of a late review and I hope my regulars are poised to share their thoughts, and anyone else happening along feels moved to share theirs, too.

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 – “The Good Apprentice”

(28 December 2018)

Edward and Stuart are brothers-but-not-brothers. Edward has just been instrumental in the death of a friend and wants to blot out all experience and stop living in hell  “How does one live after total wickedness, total failure, total disgrace?” (p. 10). Stuart is inexperienced but wants to do good in the world. Their father/step-father is one of a group of super-Murdochian middle-class characters (the analyst, the doctor, the academic, the “women’s lib” writer) and their offspring who circle the boys, trying to help. Meanwhile, near the sea but seemingly distanced from the sea, Seegard sits with its colony of weird women, waiting for whoever ends up visiting.

This is one of the books where you definitely have to draw a diagram of the relationships, pretty well as soon as you discover that Stuart and Edward are brothers only in vague name, having different mothers AND fathers. Add in a few aunts and cousins and you can easily get very lost. And then everyone’s mothers seem to know everyone else’s mothers! I found my diagram from last time and added to it – dotted lines are links not by marriage or birth and I imagine it’s incomplete!

There are little feminist bits again which I’ve never (how?) noticed before. Sarah Plowmain’s mother is into “Women’s Lib Journalism. She’s a fire-eater” (p. 6) and later writes a piece decrying Mother May’s position as a little woman serving a great man and being spiteful about his conquests. We don’t have the horrible ageing women we’ve had in other books, Mother May’s network of fine lines being attractive and Midge, for all of her weight gain, being very attractive and well-dressed. Thomas has been doing a lot of thinking about the menopause in a rather startling passage, with a very modern conclusion: “In fact, he thought, there is no typical menopause, there are as many menopauses as women” (p. 387) so although he’s been complaining about women pinning their neuroses onto this time of life, he is humane about it. Harry is seen grabbing and shaking Midge until her head cracks against a chair (but he doesn’t get to keep his relationship with her).

In our usual themes Willy is trying to write a book on Proust but has been unable to finish it. Harry HAS finished a book but it’s a novel (“a terrible shameful secret”) and it’s being rejected by publishers. Red curly hair is a theme at Seegard (and Midge has a many-coloured mop that is also familiar) and not only Ilona but Bettina chops her hair off. There are stones throughout: the “lingam stone” of which Edward knows the meaning and Ilona claims not to, the stones around the country cottage and the paperweight stone Thomas has from Scotland. Spiders appear as Bettina teases one at Seegard, and Edward claims his head is full of poisonous ones. There are not many people seen out of windows or through them, but Harry enters Midge and Thomas’ house via a “tree-shaded back alley through a gate into the walled garden” (p. 181). Stuart chases Meredith in London but there’s no one flitting in a white dress. Water is there in the form of the sea by Seegard, not accessible by Edward until he trusts his own sense of direction, and mists.

There’s lots of doubling – Stuart and Edward / Mark and Brownie, with Edward and Mark the favoured children. Two locations, London and Seegard. Two families for almost everyone. Two hot air balloon appearances. Two fingers on lips expressions for Midge and Meredith. Two sightings of Jesse drowned, one real, one a vision. Two encounters with the Tree Men. Willy’s father is killed camel riding, Harry’s sailing. Jesse and then his old friend Max die, probably on the same day, and the two deaths are seen in the papers. Ilona can dance in the glade and then can’t dance in the strip club (is this Seegard as enchanter again? see below).

Of course the theme of religion hangs over the whole book – or precisely what to do when religion has faded from the world, Edward can’t take absolution from a priest and Stuart can’t become a monk, so what are they to do to make their way through the world? The introduction by David E. Cooper makes much of this, and is right to.

