“The Time of the Angels” roundup and “The Nice and the Good” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I’m so sorry this is a day late – I was basically working or doing yoga or getting laundry on the line all day yesterday and there was no time to put this together. I hope I’m forgiven. At least I got outside, unlike good old Carel …

So today we round up discussions on “The Time of the Angels” so far and then look ahead to “The Nice and the Good”. I’m really excited about this month’s read – this is what I consider a ‘classic’ Murdoch with its group of disparate characters all clustered around one couple and all linked through loves and relationships old and new. We might even need to draw a diagram!

“The Time of the Angels”

We had a really good discussion over on the review for this novel, looking at the writer of the introduction’s assertion that it would have been different if Carel had got out more and examining how frightening it is. I have to say I’m not quite as alarmed by it as when I first read it as a mid-teen, but it’s still very unsettling.

Jo has submitted an excellent, full review on Goodreads and the discussion on my review also gave her some food for thought. I will share links to any more Goodreads and other blog post reviews here in time.

In cover-sharing, David Mahon contributed this US first edition from Viking Press (1966) which came with a library card in it.

Peter Rivenberg’s 1975 Penguin cover is as disturbing as it should be

Buried in Print contributed a very subdued Penguin version

and Maria Peacock has the Vintage Classic before mine, complete with angel (the detail on the front is from Annunciatory Angel by Fra Angelico) and Maria mentioned that IM might have something to say about the hair!

This has the same blurb as my red-spined one.

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

“The Nice and the Good”

And now we move on to an early favourite of mine (sorry about the terrible photograph, but my first edition is covered in a thin plastic that will not stop picking up lights). Again, I felt terribly sophisticated reading it in my mid-teens: it’s got a thriller aspect, a group of intellectuals and misfits in a sort of commune, a cat and a dog, an exciting scene of peril …

Here’s the blurb from my first edition:

I really like the reference to Midsummer Night’s Dream and mention of the duality of locations and think this sums the book up very well.

My Penguin is the 1986 edition, bought presumably in my first flush of IM discovery, and has this to say:

“No one in the book is good” – hm. One to discuss later. It IS a feast, however – well done, The Guardian.

And my Vintage Classic, well, I don’t think it has much to say about the book, actually, although it does spell out Octavian and John’s relationship.

But a quote from John Betjeman – that was a surprise.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Nice and the Good” 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 Time of the Angels” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well I can cheerfully admit that this book scared me silly when I first read it – aged about 15, I’d imagine. What DID I make of it then? The death of God and the rise of the avenging angels, all that quivering violence, all those secrets, all that fog pressing around the house … It’s still an unnerving experience, but I’ve read it at least three times before this time, and could remember most of the story and – more importantly – the atmosphere. I don’t think I changed my opinion on any of the characters for this one, though. Maybe they’re set out to be more black and white (literally, I suppose) with less room for ambivalence.

Iris Murdoch – “The Time of the Angels”

(27 February 2018)

It’s a short book but it’s festooned with post-it tags, so I hope I’m able to get my thoughts into some sort of order.

First of all, I’m disappointed to say that I don’t THINK we have any women in white dresses running off into the night, do we, although Muriel flees at one point but is not pursued. That’s the first time for a long time and I hope that theme comes back, because I have been enjoying spotting it.

The book is full of horrible foreshadowings which you will probably only notice on a re-reading: most notably on p.2 where Marcus brushes against Pattie, touching her neck and sweeping her with his cassock. The fog has a good go at being its own character, and there’s quite a lot of what I remember as being the Pathetic Fallacy (OK, I’ll admit it, I had to look that up, but I remembered there was such a thing, at least), where the weather reflects the happenings and emotions in the book. It also gives us some sublimely beautiful scenes, most notably when Eugene takes Pattie to the river in the snow.

