When both Nancy Pearl and P.D. James say they count the novels of Iris Murdoch among the best they’ve read, you run out and seize a stack of them. I spent a lovely hour at the bookstore browsing the 5 they had in stock, and finally decided upon The Bell, published in 1958, as my first Murdoch excursion.
The premise: a lay community that serves an abbey of enclosed Anglican nuns is tragically disturbed by the attitudes and actions of an assortment of visitors present for the installation of the new abbey bell. I couldn’t resist the promise of rich insight tantalizingly posed by the opening paragraph:
Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason. The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence.
The most moving novels are those that illuminate the human condition, and Murdoch—who was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and wrote philosophical works, plays, and poetry in addition to 26 novels—does not disappoint. The internal monologues of The Bell’s three narrators provide running commentary on religion, faith, sex, and the propensity of human beings to ruin each other despite sometimes-good intentions. Dora, introduced in the first paragraph, is a young, disenfranchised, and unfaithful wife; hastily married, she soon discovers she is counted among the aesthetic treasures neatly displayed in her husband’s drawing room and then shipped to the abbey where he is studying antique manuscripts relating to the old bell. Toby, a second narrator, is sincere and naïve, eager to spend his summer away from city life, laboring in the community’s vegetable gardens before he enters Cambridge. The third perspective is that of Michael, head of the lay community, distracted from wise leadership by earnest daily wrestling with his faith, seeking to serve God while protecting the secret of his gay past.
Each member of the secluded community has a different reason for being there, but they share unrealistic expectations: Dora thinks her husband Paul will appreciate her more in the simple country setting; Paul thinks Dora will behave more virtuously in a religious setting; the housekeeper, Mrs. Mark, thinks her position in a spiritual household gives her a right to control and judge the others; Toby thinks the sweat on his brow and dirt under his fingernails will preserve him against youthful distractions. But Murdoch’s motley crew discovers that “Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.”
Amid whispers about the fate of the abbey’s possibly-magical former bell and preparations for the arrival of the new one, Dora, Toby, and Michael discover the strength of their frailties and the frailty of their strengths. Some lessons are learned only in hindsight, and Michael realizes that “our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.” For some, death will be the cargo; for others, it will be the desire for death, but “death is not easy, and life can win by simulating it.” A blessed few will gain wisdom and allow it to direct future choices.
The Bell is surprisingly suspenseful, contemplative but evenly-paced. And it prompts deep questions about the nature of true faith and the shape of obedience. In other words, it has both the form and the purpose of the best literature—and now I am eager to scoop up all the other Murdoch novels I can find!