Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Word Child” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well it was going to happen, wasn’t it … I’ve found so much more to like in some of my less-favoured Murdoch novels and then, having been looking forward to this one, I was a bit, not disappointed as sucb, but surprised that I remembered such a horrible central character so fondly!

I’ve been away on my hols, hence the rather odd selection of reading matter in the last two reviews, so here you have an image of what I’d call “Extreme Iris Murdoch reading” – sat in the middle of a lava field in Fuerteventura (that’s my husband heading off to look for some birds).

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

Iris Murdoch – “A Word Child”

(31 December 2018)

So I remembered Hilary Burde as a gente, slightly shambliing, slight figure, for no discernible reason at all, rather than a big bruiser who keeps bashing women and frightening them. Why, I’m really not sure, as all the information is given to us in the book. We gradually come to realise Hilary is a man who keeps to a strict routine and regime in order to stave off madness, caused partly by his accidental – or not – killing of his friend Gunnar’s wife, with whom he was having an affair. So he has different days for different friends, keeps everything compartmentalised, hates his office-mates, worships his sister, tolerates her suitor Arthur, and puts up with his fey lodger, Christopher. Then a mysterious woman called Biscuit starts following him around and he finds out through office gossip that Gunnar is back … with a new wife.

It is a savagely funny book in that the repetitions and echoings and patterns come with a sort of black irony. The office scenes are brilliant and just right and of course I love Hilary’s circlings of the Circle Line (what a true tragedy it is that the platform bars have long gone and you can’t even go right round on the Circle Line any more!). The theme is set on page 4: “There was nothing here to love” – Hilary has no love in his life and rebuffs any that tries to form. This circles back at the end: “I had almost systematically destroyed his respect and affection and finally driven him away” (p. 387)

Is there an enchanter? Is it Hilary himself, with whom Gunnar and Lady Kitty are obsessed, who he admits three women want him to arrange for them to have children, two with him, and who inspires love? Only Christopher seems to escape him. And surely Christopher is our saint, accepting violence with meekness and being kind (although Jimbo is also an agent of positivity and attention with his taxis and presents. Are we saying the young are going to save the world?). He’s described as being Christ-like at one point. Mr Osmund also gives Hilary his full attention so is perhaps a Saint figure, as is patient and unworldly Arthur Fisch, who absorbs Hilary’s terrible story (although Hilary tries not to pass on his second love to Crystal, she’s still bothered by an atmosphere between them, so it clearly hasn’t worked). Arthur’s is also a “muddler” with a lot of lame ducks, reminding us of Tallis and just as humble: “I think we should just be kind to each other” (p. 87) and, later, “I think one should try to stick to simplicity and truth” (p. 290). Hilary describes him as the perfect IM saint:

Arthur was a little untalented unambitious man, destined to spend his life in a cupboard, but there was in a quite important sense no harm in him. He was kind, guileless, harmless and he had had the wit to love Crystal, to see Crystal, to see her value. (p. 287)

Tommy owns the crowded room full of knick-knacks that has to exist in every book. Clifford has a more refined version with Indian miniatures and tiny bookcases. Hilary gives Biscuit a black pebble which she later flings back at him. For water, we have the endless rain and dripping umbrellas, and of course the Thames as well as the Serpentine and Boating Lake. There’s no pursuit in the dark or standing in gardens looking through into houses, but Hilary does chase Biscuit down the Bayswater Road. In terms of siblings, we have Hilary and Crystal, but Clifford also had a sister, who died. Hair isn’t such a big theme but Laura has an unsuitably flowing grey mane, Biscuit a long black plait Kitty sophisticated brown layers and Crystal a frizzy fuzz last seen in “Sacred and Profane”.

A new theme coming through seems to be the quest, which Hilary talks of on p. 200: “I now had a task. I was like a Knight with a quest. I needed my chastity now; I needed my aloneness”.  The feeling of feuds and owing, when Hilary says, “I owe Gunnar a child” reminds me of “The Green Knight” and brings the patterning into sharp relief. There’s one of IM’s horrible prefigurings when Hilary is talking to Kitty on the jetty – “I felt now as if I were plunging around in the mud” (p. 243) and one that could be from “A Severed Head”: “Powers which I had offended were gathering to destroy me” (p. 323).

The humour is there, but savage as I said: “Not to have been born is undoubtedly best, but sound sleep is second best” (p. 16) feels like a good example. IM is funny about Christopher’s happenings and has Hilary be hilariously vile about Tommy’s knitting, which she does because he once said he liked it, but makes him want to vomit.

