Sacred Space, Beloved City: Iris Murdoch’s London, Cheryl Bove and Anne Rowe, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 248pp, £34.99 (hardback)

Although Iris Murdoch lived and worked for most of her life in or near Oxford, she was brought up in London and later had a pied-à-terre in Kensington. Almost all her novels are set wholly or partly in the capital. Like Dickens, Woolf and Ackroyd, she is a London novelist. It is high time for a full-length study of this subject and Sacred Space, Beloved City: Iris Murdoch’s London is a vivid and suggestive account of it. The book comprises six chapters on particular places and themes followed by directions and maps for walks in the areas, a foreword by Peter Conradi, a preface based on an interview with John Bayley and an extract from his diary describing Christmas Day 1997 in London with Iris, and finally a glossary of all the places where Murdoch lived and worked and which figure in the novels. There are also cheerful illustrations and jacket artwork by Paul Laseau.

This book, like Murdoch’s novels, will appeal to the general reader as well as the specialist in modern literature or philosophy. She was a very popular best-selling novelist and accessible philosopher, whose fiction debated some of the major issues which concerned her as a moralist: the death of God, the basis of morality in an age of unbelief, the dangers of existentialism, the possibility of freedom, the value of art. The decade since her death has witnessed a renaissance in Murdoch scholarship worldwide, partly due to the ‘Ethical Turn’ in literary theory – a return to the centrality of the relationship between ethics and literature which has become an established aspect of contemporary philosophical and literary debate. Murdoch voiced deep concerns about structuralism, poststructuralism and the theoretical trends that dominated the latter part of the twentieth century, tending to lump them together and fearing that they subverted the meaning and moral import of literary texts. She is now being cited as one of the Ethical Turn’s leading thinkers and practitioners because of her insistence that the serious study of literature brings moral benefit to the individual and to society as a whole.

Murdoch admired Simone Weil and shared her fear of rootlessness and pity for the deracinated. She was deeply affected by working in Austria after the war for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and refugees and exiles figure in many of her novels. But most of her characters are rooted in London, which is virtually a character in her fiction itself. Her first published novel, Under the Net, begins with Jake, the narrator, returning from Paris to ‘dear London’. In a picaresque comedy he rattles around Soho, Mayfair and the City, even sleeping on the Embankment, which he finds preferable to staying at a friend’s suburban ‘contingent’ address since there is already too much contingency, rather than necessity, in his life. Her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, which seems to show signs of her incipient Alzheimer’s disease, ends with Jackson walking to the Thames and thinking, ‘My powers have left me, will they return …? … At the end of what is necessary, I have come to a place where there is no road’ but he crosses the bridge and begins to smile.

Murdoch’s view that the contemplation of art can be a spiritual experience in a godless world is stated in her philosophical work and dramatised in her novels. Bove and Rowe argue persuasively that there are sacred spaces as well as numinous works of art. Their first chapter ‘Architecture and the built environment in Under the Net‘ emphasises ‘the ways that contemporary architectural theorists understand the emotional engagement between the individual and the environment’, one of many theoretical perspectives on sensuous evocations of the cityscapes. It focuses on Jake’s night walk through the City, pub crawl and swim in the Thames. The pubs are sacred places, ‘church-dominated’, and one barman looks ‘like an enclosed ecclesiastic’. The churches themselves, many lost or ruined in the war, retain a poignant authority even in an age of unbelief and the swim, always a symbol of renewal for Murdoch, in the venerable river represents a stage in Jake’s spiritual development. To devote the first chapter to this area and to concentrate on this episode is appropriate in that the City was the original city and this passage is one of the most moving and memorable in the novel. However, it is a pity to leave out the distinction between the necessary and the contingent which is perhaps the moral centre of the book. The City is the heart of ‘necessary London’ but Jake makes more progress when he lives at Dave’s feared ‘contingent’ address. Perhaps the fact that many London suburbs grew out of medieval villages with their own churches, societies and economies should temper the smug sense of recognition in central Londoners at this distinction.

