Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Henry and Cato” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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“Henry and Cato” is the later book I remember least, even though I have to have read it at least four times now. I always remember there’s the dodgy character of Beautiful Joe and a rather sulky inheritor, but the details had once again escaped me. Once I’d re-read it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. Is it actually a thriller? Does it work as a thriller? Does it work better than “The Nice and the Good” which is the other one with thriller elements? I’ll try to unpick my thoughts and many, many post-it notes, and look forward to hearing everyone else’s reactions.

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 – “Henry and Cato”

(08 January 2018)

We open so memorably (OK, I will admit to always recalling this scene when crossing Hungerford Bridge myself, but never quite remembering which book it’s out of) with someone called Cato dropping a gun into the Thames, in a bit of a state. And of course in a lovely echo and doubling, he’s popping back over the bridge with something else bulky in his coat in the closing moments of the book. In between he goes through an ordeal which he survives but doesn’t feel he acquitted himself well in – his father certainly doesn’t think so, but did he?

We are then introduced to Henry, a bit spoilt, a rubbish academic, coming back to the UK to claim his inheritance after his loathed brother has died. He considers his mother, then we cut to her and faithful retainer Lucius, and Cato’s father John, disappointed in his unacademic daughter, all concurrently – which I think is a masterful stroke that shows IM’s confidence and technical ability as a novelist (something I’m not entirely certain the book shows off all the way through). IM gets into her element describing Laxlinden Hall – has she had a lovely big house to dwell on quite so happily since “The Bell”? Henry will decide what to do and bend everyone to his will before curiously giving up. Cato will stick to his principles until he suddenly doesn’t. Everything will be changed but still somehow the same, and two people will die, only one violently. Oh, and there’s a faithless priest in an abandoned house in an East London wasteland, which we’ve definitely had before, haven’t we.

We have the usual Murdochian themes and echoes of other books. Themes-wise, we find out very early on that Henry is writing a book on an artist, John Forbes intends to write one on Quakerism, and Lucius is also writing a book, which is getting shorter and more personal as he approaches the end of his life. The theme of ageing women comes in again, with Gerda coming in for a hard time, Lucius wondering if she dyes her hair, and noticing, “Of course she was faded and her features were less fine” (p. 10) (that “of course” is harsh, isn’t it?). Women’s lots are discussed – John Forbes has always “fought for women’s liberation” but sees women as having an “invincible stupidity” which somewhat undermines that (p. 20). Stephanie is described right from the start in fairly disgusting/disgusted terms, with her moustache and her greasy nose, her fat and her unflattering clothes, and her ageing is pinned down cruelly, too:

How strangely and mysteriously evident was the ageing of the body. A weariness in the breasts, in the buttocks, a certain coarsening and staleness of the flesh, proclaim the years as much as lines and wrinkles can. (p. 166)

Siblings abound, of course, and they either complement or are wildly contrasted – “really Sandy was just a big calm relaxed man, unlike dark manic Henry” (p. 16). We climb over a wall with Henry, notably at the start of the book but then also over the gate between Laxlinden and the Forbes estate. And of course we also find ourselves looking at people standing outside windows (Henry, seen by Gerda), looking through windows (on Henry’s first arrival, peering at his mother), trailing across gardens (Henry seems to be forever running off down the terraces) and indeed following people, with Henry following Colette through the bamboo (as one does; and she comes back, which is unusual: does this signify that she’s more his equal?). Colette is the one with the hair, apart from Henry’s dark curls and Joe’s weird blond bob: she even has straight and flat bits of hair that frame her face, although they’re not metallic like some people’s. She looks like her hair has been cut when Henry visits her after her injury (although it hasn’t been: she has remained whole (see below)). Gerda also stands with her “pale, broad face thrust forward” (p. 109) which is a common Murdochian way to arrange oneself.

There are flashes of humour in this odd book with its large themes. When Henry thinks of his brother being dead, he is said to have “flexed his toes with joy” (p. 3) The descriptions of Lucius’ creeping age, “a kind of itching ache was crawling about his body, making it impossible for him to find comfort in any position” (p. 10) shouldn’t be funny but is in light of his fussiness, and he’s a creature of arrogance who we laugh at – and also produces that dreadful poetry that so upsets Gerda in a very funny scene where she’s found it in his room: “Clump, clump. The old girl” (p. 201). The sentence, “He had lived on talk and curiosity and drink and the misfortunes of his friends” seems perfect. There’s also the lovely detail of the different kinds of holy men, with Cato finding Father Thomas dull and Father Thomas thinking he’s a “frivolous amateur”:

Of course, Cato and Father Thomas, being decent sincere men of God, recognized their prejudices as prejudices. But this did not stop them from quietly feuding. (p. 34)

I really giggled at the description of Henry, having met Stephanie for the first time: “As he began to calm down he bought himself four very expensive shirts” (p. 104) and he also has a very odd scene playing with hats.

We have one of our mysterious figures who moves the plot along in certain ways (near the end in her case) in Rhoda, whose speech is unintelligible to everyone except for Gerda (was she given to her like Biscuit was to Lady Kitty). She doesn’t run her errands for her, but a mystery hinges on her. What an odd character. Along with the mystery, fate leans and breathes heavily over the action as often seems to happen (c.f. all the portents in “Sacred and Profane”: “[Henry] felt panic, terror, a kind of nebulous horror as if he were a man destined by dark forces to commit a murder for which he had no will and of which he had no understanding” (p. 59) – although of course he doesn’t, and this is probably something about accepting contingency which I’m trying to grasp to understand myself.

