18 July 2023By Elizabeth WhittomeBlog

The Sandcastle (Re-reading Early Murdoch)

Fifty-four years ago I received a letter from Iris Murdoch – a blue flimsy Aerogramme (since I lived in Africa), and handwritten. She had replied to my request by what must have been return of post, judging from the postmark. I was delighted, since I’d used the vaguest of addresses in Oxford for my letter to her (Iris Murdoch, novelist, Oxford, as I recall - not a city I had ever been near at that time.) Naïve and enthusiastic post-grad student as I was, it had not occurred to me to go through intermediaries like agents or publishers.

murdoch letter

At the time, it seemed to me admirably generous, a promise of help should I need it, though she must surely, by 1969 and 13 published novels, have received many missives like my own. In retrospect, though, the oxymoron of ‘fairly precise’ and the somewhat tentative ‘I will attempt to answer’ strike me as interestingly equivocal and perhaps typically Murdochian. ‘Fair’ is such an ambiguous word, suggesting just and beautiful at one end of the scale, but more obviously redolent of those old-fashioned school reports, where one’s work was Poor or Fair or Good or even Excellent (oh, rare accolade). Fair was definitely ‘middling’.

And the irony strikes me now, returning to her early novels, of how ‘fair’, how merely ‘middling’, the critical reception was of the third of these – The Sandcastle (1957). Typical comments included: ‘A straightforward novel’, a ‘simple plot’, ‘a conventional love affair of middle age’, a ‘boring schoolmaster is trapped by his mediocrity’ and so on. The New York Times reviewer in May 1957 didn’t even have one of the character’s names right: Millicent instead of Felicity. For this was, and remains, a work strangely underestimated by so many commentators, including my younger self, I now believe. (I remember skating over it quickly to concentrate on The Bell.) After the jeu d’esprit of Under the Net and the magic realism of Flight from the Enchanter, whose wide range of elements clearly looks ahead to the later novels, The Sandcastle may, admittedly, seem an aberration, a sideways throw to lighter romantic fiction: the brief affair ends and the man returns to his wife and children. It has a small cast of characters: we are far from the resourceful permutations of love and sex parodied so amusingly in Malcolm Bradbury’s ‘A Jaundiced View’ (1984), which begins: ‘Flavia says that Hugo tells her that Augustina is in love with Fred’. The main character of The Sandcastle is not a philosopher, Oxford don, senior civil servant or famous theatre director, but a schoolmaster in a lesser independent school, in a not very happy marriage, with two teenage children he can’t reach, though he is deeply attached to them. He has vague ambitions to become an MP in a safe Labour seat. We recall that this novel is from 1957, when such things were in the realm of the possible.

It is set and particularised in the middle of the 20th century, a middle-class family, a senior teacher who didn’t make the headship in a middling school, though he does evening classes for the WEA. They don’t have much money, they don’t have a car – it’s trains and bikes. Conventional Mor is even upset that Rain Carter, the young portrait painter with whom he falls in love, wears trousers. Most significantly for the plot, Nan, Mor’s wife, doesn’t work and has no ambitions for herself or her children, pouring scorn on the idea of her son going to Oxford and expecting that her daughter will go to secretarial college. She seems to spend her time in their estate house near the school sorting out laundry, fixing food and changing the furniture around (that classic sign of dissatisfaction), though she does accompany Mor to his WEA classes.

What is it, then, about this ‘middling’ novel that makes it so very much more, given an attentive reading, than a period piece, a fairly honourable defeat (the 1970 novel which Murdoch must have been writing at the time of my letter)?

Ironically, we may first have to admit to a 21st-century critical problem in any re-evaluation of The Sandcastle, for it is deeply unfashionable today to sympathise with white, middle-aged Mor as protagonist. Even in 2011 when Philippa Gregory wrote the introduction to the Vintage Murdoch edition of the novel, she criticises Mor for ‘weakness’, ‘inaction and passivity’ and lack of commitment, finding him unsatisfactory, but arguing that by the end of the novel he has ‘learned a lesson’, Nan has surrendered her power and he has embraced his destiny as an MP. ‘The love story has ended in tears, but it contains great satisfaction for the reader’: a happy ending is assured. And, Gregory asserts, ‘the real heroine is Mor’s daughter Felicity’, certainly a more fashionable 21st-century choice now.