The second chapter is entitled ‘Sacred spaces’ and concentrates on the personal significance and effects of works of art in the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection. (Anne Rowe has already written more fully on this subject in The Visual Arts and the Novels of Iris Murdoch.) These buildings themselves recall the sacred communal spaces of classical cities. Their collections offer objects for contemplation which may, in our secular age, play a similar part to the Christian icons of the past. In The Bell Dora’s paradigmatic experience in the National Gallery is akin to a religious vision in strengthening her morally as well as emotionally and enabling her to return to Imber and confront her marital problems. Other characters are equally moved but less improved by paintings which have personal significance for them and which they may therefore misread – or their loss of response may be a symptom of corruption or anomie. In A Fairly Honourable Defeat, after a meeting with the malign Julius in the Tate Gallery, Morgan, who had felt calmed by the Turners and their ‘passionate turmoil held in perfect immobility’, comes to ‘see how limited and amateurish they really were’. Pictures can seem to mirror the experience of the viewer, as when Charles, the egotistic haunted narrator of The Sea, The Sea, sees a sea monster and a procession of his ex-mistresses in the Wallace Collection. But I was unconvinced by the ‘obvious parallel’ between Jake and the Laughing Cavalier as ‘Sartrian existentialists’. It is obvious to me that the cavalier is a sanguine Laodicean Protestant, untroubled by existential angst. If his portrait had been in Bouville’s art gallery, it would have nauseated Sartre’s Roquentin. Although most of these works are western, in the later novels characters are moved in the British Museum by the religious art of the East, as Murdoch became more interested in and attracted by Buddhism.

The Post Office Tower dominates The Black Prince and its narrator’s consciousness. ‘The image functions kaleidoscopically, fracturing into multiple perspectives.’ Is this why an illustration shows the front façade of the National Gallery from a vantage point behind the Post Office Tower? The Gallery does not actually revolve like the Post Office Tower restaurant where Bradley is dizzied by Julian. The obvious Freudian symbolism is there but is mocked. The height of the PO Tower has spiritual as well as sexual significance. Murdoch follows Plato in thinking the ascent of the soul may start from sexual desire and the authors suggest that the Tower ‘appears as a phallic symbol for Bradley and simultaneously as a moral beacon of the Platonic Good for the reader’, though it later ‘mutates into a glittering symbol of evil and becomes one of the novel’s many manifestations of the Black Prince, the Devil himself’.

The statue of Peter Pan in Hyde Park figures in several novels. Murdoch loved it as a child and she and Bayley often walked to it from their Kensington flat. But she described the statue as ‘weird and sinister’ and was well aware of the dark elements, split personalities and perverted family relationships in Barrie’s story. Some of her characters who frequent the place, such as Hilary Burde in A Word Child, suffer from arrested development and despotically want to preserve innocence in those they love. However, this remained a favourite excursion for Murdoch and her last treatments of the image in The Book and the Brotherhood and Jackson’s Dilemma come full circle to her affection for the statue in childhood.

The chapter on Whitehall offers a very jaundiced view of the Civil Service and its members in the novels. Murdoch exposes ‘the shabbiness that can lie beneath any representation of power’. There are descents as well as ascents from sacred spaces and The Nice and the Good includes a catabasis or journey to the underworld, the subterranean caverns of Radeechy’s Satanic rites. I was less convinced by the account of some novels as a critique of gender relations and male power. ‘Male fragility’ is shown in A Fairly Honourable Defeat when Rupert falls for Julius’s plot but so is female fragility when Morgan does. The authors describe Rainborough in The Flight from the Enchanter as a comic stereotype of the civil servant, intelligent, unproductive and sexist. They suggest that in the male-dominated Civil Service of the 1940s, when Murdoch worked there, she would have identified with smart, effective, upwardly mobile secretarial staff, such as Miss Casement. I think that Iris, with her high academic achievements, would have had much more in common with male colleagues than with secretaries and that Rainborough is presented with far more sympathy than Miss Casement. Miss Casement is just as open to the corruption of power as the men: an ex-typist, she becomes a tyrant when she herself acquires a typist. The divisions in Whitehall are more by grade than by gender.

