Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, and English 20th-Century Communitarianism
‘You must read The Bell – it’s all about Frating!’ These were the words of Phoebe Lambert, recounting to me her idyllic childhood on a pacifist, back-to-the-land community at Frating Hall Farm in Essex. Established in 1943, the farm ran productively as a co-operative until 1954 and continued to be farmed afterwards by some of the original members still living there today, its rambling farmhouse, ancient barns and field system still intact, and its owners proud of their radical past. I had been put in touch with Lambert while researching 20th-century religious and back-to-the-land communities in Essex, of which there were more than most people realise, many of their stories remaining untold.
The ideal of living ‘in community’, of creating an ideal world in miniature, was an underlying leitmotif of late Victorian and 20th-century English literary culture, and was of particular interest to Iris Murdoch, author of The Bell. To my mind this is one of her best novels, being the most open to the eddying currents of belief, faith and doubt in the post-war climate of political and social reconstruction. This principally resulted from her ambivalent relationship to the Anglican faith – Peter Conradi at one point describes her as an ‘Anglo-Catholic retreatant’ - and her fascination with the monastic tradition.
As is well known, Murdoch visited Stanbrook Abbey in the Malvern Hills in July 1954 to see her friend Lucy Klatschko, and went to Malling Abbey in Kent for six days in October 1956, and was greatly stirred by both experiences. In The Bell, first published in 1958, she provided one of the most sympathetic accounts of the challenges of communal living, both in its enclosed forms (as for the nuns in the Abbey monastery itself) and in its more porous arrangements, as in the adjacent Imber Court (where a handful of residents elect to live together, while being free to leave as and when they wish). In the novel Imber Court is described as a ‘buffer state’ between the monastery and the world - in the world but not of it – which Murdoch ingeniously described as a form of ‘dual citizenship’, as we shall see.
In the 1940s, Murdoch was becoming acquainted with the work of a number of writers and religious and political thinkers seeking to find a bridge between radical politics and religious faith, often sharing an interest in creating new forms of communal life as a practical response to, or means of, ‘living in truth’. A number of these were associated with John Middleton Murry’s journal, The Adelphi. First established in 1923 to promote the work of Murry’s wife, Katherine Mansfield, and of D.H. Lawrence, in time Murry became pre-occupied with the idea of creating back-to-the-land settlements as a way of resolving the gap between political and religious ideals in a more fully realised way. This was largely inspired by the growth of the pacifist movement in the 1930s, notably in the establishment of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in 1934, led by the charismatic Anglican priest Dick Sheppard, who was looking to offer an alternative to militarism as war in Europe threatened again. At its peak in the late 1930s, more than 100,000 members has signed the PPU pledge. In his eulogy for Dick Sheppard in The Adelphi in November 1938, Max Plowman endorsed again the key role of the journal from its inception: ‘The problem was to bridge the gap, the yawning gap, between religion and politics.’
In his 1947 book The Basis of Communal Life, Orwell’s friend, the anarchist writer George Woodcock, observed that:
‘In the years before and during the war, there has been a strong movement to found communities in Britain, arising largely out of the peculiar circumstances of the British pacifist movement at the beginning of the war. The communities which arose during this period were numerous, running into several hundreds. Some lasted only a few months – others are still alive and thriving after seven or eight years. Their sizes range from two or three up to a hundred members; their theoretical approaches were equally varied, ranging from Christian mysticism to materialist anarchism, while they presented a variety of economic structures, and their functions ranged from farming units to living communities in towns, from free schools to travelling theatre groups. The majority, however, were connected in some way with agriculture.’
In 1934 Murry (who once described himself as a monk without a monastery) and Max Plowman (a former WWI veteran turned pacifist) decided to establish their own community, The Adelphi Centre, at Langham, a small village near Colchester, with support from the PPU. This was intended to be a self-sufficient small-holding and education centre, a place for meeting to discuss the urgent political and cultural issues of the day. The farming element proved something of a disaster. Its inexperienced and unreliable volunteers appear similar to the ‘proper collection of other-worldly crackpots’ described in The Bell. Murdoch gives these words to its erstwhile leader, Michael Meade, when he frustratedly suggests that is how outsiders see the residents of the Imber Court community. Nevertheless, writing of his own experience, George Woodcock described how difficult ‘making community’ could be, and very much how Murdoch imagined it:
‘When I went to Langham, I thought I might enter wholly into the community pattern of living and stay for a long time, perhaps for the duration of the war, as a kind of lay monk in a model of an ideal society. I stayed only a few months; it was a period of hope and disillusionment, of joy mingled with frustration, of intense new friendships which did not last and of bewildering hostilities with people whose ideals and aims I shared.’
