Friday, 14 September 2018

Book Review: The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, legends and myths have always been key sources of inspiration for writers. Among the most striking examples of this doubtlessly count the plays credited to William Shakespeare, but there must be countless others who during their careers borrowed more or less generously and palpably to varying degrees from them. In the 1960s, it seems to have been fashionable to write novels with titles referring to a mythological creature that symbolises the protagonist. The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch is one of these. At its centre is a young woman resigned to living like a prisoner on her estate in a remote part of Ireland. Her almost complete passivity pains the newly arrived governess (or rather lady companion) who finds out about the tragic events that made her husband shut her up and who is determined to give her amiable mistress back freedom as well as the joys of real life.

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin, Ireland, in July 1919, but grew up in England, U.K. After her Philosophy studies in Oxford, she entered war service in 1942 working first for HM Treasury and later for the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Belgium and Austria until 1946. Having completed her postgraduate studies in Philosophy in Cambridge, she became a lecturer in Oxford for fifteen years and first published philosophical essays and a book titled Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953). Only in 1954, Iris Murdoch made her successful debut as a novelist with Under the Net (1954). The most important among the twenty-five novels that followed are The Bell (1958), The Unicorn (1963), The Red and the Green (1965), The Nice and the Good (1968), Henry and Cato (1976), The Black Prince (1973), The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), and The Sea, the Sea (1978). In addition, she wrote a few plays and some poetry. In 1987, Queen Elizabeth II appointed her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The author’s final novel, Jackson's Dilemma, appeared in 1995 after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the previous year. Iris Murdoch died in Oxford, England, U.K., in February 1999.

At the age of nearly thirty, Marian Taylor comes to (fictitious) Scarren on Ireland’s west coast to make a fresh start as a governess not expecting to work for a woman who will remind her of The Unicorn from ancient legend. When she arrives at Gaze Castle, an old and forbidden-looking limestone building at the back of beyond, Marian senses at once that there is something odd about the place and its inhabitants. Moreover, everybody seems reluctant to tell her more than necessary. Not even meeting the lady of the house called Hannah in the evening dispels her awkward feeling.
“Marian had, without reflection, expected an elderly woman. But the person who confronted her was young, perhaps scarcely older than herself, and while not exactly beautiful was yet strikingly lovely. She had a tangle of reddish gold hair and eyes of almost the same colour and a wide pale freckled face. She wore no make-up. She was dressed in a flowing robe of embroidered yellow silk which might have been either an evening dress or a dressing-gown.”
Finding that there are no children in the house, Marian realises that she was hired first of all as company for Hannah who never leaves the house and its immediate surroundings. As for the reasons for this confinement that lasts already five years, Marian is at a complete loss until she succeeds in convincing one of the Gaze people to tell her the whole story comprising adultery, a violent husband and, as rumour has it, even attempted murder. Hannah’s husband left the scene turning Gaze into a prison for his wife with his old friend Gerald Scottow as reliable guards husband left the scene turning Gaze into a prison for his wife with his old friend Gerald Scottow as reliable guard.
“A prophetic flash of understanding burnt her with a terrible warmth. That was what she was for; she was for Gerald Scottow: his adversary, his opposite angel. […] It was scarcely a coherent thought and it was gone in a moment. She went on at once, ‘[…] It sounds to me as if she were really under a spell, I mean a psychological spell, half believing by now that she’s somehow got to stay here. Oughtn’t she to be wakened up? I mean it’s all so unhealthy, so unnatural.’”
Although Marian doesn’t quite know how, she is determined to rescue Hannah from the forced isolation to which she has resigned herself to the point of appearing almost happy. Before long Marian finds an ally in Effingham “Effie” Cooper who passes every summer at the neighbouring house called Riders and is a regular guest at Gaze Castle. He cherishes a hopeless love for Hannah and is reluctant at first to interfere with her life, but eventually he helps Marian to kidnap her for her own best. Alas, the attempt fails dramatically before they even reach the gates of the estate…

The perspective of The Unicorn is that of a third-person narrator focusing on how Marian and Effingham, both coming from outside the novel’s main setting, react to Hannah’s forced seclusion and to her “happy” resignation to it. Nonetheless, the protagonist clearly is Hannah with her unreal aura of legendary creature in a golden cage that inspired the title. Although her behaviour has other reasons, it reminds me of subdued women in nineteenth-century novels and appears as outdated in the 1960s as the oil lamps lighting the house. Melodramatic turns along with complicated or socially unaccepted, if not unacceptable love affairs that partly explain past events give it a strong Gothic touch. Wild landscape modelled in great detail and with remarkable narrative skill after the Burren in Western Ireland (according to several commentators) creates an atmosphere of sublime desolation mirroring Hannah’s state of mind. Also in other respects the author’s language flows over with powerful, often highly symbolic imagery. As befits the work of a philosopher, it touches ideas from Plato to Simone Weil and from Christianity even though very superficially. In the final part, the narrative loses much of its initial momentum and thrill, but it’s still an engaging read.

All in all, I experienced The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch as an excellent and interesting novel although none with the power to send me into raptures. Knowing the author’s biographical record, I had hoped for some philosophical depth and was disappointed to find just a couple of superficial discussions of moral and other questions spattered over a largely action-driven plot that reminded me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and its nineteenth-century model, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. If there was much deeper meaning between the lines, it escaped me for being too well-hidden or for requiring more background knowledge of philosophy than I have. As a Gothic novel it seems quite succeeded to me at least in the first two parts although in general, I’m not really fond of the genre. In any case, it didn’t cost me any effort to finish the book, thus I gladly recommend it.


  1. I too enjoyed this novel. My review:

  2. The ending of this novel turned into a real Shakespearean bloody spectacle. So many deaths!

    I am both enthralled and disgusted with Murdock's novel. I'm disgusted by Gerald, a man who, by the end of the books, appears to personify evil. What particularly disgusted me was the way in which Gerald debauched a young boy while his sister sat idly by.

    With all this being said, The Unicorn is my favorite Murdoch novel, and I view it primarily as a morality play that explores the forces of good and evil.


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