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The Bell leaves Andy wondering why on earth it took him so long to start reading Iris Murdoch

May 22, 2014

So The Black Prince was good. Under the Net probably wasn’t as good but was probably more enjoyable. The Bell? Just … Wow. Never mind the fact the novel’s totally awesome, one of the main characters is a closeted Christian gay guy for goodness sake. How did it take me this long to read this book?

Bell murdochThe Bell revolves around a lay (that’s lay, not gay) Anglican community living in a manor house next to an abbey of nuns who have for the most part forbidden themselves contact with the outside world. The lay people are not a happy bunch – the aforesaid closet case, Michael, essentially the community’s leader, who had once aspired to be a priest but who was disgraced as a teacher; Dora, who left her husband because she was scared of him and decided to return to him for the same reason (the novel’s opening line is something like this – it’s a ripper); Dora’s cuckolded, moody, much older husband Paul, a historian; Toby, a newly enthusiastic Christian who has just finished high school and is heading to university; and a handful of others who are of less importance to the story, although “Mrs Mark” (whose surname is not Mark, but whose husband’s first name is Mark) is nicely underplayed specimen of Christian hypocrisy – a stickler for rules (no decoration in the manor’s rooms, no chat about lives before the community) who has no conception of what was once known as “Christian charity”. The siblings Catherine and Nick (I remember them being twins, but not according to Wikipedia), one about to enter the abbey, the other quite the black sheep (as opposed to prince), play very important roles – but more because they have importance for other characters, rather than anything they themselves actually do.

The titular bell (as opposed to the tubular bell) was, so legend has it, thrown into the lake betwixt manor and abbey during the dissolution of the monasteries. It had never been recovered, and as Murdoch’s novel opens, a new bell has been forged and is about to be installed. But of course this is a novel, and a funny one at that – although it isn’t quite a comedy – and so nothing is going to go to plan.

That was me, trying to avoid spoilers. Did you like that? Yes?

Some readers of The Bell think Murdoch is genuinely engaging with religion – Christianity – to explore morality and ethics in a way that makes religion – Christianity – a legitimate way in which to live a moral, ethical life. I’m not sure about this, although the novel isn’t a critique of Christianity in general (it does poke fun, though, at some ways in which Christians choose to express their faith). I’m not sure what Murdoch’s ideas about spiritual belief were, in the 50s, when The Bell was written, although I suspect she was as contemptuous of the concept of a spiritual realm as I am (as Michael, ultimately comes to be – perhaps. Oops! Spoilers!). But in the 50s many if not most people in the Western world thought about morality and ethics in religious terms, so it isn’t surprising that Murdoch would choose a religious setting to explore ideas about how we can live “good” lives, how we can live the life we want to live without hurting others (which is not the same as living a good life, although the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

The novel is written in the third person, from the perspectives of three characters – Dora, Toby and Michael. Dora is kind of vacuous, kind of selfish, kind of not very bright or talented – but also rather likeable. Michael is rather too introspective for his own good, rather too obsessed with what has gone before, rather too prepared to invest rather too much in a faith he increasingly finds worthless. Toby is – sorry, I’m biased, but Toby is just fab. Probably not gay, although that door is left open, but young and impetuous, enthusiastic about things he probably shouldn’t be, cautious and afraid of what the world has to offer on one hand and slightly, madly enraptured by those offers on the other. Catherine and Nick play important roles in the lives of other characters in the book, and Michael is probably the novel’s main character (although arguably it belongs to Michael and Dora and Toby), but when you take into account what we see from Toby’s perspective, and the role he plays in the lives of Dora and Michael, Toby is, arguably, the novel’s primary driving force. Without even knowing he’s doing it, poor love.

Maybe that’s not exactly what Murdoch intended, although by this stage of her career – only a few years after the rather more slapdash, slapstick Under the Net was published – she seems to have far more focus about what her novels are doing, and how they are constructed, and what they are about. The Bell is a great book. Not a good book. A great one. The Black Prince was a good book but it didn’t convert me. The Bell has. Auntie Iris is feckin’ awesome.

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