He felt extraordinarily calmed by Mary’s presence. In a curious way he was pleased that she had not disputed his self-accusation but had simply given him the correct reply. She assured him somehow of the existence of a permanent moral background. He thought, she is under the same orders as myself. He found that he had picked up the hem of Mary’s dress and was moving it between his fingers. She was wearing a mauve dress of crepe-like wrinkled stuff, with a full skirt. As he felt the material he thought suddenly of Kate’s red striped dress and of Judy’s dress with the blue and green flowers. Girls and their dresses.
He said quickly, letting go of the hem, ‘Mary, I hope you won’t mind my saying how glad I am about you and Willy.’
‘Nothing’s – fixed, you know.’
‘Yes, I know. But I’m so glad….’
They stood up. Mary turned her lean sallow head towards him, brushing back her hair. Her eyes were vague in the hot dappled half light. They stood a moment awkwardly, and then with gestures of salutation parted in silence.
observations: This is a very Mudoch-ian collection of thoughts and styles: interested in dresses - they are mentioned several times throughout the book - and there are obviously undertones and love affairs and then those slightly strange sentences and descriptions – ‘vague in the hot dappled half light’ – you wouldn’t be sure if that was affectation or meaningful.
This one really is the archetypal Murdoch book: too many characters (in some editions apparently there is a list of them, which might be helpful – I never was completely convinced I knew who all the different children belonged to), plenty of people with strange names – Octavian, Ducane, Biranne – and sentences like this one:
This metaphysical dilemma was present to him at times not in any clear conceptual form but rather as an atmosphere, a feeling of bewildered guilt which was almost sexual in quality and not altogether unpleasant.
Iris Murdoch certainly has a distinctive style. Does anyone read her any more? Was she an important philosopher, an important novelist, both, neither? Reading her 30 years ago you would think she lived the life of the people in her books – estates in Dorset, smart flats in London, communal living – but this seems not to have been the case. She apparently said that you should never drink expensive wine, keep it cheap so that you don’t get used to the good stuff – her rather sybaritic characters might disagree.
But, the book is hugely entertaining, quite modern in tone, and very funny at times. The book begins with Radeechy, a civil servant, committing suicide – he has not left a note:
‘That’s not like him!’ said Octavian. Radeechy was an indefatigable writer of circumstantial minutes.It stands the test of time very well, and definitely deserved its place on the 1969 Booker Prize shortlist.
The pictures of girls in their dresses are both from the State Library of Queensland.