The massive theme of this book is of course the loss of religion in society and the vacuum into which nothing has actually come rushing in. Norah talks about this and the “modern young” where “it’s as if her sheer energy has taken her straight over the edge of morality” (p. 13) and Muriel and Leo talk about going beyond morality; this then gives weight to Carel’s ravings about the death of God and the time of the angels: are they really ravings if everyone’s talking about this in their own way? Poor old Norah is rather satirised, her “brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical” (p. 14).

So many echoes in this one. In my head, I’d built up the bits of The Book to come all the way through it, but actually we only have one chunk of Marcus’ writing and one of Carel’s. Of course someone writing a book is a constant theme that we’ve had in many of the novels. But going back to echoes, I was interested to see Norah and Anthea as almost the same character, doubled (in fact, I have a feeling I thought they WERE the same person in my memory of this book), both trying to do good. Both of them are remarkably unchanged and cheerful by the end, which might be saying something against Marcus and Carel’s hatred of do-gooders. Pattie has lost a younger brother, like Carel and Marcus have, and Eugene his sister. Marcus falls through two doors holding chrysanthemums.

As well as the doublings and echoes, we have the usual hair – Elizabeth’s flat metallic strands, Muriel’s boyish crop and Leo’s animal fur. Leo has some Japanese prints but I don’t think they imply that he’s a saint or an enchanter or have any significance. Maybe the fact that they’re only stuck onto the wall takes their power away. He associates looking at girls through screens with Japan, so maybe using the country for nefarious reasons takes that away, too.

Who is the enchanter in the book? Fairly obviously Carel, with Leo trying to do a mini-enchanter act but actually just being one of those annoying prancing boys who are another stock character. Elizabeth is a “magical child” who certainly engenders obsession in her father and her uncle, but is too passive to be an enchanter, and is more enchanted. We see him in relation to Pattie: “Carel was her whole destiny” (p. 152) and in fact we see both enchanter and saint defined by poor Pattie. They are “the white figure against the dark one” (p. 177).

Who’s the saint? I’m saying Eugene. Although Pattie is passive, she’s in thrall to Carel and doesn’t really do any good for anyone, actively or passively. She lies “inert like a chrysalis” (p. 28) but can’t find a “normal” way out of her situation, only fleeing violently for another continent when her hand is forced. And she WANTS to be a saint, which surely must be the way not to go about being one. Eugene is a classic saint, isn’t he?

Eugene did not suffer much from anxiety. He had spent too long sitting at the bottom of the world and hoping for nothing to suffer from any precarious play of tempting aspirations and glimpses. No object lay just beyond his grasp since he had long ago ceased grasping. (p. 42)

and when Pattie thinks of him “Some plainness about him, some absolute simplicity attracted her” (p. 96) and later, “He was a man without shadows … and offered her a life of innocence” (p. 152).

Talking of this simplicity, Carel does define goodness in the book, stating that it’s impossible and unimaginable. But Norah and Marcus don’t think it is, and elsewhere Murdoch shows us goodness, I think, here and elsewhere. Carel’s imagining that it can’t exist is perhaps his downfall. As Norah says, “Ordinary morality goes on and always will go on whatever the philosophers and theologians have to say” (p. 193). In fact, the Afterword by Richard Holloway sort of echoes this:

We have to remember that it was written by a philosopher and philosophers tend to think too much – it’s what they are paid for, after all. Most people negotiate the intricacies of conduct without too much agonizing about how to treat their neighbours, even if they think God is dead.” (p. 242)

There’s not much humour in this one, I have to say, although Marcus’ and Norah’s tea parties manage to get in some satire of the bishop and comments about the price of jam vs chutney. There’s a lot of perceptive stuff about women’s characters, whether that’s Pattie lacking someone to lick her into shape or Norah needing somewhere to direct her energy: although they’re not hugely positive characters, they are rounded. Marcus’ pomposity about his book is nicely pricked: “Let his critics assign him to a tradition and a school. He would speak simply, with the sole authority of his own voice” (p. 67) (I’m uncomfortably reminded of my own adherence to Reception Theory here!). There’s also a moment of farce for Marcus, too, when he falls in the coal hole, although the scene is quickly jerked into almost horror.