But this is wilfully to deny the sympathy we as readers are encouraged to feel for Mor from the outset. There are 20 chapters in the novel, 17 of them focalized on Mor. In the first chapter, he has anxiously asked after the arrival of his daughter from boarding school four times; he is slapped down for it by his wife, who reveals herself as narrow, spiteful and unpleasant about other people, not just her husband and children (‘As you haven’t met the girl, why are you being so spiteful?’ says Mor). Murdoch goes on to show her protagonist as a good teacher, respected and appreciated at school, and her delicate handling of the fraught family relationships is maintained throughout the novel: Mor’s awkward inability to communicate with his son must surely strike a chord with anyone who has contended with the parallel universe inhabited by their adolescent children. What make him a loveable protagonist for the unbiased reader is his acute consciousness of his failings and inadequacies; his self-questioning (‘Am I real?' Mor wondered with a strange pang); his awareness of his clumsy missteps with his son in the face of Tim Burke’s easy intimacy, and his desire to do the best for the children in spite of Nan’s determination to have her way. This very self-reflection and tentativeness must surely encourage empathy. Equally, his reflections at the WEA on his inadequacies as a teacher, with ‘sad, guilty’ feelings about selfishly ‘putting up a show’, ‘trying to be clever’ ‘designed to impress rather than to make anything clear’ in helping adult students, are amongst the most telling and precise ever written about being a teacher and questioning one’s effectiveness.

And when Donald goes missing after his rescue from the school tower, it is surely natural to identify with Mor in his unwillingness to confront Nan with his intention to leave her for Rain. Who has not procrastinated over such weighty decisions? Far from ‘great satisfaction’ at the end, the reader feels the poignancy of the end of the affair and the tentativeness of any future happiness. Do we believe Nan has really surrendered her power after her coup de théâtre publicly declaring his candidacy at the governors’ dinner? Moreover, the terrible sentences ‘A lifetime of conformity was too much for him. He stayed where he was’ bring to a climax our awareness of the writer’s cool judgment of his situation, together with a sense of loss and uncertainty.

This formal dinner is a great scene, one of the impressive naturalistic set pieces in the novel. The characterisation of the governors is amusingly sharp, the tense mood compelling. Murdoch has a sure grasp of both the atmosphere and the physical, sometimes mechanical, details of a situation. We have earlier seen the collapse of the Riley into the river (a car based on her own much-loved Riley, according to John Bayley), an effective foretaste of the bell being pulled out of the lake by Dora and Toby in her next novel, and the recent rescue of Donald and his bosom friend Carde from the tower, elaborated in utterly convincing detail. The scenes of school life are likewise absolutely precise, with particular sensitivity to the nuances of pupils’ behaviour in, for example, Mor’s classroom or the cricket match or the Art lecture. But it is also a narrative as rich in mysterious portents and symbolism as any of her others: the gypsy who appears and disappears at key moments; the surprising and exotic atmosphere of Tim Burke’s shop with its gold and precious gems; the sultry atmosphere of the unusually hot summer; Felicity’s magic efforts at the seaside, the art exhibition of the Carters in London – all these forewarn in their various ways that any attempt by Mor to escape his humdrum life will be futile. The scenes of Mediterranean exoticism and warmth imaged at the exhibition are, for example, a world away from Mor’s ordinary life. It is not surprising that the weather in the final sequence of the novel is ‘exceedingly still and pale’.

Further, what seriously engaged reader is not impressed by the precise management of the narrative which begins on the first page with a mention of the Art master Bledyard’s opposition to portraiture and the school’s investment in flood-lighting (both of which are significant to theme and plot) and climaxes in Nan’s speech at the presentation dinner? The events of the novel in the final chapter do resolve rewardingly, but in a poignant minor key.
The novel’s density of texture resonates with Hardyesque echoes, through its misplaced letters and coincidences (though the permutations of multiple letters penned and rejected are typically Murdoch); the overheard phone conversations a reminder of what literature has lost to modern technology. No glowing phone box, no pip,pip,pip as in Miller’s A View from the Bridge or Pinter’s Betrayal. Letters dropped and misplaced and discovered pre-date the email and text message trail we are now accustomed to, but provide apt symbolism: Mor is caught by both his children as well as his wife and his downfall is certain. In addition to their discoveries of his relationship, Don’s attention-seeking climb; Felicity’s magic spells and Nan’s possessive and desperate cunning all play their part. Lovers having affairs may imagine they create their own private realm but, in reality, these are rarely secret; and both the ex-headmaster Demoyte and the Art master Bledyard see Mor’s infatuation long before he himself acknowledges it.

