10 February 2024By Elizabeth WhittomeBlog

Re-reading early Murdoch: Flight from the Enchanter

As you re-read Flight from the Enchanter, there are moments when you can’t stop yourself from checking its original date of publication. How could this have been written 70 years ago? A press baron trying to take over a small publication, for example? Or the opening paragraph of Chapter 25, which recounts parliamentary questions about migrants and hostile news coverage the following day? Weren’t they just last week?

All these issues are still here in 2024; and in the novel they still unsettle us profoundly, but not perhaps immediately. The novel’s iridescent surfaces entrance from the outset, diverting and luring us. A ‘spirited fantasia’, ‘elegant’, ‘sparkling’, ‘kaleidoscopic fun’ said many of the commentators, afterwards confessing to finding the novel baffling or unsatisfactory. I don’t feel it should be a baffling novel, though we certainly have to negotiate between strikingly disparate elements to see why Murdoch is so successfully thought-provoking as well as enormously entertaining. One of the first readers of the manuscript at Chatto and Windus, Norah Smallwood, aptly described it as ‘on many glorious occasions wildly funny’. It is also remarkably vivid in its physical evocations of character and incident, in a narrative impelled by powerful subterranean forces, movements, emotions. However, I find many of its immediate effects impressionistic and suggestive, without ever defining or dictating the readers’ responses to the deeper concerns.

One certainly does read it again with fascinated delight, for there are indeed many ‘wildly funny’ moments: Annette’s departure from school and her presentation of the stolen book to the school library; the lengthy scenes with Rosa, Camilla Wingfield and her companion Miss Foy; the wonderful shareholders’ meeting; as well as the satirical chapter centred on that typical civil servant Rainborough and his encounters with the ‘host of women, terrible and desirable’ at SELIB (the Special European Immigration Board), not to mention his engagement to Miss Casement’s red MG! Here and elsewhere, one is reminded of Murdoch’s gifts for both dialogue and satire. Rainborough’s attack on Annette which results in her being shut into a cupboard while he tries unsuccessfully to deter Mischa Fox, who has arrived unexpectedly, is less enjoyable. The actions in the scene are those from farce perhaps – a notoriously cruel genre - and the conversation which follows where Mischa categorises women into predatory and alluring types is unpleasantly reductive to a twenty first century reader, even though we know he is saying this for the ears of the incarcerated Annette and pandering to Rainborough with his ‘women problems’ at the office. Notably, these comedic examples all have the potential power and position of women in society at their heart: the laughter does not disguise the serious point, though, but rather renders it the more uncomfortably compelling.

It has to be admitted that this is a frequently disquieting novel, not least because its riveting narrative arc suggests that its protagonists, lively and mostly sympathetic characters, escape and are successful; whilst most minor characters are defeated, displaced or dead. Those main characters on whom Murdoch’s third person narrative focuses – Annette, Rosa, Hunter, Rainborough – have a successful flight from the enchanter: Annette, a little more mature after her adventures in ‘the school of life, then into the care of her parents and the company of her brother, in the south of France; Rosa and Hunter into freedom from the Polish brothers after the frightening power reversal, confirmation of Rosa’s relationship with Peter Saward and successful management of the Artemis; Rainborough far from Miss Casement, his work and home problems into the Cockeyne villa near St Tropez (though perhaps Marcia Cockeyne has the potential to be another enchanter figure!)

(One central concern of the novel, and the pivot of its action, is clearly of its time and not of the 21st century, however: the attitude to Rosa’s ménage à trois with the Lusiewicz brothers and the photographic record of this. It might raise an eyebrow today, but would not be the scandalous destruction of reputation and integrity suggested in this novel of the fifties.)