In echoes of other books, I was curiously reminded when Muriel is regarding the last moments of Carel of the scene in The Philosopher’s Pupil where Rozanov lies dead/not dead in the thermal baths. Eugene with his rusty moustaches reminds me a bit of Finn in “Under the Net” and also prefigures Fivey in “The Nice and the Good” perhaps (and Carel’s comment about life being some dusty feathers in a cupboard reminds me of a scene in that novel, too). Elizabeth and her court are reminiscent of the willing captive in “The Unicorn” – who is keeping whom in the house? Norah’s lost Fabian ideals remind us of “The Book and the Brotherhood” characters trying to find their old ways in a new world. Pattie’s childhood might remind us of Hilary’s abandoned life in “A Word Child”. Our Russian emigres remind us of those in “The Italian Girl”, even with their lies about their origin story. Marcus’ thought about Carel being mad comes at him “obscure and disturbing as a large unpleasant looking object rising through deep water” (p. 87) – did that remind anyone else of the monster in “The Sea, The Sea”? Marcus seems to have a weakness for boys, although not so explicit, like Michael in “The Bell” – has Leo actually got some scandal over him or does he just exploit his emotions? Marcus has a cold at one point, and annoys Norah by sneezing – shades of Palmer in “A Severed Head”, or have I gone too far? Another too-far one is probably Eugene’s handcart taking his precious pot plant to their next home: was IM thinking of that when she gave Tallis his handcart in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”?

So, a complex book and a lot of intertextuality with IM’s other novels, perhaps. I agree with Richard Holloway’s practical assessment at the end of his Afterword:

Carel Fisher might have reached less dramatic conclusions about life if he hadn’t lived mainly inside his own head. He should have got out more. But then, if he had, we wouldn’t have had this strange novel to trouble our sleep. (p. 242)

and I hope I’ve done this book justice, even though I never found a good order in which to put my thoughts on 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.

“The Red and the Green” round-up and “The Time of the Angels” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome back to the great Iris Murdoch readalong and today we’re reviewing “The Red and the Green” and looking forward to “The Time of the Angels”. I’ve got a lovely cover to share of “The Red and the Green” in the same series as we saw for “The Italian Girl”. Some of these paperbacks are very weird, aren’t they! In other news, I’ve ordered my next five Vintage Classics, as I am enjoying reading the introductions and updating my collection, and I’ve managed to fill in the last gap in my collection of first editions (just so I can take images for you, my readers, of course!) which happened to be the next three after we’ve done creepy, foggy London (not to mention creepy, foggy Carel). But first a round-up.

“The Red and the Green”

For the book which is possibly the least popular, not to mention with IM herself, apparently, we did get a good discussion going on this one over on my review earlier in the month. People surprised themselves, I think, by getting more out of it than they expected. I’d certainly forgotten that epilogue and was worrying about what was going to happen to everyone as I read through it.

Apart from the discussion, Jo has contributed a great review on Goodreads.

Maria Peacock and Peter Rivenberg, who have turned into real stalwarts of the readalong, submitted their weird edition’s front covers, with Maria offering the blurb, too. The cover is clearly in the same edition we saw last month with “The Italian Girl” and Peter wondered who the figure is (and why are they hiding in the bushes?). Is it a man or a woman (have a look at those fingernails) and why are they dressed like someone from the 60s for a book set in 1916 (oh, wait: it was published in 1968)?