In echoes with other books, there’s yet another set of telephone entrails (“The Black Prince” and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” have them and I’m sure there are more in “The Book and the Brotherhood”). The parks of London of course echo several other books, as does the leap into the Thames at the end. Hilary’s three women demanding babies, echo Edgar’s three women planning to visit at he end of “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”.

What will become of Hilary at the end? Without a set of fake epilogues to contain him, this latest first-person narrator seems to drift away from us in this stranger than I remember book.

Is it shocking that Hilary is only 41? Yes, a bit: this is the first time I’ve been older than quite a few of the characters I’ve always known as being older than me, and maybe this has reduced my tolerance. The sense of place, though, is as I remembered, and eminently traceable. I’ve been noticing bits of running in the books and here we have Hilary in the parks, “I ran, and was cleansed of myself. I was a heart pumping, a body moving. I had cleaned a piece of the world of the filth of my consciousness” (p. 26).


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 Sacred and Profane Love Machine” round-up and “A Word Child” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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So it’s time to round up our reading of “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” and look forward to what has always been a personal favourite of mine, “A Word Child”. My review of “Sacred and Profane” is here and we’ve had a good discussion in the comments, particularly on the roles of wives and mistresses. Do pop your thoughts in the comments there if you have any to add – and don’t worry if it’s not February 2019 when you do so – I always want to talk about Murdoch!

Away from my review and comments, Bookish Beck has been reading along with us with all the IM books she had, and has now finished (I thought she had “The Book and the Brotherhood” but I must be thinking of someone else, and did a great review of this one, with which I tend to agree. Jo’s Goodreads review is excellent as ever and I love the quotes she pulls out as well as those memories of trendy 1970s living rooms!

Maria Peacock has sent me these cover images of the 1976 Penguin paperback (a few people have this as it’s the copy Bookish Beck read, too):

Maria Peacock’s Penguin ed of “Sacred and Profane Love Machine”

Maria Peacock’s Penguin ed of “Sacred and Profane Love Machine” – blurb

and added this information:

“The detail in the 1976 copy is of a painting by Titian and shows the wrist and hand of the ‘sacred’ bridal woman. According to the Wikipedia entry one interpretation is that the  two women represent the goddess Ceres ( the naked one) who brought her daughter Prosperina ( the one in the frock) back from the Underworld. Emily in the novel refers to this myth when she says Blaise has killed her and sent to hell and he must come and find her to make her live again.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_and_Profane_Love

Peter Rivenberg contributed the more recent Penguin than mine:

Peter Rivenberg’s newer ed Penguin

“A Word Child”

I cannot WAIT to read this one. Set partly on the London Underground with the most delicious doubling and repetition and patterns, groovy coats and drug references and some pop music, I seem to remember. I’ve always really liked this one, maybe because I understood it a bit better, seemingly buying and reading it first on my 23rd birthday!

Here are my three copies. I love the First Ed but it’s a bit fragile to release entirely from its protective cover, so sorry it’s a bit reflective. Guesses on who all the heads represent (Oh, I THINK I’ve done a diagram of the relationships in this one that goes in a circle, something to dig out for the review!).

So Penguin had got into their new edition when I bought my copy in 1995 and there’s a great picture of the Hungerford Footbridge on it – I always thing of this book when I’m in London and trot across the bridge. I’m not quite sure what the IKEA chair on the new Vintage represents but there we go.

The blurb in the First ed (sorry this didn’t photograph well):

That’s a great blurb, isn’t it! We’re a bit more terse in 1995:

and the Vintage copy seems strangely derivative …

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “A Word Child” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? (and why has no one answered that question yet?)


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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As promised, I’ve managed to get this one read a bit earlier than the December and January reads, so there should be plenty of time for discussion before my round-up post. I’ve had some front covers sent to me already but always have room for more for my post at the end of the month!

Note I can’t help but have plot spoilers in this review, so maybe save it to read later if you haven’t read the book yet and intend to!

So this one was of course a re-read, probably my fourth read of it; I’ve always seen this is a bit of a minor work (and only really remembered the shocking act near the end) but I got such a lot out of it this time, and reassessed my feelings on various characters, as I seem to this time round, as a married mid-forties person. It’s so interesting how our views change, isn’t it.