There is humour in this big and very sad book. The “Willy and the camel” thing is pretty weird, his father having been killed by one – Harry mentions someone “drinks like a camel” and Willy leaves suddenly and later when Midge wants to get rid of him, she comments “What a fine coat … it’s camel-hair, isn’t it?” (p 432). This is such an odd one it does feel like something – a dare? – that has worked its way in from real life. Some of the descriptions of discomfort – Edward in his wet clothes at Mrs Quaid’s (“His trousers were wet and seemed to have shrunk, he felt cold, a smell of damp wool arose from the collar of his jacket” (p. 64)

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? I’m not sure we have a saint. Stuart, though, is striving like mad to be one, suppressing all urges, absorbing people’s emotions and trying to find his place to do good in the world. However, Meredith says he’s not messy, so he can’t be a saint yet. Maybe a saint in waiting. Interestingly at very least Midge tries to turn him into an enchanter, making out he’s sat there in the back of the car with a monolithic disapproval of her and Harry’s affair and has made her fall in love with him, while he says, “I don’t think I did that” (p. 353). Edward is trying to find his own redemption, although he does manage to “take a pain away from her into himself” when Brownie tells him what people have been saying about Mark’s death (p. 334). Thomas has been moving behind the scenes, as we discover he was behind Edward’s invitation to Seegard and also sends Brownie to find him in his old room by letter, and has been busy reading letters between Harry and Midge. He knows Edward is going to run and that he will know where to (but that’s because he’s instigated it!). But he’s more like N from “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, moving things around to help, and he’s not set up as an enchanter by anyone. He also thinks he should give up “this ingenious skill, this power, bending and contorting people’s lives like a Japanese flower arranger” (p. 390). He does, however, avoid “inflicting my suffering on [Midge] in the form of rage” (p. 437). Jesse is a sex god and attracted many women, but doesn’t really seem to have used his powers much, and Mother May is more like the controlling nun in “The Bell” and a wardress.

However, there is a source of enchantment in Seegard, appearing and disappearing in the landscape, acting as a place out of time where no one ages, and described as starting to fall apart as Edward leaves it for the last time. Nature also has some kind of guiding or enchanting role, from the murmuration of starlings Edward sees on the way to Seegard to the robin that interrupts Harry and Thomas.

In links to other books, Stuart is described early as “a plump white grub with a big head emerging from an apple” (p. 28) and we remember that I noted in my review of “The Philosopher’s Pupil” the description of George post-stones as “weak and pale like a grub in an apple” (p. 547). The Post Office Tower pops up, for Edward when he’s walking out of Mrs Quaid’s and everything is glittering and lovely. When Edward is in counsel with Thomas, a demon looks through his eyes reminding Thomas of flayed Marsyas, who crops up a lot. Thomas himself is another psychoanalyst who believes he’s a fraud, like Blaise from “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”. Midge describes Harry as living in a “net” and she is in one of lies (p. 99). Thomas says he likes to see Midge sewing and someone else in a book a few ago said that – anyone remember? The idea of ordeal, which came up in “Philosopher’s Pupil”  and “Nuns and Soldiers” and will be more prominent in “The Green Knight”, is mentioned here – “[Edward] has gone upon a pilgrimage to face an ordeal, his very own. He will be alright” (p. 225).

And in a link to quite another book, we have a little Lord of the Rings mention, when Edward, very near the end of the book, considers wearing Jesse’s ring on Ilona’s chain “round his neck, like Frodo” (p. 554). This greatly cheered me!

Thoughts on re-reading – I don’t remember Stuart and Thomas being my favourite characters last time but they are this time. Poor old Thomas, trying to be logical and being accused of being cold, and poor lost Stuart, not his father’s favourite and patiently running around trying to help!

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 Philosopher’s Pupil” round-up and “The Good Apprentice” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I so enjoyed this one, staying in my Top 5 (thank goodness) but with me creeping past the main characters in age once again … Here’s my review with the usual comments and discussion. Jo has done her usual excellent review on Goodreads and I’m so enjoying watching her read them all for the first time while most of the rest of us are re-reading.

No cover image from Peter this month because weirdly, the US Viking first edition had exactly the same cover as the Chatto and Windus one here in the UK. We think the next one is different, though. If you have any juicy paperbacks, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted. Did you notice that on the new Vintage cover, the stones all have the waves from “The Sea, The Sea” around their bases?

