Saturday, 14 July 2001

Iris Murdoch: The Bell (1958)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 874

In the late fifties, the unusual thing about Murdoch's novel would have been its sympathetic treatment of homosexuality, then still illegal in the United Kingdom; not it is the setting in a religious commune. This is a group of people gathered around the enclosed nunnery of Imber Abbey, based at the house in whose grounds the abbey stands; they want to experience something of the monastic life without taking the full step of a lifetime commitment.

The novel is set during a time of excitement for the community, as they prepare for the arrival of a new bell for the abbey, to finally replace a medieval original lost with the dissolution of the monasteries. There are, as in any isolated small community, tensions, and these are heightened with the approach of the ceremony they are organising. The most important character in the novel is in fact not a member of the community, but her arrival acts as the catalyst for several events: Dora is returning to her estranged husband, and he is working in the archives of the house.

The novel is a third person narrative, but the narrator is made a character as its sympathy moves from one person to another, coloured by their views of and feelings towards the others. It is very clever, and presents a rounded view of the characters in a way that avoids lengthy exposition.

The leader of the community, Michael, is the subject of the homosexual subplot; after a scandal at a boys' school where he was teaching, he was unable to go on to become an ordained minister as he had hoped. The scandal seems to have been forgotten, until the boy involved, now grown up, arrives at Imber; his sister is intending to take the vows to join the Abbey, and is spending some time as a member of the community as part of her preparation. The actual feelings Michael has for the young men he becomes involved with are tenderly conveyed, and his internal struggles, rationalisations and self-condemnation as a pious member of a church which does not approve of his inclinations, are realistic and moving.

Like The Sea, The Sea, The Bell has a central object which has symbolic significance. The bell is clearly an image of religious faith, and the relationship between the new bell and the original medieval one develops certain aspects of this. The novel includes two sermons which use the bell as an image, given by members of the community; these actually contradict each other, which says something about how even people who agree about many things can do so with completely different rationales.

The Bell is a subtle and clever novel. However, its intellectual pleasures are accessible and the novel is a delightful read.

No comments: