Not quite ten years ago now I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (1978) and loved it. Since then, I’ve read her first novel, Under the Net (1954), and now The Bell (1958), and I’m finding it hard to get the same enchantment. In the case of Under the Net in particular, Murdoch seems to have just been writing a different (more comedic) kind of novel—I enjoyed it to an extent, but what I had loved about The Sea, the Sea was its depth as a not-wholly-reliable character study.
The Bell fits somewhere between the two: there is a third person distance that allows the narrator to slip between the minds of a few primary characters and offer a little mild comedy in the portrayal of the lay religious community at Imber, but there is a deeper philosophical interest that broadens out the minds of the three primary characters. The novel gives us entry to Imber by way of Dora, a woman unhappy in her marriage but nonetheless returning to her husband while he is immersed in Imber doing historical research with books at the Abbey that Imber organizes itself around. Another outsider, Toby Gashe, has chosen to visit Imber for the summer before he begins college at Oxford. And, to round out the primary trio, Michael Meade runs the lay community and owns the estate on which it exists. Murdoch uses the trio to meditate on sex and religion as interlinked but distinct issues. Dora feels pressure to play the role of the errant wife redeemed, while Michael struggles to reconcile his long-standing desire to become a priest with his equally long-standing desire to sleep with men. Toby is a sort of innocent who enjoys the world and his time at Imber until he gets wrapped up romantically with first Michael, then Dora.
As I read, I kept finding myself frustrated that I found several things simply unbelievable. Michael is the most convincing of the lot in the portrayal of the kind of conflict between religion and sex that plagues him; he is the kind of old school gay character that some contemporary readers might dislike because his story doesn’t end in a triumphant coming out, but whose confusion and uncertain ending reflect tensions that many gay people still live with. A central problem is Toby: a lot of the psychological tension of the plot revolves around his sudden entry into the world of sexual desire. His confusion and fumbling once that happens work well enough, but it is really very hard to imagine someone his age not already being very more aware of desire than he is early in the novel. He is just a little too naïve and carefree to be believable.
I found the particular ways in which Dora’s drama acted out equally unconvincing. Dora, it is established early on, is given to sudden acts of generosity, and it seems to be one of her few saving graces except that it is also what apparently leads her to make key “mistakes.” It is unclear to me how we are supposed to read this. On one side, the community (and far more her husband) frowns on her behavior in a way that comes across as stifling. However, the climactic action of the novel (I won’t reveal it here) turns around one of her moments of inspiration and desire to surprise others, and the overwhelming idea that everyone in the novel seems to accept—and Dora seems to come to realize—is that it is a huge mistake that will embarrass the community at Imber, which it in fact ends up doing. I felt like I was missing something here: Dora’s plan, while it seems unlikely to work, does not actually seem to me like something that would embarrass anyone. Indeed, if she pulled it off it could be quite impressive, and even failing it would end with a revelation that would likely excite everyone involved. Sure, people’s sense of impropriety can be irrational, but it usually has some tie to culture and class that I can’t identify here.
The novel does have its moments: many of the interior monologues of the characters are compelling, and there are scenes—like Toby’s encounter with a nun, Dora’s walk with Michael, and the group’s walk to check the bird traps—that are beautifully executed. Still, overall the motivations and characterizations driving the plot seemed every-so-slightly askew, and that often kept me from really jumping into the text.