A Severed Head – Iris Murdoch

Book #446

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

Martin Gibbon-Lynch is a 4o-ish wine seller, who is married to ageing beauty Antonia.  While not entirely overjoyed in the marriage, Martin is content and assumes Antonia is as well.  Despite having his own mistress on the side, Martin is destroyed when Antonia announces that she is leaving him for their psychoanalyst friend, Palmer Anderson.   This move sets of a chain of a bed-hopping, partner-swapping search for happiness and sense of self.

This satirical novel written in 1961 came at a time when Britain was moving into a period of sexual freedom.  Our characters are well educated and seemingly well moneyed as well.  They are trying to shake off  their society’s moral dictates in pursuit of what they think will make them happy.  This is not as successful as they would hope as they love then leave and swap a number of times.  I wish I could draw a diagram for you all, without completely spoiling the story.  It was this aspect that kept the story highly entertaining, particularly as a lot of the “moves” came as a complete surprise for me.  This became more important as the characters became  more unlikeable and my sympathy for them waned.  Martin in particular, displays old-fashioned attitudes towards having a wife and a mistress and then becomes enthralled with his wife again only after finding out she is leaving him. Even when Antonia and Palmer out their relationship, Martin doesn’t disclose his relationship with Georgie, his mistress, only for it to be discovered later on.  As Martin himself says;

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship.

A forward thinking and brave novel for its time, Murdoch was not afraid to ramp it up with incest and abortion thrown in for measure.  Yet there is still a lightness, a humour about it all.  As if to say, look at these people, so silly in their machinations.  Because in their attempt to live their own lives, to live more freely and truthfully to their own instincts,  it all becomes apparent that this is just a contrivance for justifying bad behaviour.  Perhaps that these people are able to give so much effort and thought to these problems because they have no other concerns.  They are wealthy, they are educated, they are healthy and attractive.

This being my first Murdoch, I am happy to not make it my last. Very witty and bitingly insightful wrapped in an entertaining and fun story, Iris Murdoch has a new fan in me.


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