January 16, 2002

An Unofficial Rose

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Last night I finished reading Iris Murdoch‘s An Unofficial Rose. It’s her sixth novel, and the sixth one I’ve read. Coincidence? Not at all. I’ve been trying to read her work in the order it was published. It’s something I do with a lot of authors. Am I just weirdly compulsive that way, or do other people do the same thing?

An Unofficial Rose is a complicated story, which is typical for Murdoch. Hugh Peronnet’s wife has died after forty years of marriage, and he begins to pursue his old mistress, Emma Sands, for whom he had nearly left his wife once. His son, Randall, dreams of breaking free from his marriage; he has fallen in love with a woman he deems perfect, Emma’s secretary Lindsey. Mildred Finch, a friend of the family, meanwhile, has long been in love with Hugh. Her brother is in love with Randall’s wife, Ann, and she reciprocates that love, but neither is willing to do anything about it so long as she is married to Randall. Hugh’s grandson Penn is infatuated with Randall and Ann’s daughter Miranda. And Miranda? She has plans of her own.

Put like that, An Unofficial Rose could sound like a cheap soap opera, but that would be far from the truth. Each of the relationships in the story — and there are more of them I haven’t mentioned here —¬†sheds light on the other ones and on the various personalities involved.

Murdoch herself was not a Christian, though the book begins and ends with Scripture (“O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more seen”). Somewhere Murdoch once referred to herself as a Manichaean, in the sense that, though she didn’t believe in the God of Scripture, she did believe in an absolute Good and Evil. But Good and Evil aren’t merely concepts that float somewhere off in space; they are lived out in our concrete lives, in the choices we make, and in particular in the choices we make in our relationships. We often make bad choices for good motives and good choices for bad motives —¬†and many times, we can’t even determine what our real motives are (“But to be understood is not a human right. Even to understand oneself is not a human right”). Nor do we always know what we want. Certainly, we want happiness, but where is happiness to be found? Not every path that promises happiness brings you to that goal, nor does every painful step doom you to a life of misery.

It’s not my favourite Murdoch novel, nor is it a book I’d recommend to everyone, but it is a thought-provoking read. For more on Murdoch’s ethical fiction, you might want to see the articles by Alan Jacobs and Joseph Malikail.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:59 am | Discuss (0)

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