Iris Murdoch – “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”

(11 January 2019)

We find the Gavender family, Blaise the conman psychotherapist (in his own estimation), placid Harriet, wrapped up in her things and home and family, and tortured David who is, sorry, just being a fastidious teenager; and next door there’s Monty Small, mourning his wife and wondering how to escape from the detective he created. But Blaise has a secret and she has a child and a weird friend, and they’re all about to clash …

What a rich setting for a novel! Two houses and a flat, two families, two sons, a sort of Greek chorus observing things in the shape of two misfit neighbours, and then a drunken truth-teller. Although there’s a small cast, this doesn’t feel as suffocating as some of her novels, maybe because there are voices from outside. And we have lots of pleasing tropes that echo through the other novels – including many people standing in gardens looking in!

The opening of the book is very strong, with three separate characters all gazing at a small figure in the garden of Hood House.  We also see Harriet’s “pale form” (p. 14) in the garden early on. We also have Emily running down the street away from Blaise and being chased, and then falling (doesn’t someone else do this?). And hooray – Monty climbs a fence, continuing a long stream of fence-climbing in these middle-class thinking folk that IM likes to write about! I also now feel that people opening their tops to their waists is a trope and not an echo of this book or that book – Pinn does it to Monty here (but he doesn’t act on the temptation). Ectoplasm is one that’s only come in since about “The Nice and the Good,” with Harriet describing herself as it here (p. 238).

Cluttered rooms, that favourite of IM’s, are only really found in Harriet’s domain, where she’s collected all but the “serious family stuff” and gaudy things from holidays. It’s awful when these are disposed of later, isn’t it! Poor old Harriet, I could remember what was going to happen all the way through, the downside to re-reading, although there are some pretty clanging portents, too. Back to the usual themes and we have soldiers – Harriet’s father and brother. Have we had a soldier recently? We have a big important book which Blaise is failing to write. Edgar is a pink man with a fat face and fluffy hair – a real Murdoch type and of course Monty is dry and severe, another type. Just like when Gracie in Accidental Man messes up the bits of London that IM most loves, Blaise is “not interested in pictures” while Harriet has amazing pleasure from them: a sure marker of a dodgy character and a good one. Another indication of goodness and badness is in the reaction of the dogs to people, rolling around happily with Edgar, trying to eat Blaise!

There’s not so much water as there usually is, however the Thames acts as a separator between Blaise’s two households and crossing the river is always “a bad moment” for him. There are plenty of tears – or no tears in Monty’s case. There is some humour, I liked Monty being rather in thrall to his detective but then at the last moment being rescued by the actor who plays him. Also Pinn, when chasing Blaise the first time: “… he heard those sharp accelerating footsteps behind him and turned to see those slinky spectacles glinting in the sun” (p. 83). I also like Monty’s pricking of Blaise’s worry about Harriet finding out about Emily:

‘I feel if Harriet ever knew about Emily the world would simply end in a huge explosion.’

‘Your ordeal is that it won’t. You’ll all go on existing, sleeping and eating and going to the lavatory.’ (p. 112)

There’s some great doubling, too, not only the two families, two households, two sons, two deflowerings but also a severing of the Achilles tendon in the TV detective series and when Blaise gets attacked by the dogs. There are two brothers in some kind of an asylum (as described in the novel).

On the portents, crikey! When Emily is having one of her moans about her second-best status in the arrangement, first of all she claims “I’m the flesh and she’s the spirit, don’t tell me, I know!” and then, chillingly, “God, sometimes I feel like people who go to an airport with a machine gun and just shoot everyone within sight. You simply have no idea how much I suffer” (p. 79). In addition, when Harriet is dealing with finding out about Emily, she brings to mind her soldiering family and then, “Harriet was determined to stay upright now in the gunfire” (p. 131). Did first-readers notice or go back to this?

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? I’m not sure there’s an enchanter as such, is there? Blaise likes to think he is and it’s interesting that all his patients do so much better when he withdraws from their lives, but he’s imposed himself on them more than being created as an enchanter. Harriet doesn’t think she’s a saint, finding her charity work and interests easy and boring, and feeling she’s selfish. But her last act is a selfless one, of course. Blaise thinks (or thought) of her as “not an intellectual but – what? – a sort of saint? Well, not a saint so much as a noble lady” (p. 58), also saying that she’s completely normal and absolutely open (as contrasted with his peculiar desires (unspecified) that he shares with Emily. Monty sees her as “a gentle utterly harmless person who could make no one her victim” (p. 179) however, these are both men seeing her through their eyes. There’s an indication of the nature of goodness when Monty remembers Sophie’s dying: “He ought to have accepted that suffering from her with profound gratitude as a proof of her love” (p. 22) but he didn’t.