I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book, so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time! It’s always good to talk about Iris Murdoch!

A thought: I was considering collecting these 26 essays, plus an introduction and concluding thoughts, into a small book and making it available via Amazon, as I did with my research a few years ago. Should I, or keep it to this blog?

“The Good Apprentice”

I have always really enjoyed this one and its different locations of London and Norfolk. I have three copies still, however Vintage for some reason didn’t re-print it in one of their nice red-spined editions; I didn’t have a modern copy so bought their one from their last round instead.

The 1986 Penguin (so the first I would have bought when it came out, having discovered IM that year, although I didn’t write in it so don’t know exactly when I bought it) is SO 1980s, isn’t it! Not sure what era the rather alarming first edition is capturing. Rorschach butterfly to go with the face on the front, anyone?

And when I opened this copy from a book dealer, there were loads of random stamps inside!

Bruno would approve, right?

Anyway, the blurbs: a good, full one in the first

The Penguin paperback went for more of a reviews by other people approach:

… although with some echoes in the language in the main blurb. The Vintage goes for:

which kind of blends the two. Intrigued?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Good Apprentice” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?

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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Philosopher’s Pupil” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


Well, this was the fifth time at least that I’ve read this book (I recall taking it on holiday to Greece and reading it in the reception area of a Turkish hammam on a day trip while my husband was being pummelled and terrified (he thankfully didn’t end up exploring any bubbling pipework below the baths!)). Yet again, I’ve aged past the characters’ ages. Yet again, things that I thought happened in the middle happened at the end and there wasn’t as much of some themes as I’d remembered. But my goodness, this one stays firmly in my Top Five.

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 – “The Philosopher’s Pupil”

(31 December 2018)

I absolutely loved re-reading this book. I think it’s her most “George Eliot-ish” novel, isn’t it – is that a sacrilege to say? The huge web of characters, the interconnected society, the whole world in one town, the omniscient narrator who occasionally addresses the reader directly …

It opens of course with that seminal scene of Bad George crashing his car into the canal, complete with wife Stella. Oddly, I always associate this scene with “An Accidental Man”, probably because of the car crash there, and also George is a bit of an unlucky man making his own bad luck, like Austin Gibson Grey, in my opinion. And the shadowy figure of the dodgy priest, Father Bernard is there, as he always seems to be  and is indeed at the end at the scene of George’s other big misdeed – a funny touch when you’re re-reading and know just how much he worms into people’s lives. And we very soon find that our narrator is N (with “the assistance of a certain lady” as he admits at the end, p. 558). What will happen to Stella now George has tried to kill her, if he has? Is his old university tutor coming back, and will he want to see him? Just who does Rozanov want to install in a quiet house and why? The community acts as a sort of chorus as events unfold, with a sub-plot of a restaging of a peculiar opera going on at the same time.

The big Murdochian themes are all there, with the novel starting with “malignant rain” and a car in a canal and punctuated by the baths and Lud’s Rill, the geyser in the grounds, worried over by the superbly sketched in director of the baths.  We have a lot of being outside, looking in, mainly to do with the Slipper House, which Tom does a dry run for his later peering early in the novel when it’s still empty, but with Pearl looking in to Belmont and Ruby staring at Maryville, the house by the sea. In case we’re missing someone climbing over a fence by having the back gate to Belmont’s garden open, Gabriel sees the mysterious naked man climbing over one. George follows Diane three times before he finds her properly (and she’s searched for in Paris, too). Big flabby faces with wet mouths are represented by Rozanov, slippery hair in plaits and buns by Hattie. Stones are found in Hattie’s soapstone seal, Gabriel’s malachite egg she buys for Adam and hides and the stone circle at which strange things are seen, Rozanov is upset to see have been cleaned, and where George has his ‘episode’. There’s also talk of rocks that the hot spring comes out of, although only the surface ones around Lud’s Rill are visible.