Here’s the blurb:

Book blogger BuriedInPrint came across this and “The Time of the Angels” in a charity shop: this Penguin 1960s cover is clearly from the same edition as the lurid “Italian Girl” one I featured last month:

9 Buried in Print The Red and the Green Penguin

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts or Goodreads reviews to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review. And if you chose NOT to read this one, I’d love to know why …

“The Time of the Angels”

Now we’re going seriously odd on the covers I have for this novel. I can kind of understand the peculiar figures on the first, but not sure who the woman on my 1983 Triad Granada is (I don’t have a note of when I bought this, which means it was really early on: what on EARTH did I make of it in my mid-teens?). I actually think the Vintage edition’s cover sums it up best for me.

Here’s the blurb from the first edition:

We’ll see that IM is cast as an enchantress or spell-caster in these blurbs, which I love.

Here’s the Triad Granada:

Not so many names here or indeed characters, but obviously inspired by the first one. I do like the Times’ assessment of the book, too!

And my Vintage classic:

So, again, a sort of greatest hits!

I’m looking forward to diving into the dank, murky depths of this one again. There are certainly some memorable scenes, and we’re back with London as a central character, too.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Time of the Angels” 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 Red and the Green” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Carrying on with the #IMReadalong, we’ve had two of the “minor” novels in a row here, with “The Red and the Green” being I feel one of the less-read novels. It’s Murdoch’s only specifically historical novel, treating the events of Ireland’s Easter Rising and taking a close look at Anglo-Irish and Irish identity. I’m not sure myself that it entirely works as either a historical novel or a novel, but there are of course lots of Murdochian themes and complicated relationships to enjoy, and a less successful Murdoch novel is still a good novel in my eyes.

Iris Murdoch – “The Red and the Green”

(27 February 2018)

I’d forgotten that the sea plays such an important scene-setting role in this book, with beautiful descriptions as usual for IM. Almost immediately we’re looking across Dublin Bay with Andrew Chase-White, in a view that’s “intensely familiar and yet disturbingly alien” (p. 10) – a description it seems of how the Anglo-Irish characters feel when in Ireland (and perhaps in England, too). And we soon meet his cousin, Pat Dumay, the very reason he’s joined a cavalry regiment and grown a moustache. It does feel a bit creaky to have a plot that sets cousin against cousin in the struggle for Home Rule, but then again these things do happen and it enables IM to make some useful points: does the personal outrule the political / military in people’s hearts (yes). While there are plenty of confusing siblings, with pairs marrying each other and a few outliers, Andrew is without siblings and longs for that relationship.

With these confusing siblings, Murdoch actually once again describes the confusion of reading her books:

‘We Anglo-Irish families are so complex,’ Hilda used often to exclaim with a kind of pride, as if complexity in families were a rare privilege. (p. 18)

Checking that quotation, I noted Millie’s assertion that “we’re practically incestuous,” used to greater effect right at the end of the book, of course.

We have plenty of civil servants in the book and also plenty of doubling. Both Barnabas and Christopher have given up civil service jobs to write books. Christopher’s an interesting character, seeming to be quiet and sere and all pulled together but then effectively destroying himself through sudden impulsive actions. Is this the contingent winning over the pattern? Pat and Andrew both fear sex and loathe women, with Andrew being very naive about their motivations. Of course they then, and Christopher, are after the same woman. Andrew and Barney are both virgins and it’s clear they both fail in this respect (I think it’s clear with Andrew).

Pleasingly, we find both people staring into houses through windows – Frances and later Frances and Christopher, and we even find Frances flitting across the lawn in her “whitish” dressing-gown, carrying on the tradition of pale-clad women fleeing through the dew.

It’s quite clear to me that we have two enchanters in Millie and Pat Dumay, and one saint in Kathleen. Kathleen is actually described as the good woman to Millie’s bad woman at one point (p. 108). Kathleen is indifferent to her surroundings and lives in mess and chaos, wearing shabby clothes (in contrast to Millie’s showy dressing-up). It’s explained that her lack of attention to the house is down to her being too busy helping people in distress. Christopher describes her as an independent character and no slave, and respects her for this. Barney goes further, describing her (like Ann in “An Unofficial Rose”) as having “a negative quality in her, an un-life, in the presence of which ordinary healthy persons, such as myself and my step-sons, quite perceptibly shuddered” (p. 213). It’s good to see that she and Frances prevail uninjured to the end of the epilogue, Kathleen still taking in waifs and strays.