In 1943, a small rump of Adelphi Centre workers and volunteers decamped to Frating Hall Farm a few miles from Langham. Murry’s project had been finally run down in response to a War Ministry decision to acquire the site for an aerodrome. The Frating landholders were pacifists, socialists, and mostly Christians, though of different denominations. Soon the community grew to more than fifty members including children, with dozens of visitors every year coming to help, particularly at harvest time. I have told this story in my book, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the Land in Wartime Britain, but here I simply want to draw attention to the philosophical and religious influences which the Frating members shared with Murdoch, and which prompted some of them to evoke Murdoch’s novel, The Bell, as an intuitive, fictional portrait of the emotional and spiritual atmosphere in such idealistic communities. In Adelphi and Frating circles, Tolstoy and Lawrence were most often mentioned in terms of inspiration, whether they were former steelworkers, First World War veterans, East Anglican Quakers, farmworkers or metropolitan bohemians and artists. Also commonly cited, and whose writings were most keenly promoted in The Adelphi, were Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber (who corresponded with the Frating community), and Simone Weil – all major influences on Murdoch, as we know.
Some of the political achievements of The Adelphi Centre were real, however. This was evident from the now-famous series of international summer schools organised in 1934, 1935 and 1936, attended by writers and thinkers such as Karl Polyani, Reinhold Niebuhr, George Orwell, Vera Brittain, and John Macmurray, all of them remembering afterwards the genuine intellectual exchanges between philosophers, theologians and political radicals, as they faced growing tensions in Europe. Brittain, a key supporter of the project, also used the Centre as a retreat, especially when hounded by growing press disapproval of her pacifist views. She too described the place as ‘something like a monastery’. Her daughter Shirley Catlin, later better known as the Labour Cabinet Minister Shirley Williams, lived at Frating for a year in 1950, working as ‘second cowman’, remembering it as one of the happiest times of her life.
Meanwhile The Adelphi journal continued to offer a platform for exploring the relationship between the religious and the secular, and the nature of ‘the Good’, both in personal and collective terms. In 1930 Murry had handed over the editorship of The Adelphi to (Sir) Richard Rees, a diplomat and writer (and volunteer ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War). A man of extraordinary humanity and good grace, and a close friend of Murry and George Orwell, Rees was the first English translator of the writings of Simone Weil, the French political activist whose life and work sought a meeting place between Marxism and mysticism, and whose writings became a major influence on Murdoch’s life and philosophy. Rees translated and edited five collections of Weil’s essays, letters and notebooks, in addition to writing a short biography and appreciation of her life and work.
During the Second World War Murdoch contributed three book reviews to The Adelphi, all concerning Christianity: ‘Midnight Hour’ (1943), ‘Rebirth of Christianity’ (1943), and ‘Worship and the Common Life’ (1944). It seems reasonable to conclude that Murdoch would have been familiar with Rees’s efforts in making Weil’s writings more widely known.
One clear difference between Murdoch’s interest in community and that of Lawrence, Murry and their followers was that she never seems to have used the expression, or shown any interest in the Tolstoyan or Lawrentian ideal, of ‘the new life’. This was a foundational aspiration of much late Victorian and early 20th-century social thought in its more experimental, fluid and imaginative forms, whether in the work of William Morris, Tolstoy, Havelock Ellis, Stella Browne, Annie Besant, Edward Carpenter and others, though it hit a brick wall once Marxism had taken hold of the academy and the radical left. No Marxist himself, George Orwell nevertheless spoke for the mainstream left when he famously wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”
In her wartime reviews for The Adelphi, Murdoch leaned towards Orwell’s quotidian realism. This was most trenchantly expressed in her 1943 (Jan-March) review of Nicodemus’s book Midnight Hour, where she dismisses the Christian pre-occupation with a transcendentalism that ‘turns its face utterly from this world as from a place of unrelieved filth and corruption’, reminding the reader that ‘the problem of the “return to the Cave” remains a very real one for Christianity’. By the ‘return to the Cave’ she was adapting Plato’s metaphor to challenge the Christian pre-occupation with the life to come – along with other forms of cosmic speculation – rather than life in its everyday materiality. In her next Adelphi review (July-September 1943), she becomes even more earthbound, asserting that ‘Men are particular beings faced with a solid particular world, and no religion can be one atom of use to a tortured humanity unless it faces that world and recognises its immediate moral problems.’ Murdoch concludes therefore that ‘The fight for Christian values and the Christian way of life is being mainly fought at present, not by the Churches, but by progressive humanist groups, many of whom are non-Christian. If Christianity is to become a living force in this struggle, it must, whatever its speculations about another world, take a realistic grasp upon this one.’
