Bloomsbury Bell chimes for The Bell – book review

Having declared my love for The Bell in the last post, it is only fitting that this post should be a review of my beloved. I have told you the story of how I first came to read The Bell – I will now tell you exactly why I love it so much.

The Bell is about ideas, religion, sex and human relationships. It is about people who have ideas, who share ideas, whose very thoughts change their lives and impact upon others. But more than this, in a way more simply than this, it is such an English novel.
Set in a dilapidated country house in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the English countryside The Bell examines a lay community. The community has taken up residence in the house to be close to the enclosed order of nuns who are next door at Imber Abbey.
The opening two lines are Murdoch’s best “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” And it is Dora Greenfield who we follow, through her disastrous marriage to Paul, to Imber Court where she joins her husband who is an art historian researching some 14th century manuscripts that belong to the Abbey.
Very quickly we realise that this is a fractious community, a community struggling to find its way and purpose in the modern world. The outside influences of Dora, Paul and the young Toby Gashe bring to light the flaws within the community. The peripheral presence of Nick, encamped in the lodge is a constant shadow over the community, specifically for its leader Michael Meade.
Meade is essentially a good but weak man. Naive, metaphorically blind and an idealist he has established a community but struggles to realise the very human flaws which can destroy such a community. James Tayper Pace is the very religious and austere presence and it is he who ends up as confessor.
The Abbess at Imber Abbey is the ever watchful presence within the novel. From the confines of her closed order she exercises authority over the community outside. But, at the heart of the novel is the bell itself.
Dora is told by Paul about the legend of the Abbey bell – that during the 14th century a nun was suspected of having a lover. When the Abbess asked the nun to confess, she would not. The Bishop arrived to probe the matter further, still the nun would not come forward so he put a curse on the Abbey and the bell “flew like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake”. Where the bell remains as the characters prepare for a new bell to be delivered and blessed at the Abbey.
Toby Gashe discovers the old bell whilst diving in the lake and he confides in Dora. Dora knowing of the legend hatches a plan with Toby to raise the bell from the murky depths. This they achieve which sets a sequence of events spiralling out to affect all the characters and ultimately destroy the community at Imber Court.
Not only does the novel nod to realism it is also packed with symbolism and bountiful imagery. It reminds me very strongly of another of my favourite books, Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf which, whilst examining different themes, is set in a country house with the same sense of history and tension running through.
I love country house novels – and this is a perfect example. It is solid, balanced, gripping and utterly re-readable. I have an old and very dog-eared copy that has my scrawling notes throughout and bent corners, tea stains and sticky marks where my fingers have been. This copy is not the one pictured above which is a first edition – my pride and joy – that is kept very safely in a cabinet.
This is a book that I can just sink into. Every time I read it I discover something new; I realise something new about one of the characters or see an event differently. From the butterfly on the train to the raising of the bell from the lake there is so much to see and enjoy. I rant at the characters, I sympathise with them, I grieve for them, I misunderstand them and I am frustrated by them but I love returning again and again to find out what they are up to.
I am not sure why but Iris Murdoch does not seem to be as widely read as other 20th century writers. So, in an attempt to get people reading Iris Murdoch I have a copy of The Bell to give away. It is a lovely edition pictured here which was kindly donated by Fiona at Random House. To be in for a chance to win (I will draw a random winner on Friday 26 Feb) simply answer the following question: In which year was The Bell first published? I am happy to post anywhere so don’t worry if you don’t live in the UK. Good luck!

32 thoughts on “Bloomsbury Bell chimes for The Bell – book review

  1. 1958. Please add me to the list of entrants, I would love to win this. Re twitter – which do you think is the more beautiful? I saw loads of snowdrops as I drove through the Meon valley to New Alfresford yesterday. But I do love primroses.Ruth x

  2. No need to add me to the draw as I have the same copy all lined up and ready to go … now it's just fitting it in and giving it the attention it deserves.Iris Murdoch is sadly underrated and it is heartwarming to see you raising her profile on your blog by dedicating part of your blog name to your favourite book. I was pleased to see her feature on the Lost Man Booker list recently.I love reading about beloved books of bloggers pre-blogging :).

  3. I'd love to be entered – does it matter that I had to look up the year it was published? 1958. I've never read any Iris Murdoch and this sounds like a good place to start!

  4. Brilliant review! You've really made me want to read this now! I do feel that Iris Murdoch is someone who has inadvertently passed me by. I have the perception that she is 'difficult', and I'm not sure why. I hope to be pleasantly surprised!Enter me, enter me! 1958 according to wikipedia!;)

  5. 1958 I believe. I have yet to read Iris Murdoch, I should probably sneak her to the top of my pile. Intrigued by the butterfly on the train. Please enter me, thank you. @maddatch

  6. I've not read Iris Murdoch before–she made the Modern Library list of the best 100 novels, so I've always meant to read her. This sounds wonderful and I am adding it to my list. Quintessential English country house novel sounds right up my alley! The wikipedia lists the publishing year as 1958!

  7. Your brilliant review has whetted my appetite for more Iris Murdoch and The Bell sounds like my kind of book … have you read A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair (a Persephone Books publication)?Please, please enter me into your giveaway – I believe the year is 1958.Jeanne

  8. Hello , Thanks for that lovely review, I am now truly inspired to get better acquainted with Iris Murdoch. Would love to be in the draw. I saw the movie "Iris" when living in London a few years ago and it was excellent; found it interesting both from a literary perspective and professionally as an occupational therapist to see dementia depicted on screen.I was going to suggest like Cottage Garden, that same Persephone "A House in the Country" which should be right up your street. Your blog is as alway so lovely, your interests and tastes are close to mine and sometimes it feels as if your were writing the blog just for me! Sorry I rarely comment. I am a flat out mama of two tiny children…

  9. 1958 – You make the book sound so very good and I have definitely heard of Iris Murdoch. Maybe she is more popular in the colonies than elsewhere! Would love to be in the running for this if its possible to post to sri lanka.Thanks

  10. I was going to post that (a) I love Murdoch and , like you, simply cannot understand why she is so often overlooked. Every now and then I think "I have to read a Murdoch now, it's the only thing that will satisfy." And (b) how gorgeous that edition you have pictured is. So imagine my delight when you said it was up for grabs! Fingers crossed – the answer is 1958.

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