As for Millie, Christopher is unable to prevent himself falling in love with her and has been “helpless”. Barney, similarly, “A few kind words, a touch, from Millie re-established and confirmed his servitude” (p. 110). She collects admirers and is “simply incapable of refusing a devotion however absurd” (p. 84), thus being another enchanter whose role is created by their subjects. However, she does also go out of her way to lure Barney when he’s training for the priesthood – “She simply wanted this black-robed priestling as her slave, a pet to fondle and caress” (p. 105). I’m not sure Pat manipulates people in the same way: everyone appears to be in love with him, but he doesn’t do anything to encourage that. Cathal complains of being “enslaved” (p. 125) but continues their bathing ritual past when he could have stopped, and Andrews’ idolising of him means that “the spring of power was broken inside him” (p. 308). So maybe he’s the true enchanter.

As well as goodness we are introduced to ideas of freedom – in Pat’s case “a real loss of tissue in the Self” but associated with pain and masochism and mixed up with his idea of his role as Ireland’s liberator.

Back to that water, we have the sea (notably, Barney visits it with Frances and fails to give his rifle up to it), and also the incessant rain – Millie is practically constantly slightly damp around the skirts (and dampens Pat’s trousers with her “tears or kisses” (p. 180). Water even falls through the conservatory roof onto the tablecloths and there’s always something dripping. When Millie drops her earring inside Andrew’s shirt, it immediately begins to pour with rain. She and Frances also have complex buns, as characters have to have in IM, although I’m not sure anyone’s hair is cut (Millie’s comes down at a pivotal moment). Kathleen and Barney and also Millie have chaotic and busy rooms and there are two mentions of masks (Pat when observed by Cathal). There are complicated arrangements for war but a very Murdochian sudden slew of detail on exactly how to gag someone effectively but safely.

There are discussions of women’s issues which I don’t recall being to the forefront in the other novels (though we do have the efficient secretaries who take things over in “The Flight from the Enchanter”). Millie demonstrates a masculinity which makes her an attractive boy to some characters, but it’s Frances who pushes against the boundaries and raises questions (and who escapes the clutches of Ireland).

Although it’s very much a novel of deep ironies (most strongly the fact that however much one wants to act in a certain way, one’s deep human relationships will always prevail – see Pat and Cathal; Andrew and Pat), there’s not a huge lot of humour. I did like a point about Millie which almost (and I know I don’t usually espouse linking books to their authors’ private lives) seemed to echo Murdoch’s:

A popular woman who enjoys her admirers and is also kind-hearted will naturally want to keep her friendships strictly sealed off from each other. (p. 78)

The inability to do just this gives her the funniest line in the novel, much later:

Well, a woman caught in my situation has got to adopt some tone, and it’s not easy to combine devastating frankness with calm dignity. What tone do you suggest? (p. 251)

The Epilogue is necessary, I think, and of course gives some more doubling and patterning with the coming of the Second World War and Frances’ worry about her son’s friend going to the Spanish Civil War. There’s some slightly heavy-handed discussion of what history will remember, the historical novel side of things intruding once more.

The introduction in my copy mainly covers the psychological aspects of the novel, apparently informed by its 1960s time of writing, which influenced some other works about the Easter Rising. So the historical aspect is prime there, whereas I tend to see the novel as an IM novel with history inserted into it. Not a bad read by any means, not a work of historical document, and I’m glad we move back to the dank mists of religious England for the next work.


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 Italian Girl” round-up and “The Red and the Green” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome back to my Iris Murdoch readalong and we’re fairly galloping through them, aren’t we. Today we review the small and not very much discussed “The Italian Girl” and preview another book considered “minor”, I think it’s fair to say (partly because Murdoch herself apparently changed her mind on it), “The Red and the Green”.