This is also, as we come later to recognise as characteristic of her work as a whole, a narrative with a number of significant lectures, homilies or references to authorities of one kind or another all supporting the love theme by allusion to more abstract, ethical or philosophical tenets; from the Latin translation of the Elegies of Propertius to Mor’s own lecture on freedom to Evvy’s sermon on ‘God helps those who help themselves’, and Bledyard’s uncompromising homily directly to Mor. Carde’s translation in class (‘If you shall have given all your kisses, you will give too few … so for us, who now as lovers hope for so much, perhaps tomorrow’s day will close the doom’) is, in its awkwardness, an early foreshadowing of the fate which will attend upon the love affair, as yet unrealised. It’s also an example of Murdoch’s skill in capturing exactly the stilted quality of the accurate but unfluent translation which we all remember so well from our schooldays. And Mor’s own early lecture on freedom to the WEA, before he is personally tested, sounds another note of ironic forewarning: ‘If … by freedom we mean self-discipline, which dominates selfish desires, then indeed we may call a free man virtuous … To call mere absence of restraint or mere kicking over the traces and flouting of conventions a virtue is to be simply romantic’. To which one interlocutor replies, ‘Well, what’s wrong with being romantic? and another: ‘isn’t love the chief virtue?’ – objections to his high-mindedness whose validity Mor the lover will later convince himself of. The Reverend Everard’s later sermon on love reiterates Mor’s WEA point. ‘There is always, if we ponder deeply enough and are ready in the end to crucify our selfish desires, some one thing we can do which is truly for the best and truly for the good of all concerned.’ Within a few pages of this, Bledyard delivers his own homily, tackling Mor in a forthright manner, also reinforcing Mor’s earlier lecture. ‘You are living on dreams now, dreams of happiness, dreams of freedom. But in all this you consider only yourself. You do not truly apprehend the distinct being of either your wife or Miss Carter … real freedom is a total absence of concern about yourself.’ The great gulf between what one feels and what one ought to do in matters of ethical behaviour and religious faith is explored fully in her next novel, The Bell, but it is just as telling here.

Murdoch’s later novels lead us to expect the permutations of love and its ethical dilemmas, but this novel has a significant other focus, connected and equally worthy of discussion. It is centrally a novel about art and particularly portraiture; about penetrating the mystery of another’s being in order to represent it physically; about seeing another person as the ‘other’ and being able to appreciate and even love them as they really are, not as an object projected by your fantasy or their obfuscation. The portraitist must strive to penetrate this mystery, with reverence. Rain’s final repainting of Demoyte’s portrait to make the head more ‘real’, making it ‘solider, uglier’ is a vital clue; the early sketch of Mor, which she only gives to him at the end of the novel, shows Mor as a ‘young man with a strong, twisted, humorous face’ – what he might have been, perhaps, or what she would have liked him to be. However the novel also, crucially, contains a number of discussions about painting which both underpin and undermine the love story.

As early as Chapter 3, Rain Carter presents the case: ‘painting a portrait is not just a matter of sitting down and painting what we see. Where the human face is concerned, we interpret what we see more immediately and more profoundly than with any other object. A person looks different when we know him - he may even look different when we know one particular thing about him.’ A more extreme view is expressed not long afterwards in Chapter 5 when she has a dialogue at lunch with Bledyard, a chapter in which the titular symbol of the sandcastle’s disparate elements also makes its first appearance. Bledyard represents an uncompromisingly strict Christian view on portraiture, claiming that the true portrait painter should be a saint:

‘Who can look reverently enough upon another human face? … representations of Our Lord are usually not presented as if they were pictures of an individual. Pictures of Our Lord usually affect us by the majesty of the conception … Where the picture is individualised, as in Caravaggio’s rendering of Christ at Emmaus, we are shocked. We should be equally shocked at any representation of a human face.’