Meanwhile, a sense of fragmentation or dissolution more deeply affects the minor characters, many of whom, interestingly, do not benefit from the narrator’s close focus. By the end of the novel, the Polish brothers Stefan and Jan have parted and disappeared, Peter Saward has abandoned his scholarly research, Miss Casement has been swiftly shrugged off and, most disturbingly, Nina the dressmaker has committed suicide. The brothers and Nina are central European immigrants and it is suggested that Mischa is too. Stefan tells Rosa that their village in Poland is destroyed ‘Hitler break it. Shoot at it then burn it. Nothing left.’ When they describe the suicide of the schoolteacher, he adds ‘Because Hitler’, prompting Rosa’s question about whether she was Jewish. Jan adds that she was perhaps a gipsy: ‘Hitler not like gipsies either.’ This brief dialogue is full of implication of the effects of the fairly recent war. There are other passing references to casual xenophobia too. Mrs Wingfield tells Rosa she is as ‘rich as a Jew’ and Miss Foy is worried that Rosa is a gipsy trying aggressively to sell her wares at the door: both conventional and unthinking tropes, behind which loom the dark shadow of the Holocaust. First readers of the novel would have been little more than a decade away from this, while those now reading again have their understanding rekindled by recent events in the Middle East and Ukraine. Pinned down by the will of Mischa Fox, treated as a necessary but contemptible inferior by Annette, and thoughtlessly sidelined by Rosa, poor Nina dreams of escape to Australia (Murdoch’s familiar place of hope and refuge) but is ensnared by being born ‘the wrong side of the line’ with its political effects - the question in parliament - and despairingly takes her own life by jumping out of a high window. The readers’ response to these complex characters is a mixed one. We feel for Nina and for Peter Saward, both afforded sympathetic narrative attention by Murdoch, unlike Miss Casement (who is not a lovable character) or Jan and Stefan (described by some commentators as ‘evil’) who are certainly coercive, threatening and predatory. We are never allowed to feel an over-riding sympathy for them simply because of their unfortunate situation. These three characters are all damaged by deprivation of different kinds and the effect is to make them to a greater or lesser extent dangerous (ambiguity of response is explored more thoroughly in later works, for example A Fairly Honourable Defeat where Julius’s incarceration in Auschwitz is suggested to be at the root of his Iago-like machinations.) Mischa too has evidently suffered, though this is not explored fully in the novel, but the burden of alienation is used to confirm his ambiguous nature as well as for a wide range of the other dispossessed in this work.

In spite of Murdoch’s comments in Against Dryness, this novel uses symbolism extensively (some might feel excessively) to intensify these concerns and characterisations. Peter Saward’s research, obsessively and meticulously pursued but ultimately discredited, represents the search for knowledge and truth which is manifested by all the characters in the novel beginning with Annette and her confidence in discovering things from the School of Life and Rosa’s attempts to instil knowledge in the Polish brothers which backfires so spectacularly. Saward’s research is fruitless and we are left ultimately with Calvin Blick’s claim that ‘[We] will never know the truth…and will read the signs in accordance with [our] deepest wishes…. Reality is a cipher with many solutions, all of them right ones.’ (Re-readers today may well feel that they can’t entirely endorse this view, especially in the light of some simplistic contemporary claims that ‘The truth is what I say it is’.)

Another thread of images illuminates the contrast of wealth and deprivation in the novel: the reduced living arrangements of many of the secondary characters. The brothers live in one shabby room with their old mother; Nina too lives and works in one room, significantly on the top floor of a large building. Miss Casement, in spite of her ability and ambition, has a one-room apartment. ‘It had …not occurred to [Rainborough], though he knew that some unfortunate people had to do it, that Miss Casement lived in one room.’ These characters are all hard-working in their various fields, but they are far from the property-owning middle classes. Mischa Fox may be an immigrant but his power and influence are supported by evident wealth and he, like Annette’s parents (her father recently ennobled), flits around the world at will and uses others coercively to do his bidding. (This focus may be particularly relevant to the contemporary reader, since the super-rich have been growing in power for half a century now.)

The dichotomy of freedom and limitation is supported stylistically by a plethora of images of confinement, not least in the publishers’ pictorial presentation of the novel. I have looked back with interest at the different covers provided for Flight from the Enchanter throughout its publication and re-publication since 1956: they are divided between Annette’s swinging on the chandelier and the fish swimming in the fish tank at Mischa’s party. These too provide us with abiding contradictory images which are suggestive or symbolic of the characters in the novel: of movement, followed by escape and freedom; and of entrapment often followed by fragmentation. But on the novel covers, the fish are still moving in spite of their containment in the fish bowl; breaking their glass at the party ensures a horrible death for them. And there are many other similarly distressing instances of animal suffering and death in the novel, a motif which is introduced on the first page with the passage about the Minotaur in Dante’s Inferno. (‘It was not the Minotaur’s fault that he had been born a monster’ thinks Annette, who, we are soon reminded, is often shown ‘without a thought in her head’ or simply meditating on her extensive wardrobe.) At the end, the lizard which loses its tail symbolises perhaps Rosa’s escape from Mischa in his Italian villa, damaged but with potential for further growth away from him.