Seeing and attention, which IM is obviously famous for talking about and which slip into the novels more and more as time passes, are prominent here. Beautiful Joe says early on, “You’re the only one who can really see me at all” (p. 38). Gerda mentions that Henry cannot see his future wife (Stephanie) when she’s met her and observed them. Gerda herself is described as having “attended carefully to Stephanie” (p. 315) and reaches an understanding with her (in the literal and figurative senses, it turns out).

There’s a very odd quirk in the language – did anyone else notice this? We have “adjective Henry” all over the place, as well as bird-headed Rhoda and philistine Sandy: changeling Henry, much-travelled Henry, etc., etc.

The portrait of Gerda’s grief is very moving, as she tries to hold herself together and not make a fuss. I didn’t much notice her as a character originally but I feel she’s very brave, actually. An almost feminist point gets made about a certain kind of woman at a certain point in time and society:

I suppose that women … learn pretty early on that they’ve got to be alone and bear things alone, even when they’re in the bosom of their family. (p. 196)

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Henry seems to enchant Stephanie but then she’s looking for an owner to create (“You needed me and you invented me” (p. 264)) and he wants to keep her submissive rather than being created as an enchanter figure. They enchant each other, “So it turned out that in an upside-down way, he was her captive, not she his” (p. 165) but then Henry also admits that, having been bullied, maybe he was looking for someone to bully (certainly thus not doing the absorbing of pain that IM espouses).

Cato tries to be a hero and maybe even though he commits a crime in truth, it’s more like when Tallis drives the assailant away in the Chinese restaurant in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, as he’s doing it to protect someone weaker. He also has a revelation when imprisoned, but his this the kind that is had in “The Unicorn” or a lasting one? He also finds he has to “hold onto myself” – is this the opposite of unselfing? Father Brendan has too fancy and well-arranged an apartment to be a saint (Cato lives in a smelly state). Or is it Colette, who restores order and knows her own mind, but is fearless in protecting her brother? She has her own trial and comes through wounded but stronger, and gets what she always wanted. Is that the reward of a saint, though or something else? She certainly doesn’t pass pain on, as she knows about the lack of accomplices but doesn’t tell Cato. She tries to even love her enemies, saying of Joe, “you must try to love people even when it’s hard or awfully odd” (p. 286)She’s also used by Henry to give himself courage, “the thought of her wholeness and her courage entered into him like a spear, like a hard line of pure non-Henry in the midst of the humiliating jelly of his personal terror” (p. 260). And I’m glad that her father sees her as “the heroic one” in the end, although he’s too hard on Cato, perhaps. Could Gerda be seen to be a saint, absorbing her own suffering (although she does impose it on Lucius, doesn’t she?). She does have some netsuke, always a good indication of Good, although she happily parts with them (in a Buddhist way?).  In the end, maybe it’s Colette and Cato’s dead mother who was the saint, described as such by her children:

She was the sort of saint that no one notices or sees, she was almost invisible. (p. 335)

In a nod to “A Severed Head”, Henry, Bella and Russ have discussed Henry’s affair with Bella with their analyst. John Forbes buying Oak Meadow echoes Monty wanting to buy his end of the garden in “Sacred and Profane”. The mention of John’s engagement with Quakerism reminds me of N and his community in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. Surely it’s a hat-tip to “The Black Prince” when Henry randomly sends Russ a postcard of the Post Office Tower? Cato mentions the underground warrens underneath government offices that play such a part in “The Nice and the Good”.

I’ve not even mentioned the religious aspects: I found them interesting and the network of religious sponsors and mentors fascinating. I loved how Father Brendan described priesthood as being like a marriage, long-term and needing to be worked on after the first excitement of love. But I’ve written a lot and if you’ve got this far, I salute you!


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

“A Word Child” round-up and “Henry and Cato” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s the end of the month so time to round up where our general thoughts went on “A Word Child” and look forward to April’s read, “Henry and Cato”.

We had a good discussion about “A Word Child” on my review, with some of us, including me, shocked that I’d found Hilary a positive character: not this time! Jo did another great review on Goodreads and as usual I will add any other blog reviews you tell me about to this page. 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!

I have some cover images to share and also a lovely in situ reading pic which I thought might inspire a few more, after I shared images of myself reading the book on a lava field (see my review for that). First I should share, as promised, my circular diagram of the relationships in the book I did last time I read it: I was quite proud of this (it does have some spoilers, though!)

Here are Peter Rivenberg’s US first edition, which I quite like, although I prefer my Tube-inspired UK one (sorry)

and the Penguin which has a slightly odd front cover …

and a back that tells the whole plot!

Also, Thomasina zany??

Finally, here’s Peter’s dog Lexie helping him read it: how lovely!

Henry and Cato

So, on to Henry and Cato. I have three copies, the 1st edition, a Triad Granada published in 1977, my reprint being the 1986 one (so bought and read when I was 14 or a bit older) and then the older-style Vintage one because this is another that doesn’t have the red cover. I have to say I do dislike the Triad cover!

The first edition I bought in Oxfam (they hadn’t realised it was a first, I got it for £2.49 and I went back and gave them an extra donation when I’d checked it). It also has a mysterious sticker on the title page: a diplomatic gift, I think.

No notion of who “Britain” presented it to, however.

Blurb time, here’s the first, with quite a lot of detail:

The Triad Granada with a great quote from the Telegraph which does sum IM up I think,

And the Vintage, recycling the first one:

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “Henry and Cato” 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?). 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 – “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.

reading ireland 2019PS I should have added this – this was also read for Reading Ireland Month as IM identified as being of Irish descent and Cathy always lets me include her (read about it at 746 Books here).

“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.

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