This sequence is carefully counterpointed by Mor’s growing irritation at being left out of the discussion and Evvy’s attempts to make his awful coffee. We are aware at once of Mor’s desire to have Rain to himself and he ends the lunch abruptly, accepting her offer of a lift even though he has come on his bicycle (which has been noted by Bledyard, whom they then see riding his own bicycle and pushing Mor’s back). This important chapter is full of warning signs, but Bledyard’s speech impediment and the humorous quality of the dialogue, characterisation and description maintains the balance between ethical/aesthetic discussion and narrative development, keeping us from seeing disaster at this early stage and, as always in Murdoch, surprising us with the juxtaposition of the naturalistic and the bizarre.

In the first four pages of Chapter 7, Murdoch focuses, uniquely in the novel, on Rain and her work. She explores Rain’s painting and the challenge of capturing Demoyte in paint. ‘Every portrait is a self-portrait … In portraying you I portray myself,’ she tells the old man, who has fallen in love with her himself. ‘When we try in a painting to realise what another person’s face is, we come back to the experience of our own.’ A little later in the same chapter Demoyte says to Mor ‘I just wonder whether you can really see her.’

Ironically we do have a number of instances in which Mor, far from being the ‘boring schoolmaster’ ‘trapped by his mediocrity’, is shown to see his wife Nan’s character and appearance very clearly. He understands her nature all too well (‘He told himself that her strength sprang only from obstinate and merciless unreason; but to think this did not save him either from suffering coercion or from feeling resentment.’) In later novels this discord will become physical aggression, but here it is suppressed. Murdoch’s vivid physical depiction slides by way of free indirect into Mor’s own: ‘She looked a tall, handsome woman, well dressed and confident. Mor looked at her with approval. In any conflict with the outside world, Nan was invariably an efficient ally.’ Then at the WEA class ‘Nan never managed to look like anything in her outdoor clothes … her coats and hats never looked quite right.’ At the governor’s presentation dinner, he ‘felt the accustomed shock at seeing her in party array’: she is smart and glamorous. It is another kind of artist – Tim Burke, the ‘Jeweller and Goldsmith’ – whose covert love for Nan allows him to see in her the potential for grandeur, for queenliness. When he puts the diamonds around her neck, Mor ‘thought it looked out of place’, but Tim says: ‘You have nothing to fear from them. A queen is the one who can wear them and a queen you are.’ He can see the regal power, the potential, which for Mor has only meant subjugation and suffering. Moreover, Murdoch prevents the reader from maintaining complete antipathy to Nan. In Chapter 12, we are focalised on her turmoil upon discovering the affair, and an exploration of her relationship with Tim Burke (a foretaste of the kind of complex love relations which are elaborated more fully in later novels). There is also, though, much humour in the depiction of this controlling and normally teetotal woman given whisky by solicitous Tim; she feels entirely drunk and incapable, being forced to climb in the window as she has forgotten her key, and trying to control her hiccups as she speaks to Mor within, keeping her distance lest he smell the whisky. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s allowing some evidence of Nan’s humanity does not detract from our impression of her crushing dominance in the relationship with her husband, who retains our sympathy.

Another example of Murdoch’s painterly approach to characterisation manifests in the way each establishes their own personality in their choice of the clothing in which they present themselves. (It has often been remarked that Murdoch revels in description of clothes. The children, here in school uniform, have yet to be in this position of free choice.) Demoyte, the former headmaster and subject of the school’s portrait commission, tries hard to prevent Rain from seeing him in his usual garb. ‘Am I to be summed up by a slip of a girl? … It’s like having a psychiatrist in the house … She shan’t know what I’m like if I can help it. These clothes are part of the game.’ The game doesn’t last long and Rain soon persuades him back into his usual attire. Rain herself is described as being like a ‘boy actor’, a Pierrot, a ‘school child dressed to impersonate a Paris street boy’. Even in smarter dresses she is very small and often depicted as child-like, inviting comparison with womanly Nan and the other child-figure in Mor’s life, his loved daughter Felicity.

The depth and range of The Sandcastle’s consideration of portraiture is unique in Murdoch’s work. Looking at portraits and seeking revelation is omnipresent – even in The Sea, the Sea (1978), Charles goes to the Wallace Collection and looks at 'The Laughing Cavalier'. Scrutiny of portraits in the National Gallery becomes an important experience for Dora in Murdoch’s next novel, The Bell (1958) and later for Paula in The Nice and the Good (1968). Henry and Cato (1976) has many references to art works. The sale of the Tintoretto in An Unofficial Rose (1962) is pivotal in narrative, characterisation and theme in that novel. Art remains an abiding theme, as in The Black Prince, but increasingly it becomes writing rather than painting. Nowhere is portraiture examined so closely as in The Sandcastle.