“The Italian Girl”

I reviewed this one nice and early in the month here and we’ve had a bit of discussion in the comments already. Bookish Beck reviewed it on her blog but did comment that she felt she got more out of my assessment than out of the book itself. Annabookbel read her late mum’s first edition and reviewed it here. Jo has written a very thoughtful review highlighting Edward’s use of female stereotypes here.

Bookish Beck also submitted this great cover image from the 60s – one of the pretty horrific series of covers they did for her, which I secretly really like.

Maria Peacock has the 1967 Penguin with a fairly disturbing cover (who is this supposed to be?) and interesting blurb:

8 Maria Peacock Italian Girl 1967 Penguin blurb8 Maria Peacock Italian Girl 1967 Penguin

Peter Rivenberg again steadfastly sent me his cover images, noting the art on them, too. This is the late 70s Penguin with Botticelli’s Primavera (who is that supposed to represent or can we read meaning from the picture):

And also the 2000 Vintage Classic before my edition, featuring The Fall by Hugo van der Goes, so a range of themes overall!

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

“The Red and the Green”

Murdoch’s Irish historical novel is set in a very different Ireland to “The Unicorn”. It’s a mix of sexual farce and serious history which received mixed reviews on publication and I’m not sure is read much today (although I’m sure I met someone who said it was their favourite of her novels once).

I have the usual three copies: a first edition bought for this project, a 1990s Penguin (bought on 19 January 1995 when I was 23, presumably with a Christmas or early birthday book token; I had a habit of catching up with Murdoch purchases around January each year) and the new Vintage classic:

The cover image on the Penguin is Lady Lavery as Cathleen in Howihan by Sir John Lavery. I really don’t like the first edition image in the middle – what is that supposed to be? and I really like the gloomy and dread-filled new Vintage cover.

The blurbs: the first had a long description which you might not be able to make out, covering all the characters and themes. Perhaps they thought the book needed explaining:

There’s a lesson in first edition value, here, too, in the flyleaf:

I paid the very much lower of the two prices for it.

My Penguin is quite brief:

and then the new vintage takes its description of Millie (my favourite character, I remember) from the first edition, which is nice:

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Red and the Green” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? 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 – “The Italian Girl” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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This is a very small book, I think Murdoch’s shortest? but my goodness, it packs a lot of Murdochian stuff in, almost like a distilled Greatest Hits (a bit reminiscent of “Under the Net” which I likened to an overture back in November). My copy is now festooned with post-it tabs so I hope I can make sense of my thoughts on this one. What I will say is that I kept thinking as I read it, “This is either a masterful portrayal of the complexities of family life and addiction or it’s a load of rows over sex and infidelity with a dodgy uncle thrown into the mix”. Maybe in someone else’s hands, it would be the latter, but we’re safe with Iris, aren’t we?

Iris Murdoch – “The Italian Girl”

(27 February 2018)

Well, if we’re looking for people chasing other people in white dresses through damp and dark woods, we’ve got them in bundles here, haven’t we (does this make up for the one book that missed one of these chases?) It’s even on the front of the Vintage reprint! Of course, we open with a classic return scene, almost another fairy tale, like “The Unicorn”, and indeed Edmund is requested by Isabel to be the healer in the household, surrounded by overgrown vegetation like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, reminding us of the talk of seven years that have passed in that previous book.

A note on the re-reading aspect: how had I forgotten that this is one of the male first-person narrator novels? I’m not sure IM loves Edmund as much as the narrators of “Under The Net”, “The Black Prince” and “The Sea, The Sea” (and, of course, “The Philosopher’s Pupil” – how I long to reach that one again) but he’s certainly a dry and seemingly self-aware but foolish chap, maybe reminding us of Martin Lynch-Gibbon from “A Severed Head”.

