There’s a moment in The Bell (1973), where Dora – a young art-student turned wife married to her lecturer who has already left her husband once – runs away from him again. She leaves an isolated, semi-incestuous religious community for London:
“She was amazed to find, when she stepped out onto the platform at Paddington, that it was not yet midday. She stood for a while and let the crowds course around her, delighting in the rush and jostling, the din of voices and trains, the smell of oil and steam and dirt, the grim hurly-burly and kind, healing anonymity of London. Already she felt more like herself.”
The balsam of a crowd – so calming after the secluded claustrophobia of the community – is a recognised literary conceit, but one Murdoch makes her own. Dora is unmoored and unsure throughout the novel: she rattles from the community to the city, the community’s country-house Imber Hall to the pub, and leaves friends’ houses as soon as she has arrived.
But it is in London’s hordes and buildings where, despite her husband’s incessant tracking of her, she finds comfort. She responds to its siren-like call, and enters its cultural temples more willingly than Imber Hall’s chapel: she “hadn’t especially intended to visit the National Gallery” but, once there, she finds “the pictures… almost as familiar to her as her own face”. She is calmed and moved by the enduring presence of Gainsborough’s daughters, and leaves with a new resolve to return to – and solve – her
“real life, her real problems”.
Dora’s easy movement around London – from the Brompton Road to the National Gallery in one taxi ride – seems magically illicit to readers in our current situation. Murdoch describes a swelling London that is able to accommodate, nurse, and invigorate her characters in a way no other literary city can.
And Dora isn’t the only of Murdoch’s characters whose story is bound up with our capital. In Under The Net (1954), Jake Donaghue’s fantastic attempts to repair a friendship and his fortunes are charted against the backdrop of Earl’s Court, the Hammersmith riverside, hairdressers in Mayfair, flats in Chelsea, and a film studio in south London, all interspersed with pub-crawls throughout Holborn, and attempts at swimming in the
Thames. London is as much a living character in the novel as any other of Murdoch’s creations. Murdoch pays attention to its body, characteristics, appearance; the tenor of its speech, and the nature of its divisions.
Murdoch builds upon Sam Selvon’s west London flâneurs, Virginia Woolf’s Westminster, and T. S. Eliot’s “unreal city”, and pre-figures Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). But her London is not a mere backdrop, nor is it a modernist or post-modern indication of decay and disillusionment. It is dirty, insalubrious, and very much a part of a post-war landscape – but it is also joyful, life-giving, and living itself.
Murdoch’s most famous novel, The Sea, The Sea (1978) – for which she won the Booker Prize – is about one man, living in semi-solitude in a somewhat-haunted house by the coast. Charles Arrowby makes bizarre meals – “lentil soup, followed by chipolata sausages served with boiled onions and apples stewed in tea, then dried apricots and shortcake biscuits” – with the help of “liberal use of the tin opener”, and takes exercise close to his house once a day in the form of swimming. The potential to use the phrase “the ideal coronavirus novel” would be overwhelming if Charles were not so awful at enforcing his own self-imposed isolation: he regularly stalks his childhood love, and is plagued by visits from friends and other lovers that he fails to discourage.
And yet, when we are all confined to our houses and flats in various parts of the city and beyond (I’m writing from a part of south west London Murdoch describes as “contingency to the point of nausea”) there is nothing more brilliantly astringent and oddly assuasive as her city explorations. Her living London provides a vivid, vital change of scenery, even when you’re reading at the kitchen table.
Murdoch writes about isolation skilfully – complete with the gothic brilliance of potential ghosts and things that go bump in the night – but it is the novels of hers that revel in, rather than remove themselves from, human interaction that are the best tonic for our times.
At the end of The Sea, The Sea, Charles discovers that the friends who have so thwarted his attempts at isolation have moved on with their lives, and he returns to London to rejoin his. There’s comfort in the fact that even a man as odious and with such off-putting eating habits as Charles has friends who will not leave him in solitude (even if one of them does push him into the sea, another rescues him).
Whether lockdown lasts another three weeks or another six, there will be cities to explore, and complicated lover-friend-gothic-trope dynamics to negotiate on the other side. But do feel free to leave the latter to fiction, if you so desire.