In contrast to metaphors of confinement and restriction, images of movement crowd these pages, animating the narrative. In Chapter 1, Annette memorably swings on the chandelier creating ‘a very high and sweet tinkling sound … which you would expect a wave of the sea to make if it had been immobilised and turned into glass’ (Annettes’ life we are later told ‘had always been full of agitation and clatter’); when she leaves school she runs down the road ‘in a kaleidoscope of whirling colours’. Rosa is shown running to work and responding to the rhythm and clatter of the machine she calls Kitty in the factory, which resembles the sewing machine monster in Nina’s nightmare; Rosa typically does a kind of dance in Peter Saward’s room; the Polish brothers often prance about at home ‘in a strange frenzy of excitement’ calling for their mother’s death; the dancing at Mischa’s party degenerates into the smashing of the fish bowl and the wrestling on the floor of Rosa and Annette. Rainborough’s earlier attack on Annette is prefaced by his image of wild fish swimming freely before they are killed: ‘At one moment there is the fish – graceful, mysterious, desirable and free – and the next moment there is nothing but struggling and blood and confusion. If only, he thought, it were possible to combine the joys of contemplation and possession.’ This images many of the novel’s sexual encounters, foreshadowing similar power struggles in Murdoch’s later work.

The contrast between movement and stasis is also central to the motif of photography in the novel. The still photograph, with its supporting negatives, taken with a camera not a smartphone of course, and developed in the old fashioned dark-room, captures a moment and preserves it permanently – a historical record of a moment of action that happened, evidence of the past ready to influence the present, capable of exerting coercion. Calvin Blick shows Hunter the lens of his camera: ’this is the truthful eye that sees and remembers’ just before using Hunter to help him to develop the incriminating photo of his sister Rosa, in a melodramatic flourish.

This sexually compromising photograph of Rosa in the arms of the Lusiewicz brothers is central to the narrative; its photographer is appropriately the seedy Calvin Blick, described as ‘the dark half of Mischa Fox’s mind’, who produces pornographic pictures from his inner pocket at will: pictures which fix women in reductive misogynistic images. But this is a novel which frequently shows women’s capability and resourcefulness, for example Rosa’s efforts to educate the brothers; the reference of the former suffragettes as major players in the narrative or the army of efficient Personal Assistants who run SELIB. It seems that the photo is intended to bring pressure to bear on Rosa to influence the sale of the Artemis to Mischa, or, perhaps more likely, to exact revenge ‘a carefully-thought-out reprisal’ for her refusal of his marriage proposal ten years earlier. Yet photographs can also serve more positively, such as Annette’s staring at the picture of her beloved brother ‘as into a mirror’ and as catalysts for memories of the past: the dauntless Camilla Wingfield as a beautiful young woman, or chained to the railings, for example, reminds us of the situation of women in society, still compromised today. Those images researched and retained by Peter Saward for Mischa to reify his childhood haunts are touchingly described. Mischa exclaims: ’How astonishing photographs are! There is a thing in my heart which these pictures touch and which will soon be restored to me….What a miracle it is to feel that, after all, nothing dies.’ How ironic from the man who has killed animals and perhaps human beings, however indirectly! These same pictures end the novel more ambiguously as a kind of emblem of Rosa’s situation. Has she escaped from the enchanter by acknowledging that he not only knows all about the Lusiewicz photograph but ordered it to be taken? Apparently obeying Mischa by making an offer of marriage to Peter which he refuses? (‘Some god or demon makes you say it but you don’t really want it’) or is she still in thrall? The photograph as weapon of inducement or even blackmail remains a central dominant image of power and control in the novel.

We see this symbol dramatically enacted at Mischa’s party. Hunter, terrified that the incriminating photograph of Rosa with the Lusiewicz brothers is about to be revealed by Blick, urges his sister to ‘Do something! Create a diversion’ and Rosa hurls a paperweight into the fishbowl, shattering it, scattering the fish and killing them all. Similarly, Rosa’s appeal to Mischa to remove the Polish brothers is not a simple focused dramatic event. It has the potential for tragic unintended consequences affecting all the immigrants born east of the arbitrary SELIB line described by Rainborough to Hunter early in the novel. The question in Parliament employed by Mischa does remove the brothers, but it also kills Nina and possibly others. Blick’s later justification to Rosa is entirely disingenuous – and arguable - ‘It’s England. No one really gets beheaded’; he knows she will feel personally responsible firstly for asking for intervention from Mischa and then not attending to Nina with the latter’s pleas for help. For me, this is the most simply affecting moment of the novel, addressed to one of the most sympathetic characters, her insufficiency underlined, ironically, by that amoral cynic Blick. It is made plain that one’s choice to live ethically and to do good must come down to attention, to noticing other individuals and their needs, not just one’s own selfish concerns and desires.