Is Edgar the saint? He loves selflessly, he keeps his odd desires to himself, and strives to help others. He tells Monty to let Sophie go, with a short piece on death (p. 263), counsels David wonderfully:

One’s mind is such an old rubbish heap. All sorts of little bits of machinery start up. Don’t bother about them. Watch them a while, then make a change. (p. 315)

which is the complete opposite of Blaine’s analysis and meddling or Monty’s avoidance, and accepts his loss at the end in the same frame of mind. IM seems to make a clear statement about him at the very end:

He might resemble a huge pink baby and spend his time in libraries reading very obscure texts, but he had had his share of soldiering through nightmares, and things had happened to him of which he could not speak even to Monty. (p. 317)

and in the last words:

Three good-looking women, he thought, and all of them after me! And he could not help being a little bit cheered up and consoled as he got into the Bentley and set off alone for Oxford.

I thought a lot more of Edgar this time around. Whoever the saint is, Harriet has learned and changed by the end of the book, realising she’d not been prepared for the battle she had to fight – “for a situation where she was not needed she had no heroism” (p. 235). She tells Monty she has become her own person and hard in the middle, although he’s not hugely impressed and seemed to prefer her vague married form.

So a deep and satisfying and complicated book (though the inter-relationships are not too hard to understand this time round). And a new favourite character in Edgar.


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 Black Prince” roundup and “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Oh dear, it’s only a couple of days since I posted my review of “The Black Prince” – I promise I’ll be starting the next read tomorrow! Fortunately, my lovely fellow Readalongers held onto their thoughts and shared them as soon as it was up, so there’s already a discussion going on on the review – do add your thoughts to that post, even if you’re coming to the book after January 2019, as I always love to hear what people think.

As well as the discussion on the review, Jo has done another of her excellent Goodreads reviews so do pop and read that here. I particularly enjoyed the quotes she shared at the end of the review.

Peter Rivenberg has come up proper trumps with his covers for this one – he has the Penguin edition after mine, a great US paperback (the very one that was thrown across a room, not by him!) and a collected edition (but when was that published and when did it go up to? Here we go …

The Warner Paperback Library first – who is the chap, and why is Julian meditating with a funny vase? Is it the vase that Bradley breaks bringing back from Bristol? But then how …

As Peter says, the back of the book shows what an event this was:

I have to say I have never seen footnotes on a blurb before – marvellous!

Here’s the Penguin Modern Classic

… and the promises of sex and violence on the back. OK, there is sex and violence, but this is a bit odd, isn’t it?

In fact there’s rather too much violence for my liking!

And the lovely colours of that collected edition

and it’s own blurb:

“The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”

I’m not sure what it is about this book, but although I’ve read it at least three times, and probably one more as I have a 1980s copy, I can only ever remember an awful lot of standing on lawns, looking into windows (which hardly distinguishes it from all the other novels) and the shocking thing near the end. So I’m interested to see what I make of it this time round. I did draw a relationship diagram in my notebook last time round which I will try to remember to share.

I have three copies of this: the first edition by Chatto and Windus, a Penguin reprinted in 1984 (so probably bought in about 1986 in my first rush of Murdoch reading) and the Vintage before last, as this is one they didn’t reprint with the red spines (it does at least have an introduction).

I find it interesting that they all have very similar looking and rather fussy cover images – I wonder what other people’s editions show.

A bit of blurb recycling going on as ever, too. Here’s the first edition’s flap:

Then the Penguin:

and then Vintage have read the first edition, I feel …

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Black Prince” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I’m so sorry this is so late – life and work have got in the way, I only finished this yesterday morning and here I am, trying to get the review in by the end of the month. I am enjoying the project and I massively welcome and appreciate everyone’s input: sorry if you’ve been waiting, poised with your amazing comments and reviews!

I’m going to start the next one on Friday, and that’s a promise!

Iris Murdoch – “The Black Prince”

(October 2018)

This is really one of those books that changes as you re-read it, I think – and I’ll be interested to hear other people’s experiences if they’re doing a re-read. I must have read it first in 1995, as that’s when my oldest copy is dated, although maybe I’d read my friend Mary’s copy before then. I remember then, at age 23, identifying with Julian and thinking she was great, and feeling it was all a bit Lolita-y. Now of course I’m nearer Bradley’s age than Julian’s and I see that actually it’s a book about menopausal women and the horrors of marriage!

