23 November 2023By Elizabeth WhittomeBlog

Re-reading early Murdoch: An Unofficial Rose

Recently a painting by Klimt was sold at auction by Sotheby’s to a private collector for a record amount, something in excess of £83 million. Few individual objects have the capacity to stir public interest in such a dramatic way, mostly disapprobation at the absurd valuation and private ownership of one artwork (but also imaginative speculation of the ‘what would I do with such a windfall?’ kind). In Murdoch’s sixth novel (1962) – a profound, poignant and finely wrought tragi-comedy – the sale of a painting at Sotheby’s, a Tintoretto, releases a great deal of money to an egotistical philanderer, Randall Peronett, who will spend the loot on securing his beautiful would-be mistress. This ‘gorgeous valuable trouble-making object’, as Murdoch describes the painting, forms the symbolic and real nexus of the novel, since it focuses the complex plot development, exploration of individual motives and manipulations and ultimately represents the ambiguity, beauty and unattainability of art itself in its relationship with nature and human nature.

But to re-read is not only to be swept up in thematic concerns. Once again, we are captivated by Murdoch’s genius as a novelist. If we have become used, some 60+ years later, to a restricted range of fashionable cultural concerns viewed through the narcissistic prism of semi-memoir, then re-absorption into Murdoch’s writing can be rich stuff indeed. Here are empathetic insights, exquisitely painted scenes of landscapes, great houses, contrasting interiors of rooms and flats, sharply calibrated dialogue and memorable symbolism (the roses, the painting, the dolls, the cat’s return…), not to mention many moments of delighted laughing aloud. Enthralled from first to last, we are joyfully reminded that Murdoch’s style enables and enriches.

When you pick up the volume to begin reading again, its title instantly alerts you to a particular character focus: Ann Peronett, long-suffering wife, described early in the novel by her husband Randall, who longs for more definite shape in his life, ‘form, structure, will, something to encounter’. He sees her as ‘as messy and flabby and open as a bloody dog-rose’ (not exactly a paraphrase of the Brooke poem from which the ‘English unofficial rose’ quotation derives). Halfway through the novel in Chapter 17, Felix Meecham, Ann’s long-time admirer, reflects on her as ‘the ideal English woman’, his friendship with her ‘a place of security, a sort of permanent house, an English house for a wandering man’. Arising from the title, these two different focuses – the artistically formless and the quintessentially English – inform Murdoch’s exploration of the central art and love themes in the novel as well as the perhaps less noticeable ones of life’s journeys and voyages, literal and metaphorical, and what we might call today English exceptionalism, our awareness of which Murdoch heightens through her portrayal of the young Australian Penn and of Marie-Laure, Felix’s French lover.

In direct opposition to Felix, Ann’s husband Randall believes that Ann’s lack of distinctive form ‘destroys [his] imagination, all the bloody footholds’. And a little later, after he has shamelessly engineered a flight to London, we hear that he ‘saw her indeed as the incarnate spirit of the Negative’; ‘so deadeningly structureless, so utterly lacking in significance’. Ann herself believes she is ‘shapeless and awkward’, with further self-reflection near the end of the novel: ‘She had had no act at all of her own, she had been … a thought almost in someone else’s mind.’ In the reader’s mind she may be a sympathetic character, but she is not a dynamic one. Unlike most of the other characters, she lacks volition. Kind, unselfish, hardworking Ann, an undoctrinaire Christian, is not at all charismatic or manipulative and at times seems to me like one of those mathematical ‘illusory figures’ whose shape is defined only by the presence of a surrounding context of other, more solid forms. Her goodness is thus seen as a kind of negative capability, and this could perhaps be considered dull. (However, her kindness to the young Australian grandson Penn, for example, prefigures the much more developed and anything but dull relationship of Harriet and Luca in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, twelve years later than this novel.) When Murdoch tells Frank Kermode that she thinks An Unofficial Rose is ‘not a very good book’, we may well feel she is wrong: she does return triumphantly, and perhaps more satisfyingly, to the virtues of goodness and unselfishness in later novels.