Animals are beautifully represented by the mysterious foxes and the lovely Zed, a full character in his own right with his own thoughts, emotions and reactions. Who doesn’t have their heart in their mouth when he goes into the sea, even knowing what will happen? What a fantastic character who makes the book in the same way the parrot does in “The Book and the Brotherhood”.

The little ‘feminist’ touches are back in this novel, something I’ve completely missed in every other reading of all of them but am increasingly noticing now (and although Alex is a bit haggard and yellowy, the descriptions of her ageing are not nearly as horrible as those in many others of the novels). Gabriel has a year in secretarial college but wants to go to a university, before she is “overtaken by marriage. Now who and what was she? Brian’s wife, Adam’s mother” (p. 60). This is on top of her other “chief grievance”: “Brian’s selfishness to which she quietly gave in, forgiving though not forgetting” (p. 60). The feminist sector of society, while gently mocked, are I think seen as a force of good, trying to help Diane and Stella.

Like with the ageing, IM seems to have relaxed a bit on her views on marriage in this novel: although the marriages of the two older McCaffrey brothers are not successful as such, there are not so many damning statements on the condition, and we have positive hopes of Tom’s. The only real statement is this rather lovely one:

It is a feature of marriages, including happy ones, that two people who live together may have quite false ideas of one another. This does not at all necessarily lead to disaster or even inconvenience. (p. 546)

There’s a lot of religion of course, including religion lost (Alex and Rozanov’s Methodism,Father Bernard’s Judaism and then high Anglicanism. But Adam is a pantheist and Alex makes little fetishes, while Father Bernard carries on practising after his faith is lost and ends up feeling he needs to explain NOT-religion to everyone in Greece. And the books – both George and Rozanov are writing books which are, of course, unfinished. The only completed book is the one N writes! In fact, Rozanov has lost all interest in books, including perhaps his own, made clear in a melancholy description of his state of mind: “Unless one is a genius, philosophy is a mug’s game” (p. 132)

The humour is back, having been a little missing at times in the last read. The descriptions of the townsfolk and their habits are droll:

It is even alleged that people make a habit of leaving their offices early at four-thirty, bathing and resting until six and then proceeding to the pub. I have met some of these offenders myself. (p. 32)

I also loved this description of Brian:

Of course compared with George he was ‘nice’, but he was not all that nice. (p. 43)

The descriptions of Emma’s startling counter-tenor voice are also most amusing, with windows opening in London and glasses ringing in Ennistone when he produces it, and who can not giggle at Father Bernard’s consternation at having “managed to chuckle in a suggestive way” (p. 239) when phoning Hattie and then his struggles when he has his academic session with her: “Father Bernard was excited too, but not by the grammatical quest” (p. 261). The set-piece where four people watch George going to re-enact his scene by the canal is also very funny.

And what IS Mrs Bradstreet’s terrible secret?

There’s duality all over the place – the Slipper House and the main house, the brothers (well, three brothers), George’s wife and mistress, Alan’s two wives (and Fiona has a brother who has also died), two servants (and three cousins), the town and the baths, the town and London, the UK and America, Lud’s Rill and the controlled bath house, the young people and the old guard. Nesta regards the babies in the baths and can’t help being enchanted; George wants to drown them and indeed thinks of that when completing his own ‘drowning’ of his tutor. Zed appears to be a bag on the lawn of Belmont and a plastic bag floating in the sea.  We have portents, as well – George sees the number 44 everywhere.

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Well, John Robert Rozanov is the obvious enchanter – everyone he meets ends up doing things that they often really do not want to do in order to please him. He even enchants his own grand-daughter. However he is conscious of using his powers and so he’s not entirely classic enchanter material:

Father Bernard detested walking, but he was already himself captured and caged. (p. 162)

Being so concentrated on was beginning to give tom a panicky feeling of being trapped. He wanted to get up and lean on the mantelpiece, or open the door into the hall. But he could not move. he was fixed by John Robert’s glare and John Robert’s purpose. (p. 271)

William Eastcote is described as being a saint, repeatedly, and he’s the person people want to go and confess to and ask for help. He never gossips and this is because of his “virtuous austerity” (p. 414) although he’s all too painfully human, reminded of his mortality constantly. The McCaffreys think of him as “‘a place of healing'” (p. 473). He’s also the only Quaker to speak in a meeting that’s described. His speech there is a sort of ‘how to be good’ bringing in themes from all the other books. People should print it out and regard it daily. I might do so!