I can see this in the context of a phase of IM’s experimenting with form. This story of eccentric loner retired tax man failed author Bradley and his violent falling in love with his rival, Arnold Baffin’s, daughter, alongside a backdrop of his sister’s arrival fresh from her failed marriage and his ex-wife’s return to London as a widow, with her weird brother. Although the scene moves from London to the coast, it’s quite one of her “closed” novels in that there’s a small group of characters and not much of the outside world – apart from Bradley’s colleague, who himself is pulled into the fold rather amusingly by the end. Where “An Accidental Man” worked through party chatter and chapters of letters, this narrative is nested within layers of editorial and commentary, something IM didn’t return to in the other novels as far as I can think. I will find it interesting to read “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” in light of these experiments.

I had forgotten about what is pretty much a rape scene, when Bradley falls upon Julian having seen her dressed as a schoolgirl Hamlet. I really don’t understand how I’ve missed this stuff in two books now: I’ve always been a feminist, a domestic violence campaigner, alive to the assaults women experience day in, day out. It’s not like I was awakened by #MeToo and can suddenly see this stuff. I’m not saying IM condones it (although she talks here and there about people wanting to be forced, etc.) but it’s pretty horrible. I’m also not saying Bradley is a nice or attractive character, so he’s even more rapey than almost-forgiveably horrified by himself Garth in the last novel.

This novel is unusual in my mind in not really having a saint or an enchanter. Bradley is obsessed with Arnold and in love with Julian in some way, and induces a slavish secretarial following in Francis Marloe, but not really in an enchanter way. He’s also “a failed person” but “a trouble maker” (p. 43) – although he’s messy and weepy and contingent, being seen as an active stirrer makes him unsaintly, plus he’s into psychoanalysis, not something that’s often a positive in the novels. Bradley achieves some kind of unselfing when he becomes a void on loving Julian (p. 232) but this is soon lost in control and ego. Maybe Shakespeare is Bradley’s enchanter. Various men are described as demonic, but in a sort of more general way, somehow.

It’s really a musing on art, isn’t it – or a musing on musings on art, maybe, which follows the metafictional form of the novel. I had to both smile at this and wonder if it’s IM’s description of her own work in Arnold’s:

“he lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea. (p. 137)

I also liked the aside about critics, which would have been a nice epigraph for my book on IM and the Common Reader:

‘So the critics are just stupid?’

‘It needs no theory to ell us this! One should simply try to like as much as one can.’ (p. 240)

We do have our usual themes. The Civil Service is there, with Bradley’s ex-job as a tax inspector. Thinking of siblings, we only have Bradley and Priscilla and Christian and Francis. There’s plenty of hair: Rachel’s is gingery and wiry, while Julian has a weird crest which turns into those familiar flat metallic locks we’ve had before. There’s a heck of a lot of water – lots and lots of women’s ugly crying for a start, and then the sea in the Patara sequence, bringing calm but emphasising Julian and Bradley’s differences, she cavorting in the waves, he unable to swim. And a mist comes over the sea and over them as they try to live in their little bubble of love for a few days. Christian has a face like “a grotesque ancient mask” (p. 93), another small theme we notice again and again. Bradley stares in the windows of the Baffin house and happily we are back chasing a pale thing through the night, except this time it’s a balloon!

Doubling: we have two locations, two ended marriages bring people into Bradley’s life, and scenes at the Baffin household of mayhem and violence at both ends of the novel, even before P. Loxias’ intro and outro. Rachel and Priscilla both cry, half-dressed, in bed. Roger and Bradley both have relationships with very much younger women, Roger being successful with his. There are stones on the beach which are brought back to the bungalow and arranged. The buffalo woman is a strange symbol, usually accompanying someone of great wisdom, but broken until Francis mends it …

There is humour – Bradley failing to catch his train over and over again, his identification with the Post Office Tower and his horror at using the simile of a red-hot needle through the liver which he has picked up from Priscilla. Much of the novel is too horrific, though, for a smile to be raised.

