This is my third Iris Murdoch read. I thoroughly enjoyed the satirical A Severed Head and the hilarious The Sea, The Sea, so when I picked up The Bell and read the blurb I was expecting a comedy of sorts set in a religious community. What I got, however, was a totally different kind of read with The Bell being more about dysfunctional people, flawed relationships and torn emotions.
The novel is set in Gloucestershire at Imber Abbey, where a small lay Anglican community live and work simply. The story opens with Dora Greenfield, a wayward mischievous woman who is returning to her marriage after an affair. Dora’s husband Paul, an older man, loves her but no longer respects her and though she is frightened of him and his bullying ways she is more afraid of him when they are apart. Paul is conducting research at Imber Abbey and when Dora arrives she feels like a fish out of water as whatever she does seems to contradict with what the community is about.
The novel then switches focus to the head of the community, and owner of the Imber Community house, Michael Meade. Originally a teacher, he once had dreams of becoming a priest but these were destroyed by his affection for a boy called Nick Fawley a student at the school where he taught, and who told all to the head of the school to Michael’s shame.
The boy becomes a troubled man; a raging alcoholic who constantly threatens suicide, and who comes to stay at the lodge located across the lake from the Imber Community house. Nick’s twin sister Catherine is a revered member of the community as she is preparing to enter the Abby as a nun (though this appears to be against her will) and it is only for this reason that Nick and his dog Murphy are tolerated – at a distance. A situation that is torturous for Michael.
Another main character in the novel is a student called Toby Gashe who has come for a stay at Imber before going to
Oxford. Michael, during a lapse of self control, kisses Toby
briefly on the lips. The story then
follows Michael’s mental torment as he questions whether he has damaged Toby in
the same way that he believes he has damaged Nick. Toby is confused and upset at first but he
holds no animosity towards Michael as he genuinely likes him, but to prove to
himself that he is not ‘that way inclined’ he pursues Dora.
All of this takes place during an important time at Imber – the community is awaiting the delivery of a new bell. The old bell had a legend associated with it, and the telling of it captivates Dora’s imagination so when Toby informs Dora that whilst diving in the lake he believes he has found a large bell Dora hatches a plan. She and Toby will raise the old bell from the lake and exchange it for the new bell thereby creating a ‘miracle’ at the unveiling. This is a major task, but with Toby’s engineering knowledge and the help of a tractor they almost succeed……..
Dora’s character was at first charming and fun, but as the novel reaches its climax you realise that yes, one of the characters was correct when they called her a ‘bitch’. She is very self centred, using her charms only to her own advantage, and has no regard whatsoever on how the ‘miracle’ may effect those of the community.
My favourite characterisation was that of Michael Meade and the sensitive way that Murdoch dealt with his homosexuality. Consider, this novel was written in 1958 when homosexuals were whispered about, and called ‘pansies’ or ‘queers’. Murdoch does not write of Michaels feelings towards Nick or Toby as dirty or twisted but just as a different kind of love. It was beautifully handled.
There is something mystical about the whole novel; it has a certain haunting atmosphere about it, the dysfunctional community members, Michael’s recurring nightmare, and the legend of that ominous bell lurking in the background. A great read indeed.