The Bell

What a lot has happened over the past few weeks!

We all went on holiday to Italy, which ought to have been heavenly – I was envisioning a kind of Enchanted April situation, with the addition of a rather squidgy Vita sitting in the shade making sweet gurgling noises – but alas it was broilingly hot, we had a laughably terrible journey, a scorpion took to sauntering around Vita’s cot, she got horribly, worryingly ill with tonsillitis so none of us slept for days as she cried rather heartbreakingly pathetically all night, and, the last straw, I trod on a wasp.

We came home early, all absolute wrecks, and were put back together again by a combination of mothers, doctors, and antibiotics. Emilybooks has resolved that from 2016, we will adopt a strict policy of staycationing during the summer months.

On the up side, as we came home early, I was around and able to write this big feature about the controversial new Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman for the Daily Mail.

From one Murdoch to another …

The Bell by Iris MurdochThe Bell by Iris Murdoch was mostly read while I was covered in Vita-vom, with eyes propped open with matchsticks, yet, still, it was a triumph.

It is a shame that Iris Murdoch has fallen so out of fashion. She tends to be dismissed as someone who created ‘novels of ideas’. Such an idiotic phrase! Aren’t all novels filled with ideas? And, surely, it ought to be a compliment in any case?

Well The Bell is bursting with ideas, and, the conclusion from yesterday’s walking book club is that we could have done with another few hours to discuss them all – so much was there to say.

Dora Greenfield, of whom I am rather fond, is a young Bohemian and errant wife. We meet her as she is returning to her (awful) husband, who is staying and working in the archives of an eccentric lay community set up beside Imber Abbey. Here, a collection of misfits is gathered to try to pursue a spiritual life in a beautiful house adjoining the abbey. They do things like cultivate a market garden, listen to a Bach gramophone recital, and sermonise. There is a lake in the grounds, and vigorous, idealistic young Toby, come to stay at Imber before going up to Oxford, shares Iris Murdoch’s love of swimming. When diving in the lake he discovers a medieval bell, which used to belong to the Abbey. So Dora and Toby hatch a plan to swap the new bell which is due to arrive at the Abbey with the old …

Murdoch gives us a rich assortment of characters in her community. Different chapters are focalised through the viewpoints of Dora, Toby and Michael. Michael is one of the leaders of the community and is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. There are also several others – including the mysterious Catherine, who is to become a nun; her brother Nick, a depressive drunk who Michael used to teach and with whom he was – perhaps still is – in love; busybody Mrs Mark, naturalist Peter, charismatic James Tayper Pace … and a few more. Very cleverly, Murdoch never gives us the perspective of these characters: they are closed, seen only through the eyes of Dora, Toby or Michael. This means that when dramatic things happen late in the book to Nick and to Catherine (I won’t spoil it for you), they come as a complete shock and cast a new light on what has come before. It is perhaps a warning about the subjectivity of experience. It is certainly a means of showing us how very separate and enclosed are her characters’ different perspectives on the world.

Middlemarch by George EliotIt reminds me of a great bit of Middlemarch – a ‘pregnant fact’ to which Eliot draws our attention:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…

Eliot essentially suggests that each character in a novel is like the ‘little sun’ of a candle flame, making the chaos of scratches appear to align concentrically around it – as events can seem to align around one character; but if seen from another character’s point of view, the events all line up completely differently. The Bell is, to my mind, a novel which shows this phenomenon better than any other – each character has such a particular, different take on events, and Murdoch’s clever way of showing us into the minds of three of them, and not into the minds of the others, allows her to pull it off with great panache.

This idea of lots of little separate worlds all coexisting, as seen in the characters’ viewpoints, can be extended in the novel. There is the closed world of Imber, and within that the world of the Abbey. There is also this rather beautiful description of Toby’s swimming in the lake:

He stood, poised on the brink, looking down. The centre of the lake was glittering, colourlessly brilliant, but along the edge the green banks could be seen reflected and the blue sky, the colours clear yet strangely altered into the colours of a dimmer and more obscure world: the charm of swimming in still waters, that sense of passing through the looking-glass, of disturbing and yet entering that other scene that grows out of the roots of this one. Toby took a step or two and hurled himself in.