Links with the other novels do abound. I’ve always felt this had a lot in common with “The Sea, The Sea” in terms of the unreliable and egocentric narrator, but this time round he also reminded me of Hilary in “A Word Child”, possibly because of the brother-sister relationship and back story. As in “An Accidental Man”, at least Rachel and also to an extent Priscilla are shown to have been diminished by their marriages in what could be brought round to a feminist tone. There’s also a lot about “women of a certain age” becoming hysterical and basically menopausal, which is not something I associated IM for writing about until I remembered all those faded and drying women, from “A Severed Head” through “The Nice and the Good” and onwards. Bradley not wanting to be “a nebulous bit of ectoplasm swaying around in other people’s lives” (p. 49) reminds us of is it Willy Kost who uses the same metaphor? Broken china features, as in “An Accidental Man” and a set of books are torn up, as Rupert’s book is in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”. Rachel, suddenly naked to the waist, recalls Annette in “Flight from the Enchanter” and “The Italian Girl”. Julian climbs over a suburban fence (and her mother fails to), recalling so many fence climbers, from “Bruno’s Dream” maybe particularly. At the end Julian goes off to Italy in a car with her father – “The Flight from the Enchanter” springs to mind there, and another one? The theme of an ordeal which Bradley mentions he has in relation to Julian is going to come up in “The Green Night” and “A Good Apprentice”.

One last point: I was thrilled to notice a quotation from Njal’s Saga, one of my favourite Icelandic sagas:

There was even a sort of perfection about it. She had taken such a perfect revenge upon the two men in her life. Some women never forgive. ‘I would not give him my hair for a bowstring at the end. I would not raise a finger to save him dying’ (p. 382)

Those last two sentences are said by Gunnar’s wife as she fails to help him survive an attack on their homestead. How lovely to find that cropping up in an IM novel!

So a magnificent work that’s uncomfortable to read. Do we ALL know someone who threw it across a room and refused to finish 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.

“An Accidental Man” roundup and “The Black Prince” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I know I only just posted my review of “An Accidental Man” but it’s now time to round-up reviews of that one and talk about January’s read, “The Black Prince”. Fortunately, my lovely regular readers have come up trumps and started the discussion on the book even though they’ve only had a few days to do so.

Oh, and if you’re coming to this blog new at the turn of 2018/2019, I’d love to have you along for the ride if you’re doing a Centenary Read of Iris Murdoch’s novels: feel free to comment on all the reviews posted so far then read and review along with us, you’re very welcome!

So I had a bit of trouble getting started with this one due to the period, and a few others found the same. I had forgotten a whole pivotal scene which we all found troubling, and I found I’d changed my view of a few characters. A few of us have been discussing on the review and Jo has done her usual excellent Goodreads review.  Do post in the review comments if you’ve reviewed the book on your own website, blog or Goodreads page. I’ll add more links as you let me know about them.

Peter Rivenberg has shared two more odd covers for this book. I suppose the older and newer of mine do show scenes in the book (the poor Owl!) but the middle one still has me lost. Nothing of course beats the Horrible Penguin which Peter has carefully shared (coming up after the US one for the nervous reader who needs to skim) but the contrast between the blurbs on these US and UK paperbacks is very interesting.

Here’s the US paperback cover. Who is this egg-man? Apparently Humpty Dumpty is mentioned in the book. Is it Monkley? Who else has a moustache? It was published in the 70s so does everyone?

here’s the fascinating blurb

I think this is the first time we’ve had a quote from Playboy, right? (I remember being quite shocked when The Sun did a nice little piece when Murdoch died – seemed just odd to see).

And now … the horror of the Penguin cover. Argh!

What? Just what?

And the back is an interesting contrast with the US one.

The Black Prince

On we go to a favourite of mine but the only one my friend Ali refused to finish during our readalong (game for another go, Ali???).

I have the usual three copies and I have to say the front covers of the UK first edition, my Penguin bought on 19 January 1995 (when I was 22) and my new Vintage are not really that exciting, are they?

Well, the Penguin (I’ve never liked that very 90s edition with its rag-rolled border) does have the painting of Apollo and Marsyas on it and the most modern references Hamlet, but given that all the blurbs are quite excited about it being a thriller …

Here’s the first edition:

… and then no one seems to really go off these themes as we get in the Penguin:

and then the Vintage:

I’ve never thought of it as a thriller in the same way as “The Nice and the Good” can be read as partly one, but I suppose it has those elements. Anyway, off we set and I will try to get it read in better time this month …

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Black Prince” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I have to admit that I had quite a difficult time getting into this book. I think the time of year (even self-employed, working from home and fairly unsociable as I am, I had a couple of seasonal activities) and the fact that I slightly overworked myself in the last few weeks meant that I didn’t get the discrete slabs of time you need to really worm your way in to a Murdoch novel. I felt like I wasn’t “getting” it and even a bit dim. I even considered whether I should be doing this at all! But I think it was a temporary blip – I’ve never thought that much about this novel in between reads (this was my fourth time with it) and it’s always languished in a middle ground between the favourites and the least-favourites. So let’s push on with my notes and see what everyone else thought about it. I can’t remember if I had such lulls last time I did them all (maybe any readers who were with me then can remember?) but I know I went to one every two months at some stage, which is not going to happen this time as I want to finish in IM’s centenary year!

Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man”

(August 2018)

The main idea in this book read this time appears to be that if you associate with someone with bad luck, that bad luck is somehow evil and will rub off on you. There’s also a delicious parody at one point which shows that IM knew exactly what kind of reputation her books were getting. Apart from that, it’s a baggy (before the baggy monsters) book with a lot of characters, all related to one another, and I even went as far as to do an inept relationship map to show this (wait until the end for that …). We do have our favourite themes, including the good old Pursuit Of A Fleeing Woman.

So Austin Gibson Grey is an unlucky man who has a dodgy hand, a dead wife and now a fey wife he appears to have mislaid; he loses his job and ends up renting out his flat and moving in with ex-athlete Mitzi (I do love Mitzi). Meanwhile the Tisbournes extend their tentacles through the book – Clara and George the do-gooders who want to have everyone to live in their house, Clara’s sister Charlotte who is just finishing nursing their mother and continues nursing her bitterness, and Gracie, self-possessed and scary, engaged to nice Ludwig who has dodged the draft. Throw in fey Dorina’s nun-like/ non-nun sister Mavis, Austin’s portly non-monk brother Matthew and a few lower-class characters, plus po-faced Garth, son of Austin and friend of Ludwig and a few extra families, plus a boutique whose rise and fall is charted only through letters and cocktail party chat, and a book that’s partly made up of chapters entirely full of letters and cocktail party chat and you’ve got a recipe for confusion it would take a cleverer person than me to pick through entirely successfully.

We have good examples of Murdochian themes. Who isn’t a sibling? – we have Gracie and Patrick, Ralph and Sebastian, Austin and Matthew, Dorina and Mavis, Clara and Charlotte. Doubling and patterning can then occur, with Matthew having possible affairs with Dorina and Betty, Dorina and Mavis, and Gracie and Sebastian / Patrick and Ralph. More doubling occurs with Austin killing a child and an owl, two innocent children, two large houses, London and Oxford as centres, Britain and America. Garth and Matthew have both seen, and passed by, a violent scene of danger and death, which somehow draws them together. Charlotte and Mitzi both attempt to take overdoses of sleeping pills and end up making friends in hospital; the person who succeeds in taking her own life does it by accident.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Is Ludwig a saint? He’s the first person we see surrounded by muddle: “Of course it was no accident that he’d mismanaged the whole thing so horribly. this particular muddle he recognized as, for himself, characteristic.” (p. 7). He quietly does the right thing in the end, but is he really saintly? He also debunks Garth’s odd rantings with quiet simplicity. But then he does basically force himself on Gracie which is not nice at all and quite disturbing. Garth seems to be trying too hard to be saintly, although both of them do seem to learn and change through the course of the book, Garth certainly finding consolation and power in serving others in small ways. Or is Dorina our saint, always in a muddle, “her compassion […] part of her own helplessness” (p. 42)? Then again, Mavis has achieved mid-novel “a sort of colourless see-through blow-through existence, full of tasks and without ties” (p. 47) and it feels like she does end up renouncing Matthew as he’s just too busy to see her. But she eschews “the hot muddled personal unhappiness of the ordinary human lot” (p. 50). I don’t know the answer here, to be fair.

Matthew seems to be the enchanter, with his terrible attractiveness and Eastern accompaniments (he feels a bit like a failed and lesser version of James Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea” to me). He tries to pass this role on to Garth, leaving him to listen to people, showing his enchantership is created by others, not out of a wish to control. Garth has already described him as “A false prophet […] an entangler. He’ll entangle you if he can. He’s a fat charmer, charming his way to paradise. He’s the sort of person who makes everyone tell him their life story and then forgets it.” (p. 89) (here he reminds me of Julius from “A Fairly Honourable Defeat, who will read your letters but deny it). Matthew comes to the realisation at the end of the novel, however, that the everyday is to be his fate:

He would never be able to share in Kaoru’s mind. From the good good actions spring with a spontaneity which must remain to the mediocre forever mysterious. Matthew knew with a sigh that he would never be a hero. Nore would he ever achieve the true enlightenment. Neither the longer way nor the shorter way was for him. He would be until the end of his life a man looking forward to his next drink. He looked at his watch and drifted down to the bar. (p. 372)

In renouncing his attempts to be good and accepting his lot in life, is he in fact a saint? (I don’t know.)