How much easier it was to focus goodness onto an acknowledged epitome of virtue, a religious figure such as the selfless Abbess in The Bell with her wise words to Michael Meade about love. The cleric here who advises Ann, the Reverend Douglas Swann, aptly described by Murdoch herself in her television interview with Frank Kermode as ‘soppy’, and in the first chapter by Hugh, Ann’s father-in-law, as ‘certainly absurd’, verges on caricature (with his wife, Claire, well beyond the verge!).This is the worthy, sententious Anglican priest with his insistence on fidelity: ‘The marriage bond is an indissoluble mystical union of souls’, he tells Ann (though it is rumoured he has more than a pastoral interest in her). Yet his insistence that ‘being good is a state of unconsciousness’ certainly supports Murdoch’s exploration of Ann’s nature as one which offers no hard-edged ‘invigorating presence of shapely human will’ against which her husband can brace himself. Ann is unquestionably a human of a more recognisable kind, her ‘messiness’ and uncertainty quite opposite to the fierce will of her husband and daughter, as well as to the distant beauty and perfection of art, manifested in the Tintoretto painting as well as the perfect roses created in the nursery and, in Randall’s eyes, their human embodiment, his mistress Lyndsay Rimmer.

Lyndsay is set against Ann thematically, in one of those binary oppositions of characterisation loved by Murdoch. She is almost always seen through the prism of Randall’s devotion and Emma’s possessiveness and never afforded any narrative focalisation in a novel where six characters enjoy this to a greater or lesser extent (one could also include the letters of Sally and Marie-Laure in this list to make eight). A beauty who resembles Diane de Poitiers (who, I recall, was poisoned by ingesting too much liquid gold to maintain the beauty of her hair), she is what the infatuated Randall believes to be his ‘good, that towards which his whole being magnetically swung’. When we first meet Lyndsay, she has a halo of golden light round her head, and in Randall’s observation of her we see clearly the contrast with Ann: ‘She was shapely and complete; and like a kaleidoscope, like a complex rose, her polychrome being fell into an authoritative pattern which proclaimed her free.’ (The experienced Murdoch reader is immediately alerted to a number of danger signals here!) Randall’s reaction to her, though, is quite different: ‘With the passion of the artist which he now increasingly felt himself to be he adored Lyndsay’s awareness, her exquisite sense of form’. But Randall’s reputation as artist thus far in the novel rests upon his supposed charisma, together with a few ‘unregarded’ plays. His ‘small genius’ as a horticulturalist creating new roses, for which the Peronett nurseries have become famous, has stalled and they are in any case described as of ‘metallic pink’ and inferior to the old French roses. (Notably, it is Ann’s ‘science’ and Ann’s ‘business sense’ upon which the nurseries now depend, we are told, though this is never elaborated by Murdoch.) The relationship between the natural and the hybridised has long been a literary theme – one recalls Andrew Marvell’s 'The Mower against Gardens' and Alexander Pope’s ‘Nature still, but Nature methodised’ in An Essay on Criticism. The roses may be works of created art, but they are also natural and thus mortal and perishable. Lyndsay’s golden glow is, on the other hand, more akin to the subject of the painting by Tintoretto which Hugh sells to allow his son the freedom he desires. Murdoch bases this imaginary work on the famous ‘Susannah and the Elders’, suggesting it as an earlier version: the golden figure of Susannah behind the rose screen and the lascivious male gaze providing a particularly apt symbol of Randall’s mistress. It is gloriously described by Murdoch as Mildred gazes at it in Hugh’s flat. ‘The Tintoretto glowed upon her with a jewelled beneficence. It lighted the room now like a small sun.’ Lyndsay’s inadequacy as a great authoritative and enabling art object is, however, gradually exposed, easily foreseen by the reader absorbing Murdoch’s clues throughout – her shallow egotism, lack of education or background, her lies and so on, not to mention her ambiguous relationship with Emma Sands and even her casual dislike of roses. Randall himself is not so besotted that he loses all perception: he is almost undone in the great scene of the telephone call to Grayhallock when Ann answers and Randall is sharply recalled to the real world, almost paralysed by the sound of her voice on the line. His awareness of the fantasy world he has subscribed to is wonderfully described by Murdoch, coming up against the real and unmanned by it. The passage focuses the poetry of the fantasy love affair perfectly.

‘Then in a second it occurred to him that simply by saying ‘Ann’ he could make his whole palace of dreams vanish away and end the days of his soft enslavement perhaps forever. If he but spoke her name they would magically disappear, the cushions and the sherbert, the tinkling bells and the gay-plumaged birds, the golden collars and the curving blades.’