Toby seems to keep on hurling himself through barriers into enclosed spaces, other worlds. There is another moment when he climbs over the Abbey wall; there are his forays into the different worlds of homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the latter even takes him into the cavernous bell itself (you have to read the book really for that to make sense).

All these little worlds alongside each other is perhaps why sound plays such a strong part in The Bell. Birdsong, the Bach gramophone recital, singing the madrigals, the dreadful portentous bark of a dog at the end, and the great tolling of the bell – Murdoch conjures Imber as much through its sounds as anything else. Not only does this appeal to our aural sense make Imber all the more vivid, but Murdoch’s use of sound is pertinent because sound is something that can surmount barriers, can cross between the worlds: you can’t see what’s behind a wall, but you can hear what’s behind it. When Dora rings the bell, everyone is summoned, from all their different enclosures, and the following day hundreds of people are there to witness the bell ceremony. Sound is a great unifier in this novel of so many separations.

There is much more, but I think I must leave it there or risk droning on for too long. Suffice to say The Bell is just brilliant. It may feel quite dated, but it also is funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric. I can see why many people say this is their favourite of Iris Murdoch’s books. Though if I were to be completely honest, love it though I did, my all time favourite has got to be Iris Murdoch’s first novel – also funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric, but more picaresque and very Londony – Under the Net.

As ever, I’d love to know any of your own Murdochian thoughts in the comments below…

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 - the year The Bell was published (National Portrait Gallery)

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 – the year The Bell was published

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16 Responses to “The Bell”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    “Novel of ideas”…. how refreshing it was to read “The Bell”. I believe that significant literature is mainly about the ideas, not about the plot or good story telling. These are important, too, but they are secondary.

  2. inthemistandrain Says:

    Sorry about your holiday. I think staycations or UK holidays are so sensible with very young children. I do sometimes look at young families in airports in the summer and think “why”…….? Your post very useful for nudging me. I was wondering what to read next and I have The Bell on by tbr so straight to my own bookshelf. Thanks. Will not read your review until I’ve finished it but look forward to coming back to it.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh great – so glad to offer a useful prompt. Hope you enjoy it and looking forward to your thoughts.

  3. Literary Relish Says:

    Oh what a shame. I think we’ve all had ‘those’ sort of holidays however – you can look back and laugh. Trust me! Fabulous review. I shamefully haven’t read any Iris Murdoch yet but this will definitely be my first

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thank you! I look forward firstly to laughing about the holiday and secondly to knowing your thoughts on Iris Murdoch – you have a real treat in store.

  4. Jill. Says:

    One of the best, most luminous writers of all time, so glad you admire her
    Thank you for your lovely blog

  5. Renate Bahnemann Says:

    Read your review of Go Set a Watchman in the Daily Mail. I liked how you championed the role of the editor in the creation of a book. Probably a role that is too often overlooked.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh thank you! That means you got right to the end of my piece… Glad you liked it and yes I think editors really are the unsung heroes (and heroines) of literature.

  6. Alice Says:

    Oh no! What a series of disasters. I hope little Vita is feeling better now (and your foot has recovered from the sting).I’m sure you’re next holiday will be a vast improvement.

    I’ve not read anything by Iris Murdoch, so perhaps The Bell would be a good place to start.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Alice! And I hope you enjoy your first Murdochian encounter. I’d say either The Bell or Under the Net would be excellent jumping off points.

  7. booksaregifts Says:

    I am sorry to hear you had a hard trip I do hope that you get to go back and experience its wonders. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern is very unique and inspiring. ❤ Peace and blessings!

  8. inthemistandrain Says:

    Just popped back to say thank you. Loved The Bell – why was I so frightened by IM? A lesson to me in not being so influenced by whatever aura seems to surround an author. This was so readable, in fact pageturnable (if that’s a word!). My only problem, what to read of hers next? I have found A Fairly Honourable Defeat and The Nice and the Good on our shelves so will probably plunge in there. But I bear in mind your thoughts on Under the Net and The Sea The Sea calls. Thanks again.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh DO read under the net, it is so wonderful. And thank you for popping back, thrilled to hear you found it a pageturner – a triumph!

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