Another of my favourite novels by Iris Murdoch is A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Published in 1970, the story is set in London during a long, hot summer. Hilda and Rupert Foster have been happily married for twenty years; they are essentially ‘the perfect couple’. The only shadows at their gate are Hilda’s sister Morgan and their grown-up son Peter. Nevertheless the novel opens with them celebrating their anniversary.
As they sip champagne in the cool shade of their urban garden, dipping their feet in the small pool, they discuss Julius King and his return. Julius is the intellectual, cynical and Machiavellian man who Morgan left her husband, Tallis, for some years previously. Morgan followed Julius to America where their relationship broke down. As Hilda and Rupert bask in their comfort, happiness and companionship they worry about their circle. Fraught with tension, their friends seem to be on the brink of self-destruction.
Their home is the centre – the haven which every character seeks at some point during the novel. Morgan returns to London in Julius’s wake. Peter moves in with Tallis and Rupert’s brother Simon and his partner Axel enter the melee as Julius slowly embroils them all in his deceitful meddling.
Julius makes a pact with the obsessive Morgan that he can destroy Axel and Simon’s relationship – what he does not tell her is that he will also set out to destroy Hilda and Rupert’s marriage, using Morgan as his weapon.
The lies, deceit and mistrust are triggered by Julius but all the characters perpetuate what could have been dissolved at the beginning if only they had communicated openly with each other. Julius is the ‘puppet master’ but Simon and Morgan are just as responsible. Evil perhaps is not just something achieved through actions but also through irresponsibility. The plot unfurls in a frustrating yet gripping fashion and climaxes with one of the most unexpected events that I have ever read.
Again, Murdoch packs her writing with symbolism but it is more subtle in this novel than the symbolism in The Bell. Clothes, food, a telephone and a giant teddy bear all shed their basic, material functions and become indicators of the internal lives of the characters. The swimming pool is a magnet, a honey-trap and even as reader I was entranced also. My imagination dipped my own toes into the same “square of flashing shimmering blue in the middle of the courtyard garden”. But then, I have long had an obsessive love for being in water.
Despite the tragic events that unfold and the bleak outcome, the novel strikes me as a very, very black comedy. It is oddly humorous but there is no humour to speak of. The reader watches with a morbid fascination and you can see exactly what needs to be done to extricate the characters from their self-generated mess but there is nothing you can do. The sense of powerlessness ultimately results in warped sniggers as you read on with an increasing awareness that the novelist is almost mocking her characters for the ease at which her protagonist achieves his evil plan.
I only read this for the first time last year and it needs to be read again, like most of the books I have read by Murdoch. I think I love Murdoch’s writing so much because of her probing fascination with relationships. A Fairly Honourable Defeat dissects every aspect of relationships and the reader is left emotionally drained at the end. A sign of a satisfying read!
Iris Murdoch ‘season’ is nearly over at Bloomsbury Bell. March will bring new books and musings but it would be great to know if any of you are thinking about reading Iris for the first time or if you will revisit her work. I have gone on and on about The Bell but here are a few more which I really recommend to you all:
1) The Sea, The Sea (won the Booker Prize – very odd, yet enjoyable read if you don’t mind sea monsters)
2) Under the Net (her first novel, fascinating as very different in style and hilarious)
3) The Black Prince (A bit Fairly-Honourable-Defeat-like – packed with symbolism)
4) The Unicorn (psychological, fairly bleak but magical)
5) The Book and the Brotherhood another favourite of mine – opens at a midsummer ball at Oxford where a group of friends are reunited. Having years ago made a pact to each other which has not been fulfilled – this night sparks off a crisis. Duelling, murder, a suicide pact, passion and hatred – this is a meaty read.
I have a Vintage Classics edition of The Book and the Brotherhood to give away. Again, very kindly donated by Fiona at Random House. No question this time – just let me know in the comments section if you want to be entered for the draw. I will draw a random name on Friday 5 March and I will post anywhere. Good luck!