Later in the novel, satiated in Rome, we see him tiring slightly of Lyndsay and are reminded of Swinburne’s 'Before Parting': ‘A month or twain to live on honeycomb/ Is pleasant; but one tires of scented time’. It will not be long before Randall moves on. His earlier longing for the apparently unattainable has morphed into an incipient disillusion now that he has achieved what he wanted, a disillusion produced by a growing awareness of his own inadequacy; unlike Lyndsay, who has now grown into her role of ‘a great lady’ with a ‘boldly spread and finely articulated wing’, clearly gaining ascendance over Randall. Reflecting on his own dissatisfaction, lying awake in a Rome dawn, his ‘slovenly darkened self’ offers a kind of consolation; ‘The world is large and there are other women in it besides Lyndsay.’ So much for Hugh’s grand gesture!

What struck me forcibly coming to the novel again was that, running concurrently just beneath the surface, other concerns are developing here, intimately connected with, but beyond, the ubiquity of love and perhaps rather obviously managed art themes. Part 1 begins with the magnificent funeral scene, reported through the widower Hugh’s eyes, offering a comment on every member of the family in attendance. The novel ends with Hugh hopefully enroute to India with Mildred and Felix. Death, illness or infirmity do haunt the novel: from Fanny’s and Steve’s deaths from cancer and polio, to Emma Sands’ heart failure and Hugh’s many elderly ailments, frequently referred to. The Second World War deepens the background subtly too, with Felix’s experiences as a colonel in Singapore and the German dagger as a symbol of violence and disruption.

At the end of the novel only Ann is left in England, with Hugh and Mildred on a passenger boat to India with Felix (meeting his French mistress again); Humphrey (Mildred’s husband) to his own consolations in Rabat; Penn back in Australia; and Randall in Europe with Lindsay. Miranda will leave to join her father as soon as she can and Emma, in spite of a new companion, is ailing and moving towards the ultimate voyage. The sense of movement, of journeying, poignantly characterises the end of the novel; but leaving England, leaving Ann, the English rose, reminds us of wider historical precedents, suggesting the history of travel, of colonisation and awkward relationships with foreigners, even those originally from just across the Channel. A reader in 2023 may consider how deep-rooted the symbol of the English rose is at a time of possibly isolationist thought today, when there is such prevalent cultural re-examination of Englishness. Murdoch shows a prescient sense that there is perhaps a need to hybridise, to re-invigorate English exceptionalism.

Supporting this is Murdoch’s characterisation of the young Australian grandson Penn, who is afforded many focalised chapters. He is an outsider, allowing critical comment on the middle-class privilege and casually superior Englishness of the Peronett establishments from someone with a more egalitarian upbringing (who is, for example, shocked to find servants in the household.) Sally, Randall’s sister and Penn’s mother, is vividly characterised in her lively, rambling, warm-hearted letters to her father, Hugh. Randall is scathing about her and Australia – ‘a meaningless place’ – and several characters are snobbish about Penn’s accent. Miranda’s spiteful rant in Chapter 29 expresses this in extreme form: ‘you’re boring and ugly and stupid and we all want you to go away … Go back to beastly boring Australia’. (We know from other novels that Australia is frequently used by Murdoch as a place of flight, of refuge, representing a new chapter in the lives of some characters.) In the Kermode interview Murdoch describes Penn as ‘the good child’ – affectionate and loyal to his family, astonished at the goings-on in the Peronett family by comparison. When the wealthy Emma Sands, Hugh’s former lover, comes to Grayhallock to see for herself the inner workings of her surrogate family and to talk to its younger members, she chooses the grandchild Penn as the main beneficiary of her will, rather than Miranda, Ann and Randall’s daughter, for whom she professes dislike, which the reader may well share.