Those chases: Edmund starts out following his own dewy footsteps on the lawn. Then he follows Flora to the pool, observing the different colours in her pale skirt as they go. This pale dress appears and disappears among the trees in a very familiar way. Only a few pages later and he’s chasing Elsa through the rather revoltingly wormy lawn: “I seemed to see the fleeing figure somewhere in front of me”. He finally follows Flora on her final flight (in the rain, by the pools), and then Maggie back again, although he catches up with and carries her – this is obviously important.

Like in “The Unicorn” and indeed “A Severed Head” we are given a load of portents and warnings early on, in Isabel’s cluttered room that is different from the rest of the house particularly, which is full of images of overpowering fire. In fact, the large garden is there because there was previously a large house which had been destroyed by fire, and Lydia is described as having been obsessed with the fear of a fire, which is why Isabel has her big open fireplace in the first place.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Dead Lydia is said several times to be the only person who can control somebody (Flora, Otto …) and has a peculiar hold over Edmund and Otto even after she’s passed. Was Edmund’s father, the artist, a saint as well? He’s described thus: “Your father is not a good man, he is merely a timid man with unworldly tastes” (p. 17) and held in contempt, which usually indicates a saint. Isabel says of Edmund, “You lead a simple good life. You help people. Oh, I know about it. I wonder if you think it’s easy to be like that” although Edmund immediately counters that he’s selfish, so maybe he’s just filling a space in her pageant of types. Again, in this conversation he mentions that his father was a much “finer” man than he, so maybe in this novel both the enchanter and the saint are dead? Maggie also says Edmunds’s good, though, again countered by him saying that she is (and she’s quiet as a mouse, often a sign of someone good yet existing almost as a non-presence. Edmund talks about having been captured by magicians and being enchanted in the summer house when he misses his breakfast with Flora, but this sounds like an excuse to me, although then Otto talks about the siblings as being fairies or demons when he claims to have cast them out.

Attention comes up again, when Otto and David tiptoe around each other in the hospital, treating each other with “a gentleness, a tenderness almost, which in the midst of such grief on both sides seemed a miracle of attention” (p. 147) and we have Isabel’s moment of clarity in the hotel room where she sees the tabby cat in the garden when normally she wouldn’t have seen it. She has grown and changed and has new life to begin, unlike many of IM’s previous characters who just seem to travel the path they have been given; although she does describe life in the house as a “merry-go-round” with the implication that you can’t get off it. Mind you, Edmund also feels trapped “Some pattern too strong for me was taking me away, curving away back to the old lonely places” (p. 166) and then with a huge effort frees himself.

There’s humour again, just touches but they do raise a smile: I loved this description of the house from near the beginning, which recalls the furniture plans in “An Unofficial Rose”:

The dim electric light revealed the big landing, the oak chest and the big fern which never grew but never died either, the fine but entirely threadbare Shiraz rug, the picture which might have been by Constable but wasn’t which my father had got at a sale at a price for which my mother never forgave him … (p. 15)

There are Otto’s ridiculous dreams, with telephone dials turning into all manner of things, too, and Otto is described in a savagely funny way as like a gorilla, and needing to ingest similar amounts of foliage.

As to our other themes, Flora has the red hair this time; Maggie has a long bun, which seems odd, but unravelling buns are a theme and of course she gets it chopped off, another common occurrence. Isabel’s hair seems odd and complicated and adds to her strange charms, seeming to grow and acquire extra bits out of nowhere. Elsa also had flat metallic hanks of hair which someone else had in another novel – anyone remember? And she is the classic artificial woman who IM often seems to dislike, in her case revoltingly grubby and greasy. Otto has the big face and cherub-gone-bad features but might be the most revolting specimen we encounter in the oeuvre, and David Levkin is another prancing, merry Jamesie but with a darker side, perhaps.