Let us then seek aid in pure things, turning our minds to good people, to our best work, to beautiful and noble art … Shun the cynicism which says the our world is so terrible that we may as well cease to care and cease to strive, the notion of a cosmic crisis where ordinary duties cease to be and moral fastidiousness is out of place. (p. 205)

I wonder if he, like Charles Arrowby’s father in “The Sea, The Sea” is a portrait of IM’s father (although I say I don’t like looking for that sort of stuff, he is reminiscent of his portrayal, I feel). The other saint is poor put-upon Gabriel, with an angel’s name, a ministering touch and unfortunate floppy hair. Critically, she is described as “the silliest wettest human-being I’ve ever met” (by Alex, p. 485), a bit like Anns Perronet and Cavidge, although, like them, she doesn’t live in a mess (maybe female saints don’t?) and is really good at mending things. Is there an argument for Stella with her lack of feminine wiles and inability to “conceal her strength” (p. 79)? She has netsuke, after all, and a father in Japan …

Attention is a theme although not pushed unsubtly. N is the only person who looks at Stella’s netsuke, and all George wants is to be paid attention to by Rozanov.

Looking at links to other books, poor old Alex, stranded in a relic of her past life reminds me of Henry’s mother in “Henry and Cato”. Like her, Aliex has had her faithful retainer since her teens. As I said, George reminds me of Austin, the “Accidental Man”, and of course even more than this we are given a tiny glimpse of Hugo Bellfounder, Jake’s confidant in “Under the Net”. On p. 82 we’re told “He kept up with William Eastcote and with an eccentric old watchmaker with whom he had philosophical conversations” and then later, we find he’s died: “‘What about all those valuable clocks?’ ‘He left them to that writer, I forget his name'” (p.99) (in the introduction, Malcolm Bradbury claims this is IM (p. xvi). But surely it’s Jake?). Again with “Under the Net” is it chance that Rozanov pursues quarries of lines of thought into nets (p. 135)?

The car going into the canal and the fine balance of the act reminds me of Rain’s Morgan going into the river in “The Sandcastle”. As my lovely commenters pointed out regarding “Nuns and Soldiers” we are at a time of change here – Ruby is restive, Rozanov is back, and there’s a periodic uprising to do with Lud’s Rill which makes everyone go a bit odd. Diane with her cluttered room and odd clothes is all the prostitute/mistresses in the oeuvre, her boyish hair and figure perhaps a clue to how some of the other genderfluid women might have ended up. Mistaking French is in there, this time actually not understanding at all (p. 145). Like in “Nuns and Soldiers”, Tom like Tim undergoes trial by water and emerges changed and grown. Like in “An Accidental Man” and “Nuns and Soldiers”, Tom and Rozanov pass each other in The Crescent but don’t notice each other.

Looking forward through the remaining works, the obsession with the old tutor prefigures “The Book and the Brotherhood” and I was excited to find George post-stones described as “weak and pale like a grub in an apple” (p. 547) as this prefigures Stuart Cuno in “The Good Apprentice” being described as a white grub (more than once?). She must have liked and retained the image.

On rereading this one in particular: so everyone’s in their early 40s apart from (maybe) N, and definitely Alex, William Eastcote (sob!) and John Robert Rozanov. So I’m older than them again. But this time I do still have kind thoughts towards the young crowd, where I went off them in other books. I remembered a lot of the set pieces and being somehow obscurely almost in love with N, but somehow thought that Tom’s adventure among the pipes was a lot further back in the book than it was (and also John Robert’s demise). I also thought there were lots more walks with philosophy for Rosanov and than there actually were. Odd, isn’t it!

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.

