Women Writers Revisited: Bidisha on Iris Murdoch

Photo of Bidisha (on Iris Murdoch)

In this Women Writers Revisited piece, broadcaster, filmmaker and former Women’s Prize judge, Bidisha reminds us of the tactfully skilful storyteller that Irish-British novelist, Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was and offers us an in-depth looks into Murdoch’s 1957 classic, The Sandcastle.

Iris Murdoch’s sprightly early novel The Sandcastle, first published in 1957, is a suburban satire and a domestic tragedy, a playful glimpse into the faded dreams of a provincial marriage and a warning about the price of romanticism. The set-up is simple, even banal in its familiarity: a Surrey schoolmaster called Mor, who’s married to a woman called Nan, falls in love with an artist called Rain Carter who’s visiting to paint a portrait of the school’s retired headmaster, Demoyte. The location is tightly controlled, at once uneasily claustrophobic and ordinary, sitcom-like: St Bride’s school, the surrounding commuter-belt streets and countryside, Mor’s unappealing family home on a housing estate and the former headmaster Demoyte’s somewhat grander, older house. There is a terrible grey sense of being slightly away from the capital’s beating heart and equally slightly away from its rural wilderness. Mor exists in a land of motorways and identical houses in which the local woods give a safe flavour of bucolic abandon but are still surrounded by ‘the fanned-out lines of the great main roads out of London: the region where the escaping Londoner … says a little doubtfully, “Now at last we are really in the country.”’

There is much cruel comedy to be had when Murdoch reveals her characters’ possible futures in the ‘God-forsaken backwater’ where the novel is set. Mor’s children are destined for secretarial college or working in a jeweller’s, his contemporaries are ‘provincial school- masters’, the school is peopled with gently mockable archetypes like the dithering priest, competent sports master and strange art teacher. Mor’s own greatest career dilemma is whether or not to jack it all in and stand for election in a local Labour safe seat. In this, Demoyte eggs him on yearningly: ‘You’ll get out of this hole … up to London, where you’d meet all sorts of people. And women. Out of this hole, where all one can do is pass the hours until it’s time to die.’

Out of this workaday scenario Murdoch conjures up a searing if somewhat tongue-in-cheek examination of crisis, duty and life’s meaning, leavened with her typical bursts of absurdity, contingency and mysticism. All the hallmarks of Murdoch are there: the jazzy names; the post-war spiritual questioning, which leads some characters towards starchy Anglicanism and others towards New Age ritual; the humiliations and disruptions of sexual desire; the blundering, repetitive mistakes of mediocre people feeling strong emotions for the first time; the psychological crises brought on by small oversights and common failings. As the plot gets under way, the setting takes on the quality of a fairy-tale terrain – indeed, the school campus is described as ‘the domain’ – in which characters transform and revert.

The idea of this alternative ‘domain’, the timeless Jungian portal in which true desires are revealed at midsummer and open nature enables truths to be told, is alluded to lightly by Murdoch several times inThe Sandcastle. Although Mor inhabits a recognisably drab post-war England, his moments of awakening occur when the specific signifiers of the era are erased, such as when he and Rain pick flowers on the old ‘estate’ of the former headmaster’s Victorian house. Suddenly, they are in a mirror world, an ‘any time’ infused with nocturnal mystery: ‘Mor had never seen it by night. It looked different now … [he] had a strange momentary illusion … [of] Demoyte’s house, or else its double, where everything happened with a difference.’

In this alternative idealised realm, the magic and wonder of love can flow in. On a drive through the countryside with Rain, ‘It was as if since they had passed the white gate they had entered another world. The spirit of the wood pressed upon them, and Mor found himself looking from side to side expecting to see something strange.’ However, Murdoch never loses her sharp comedic awareness of the difference between how we feel and what is actually happening; between mythic intimation and plain fact. When Mor actually tries to pick a rose that first night, ‘he only pricked himself and mangled the rose’. He damages both himself and the delicate object through his attempts at courtly behaviour: a blunt if apt predictor of the embarrassments to come.