Other symbols include Annette’s jewels, later grabbed by Jan on the bridge, which obviously connote luxury and self-indulgence, but for him they may be a means to survive. Rainborough’s wisteria destroyed at a stroke by Miss Casement, seems to represent the end of his secure, self-contained mode of living, but it is also innocent nature threatened by the encroachment of human affairs. Earlier he had gazed entranced at the spring flowers and tiny creatures in his garden and ‘experienced a moment of joy’. Ironically his attack on Annette follows this moment. There are also many references to transformative make up and clothing which draw attention to the natural and the artificial in women’s appearance as well as creating opportunities for destruction and spoiling, such as Annette’s dress. Additionally, many disquieting images of eyes enliven the novel: Mischa’s of different colours, Blick’s ‘gleaming like a couple of sea-washed limpet shells’; Rainborough’s ‘restless brown eyes’; Rosa’s ‘very bright dark eyes’; the old Polish mother whose eyes ‘lived in their jagged caves like a pair of jellyfish, their wet and lustrous surface contrasting oddly with the extreme aridity of their surroundings’; Jan’s eyes upside down are ‘the eyes of a demon.’ In the brief account of Annette’s parents’ marriage late in the novel, we are told ‘[Marcia] would not permit him to look into her eyes. She was never still…’ These eye images, extraordinarily vivid, support the novel’s focus on watching, gossiping, knowing and entrapment, rather than altruism or attention to others.
Murdoch is interested by nominative determinism and often uses it selectively (one thinks of The Unicorn and Hannah Crean-Smith – ‘Creance myth’, or James Tayper Pace in The Bell, for example) but here it forms a more pervasive symbolic network than in later novels. Mischa Fox is the cunning predator, but his first name suggests a non-English provenance (and ‘he spoke…with a precision which marked him as foreign’); a look from his sidekick Blick (blick is ‘glance’ in German) suggests Mischa’s attention is ever-alert; the wealthy and successful Cockeynes are living in the land of plenty, luxury and ease - from the medieval myth of Cockaigne; Rainborough is a typical English civil servant, his name associated with English weather and environment; Peter Saward is a scholar, perhaps suggesting ‘saw hard’ because he works away at his research, or more likely connected with ‘saw’ meaning a wise saying as in the seven ages of man speech in As You Like It – ‘full of wise sawes’. He is often our touchstone in the novel.) Mrs Wingfield suggests her ability to soar over the fox-related problems. Rosa (herself named after the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg) and Hunter have the surname ‘Keepe’ and they do indeed protect each other and ultimately the Artemis. Casements are windows that open at the side like doors and perhaps symbolise Miss Casement’s ambition to move ahead, reminding us too, in the doubling typical of the novel, of the way in which another very able but less fortunate woman, Nina, who also lived in one room, meets her death by suicide. Nina is afforded no surname, so we are left with two negative particles, ni and na. One of the very few kind gestures in this novel of power and manipulation is the cider cake made by Miss Foy and brought to Rosa’s house. ‘Foy’ or foi means loyalty or allegiance, though in Scottish dialect it means a gift. Her kindness to her irascible and domineering employer is also evident and the reader takes straightforward pleasure in her inheritance after Mrs Wingfield’s death. Feminine figures from classical mythology also provide significance: long before the sports shoe, Annette is compared with Nike the swift goddess of victory and the Artemis is named after the goddess of chastity and protector of wild animals. It must be kept from the aggressive male and is finally successful after female intervention.

