Religion, though, she didn't understand

Every now and then I am tempted to re-read a novel that delighted me in the distant past, to see if it really was as good as my memory suggests. In this spirit I recently returned to Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, which I first read as a sixth former. I was extremely lucky to have had an inspirational English teacher, Fr J F Morris, and he too was an admirer of Iris Murdoch, and often used to speak of The Philosopher’s Pupil as a favourite book of his. By the time I had finished my first year at university, I had read that too and all her other works. At Oxford I was blessed to have the late great Dorothy Bednarowska (obituaries here and here) as my tutor: Dorothy had for many years been dean of Saint Anne’s College, and had known Iris Murdoch well. In fact Dorothy’s sitting room in Wolvercote, where she gave her inspirational tutorials, was lined with signed first editions of Dame Iris’s work, all containing breathless dedications. However, though Iris admired Dorothy, the compliment was not returned.

“Every year she writes a book and sends me a copy, with “To dearest Dorothy” written on it; and every year I think, oh God, have I got to read this? And what on earth am I going to say to her when I have done so?” was The Bedder’s comment.

“Her novels?” said Freddie Copleston, when I mentioned Murdoch to him. “You mean her novel. She writes the same one every year.”

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Much as Fr Copleston (obituary here) remains a huge hero for me, and much as I admired Mrs Bednarowska, having re-read The Bell, I think Iris Murdoch’s reputation is secure. Her books will last.

The Bell is a marvellous and memorable book. Many of the scenes have stayed in my mind over the last 30 years. I think this is partly because it is such an elemental book, by which I mean that the actions and characters seem to have such depth to them. The book is replete with symbols – the convent and its wall, the lake, the tower, and of course the bell itself. The simple truth is that no one has ever written about the passions, the sexual passions, in the way Iris Murdoch did.

I remember once discussing Iris Murdoch with the great critic A N Wilson. “But don’t you think that she had a real insight into religion?” he said. “No,” I replied. “I think she did not understand religion at all.” (I still think this – she was looking in from the outside.) “But I do think she had a real insight into sex.”

Funnily enough I have a personal reason for liking The Bell. It is a pursuit frowned on by literary purists, but it is fun to spot how many of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s books are thinly disguised real people. Back in the 1950s she stayed at the Anglican Malling Abbey, where she met the then Abbess, who is supposed to have inspired the figure of the Abbess in the book. Mrs Bednarowska said (correctly, for she was right about everything) that Murdoch was an atheist who did not like religion, but the nearest she got to sympathy with faith was the scene where the Abbess appears and says “The way is always forward”. The Abbess Murdoch knew was a cousin of mine, Dame Violet Lucie-Smith.

Incidentally, I went to Malling Abbey years ago to visit my cousin, then in her 90s, and found there the truth of what Iris Murdoch describes as the “annihilating silence” of the cloister. That too is a phrase that has stayed with me.

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