The young artist remains opaque for much of the novel, although it is her arrival which has set the plot in motion. Rain Carter is described damply and enticingly, mainly through the eyes of her charmed male admirers. Yet when she is free of their leers it is notable that her behaviour towards Mor’s wife Nan and children Felicity and Donald is charming and respectful. As ever with Murdoch’s novels – as she herself noted throughout her career – it would be very possible to de-centre and re-experience the story’s events, no doubt drastically differently, through Rain’s eyes. The men who are sexually interested in her, namely Mor and the dirty old goat Demoyte, are not fascinated by the workings of her mind, despite Demoyte shrewdly remarking, ‘Her sense of vocation is like a steam hammer.’ However, this observation does not lead him to treat her respectfully. Instead, he paws at, teases and patronises her and she succumbs passively in vivid scenes which make a twenty-first-century reader uncomfortable. All of the ‘erotic’ moments in the novel have a sexually attacking, coercive quality, as when one character comforts Mor’s distressed wife and ‘lay upon her … while his heavy body crushed her into the depths of the chair’. On Mor’s and Rain’s first evening together he ‘caught her by the wrist … said nothing … turned her about and began to pull her back towards his house … picked her up in his arms … carried her into the drawing- room … ’ Rain is an object, watched and leered over sloppily by both men in a crudely reductive and infantilising way. She is repeatedly described as small, young, boyish, clown- or actor-like, resembling a Pierrot, a child playing dress-up or a doll.

At times, however, the objective reality of Rain, her power as an individual and not a sexual gimmick for others, flashes through the text. Late on, as Mor’s romantic fantasies begin to flounder, he realises that Rain is not the gamine child-spirit of his dreams but a wealthy and cosmopolitan woman, the sophisticated daughter of a great artist whom she lived with in southern France in a kind of Electra complex ménage, a woman who has already had a major love affair, an ambi- tious and intelligent public figure who is driven by her creativity while he himself is a Little Englander with no vocation, only a job. She is simply in a different league from him and his undistinguished coterie. Murdoch writes with grave respect and mature understanding of the creative process, as when Rain is working on the portrait she has been commissioned to do. There is a perfect communion of creator, process and artwork, a replete exchange of intention and craft: ‘Rain … was completely absorbed in what she was doing. Early that morning [she] had found herself able to make a number of important decisions about the picture, and once her plan had become clear she started at once to put it into execution.’

When Rain speaks, the men around her find her adorable or continentally exotic, but what she actually says is thoughtful. She is not a coquette and she is not preoccupied by her romantic status or her sexual effect on men. The only person who can see Rain for what she really is is another artist, a peculiar art-teacher colleague of Mor’s named Bledyard. Reciprocally, Rain is concerned with Bledyard’s opinion of her work, while remaining indifferent to both the compliments and the criticisms of the other characters, who are not artists. Rain takes herself seriously and is agonised by her own nascent development as an artist, saying ruefully, ‘Our paintings are a judgment upon ourselves. I know in what way, and how deplorably, my own paintings show what I am.’ She is her work, and when she draws Mor in the early moments of their love affair, she refuses to show him the sketch: ‘I thought you would certainly be able to read in it what I was beginning to feel.’

Rain and Mor fall into an immediate, passionate mutual infatuation. Although they do not consummate their love affair, he considers himself to have betrayed his wife in every way that matters. Alongside the euphoria of the love affair the poisonous reality of deception leaks into and taints everything. Murdoch is brilliant, and utterly serious, when depicting the effects of betrayal, concealment and broken trust. Even Mor, the perpetrator, is horribly afflicted, immediately ‘uneasy’ and filled with ‘regret and distress’. He feels his transgression instinct- ively as a venal moral crime, a sin rather than the flouting of a mere social convention. Lies, misunderstandings, blunders and omissions pile up on top of each other: ‘Why on earth had he done that? Why had he told Nan a lie? … he had told the lie immediately, without even thinking.’ The simplicity of his old non-lying days make his boring past look like a smooth paradise as he agonises: ‘Mor had never deceived his wife, except for very occasional social lies, and one or two lies about his health. These were all of them occasions which Mor never forgot.’