Enhancing the theme of English exceptionalism foregrounded in Penn is the unseen character Marie-Laure, Felix’s former French lover, described predictably as a ‘frog’ by his sister Mildred, in keeping with the almost xenophobic attitude to outsiders suggested by Murdoch in the novel. But Felix is himself more complex than he seems at first sight. Anthony Nuttall, in his introduction to the 2000 Vintage Classics edition, describes him as the ‘good soldier’ of the book, and when Felix finally leaves Ann, he reflects that ‘he was paying the penalty, he knew it even then, for being an officer and a gentleman.’ However, in Chapter 17, the first time the novel’s narrative is focalised on Felix, we find that he has had plenty of sexual affairs in various parts of the world and that these relationships had ‘something of the brutality of the soldier and the complacency of the sahib’. Perhaps not quite such an officer and gentleman after all, when it comes to those outside the middle-class English sphere! Marie-Laure, with whom he had a passionate affair in Singapore, fascinated and attracted him deeply, even disturbing his generally reserved nature. The letter which she writes him asking for clarification of their relationship is, in its tone, in complete opposition to the discourse which he shares with Ann. In her way she is as opposed to Ann’s characterisation, as is Lyndsay. We only meet her through her letter, but it is enough. Marie-Laure is openly ardent, committed, loving. She would like to marry him, he knows that. ‘Mon beau Felix, je ne veux pas mourir à force d’être raisonnable’. However, I find it interesting that in formulating Marie-Laure’s letter in French, Murdoch uses the ‘vous’ form rather than ‘tu’. Lovers, family and intimates would normally use ‘tu’ to each other as ‘vous’ is for plurals and for those one does not know well. However, ‘vous’ can be used for superiors and, in family situations, for those for whom you have a great deal of respect, an acknowledgement of their authority, their dominance.(‘Je vous aime de tout mon etre, je desire vous épouser, etre avec vous pour toujours’.) She is passionate, but respectful. Felix’s eventual commitment to her seems, on balance, to be a positive move towards a more expressive mode of being for him, and an acceptance of the value of difference, of diversity, within a comedic conclusion to the novel for many of the characters.

In addition to Hugh, Penn and Felix, focalised episodes are given to Ann, Randall and Mildred, the latter sympathetically portrayed with ‘nothing grossly predatory’ in her ‘apprehension of the things about her’. Unlike Miranda. Just one episode is given to Miranda’s perspective, very near the end of the novel, where her manipulations are laid bare. Murdoch does not elaborate sympathy for Miranda, save briefly in the bird-feeding graveyard scene where one is aware of her devotion for her lost brother Steve. Letters from Penn’s mother Sally, Hugh’s Australian daughter, and Marie-Laure, Felix’s former lover, allow further insight, as we have seen. The characters of Emma Sands and Lyndsay Rimmer, however, remain opaque and are conveyed through dialogue, together with the observations of Randall and Hugh, both of whom are, in their different ways, overwhelmed by the power of these women and inclined to make of them something mythical, magical even, supporting once again Murdoch’s exploration of the transformative power of passion.
On re-reading, we may feel that in many ways, Hugh is the main character of the novel, Murdoch using him sympathetically as an observer of Peronett family affairs as well as the actor whose sale of the painting propels the plot. He is, however, not a man of subtle perceptions either of himself or others, and much of the ironic humour of the novel comes from his naivety and unawareness – but the reader does see through his often-obtuse conclusions. He is sure no one knew of his past affair with Emma, for example. The Chapter 10 dialogue between himself and the normally acute Mildred is painful but funny, since he is unaware of her feelings for him, and she is drawing quite the wrong conclusions from his confession. (What a gift this skilfully written scene would be for a pair of accomplished actors in a play version of the novel!) He is later manoeuvred very effectively by the more focused Randall towards the proposal to sell the painting, imagining that an Emma stripped of her companion Lyndsay will be ripe for renewed wooing and that he will somehow expiate his own timidity twenty years previously, when he left her to remain with his wife. He is, of course, quite wrong. On her part, Mildred reasons with herself that if Hugh sells the painting and gives the money to Randall, she may lose Hugh to Emma, but would free Ann, Randall’s wife, to be wooed by her brother Felix who has been in love with her for some time, but is too gentlemanly to act upon this feeling while she is still married to Randall. Mildred is wrong too. (At points like this, one is reminded of Malcolm Bradbury’s delightful parody of Murdoch in The Faber Book of Parodies!) But Murdoch’s discerning sympathy towards these two characters is evident, and surely shared by readers, whether today or 60 years ago.

