#231 The Bell

I don’t know why but I always got the impression that Iris Murdoch was a bit of a stuffy author, I don’t know whether I don’t have a negative bias against the more modern authors that I’ve actually heard of that are on the list – often those that are much more accessible (yes I do mean in the library) – as if because they’re popular they might not be so good. Once again I found myself rushing around a library 10 minutes before closing and didn’t have much time to scour the shelves so decided perhaps it was time to try one of her books. I was vaguely aware the Bell was on the list, as is The Sea, The Sea, but aside from that I wasn’t sure – I’ve since discovered (in the process of ticking this one off) that there are quite a few of her novels on the list: a realisation that no longer fills me with boredom because I genuinely enjoyed the Bell.
There were a lot of things about this novel that might have deterred me – mostly the religious community it’s set in which had the potential to be extremely dowdy and stifling especially because I was unsure when it was going to be set (previously encountered literary nuns have not been too cheery), but I think most of my fears were dissipated with the introduction of the main character. Dora Greenfield (as I understood her) is a kind of bumbling young woman who married an older, much more established man who (I get the impression) she holds in a kind of reverence, despite him being controlling and dull and moreover acting like a spoilt child most of the time. I felt like he thought he was doing her a big favour in marrying her and that in some ways she almost agreed with him, and the way she’s described she doesn’t sound like a stunning beauty or vastly intelligent or talented (although then again he doesn’t seem to encourage any kind of intellectual stimulation in her – when they met she was an art student which she gave up when they married – so maybe she was and it’s just been quashed already) and yet evidentially something in her attracted this “great” man – and continues to attract others, so maybe that’s just selective narration. Either way, even though I don’t think I have much in common with her (not that I think myself intellectual or attractive or talented – more in her forgetfulness and accidental good nature and humbleness – and also in the repulsive men she is drawn to – or who are drawn to her and she accepts), I was immediately drawn to Dora as a non “typical” central character. Maybe Murdoch describes her in a slightly pathetic way to make you feel you have to defend her and get you on her side, regardless as she took the train to Imber to reunite with her priggish husband and the religious community he’s residing with while he studies some ancient texts I think she and I had a similar feeling of dread and trepidation.
I thought the book might descend into some sort of weird, horror/detective story with Dora discovering something weird or amiss in the community, which I suppose in some ways she does but it wasn’t the scandal I expected (or wanted). In some ways the ending, and Catherine’s strange episode in the woods, kind of fulfilled this but not really – at the end I was left wondering what had really happened – I fail to believe that Catherine was in love with Michael (maybe just because he seems so weedy), that nothing more was going to come of Michael’s previous history with her twin brother Nick (for a second when she ran off in the forest at the end I thought it was going to be revealed that she somehow was Nick – even though I didn’t see how this could be possible) or that there was nothing else going on. I suppose ironically it was fussy Mrs Mark who annoyed me a whole host more than any of the nuns – I found it strange that she and her husband had joined Imber to try and help their relationship, and then went on to try another religious community at the end of the book (too afraid to try swinging ?)… I think more than anything I just expected something more sinister to happen. Which unless I missed something, it didn’t. I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

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