Doublings are found in the two sets of siblings, in Edmund’s two mothers (Lydia and the stream of Italian girls). In a memorable description, we find that Otto is a wet-lipped man and Edmund a dry-lipped man. Otto and then Flora cry in front of Edmund and so indeed does Isabel. Edmund bangs on the summer house door and then Flora’s door. Edmund is expected to heal the household but only heals the cracked blocks of wood – and then I think leaves them there. He encounters Isabel and then David stripped to the waist in another uncomfortable couple of scenes. Water is there early on in the diverted stream in the garden and then of course the pool and waterfall that Flora climbs to escape. Again, some of the most beautiful descriptions are of this water. IM’s dislike of psychoanalysts slips through in a statement of Edmund’s:

My relations with women always followed a certain disastrous and finally familiar pattern. I did not need a psychoanalyst to tell me why: nor did it occur to me to seek the aid of one of those modern necromancers. I preferred to suffer the thing that I was. (p. 24)

There are some ivory water buffalo in Isabel’s room which seem the only nod to Chinese or Japanese art, although they’re usually linked to wise people, which I’m not sure she is.

In other nods to the other novels, Maggie loses (or “loses”) her shoes in the mud, recalling Marian’s adventure in the bog in “The Unicorn”. The chases under the trees, of course, echo most of the books and Edmund’s fawning over Flora remind us uncomfortably of Randall and Miranda in “An Unofficial Rose”. He is creepy, isn’t he, or are we just reading this with a modern mind: “All that came into my mind was the image of Flora. How exceedingly pretty she had become. I wondered how old she was” (p. 27). Isabel’s display of herself to Edmund reminds us of Annette’s dress getting ripped open in “The Flight From the Enchanter”.

I’ve just realised there’s no special introduction in this book (which basically means I’ve bought a fancy cover wrapped around the text of the 1980s copy I already had). I wonder why this is!

What would I say in conclusion? Yes, it’s an odd novel and a lot of it a bit distasteful, with gross images of sweaty grubbiness. But there is a way forward and a resolution, and a musing on attention. Is this one even read much any more? I’m not sure. But I did enjoy 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.

“The Unicorn” round-up and “The Italian Girl” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s the last day of the month, so it must be time for an #IMReadalong update. We’re galloping through the oeuvre, aren’t we – and I hope you’re still with me! – so here’s a quick round-up of “The Unicorn” goodness, and a preview of the delights to come with “The Italian Girl”.

“The Unicorn”

I was a bit later with my review of this one, but got it up before the end of the month, so that’s a win, right? And I don’t mind a bit if other people lag behind a little (or a lot!) as long as you’re enjoying your reading. Here’s my review with a great discussion that flourished just at the end of the month in the comments. Jo has reviewed the novel on Goodreads and has some great points to make about the hysteria and fairy-tale of the book. Brona has done a great review with some images of the real landscapes IM based the book on.

My three copies are shown above; Peter Rivenburg and David Mahon both have the somewhat lurid 1963 Penguin (do we think Hannah looks like this? I’m sure she should have more and red hair. Or is it Marian?

and David contributed the blurb, too:

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

“The Italian Girl”

Is this the shortest of Murdoch’s novels? My two paperbacks run to 171 pages, with the hardback stretching out a bit more with some Very Large Print.

I treated myself to the rather odd first, and still have my 1985 Penguin – I remember reading this early, so would have got this a few years after it came out. Then for anyone following our theme of women in white dresses running away through trees, I think we might have bagged one with the Vintage!

This is a classic Murdochian tangle of family secrets and generations of dysfunction, as the blurbs make clear. Much more detail in the first edition than either of the other two, this sums it up really, although I feel it sounds quite like “A Severed Head” in this:

The Penguin has a much shorter blurb than some, but with some good establishment press support:

and as usual, the Vintage sort of blends the two, with a bit from a different newspaper to add a bit of spice (ancient experience, though? Is it based on a myth I’ve not understood?):

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


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

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