As with all of us, their efforts to make things happen are frustrated by the contingent world: by the will of others, by chance, by misfortune. When they finally begin their journey to India at the end of the novel, Hugh is no more perceptive than before: he observes Mildred looking radiant and youthful and thinks he must have ‘mis-remembered’ her hair colour: ‘her hair seemed less grey, in fact hardly grey at all’! Adding to the sense of a conventional happy ending is Mildred’s news that her daughter is engaged to be married, against all expectation. When Hugh thinks of Randall, he imagines that no one knew how Randall had acquired sufficient money to take off with Lindsay. ‘It had been his own private coup, his own privately arranged alteration to the fact of the world, the beautiful, extravagant, feckless setting of Randall free.’ He has conveniently forgotten Emma’s agency in this matter, as well as the realities of his son’s disposition. When Felix asks after Ann, Hugh describes her as ‘Gay in her own little way. She’s quite a bouncy little person really.’ He is oblivious, unaware to the last that Ann will remain a loss for Felix, as he will be for her, in spite of his new direction with Marie-Laure; or of the emptiness in Ann left by Randall’s departure.

What then, is the defining impression left on us, the re-readers as we reach the novel’s conclusion? As always, this will be in the light of our own intervening experiences. For some of us, the gap between readings may be a half-century or more, making this novel peculiarly relevant. It provides a meditation on time, on the journey of life, offering an acute examination of the unsatisfactory past lives and choices of some of the characters, enshrined in their memories. The various effects of this process on their present situations and the desperate attempts they make to return to past missteps and shape the future to suit what they imagine to be their present desires, provide both a sense of poignancy in the face of ageing and loss and, additionally, a thread of mostly sympathetic humour throughout, as the novel moves to its conclusion. The lively Mildred’s attempt to use the olfactory sense (Citronella) to stir Hugh’s memory of the kiss on the bridge and his unawareness of her agency stirs our sympathy for both of them. Volition is often accompanied by manipulation in this novel: a number of characters working hard through persuasion and other means to make things happen in the future which would be to their advantage, usually, but not always, selfishly. The reader is made aware of a nuanced exploration of the difference between attempted manoeuvring and outright scheming, particularly in those characters who are awarded a narrative focalisation. The late chapter exposing Miranda’s skilful machinations is a revelation, one which reminds us of Murdoch’s openness to love in all its forms – you can be in love as a child and it can be distorting as well as enabling.

Without this narrative underlining, who knows to what extent Emma Sands is an enchanter figure who directs events? Is she a kind of Prospero character as Nuttall argues? Certainly, there are clues – Randall thinks of her as ‘the impresario’ of his passion. She claims that she ‘invented’ the passion of Randall and Lyndsay, perhaps as revenge on the Peronett family for her past hurt, and she undeniably gathers around her the surrogate family she was never allowed to embrace by Hugh’s leaving his wife. And, like Prospero, she is looking toward her death. She is, in my view however, a more sympathetic than sinister figure, who has been wronged, the narrative gradually reinforcing the damage inflicted when Hugh broke off their affair. She has apparently compensated for the deficiencies in her life by becoming a very successful writer of detective stories, whose complex plots certainly provide a rich field for manipulations and surprises of the superficial kind enjoyed in that genre (something of an ironic surrogate Murdoch, perhaps!). These stories have enabled her to acquire a series of younger devoted companions as well as to become very wealthy. She will leave the bulk of these riches to her surrogate grandson Penn in an inversion of the Hugh/Randall bequest: another element of the comedic ending to the novel. And, we must not forget, the Tintoretto is, happily, now in the National Gallery: not the property of a private collector, but an enduring treasure rightly to be enjoyed by the whole world.

An Unofficial Rose suggests that much of the manipulation attempted by characters will be fruitless: life will turn out in unexpected and random ways, but there is some poetic justice and optimism at the end, offering acceptance, hope and, if not rejuvenation, certainly endurance and survival. Here is surely one of Murdoch’s most moving final sequences, echoing the wording of the funeral service in Chapter 1. Hugh walks out onto the deck and looks over the rail.

The black empty water surrounded them, the old eternal preoccupied ruthless sea … What hold had one on the past? The present moment was a little light travelling in darkness … meanwhile there was now, the wind and the starry night and the great erasing sea … O spare me a little that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more seen … It was time to go in now. Mildred would be waiting for him.

And An Unofficial Rose is waiting for you to read it again.

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