“Nuns and Soldiers” round-up and “The Philosopher’s Pupil” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I might have got my review of “Nuns and Soldiers” out a bit late but we’ve already had a good discussion on it – read my review to find out more! I appreciate this round-up is a day late and I’m sorry about that: I was in Cornwall for a party for the photo-a-day group I’m in and got back too late to write and post it. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading “Nuns and Soldiers” – I don’t feel it’s one of the big ones that get talked about but I get a lot out of it and it’s retained its place in my estimation.

We had, as I said, a good discussion so far, but I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time!

There’s another brilliant Goodreads review from Jo, sticking with the project and reading all the books for the first time! She has some great things to say about Daisy, among other people and themes. and she has some fascinating things to say, too.

Peter Rivenberg as usual has a first American edition and here it is – a funny old cover, really!

Peter Rivenberg’s first American edition

“The Philosopher’s Pupil”

And now we’re on to one of my very favourites. I bought my paperback on 30 December 1994, when I was 22 and had graduated from University and was working in a call centre. I must have read it before then, though, surely? I know I’ve read this outside the normal run of chronological reads, as I took it to Kos in the mid-00s and read chunks of it sitting in the reception of a Turkish Baths while my then-boyfriend (now husband) was being cleansed. Very appropriate, I thought. I love the theme of the returning philosopher and the pupil seeking redemption and the crowd of commentators and side characters, plus the enigmatic and loveable narrator, all set above the hisses and bubbles of a spa town.

There won’t be all of them where I have three copies now but we can still continue for the meantime. Here they are:

I put them in the wrong order but you can work this out, right?

… and here’s the back cover of the first edition, with lovely Zed:

Here’s the flap of the first edition:

Then my Penguin, produced in 1983:

The Spectator remains keen! And the Vintage:

… not much new under the sun there, eh?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Philosopher’s Pupil” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?

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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Nuns and Soldiers” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


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.

“The Sea, The Sea” round-up and “Nuns and Soldiers” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I thoroughly enjoyed my re-reading of “The Sea, The Sea” and caught a tiny new “Easter Egg” in the mention of someone who surely MUST be related to a character in a previous novel – read my review to find out more! I have been a little bit lax in replying to all the comments on the post but we’ve had a good discussion as ever, so far (with a few regulars missing thus far, but we know, don’t we, that I’m only worried about seeing discussion and what everyone else thought of it, and am not much bothered about when people post).

There’s another Goodreads review from stalwart first-timer Jo and she has some fascinating things to say, too. Brona has shared her review from far away. I’ve also been keeping this review by the very lovely Stuck-in-a-Book since TWO THOUSAND AND THIRTEEN for when I went through them all again. For the sake of balance, and a reminder that not everyone shares our obsession, and you can kind of see his point were we not a bunch of rabid IM fans! Do pop your comments on the review post even if you’re coming to this a bit late – I’d love this project to live on and be something people decide to undertake in the future!

Peter Rivenberg has done his usual sterling work sending me his covers of this month’s read. I love this first US paperback edition, beautifully battered as it’s lived with him since it came out, and a quote from Anne Tyler of all people!

He also added his standard 1980s Penguin – I have about a third of my original set in this edition (see below) and yes, that is a good sea monster:

“Nuns and Soldiers”

So moving on, we have another really good one that features a Polish exile, an ex-nun, Jesus Himself, some rackety artists in pubs and a terrifying sluice. What more could you ask for?

I have the usual three copies, noting that the first edition has a £6.50 price tag and cost me £10.00 39 years later (but it was a darn sight more expensive in between).

The cover of the first ed is a bit dull, isn’t it, although does indicate something of the topic. I also have the 1981 Penguin (I bought it on 30 December 1994, when I was 21, presumably with a Christmas book token) and the modern Vintage. The painting on the Penguin is “The Small Fish” by Max Beckmann although it looks more like a mussel to me.

The first edition blurb is the most informative and useful:

… and the other two are very similar, even going for the same Martin Amis quote!

I do love how Daisy goes from mistress to eccentric mistress to punk!

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “Nuns and Soldiers” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?

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

Older Entries