Mor’s fibs are at once banal and shattering, an ordinary, sordid betrayal. Murdoch is unflinching as she describes the corrosive ripple effect of horror and pain when Nan’s serenely unquestioning trust is shattered and her reality undercut. Nan has been depicted for most of the novel through Mor’s eyes as a somewhat castrating, deflating figure who is ‘impervious to reasoning, relentlessly determined to get her own way, and calmly and even gaily certain that she would get it’. When Murdoch lets us into Nan’s own mind, however, we see she is nothing of the sort. An intelligent enough woman with no prospects, qualifications, encouragement or ambitions, in a twenty-year marriage with separate bedrooms, life ‘had often been discouraging and dreary enough’ and she had almost never ‘stretched out her hand a little way towards another person’. It is poignant to observe the steadily toxifying humiliation of Mor’s betrayal on her as she tries to keep her strength and dignity. She goes from finding it ‘disagreeable’ to being ‘extremely disturbed’, until ‘she felt that she had suddenly been dragged into some awful nightmare … she shook with the grief and the horror of it’. Finally, ‘the world had exploded into a lot of little senseless pieces’.

An invisible accord has been violated and nothing is the same: ‘In ordinary life all her talk with Bill was planed down into simple familiar regularly recurring units … they might have talked it in their sleep. This was one of the things that made marriage so restful. But from now on all speech between them would have to be invented.’ Mor’s betrayal has torn something deep in the fabric of their shared world, and both of them feel it at their core.

Despite these moral agonies, Rain and Mor bunk off together giddily, enjoying humid trysts by day and twilit trysts by eve, and on one of them Rain says, ‘This is a surprise … that to escape is so easy.’ Unfortunately, she has hit the nail on the head twice over. First, that romance is an escape from reality. Second, that escaping reality is not the same as breaking or altering or challenging it. Reality must always be returned to, confronted and reckoned with, and it is bigger and deeper than mere romance. This confrontational return, not the escape, is the difficult part.

In its ultimate lesson, The Sandcastle reminds me somewhat of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which the brief flame of sexual love does not make up for the social position, family connections, established life and pattern of friendships offered by a dull but respectable marriage. This is also the plain moral heart of Murdoch’s novel, and Rain sees it far quicker than Mor does. Mor’s infatuated solipsism leads him to completely overlook dramatic subplots, such as a thrillingly written episode in which his son almost dies. Instead, he indulges himself by wondering if his feelings for Rain are being driven by fate or will, and the mere wondering infuses him with ‘a great sense of vigour and power’.

Mor is challenged by the strange art teacher, Bledyard, who does nothing in the novel except slink through like an alluring oddity, dropping bits of spiritual wisdom, art theory and morality abruptly here and there. In The Sandcastle he gives voice to two of Murdoch’s abiding philosophical interests, which recur throughout many of her novels: the Buddhist notion of stepping away from obsessional and fixated thinking and personal exceptionalism; and the related Platonic concept of the good life being one in which all things are enjoyed in balance, moder- ation, variety and harmony. Both approaches warn against solipsism and the self-indulgence of masochism, setting the complicated, equivocal, alluring justifications of evil against the self-evident and wordless clarity of good. They both counsel against storifying one’s poor behaviour and strong urges into a great drama with oneself at the heart, as if ‘to live in a state of extremity is necessarily to discover the truth about yourself’ even though ‘what you discover then is violence and emptiness’. Such egotism only serves to obscure the simple and obvious question of what is right or wrong. As Bledyard scolds Mor, ‘The point is not to lament or cry out mea maxima culpa, but rather to do the thing . . . that is right.’ He characterises meaningful moral behaviour as deep: ‘you are deeply bound to your wife and to your children, and deeply rooted in your own life’. Bledyard points out what Mor is already feeling in his gut: that in harming these connections, as he has begun to do by his deception, ‘you destroy a part of the world’ because building a good life is worth more than a fling with a pretty girl.