Gracie is an odd character, determined and almost prissy in her desire to keep away from mess and contingency, whether that’s Austin’s “soupy sort of emotions” (p. 11) or Dorina. Ludwig is constantly surprised by her insight, but she almost seems like a chorus, outside the action (while part of it) maybe like N in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”).

There’s quite a nice lot of humour in this novel, seen from the beginning, when Ludwig is struggling with Gracie’s virginity, her narrow bed with a shelf over it and her “pussy cat” cushions. The horrible path of their courtship and engagement, tramping grimly round London looking at things is funny in a sad sort of way. Charlotte’s view of her sister’s marriage is great:

Had she ever loved George? Perhaps. But now George was just something hanging in the corner of a spider’s web. Clara had eaten and digested him long ago. (p. 81)

The story of Kierkegaard the car, told through letters, is hilarious and the letters in the main can be very funny. They include the wonderful:

It appears that Ralph loves Ann Colindale who loves Richard Pargeter who (currently, he never does anything for long) loves Karen who (although she denies it) loves Sebastian who loves me who loves Ludwig who loves me. So that’s that situation tied up. (p. 210)

Even Charlotte’s announcement that her mother is failing is quite funny: “‘Clare, is that you? This is Charlotte. I think she’s going.’ ‘Oh God. We’re dining with the Arbuthnots.'” (p.30). There’s also the horrible funniness of the struggle to interpret Alison’s last words: trees, priest or Treece? I found a savage humour in Dorina’s constant assertion that one cannot bend the knees too much, mis-remembering this as the words of a wise priest before, in her last moments, recalling that it came from a ski instructor.

Smaller themes that remind us of other books abound: someone has to be writing a book and here it’s Garth and his novel, as well as Mr Monkley and his, and Garth’s is even lost for most of the book. Water doesn’t play a huge part, with some rain and then of course Dorina’s fateful bath, and there are only two sets of stones: Gracie’s enormous diamond and the stones on Gracie and Ludwig’s Irish holiday beach. The canny nuns who don’t want to be lumbered with Valmorama remind me a little of the nuns from “The Bell”, more worldly-wise than you might expect. Matthew’s china is smashed like Mischa Fox’s fish tank and Rupert’s torn-up book. Dorina stands barefoot on the lawn and Austin even manages to climb over a wall and peer in the windows of Valmorama. This echoes so many other books, doesn’t it. There’s the usual amount of letter reading and stealing and a touch of real blackmail (the Monkley sub-plot foreshadows the underworld stuff in “Henry and Cato” to me. Austin’s disgusting state and room remind me of Tallis, however he’s no saint, is he? He sells his stamp collection in a wry nod to Bruno, surely? There’s the lovely dog, Pyrrhus, and his own pattern of belonging to people who break up and I love the paragraph from his viewpoint late on in the novel. And we end up with flight, as in “The Flight from the Enchanter” and “A Severed Head” and several other novels, with Ludwig on his way back to America and Matthew rather oddly following him. Finally, there’s a forward echo to “The Book and the Brotherhood” in that last party piece:

‘Aren’t we all getting grand.’

‘Anyway, we’re still socialists.’ (p. 376)

Relationship map in the back of my Penguin – I obviously thought it was an affair, not a tennis racquet, between Matthew and Betty last time around … Does this help at all?

On re-reading this book, it’s hard to re-read it knowing what’s going to happen to Dorina, somehow, although I had that happening earlier in the book. I think I liked Ludwig more and Charlotte and cheered her renaissance. I’d missed the shock of Ludwig basically forcing Gracie, which was uncomfortable to read this time; I’ve been a feminist since I started reading Murdoch (I did find quite a lot about the role of the single woman as propping up society this time, and how Charlotte could have been more than just a carer, and Clara’s loss of identity in wifehood and motherhood, which could almost be read through a feminist lens I don’t usually find in her). And I was cheered to read Matthew’s description of jogging! I was also pleased to note that Dorina is reading “Lord of the Rings”, having discovered in the Letters that IM enjoyed Tolkien herself – a nice little “Easter egg” for the careful reader.

I have the Vintage Classics edition and Valerie Cunningham’s introduction does cast this as a “bleak” “problem play” where even horror is undermined by farce, the characters despoil Murdoch’s favourite places and art and it’s all a pretty troubling and dark, so maybe I’m not alone in having difficulty with it. What did you think?


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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