This was fighting talk, though we must remember that war was raging across the world at this time. It leads in her final piece for The Adelphi (July-September 1944) – in a review of Eric Hayman’s Worship and the Common Life – to the formation of the intriguing concept of dual citizenship mentioned earlier. After arguing that religious language fails to articulate the challenges of ‘the common life’, Murdoch suggests that ‘Christians are realising now, more intensely than for some time past, the difficult implications of a dual citizenship.’ These difficulties, which arise from the gap between worldly engagement and spiritual retreat, are precisely the ones experienced by the residents of Imber Court, and which by the end of The Bell remained unresolved. She may also have had in mind one of Weil’s aphorisms: ‘To desire truth is to desire direct contact with reality.’
Yet in writing the story of the Frating Hall Farm community, it is evident that some if not all of its members found a viable way of asserting their own ‘dual citizenship’, both being in the world while cleaving to a set of idealistic beliefs (which were remembered long after). In a letter written to his daughter, Kate Weaver (née Howard), in 1962, founder member Trevor Howard likened one of the farm collective meetings to those described in Murdoch’s novel: ‘I was most interested in Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Bell’ how much their general meeting was like ours …’ he wrote, before adding in conclusion a paragraph about the unforgettable joy there had been while living ‘in community’:
‘[I]t was about all in the singing and those roped in from outside and to a much lesser extent in the plays, that the community really shone and of course all its forces were gathered together for the great Harvest Festivals in the barn with its wonderful decorations. Hugh Davison preaching like a prophet sent from God, and a galaxy of stars in the very threshold of stardom as singers, instrumentalists and conductors – the suppers, the services, the post supper activities. I don’t think we will ever see days like those again and I thank God for the privilege of having been part of them.’
Because Frating was not a closed community, but open to others who shared the community's values and ambitions, many of those transformative moments of congregation and reflection were experienced by dozens of others. One of them, Mary Duncan, kindly wrote to me of her memories of that time, when ‘For four or five summers – I cannot exactly remember the dates – during the war and its immediate aftermath, I went to Frating to help with the harvest.’ At the end of a long, appreciative letter she concluded:
‘There were spats and fall outs among us but in our leisure hours harmony prevailed. We used to sit together in the drawing room if nothing else was going on, reading our books – George Orwell, Herbert Read, Reinhold Niebuhr, or something a bit lighter. This is rather a rosy account and, as I was only around in the summer, an incomplete one. But I remember a sense of family, the connectedness of people which was a fundamental aspect of the community – people who were thoughtful, responsible, caring, often merry. But all of them as I recall, were serious people, people of conviction and humanity.’
There were, and still are, similar communities in Essex, all exploring these profound questions in different ways: how we live with each other and the world in more mutually supportive ways. Today’s communities are now more likely to evolve through a shared commitment to living more sustainably with the natural world, and for some the Christian ethos remains important for this endeavour too. Close to Frating as the crow flies, you will find the Othona community. Established in 1945 by a former RAF padre, Norman Motley, the intention was to bring British and German Christians together in a spirit of reconciliation after the catastrophe of the Second World War. It began by occupying a small group of abandoned military Nissen huts tucked behind the sea-wall at Bradwell on the Blackwater Estuary, close to the seventh-century chapel of St Peter-on-the Wall. Still thriving today, it continues to expand as a retreat for those seeking short periods of quiet and reflection, and around 1,500 people come each year – men, women, families and children – to find a place of solitude on the saltmarshes of the Dengie Peninsula in a small settlement of huts, tepees, and administration and meeting rooms.
As Othona has expanded, its spiritual remit has widened to include reconciliation with the natural world around it. The campus now runs off-grid, generating its own power and recycling its own waste; the new dormitory block was constructed on site from the clay excavated beneath. One final thought: perhaps those who got most out of living at Frating, and those coming to Othona since, were children. In addition to the care provided by their parents, the Frating children dwelt in a world in which all the adults shared to some degree a responsibility in their upbringing, and they remembered this as something unique and special. In whatever way in which one tries to create community, thought must be given to how it is handed on.
For more on Frating, follow this link: https://peacenews.info/node/9934/lost-history-frating-hall-farm
Ken Worpole is a writer and social historian, His most recent book is No Matter how Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the Land in Wartime Britain (Little Toller Books, 2021).