Also important in the novel is the stylistic device of doubling which begins with Mischa’s eyes of different colours, supporting the many striking comparisons and contrasts which accentuate the novel’s themes and characterisation: among them, seeming and being, belonging and alienation, wealth and poverty, power and victimhood, youth and age. There are many images of mirrors and reflections which reinforce this, too.
Mischa and Blick are clearly in the literary tradition of the divided personality: early in the novel Rainborough says: ‘Blick is the dark half of Mischa Fox’s mind….He does the things which Mischa doesn’t even think of. That’s how Mischa can be so innocent.’ Annette, with her child-like pale smoothness and the perfection of youth is in clear opposition to Rosa and all the old ladies, but more particularly to Nina with her dark complexion and dyed hair, like ‘a small artificial animal’ whom Annette is happy to use and dominate, feeling towards her a mixture of ‘possessiveness, nervousness and contempt’. Annette calls herself a ‘waif’, a refugee without a homeland, but hers is the land of Cockaigne, the world of choice, wealth and privilege. Nina is the real refugee. Murdoch clinches this relationship with the parallel suicides: Annette’s half-hearted and comic attempt with milk of magnesia tablets and gin, saved by the arrival of her parents in any case; and Nina’s brutal dive from the top floor window of her room. Nina is contrasted with Miss Casement too: both hard workers, but Miss Casement has a greater measure of freedom and the advantage of British birth. No arbitrary line for her. The novel’s siblings (a doubling which becomes an abiding Murdoch motif) are intimate. ‘The shell of conventions and pretentions which enclose and define a person did not pass between Hunter and Rosa but encased the pair of them together.’ Annette and Nicholas, Stefan and Jan exhibit similar characteristics. The severance of the latter at the end of the novel is pitiless: Jan has disappeared with the jewels and Stefan has taken possession of Rosa’s house, telling her ‘Jan is bad man. He go away….now is only you.’ (though Rosa’s account of the brothers to Mischa omits any mention of Jan.) Rainborough and Saward both love Rosa, but Saward is the academic in his study while, in contrast, Rainborough is an itinerant gossip who knows everyone and is used by Murdoch to advance our understanding of the characters’ background, the immigrant situation and the fame and reputation of Mischa Fox.

On re-reading, I am struck by the subtlety of Murdoch’s development of the ambiguity surrounding Mischa Fox. However, I also have to acknowledge that this has frustrated some commentators who would perhaps prefer a less nuanced presentation. He is not focalized by Murdoch: our first impressions are of what others say about him. Early in the novel Rainborough says in frustration: ‘ I have the reputation of being Mischa’s friend and the ten thousand people who want to see him will all start calling on me.’ But almost immediately he thinks he feels ‘fear and hatred. He never felt easy in his mind so long as Fox was in the country.’ And later in the scene he says: ‘He is a man capable of enormous cruelty’. The response of the female characters to Mischa is grounded in sexual fascination; even though she refused his proposal ten years previously Rosa is still drawn to him; Annette is immediately under his spell and Nina is his ‘creature’, dreaming of freedom. Rosa’s brother Hunter ‘was certainly fond of Mischa’ too, Peter Saward tells us. Even Agnes Casement seems to be part of his entourage. (Who paid for the MG?) The less obvious and nastier elements of Mischa’s behaviour, not so noticeable to these characters, are certainly enabled by Calvin Blick, his enforcer, whom the reader is encouraged to find more simply evil. However, the suggestion that Mischa himself is conflicted and that this damage results from his disrupted childhood occurs frequently. He loves animals and expresses sympathy for the bird with one foot, he saves the wood leopard moth at Rainborough’s (which the latter crushes in frustration) and the lizard at his villa. His house is filled with pictures of animals, and he is greatly distressed by the death of the fish at the party. ‘I love all creatures’ he says to Rainborough. However, the most significant insights given to us are from Peter Saward, the novel’s sage, firstly when Mischa confesses to killing animals as a child because he felt sorry for them. [Peter] ‘asked himself what demon drove Mischa continually to uncover and to torture this strange region of sensibility – and as he did so he reflected yet again how strangely close to each other in this man lay the springs of cruelty and of pity.’ This character’s perceptive comment underlines the way in which, even in this early novel, Murdoch is drawn to the exploration of the complexities of power and influence and the sources of evil. Moreover, Peter’s reflection in this scene: ‘The more Mischa indulged his impulse to reveal himself…the more puzzling he seemed to become’ reminds us of the essential opacity of other people’s natures, foreshadowing an enduring Murdoch preoccupation in all the novels that follow.

Peter Conradi tells us in his preface to Existentialists and Mystics (1997) that Flight from the Enchanter was in fact Murdoch’s first novel. If we are re-reading it now in 2024, we have the precious gift of retrospection. We have read this and other novels before; we may have traced Murdoch’s development as a novelist and know her abiding obsession with love, with the contradictory and bizarre in human nature and reverence for goodness. Flight from the Enchanter represents not in miniature, but perhaps in a kind of shorthand, every one of the themes she later interrogates and elaborates throughout her long career. Like Peter Saward we can read the hieroglyphs, but we, seventy years later, can interpret them with the privilege of hindsight. We know that they are not a ‘laundry list’, as Rosa says, but more resonant of great poetry: allusive, memorable and ultimately disquieting; a novel for today to be read again.

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