Bledyard makes a finer point, which surely reflects Murdoch’s own feelings about her literary vocation: he brings up the risk that Mor’s sordid and distracting drama will demean Rain’s abilities by harming her at the core. ‘You are diminishing her by involving her in this,’ he warns. ‘A painter can only paint what he is. You will prevent her from being a great painter.’

However, Rain doesn’t lose her fine judgement and indeed her vocation lifts her out of the mess, rather than it dragging her down. She emerges as one of the moral drivers of the novel, not a stereotyped ingénue come to home-wreck the provinces. It is she who introduces and ‘owns’ the novel’s sole reference to a sandcastle, when she describes a fictional image of children making sandcastles ‘in English children’s books’. In English children’s books, the young characters have a fantasy of creating a perfect little castle, a safe fort, and they successfully do so. But Rain is not culturally English, nor a fantasist, nor a child. She well knows the difference between fiction and reality, between the imaginary fortress and the crumbling reality, between the idealised world of English ‘play’ and the ‘dirty and very dry’ beach near her childhood home: ‘A Mediterranean beach is not a place for playing on … The tides never wash the sand or make it firm. When I tried to make a sandcastle, the sand would just run away between my fingers.’

Rain knows that she cannot literally or symbolically ‘play house’ with Mor, nor can they create a castle to keep the outside world out. When she breaks off their love affair in a tender and dignified scene at the end, she reprises her early sandcastle imagery and says their affair would ultimately disintegrate like ‘dry sand running through the fingers’. She also strongly echoes Bledyard’s imagery in describing Mor as ‘a growing tree … you cannot break your roots and fly away with me’. This is a powerful scene in which Rain has good lines and great agency, her moral authority reinforced by the fact that she is literally up a ladder delivering her judgement from on high, while facing the painting she is working on. Here, I think Murdoch hints at a central source of Rain’s power: her drive to be an artist. ‘I know how I would feel if I were prevented from painting,’ says Rain. ‘I should die.’ By con- trast, there is an emptiness at the heart of Mor’s life which makes him susceptible to overblown fantasies. Rain always has something greater to sustain her internally through her creative vision and also to compel her outward actions through worldly opportunities for success. Once the commissioned portrait is complete, she can pack up and leave for further adventures – and this is exactly what she does. Rain has brought with her (and takes away again) all that is to come: the Swinging Sixties, the break with the older generation of Edwardians like Demoyte and wartime children like Mor and Nan, the final shaking-free from the grey post-war years into colour and creativity.

The revelation of the affair and Rain’s departure bring the novel to a just close. From the temptations, farcical mix-ups and sordid agonies of a stereotypical summer fling, Iris Murdoch has lifted a sober reminder of what really matters and what is realistically possible in a small town, with those people, in that age. By the closing pages of The Sandcastleshe has effected the necessary moral course-corrections, a return to objectivity and reason, contrition and forgiveness, a stepping away from heady lust and impossible escape fantasies and a validation of good duty as a husband and father. Her characters have resisted rupture, catharsis and the emotionally violent achievement of tabula rasa in favour of carrying on as best they can. The tempting free woman has departed, her integrity and good character relatively intact, her talent undimin- ished, her career just beginning. The novel ends with all the characters returning to or going towards what is right and best for them, taking up reasonable opportunities according to their true personality, talents and inclinations, just in time for autumn. Today’s reader, meanwhile, is left with a poignant taste of outwardly unremarkable English lives lived quietly in the years after the Second World War, lives whose compromises and secret longings Murdoch examines sensitively in this delicate, droll and clever novel.

Bidisha, 2019 [extracted from the introduction to The Sandcastle, published by VINTAGE Classics]

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