The last chapter is on the Thames by which characters walk and are calmed, in which they swim and are drowned, vital in London’s history, tidal, renewing and destroying. The authors point out how Murdoch is always conscious of the tides, suggesting the psyche pulled between low and high Eros. Murdoch always lived north of the river and when, rarely, her characters cross bridges into south London, they are entering another country or, like Blaise in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, who keeps a wife and child in a beautiful suburban house and a mistress and child in a shabby suburban flat, another life. The bridges, like the Embankment, are human attempts to control nature which, as in Bruno’s Dream with its climactic flood, sometimes fail. Murdoch uses the Thames ‘as a comment on the eternal debate between life and art … The resistance to form that characterises the river and that represents a terrifying contingency is also a symbol of the resistance of life to the formal demands of art … The river, running freely through all [sic] Murdoch’s twenty-six novels, acts as a perpetual reminder to her readers that life constantly runs contrary to the order that art must necessarily impose upon it’.

The authors cite Christine Boyer’s view that ‘the way human beings come to understand their surroundings is not only through individual memory and experience and shared history, but also by what we have read or heard about a particular place’. I find that my memories of some of the writers Murdoch revered deepen my response to the places in her own novels. Jake’s night walk in the City streets with their ruined churches, ‘scraps of newspaper … an occasional cat … the river … thick with scum and floating spars of wood’ seems haunted by The Waste Land, ‘Preludes’ and ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. The ‘vanishing bells’ of the lost London churches echo the ‘reminiscent bells’ of The Waste Land. In A Word Child Hilary visits T. S. Eliot’s church and memorial tablet. His compulsive underground journeys recall the darkness of the tube in Four Quartets and he usually catches the train to work at Gloucester Road, once Eliot’s nearest station, which figures in a private joke in Burnt Norton. Mildred, in Murdoch’s last novel, murmurs ‘The Ganges, the Thames’ like a voice from The Waste Land. The passages on the destructiveness of the Thames and the flow of the river to the sea reminded me of The Dry Salvages. Eliot’s river, like the Thames, seems merely a problem to the builder of bridges until its fury breaks through human boundaries. Hilary’s ‘addiction … to masculine icons’ such as the Whitehall War Memorials recalls the ambivalence about the Cenotaph in Mrs Dalloway. The ‘safe stronghold’ of Rainborough’s home, where he ‘put[s] away the irritations of his day at the office’ reminds me of the double life and split personality of an early London commuter, Dickens’ Mr. Wemmick. In Nuns and Soldiers, a positive reworking of the central situation of The Wings of the Dove, Tim has visionary life-changing experiences in Hyde Park, where James’s guilty lovers meet and conspire, overlooked by the windows of Aunt Maud’s house.

I hope there will be a paperback of this attractive book. A pocket-sized version would be a convenient companion for the walks. If there is another edition a few details should be corrected. Fitzroy Square is described as ‘circular, not square, in shape’. It is in fact square, though it contains a circular garden. A pub is called the ‘Skinner’s’ and ‘Skinners’’ Arms. The American spellings used in the glossary are inconsistent with the rest of the book. For example, Randall Peronett receives a ‘check’ from his father and ‘somber’ occurs in a quotation from Murdoch. ‘Liverpool Street Station was one of two stations (the other being Sloane Square) with bars on the platform’ needs the addition of ‘tube’ or ‘Underground’. The railway stations are not that temperate. There are separate entries in the glossary for Heathrow and London Airport and for Embankment and Charing Cross. It should be made clear for the benefit of some younger readers and non-Londoners that these are the current and previous names of one airport and one tube station. In his foreword Peter Conradi forgets The Italian Girl when he claims that London is ‘the setting or part-setting for twenty-four novels – all but the Irish pair’. Why is Miss Casement in The Flight from the Enchanter, published in 1956, introduced with the title ‘Ms’, which was coined in the late sixties? The Prince of Denmark is described as ‘an imaginary pub frequented by characters in Nuns and Soldiers’ in the directions for the Fitzrovia walk but its entry in the glossary does not mention that it is fictitious and this might frustrate walkers.

This is a book to read, to walk with and to remember on walks. It negotiates very suggestively between fiction, fact and theory and illuminates the experience of imaginary people in real places.

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