Here Bledyard’s end-of-term art lecture makes reference to well-known paintings in the National and other London galleries, but after only a few examples, the lecture breaks down into chaos and hilarity; the climbing of the tower outside overwhelms the action, turning comedy into potential tragedy. Nonetheless, the significant elements in the famous portraits highlighted by Bledyard in his lecture – ‘charm’, ‘power’ and ‘truth’ – are all applicable to the experience of the Carter exhibition in London to which Rain takes Mor. Bledyard never gets the chance in the chaos of the lecture to elaborate on his Shakespeare sonnet reference: ‘being as Shakespeare … put it, the lords and owners of our faces’; but it introduces the idea of physical possession of portraits and the extent to which they are surrogates for the individuals themselves. Mor is upset by the idea that a recent portrait of Rain by her father belongs to a wealthy private collector, a sharp reminder of the relationship between picture and subject, and a symbol of Rain as a desirable but essentially distant object, whose life and work have little interrelation with Mor’s own.

This concept of surrogacy is pursued at the novel’s close. Only Demoyte amongst Mor’s close associates calls him a fool for not pursuing his romance, Murdoch establishing the two as reciprocal surrogates for each other: Demoyte wants Mor to take Miss Carter away as he would like to do himself; in exchange he will act the generous parent and pay for Mor’s daughter to go to university, taking a swipe at Nan, too, whom he detests. Tim Burke shadows Mor in both his feelings for Nan and his affection for Mor’s son; Felicity steps forward to replace Rain as loved young woman. The sense that Rain has seen Mor as a father substitute has already been expressed and dismissed by the lovers and, perhaps, by the reader.

Finally, we come to the last section of the novel. If I reflect on the letter I received from Murdoch, this chapter is surely both ‘fair’ as in ‘just and beautiful’, and ‘precise’. There is nothing ‘middling’ about the writing here. Murdoch’s novels sometimes end in a painfully perfunctory manner (The Unicorn, for example), but this is no cursory denouement. The tentative quality, the compromise of the ‘happy ending’, is perfectly balanced. At first glance all the elements for this resolution are present. Rain has gone in her exotic car, leaving her two portraits of Demoyte and Mor; the gipsy has packed up and disappeared; Carde is out of the picture; the family is reunited with a promise of Mor’s parliamentary candidacy and a move to London; the children’s futures are appropriately settled and there will be a new dog for the family. (The dog is an important and affectionate symbol in Murdoch’s novels and their old pet Liffey has been a focus for shared affection and communication.)

And yet, and yet. Tim is dejected and cannot look directly at Nan; Felicity is crying alone halfway up the stairs: ‘Her eyes were filled with tears and soon they were streaming down her face … Everything was all right now. It was all right. It was all right.’ Equivocal and tentative to the very last.
This novel is 66 years away from any drab Rooney-lite admired today. It is far, I suggest, from ‘straightforward’ or ‘conventional’. It seems to me that it shows in every way all the signs of a great novelist reaching towards fulfilment of her unique powers. Murdoch concludes her essay ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ (1959) with a very expressive metaphor: ‘a novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in; and to combine form with a respect for reality with all its odd contingent ways is the highest art of prose.’ Surely we see this in The Sandcastle? Moreover, she never again explored the subject of portrait painting or indeed school-teaching in such depth, though we see in her next great novel The Bell a further development of an enclosed society with its tensions between sacred and profane love. I now suspect that the popularity and pre-eminence of The Bell have diverted attention from its entirely worthy precursor. One can see in Michael Meade a development of Mor, for example.

I never did have any questions to ask Murdoch, precise or otherwise. What would her answers matter anyway, in the light of the great complex finished works we have in our hands? But I treasure my letter.

And it’s time to read The Sandcastle again.

Bio: Elizabeth Whittome is an avid reader, and re-reader, of Murdoch. For many years she was the Chief and Principal Examiner of English for Cambridge Examinations. She has published several books on studying English at A-Level with Cambridge University Press.

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