You never know when you’ll find something fantastical to write about.
A little while ago, I started an ongoing project of reading through the novels of Iris Murdoch. This came out of an appreciation of A.S. Byatt’s fiction, which led to me reading her study of Murdoch’s early novel, Degrees of Freedom. That book in turn led me to start in on Murdoch. I loved her first novel, Under the Net, which is something like what might have happened if P.G. Wodehouse had written a philosophical social realist novel. The next book, The Flight From the Enchanter, was well-written but sprawling and felt overly symbolically-determined. So I started on the third novel, 1957’s The Sandcastle, unsure of what I’d find.
It’s set in a town not far from London and deals with an extramarital affair between Bill Mor (known throughout the book as Mor), a teacher at St. Bride’s school for boys, and a young painter named Rain Carter, who comes to the school to paint a portrait of the school’s former headmaster, Demoyte, a longstanding friend of Mor’s. For the first seven chapters, the book unfolds much as you’d expect from a mimetic novel. The background of Mor and his family and his school is sketched in; his political ambitions are described; the implicit conflict with his strong-willed wife Nan is set up; the personality of Rain is implied; a set of accidents throw Mor and Rain into close proximity. The prose is direct, even simple, and on the whole without ornament.
Then we get to chapter eight and everything changes.
Up to this point, the book’s been written in limited third person with Mor as the point-of-view character. Chapter eight is still in third person, but shifts its focus to Mor’s young teenage daughter Felicity, who, it soon becomes clear, lives in a very different world. The chapter begins with a squabble with her mother. Felicity leaves her house to join her brother Donald, a pupil at St. Bride’s. Now by this point, we’ve learned that the Mor family used to have a dog, Liffey, who died two years before the story opened; mention of the dog is one of the tricks Bill Mor uses to establish peace with Nan. So we’re a little surprised when we read this:
As she ran she whistled softly to Liffey, who soon came bounding up to run beside her, turning to look at her every now and then, and smiling as dogs do. She never came into the house now, or entered any human habitation. Since the dissolution of her material body Liffey had become rather larger, and now had black ears and a black tail, to signalize her infernal origin. There was as yet no sign of Angus, but Felicity knew, now that Liffey had come, that it would not be long before she saw him, in one or other of his disguises.
Angus has not been previously mentioned, but as the chapter goes on, further scattered references suggest Angus is a kind of spirit guide for Felicity. At any rate, Felicity, guided by Liffey “who had been amusing herself by passing spectrally through the bodies of several other dogs who were coming up the hill,” sneaks into the school grounds. “Liffey … went before her, waving her black ears magically to silence any sounds which Felicity might make.” Felicity reaches her brother’s room, where she speaks with Donald and his friend Jimmy about Rain, and about Don and Jimmy’s plan to climb the tower of one of the school buildings — a dangerous piece of mischief. Felicity urges Don not to try climbing the tower, and in exchange herself promises to undertake any dare Don wants. Don wonders what to ask her, and mentions the Power Game. We learn that:
The Power Game was an invention of Felicity’s dating from long ago. It was a sort of eclectic witchcraft, which involved the purloining from the individuals who were to be bewitched of various intimate articles, such as socks, stockings, ties, and handkerchiefs, which were subsequently to figure in the various rituals and ceremonies. The main point of the Power Game, however, as it turned out, had not been the actual magic but rather the preliminary raids. In the course of these raids a number of highly cherished prizes had been taken, including some underpants of Mr. Prewett, Mr. Hensman’s braces, and an elegant sponge-bag belonging to Mr. Everard, none of which had in fact been put to any magical use.
Don jokingly suggests raiding something of Rain Carter’s, and Felicity takes him up on the suggestion, insisting on the power of her magic. Don refuses to take part, stating that he’ll climb the tower whatever Felicity does. He leads her out of the school grounds, but when Felicity tells him she intends to raid Rain’s room nevertheless, he reluctantly decides to accompany her to try to keep her out of trouble. They go to Demoyte’s house, where Rain’s living. Along the way Felicity picks some wildflowers, and sees a “gipsy” man she identifies as Angus; the man’s appeared in the book before, briefly, apparently “playing a game with some brightly coloured cards” — Mor and Rain, out for a drive, had passed the man shortly before their car had ended up in an accident; Mor, for complex reasons, had not mentioned the drive or the accident to Nan, and had written Rain a note telling her that he had decided to “deceive” his wife, and asking her therefore not to mention the whole thing to anyone. It is, of course, this note that Felicity and Don find when they sneak into the house. They read it, but do not take it. Although they’re spotted by Demoyte’s housekeeper as they leave, Rain returns at that moment and Felicity’s able to pretend that she and Don had snuck into the house in order to give her the flowers Felicity had picked along the way. Leaving the house they run to sit in the shadow of a hedge, both of them devastated by what they take to be their father’s betrayal of their mother. Felicity asks if Don will still do the climb, Don answers that it doesn’t matter, and:
They sat looking down into the stubble. “Tears of blood,” said Felicity. This was an ancient ritual.
Without a word Donald drew a razor blade from his pocket and handed it to her. Carefully she made a tiny slit beneath each eye. Both the Mor children could weep at will. A moment later mingled tears and blood were coursing down their cheeks.
The chapter ends there, and the book returns to Bill Mor’s point of view. Nan takes a vacation with Felicity in Dorset, at which time the affair between Mor and Rain really develops. Rain spends the night with Mor (though apparently they do not have sex), who locks the front door while leaving the back open; in case Nan returns early, she’ll be delayed at the front while Rain sneaks out the back. The next morning, in fact, Mor’s woken by his doorbell ringing. But it turns out to be the “gipsy-looking woodcutter,” sheltering from a brief rain and accidentally ringing the bell with his shoulder. He leaves, but Rain insists that Mor give him money — if not, she says, he will bring bad luck. Mor goes after the man, and catches up to him, but he will not take Mor’s money. Mor returns, tells Rain he gave the man money, and sits with her, his head on her knees; and it is at that point that Nan returns and finds them. In other words: Mor’s plan for hiding the affair is defeated by the disruption caused by the woodcutter. Would it have been different if he’d given the man money? There’s no rational reason to think so, but Rain’s belief seems to raise the question in a way that cannot be entirely dismissed.
In the wake of her discovery Nan returns to Dorset with Felicity, and in chapter 14 we get more of Felicity’s point-of-view. The first half of the chapter follows her creating and enacting a magical ritual to bring her parents back together. Felicity uses a Tarot deck as part of the ritual, or at least part of the deck; she’s removed most of the Minor Arcana, leaving only the aces and court cards along with the trumps. As it happens, the cards she draws for her five-card spread are still more applicable than chance would dictate: The Empress and the King of Swords, which she had previously established as cards representing her mother and father, the Broken Tower, the Hanged Man, and the Moon — which last card Felicity had previously determined represented Rain Carter. The second half of the chapter switches to Nan’s point-of-view, as she stumbles upon Felicity’s ritual just as Felicity brings it to a close. It’s a comic moment, as Felicity scrambles (successfully) to scatter the evidence of her rite and hide her witchcraft from her mother. The whole chapter has a slightly different tone than chapter eight; the earlier passage was seen more completely through Felicity’s eyes, while the ritual seems slightly more ironic in its description, as though Murdoch’s taken a step back from, or outside of, Felicity in describing her actions.
Still, the ritual does seem to describe the action of the rest of the book. Don and Jimmy try to climb the tower, the Broken Tower of the Tarot; things go wrong; in an intricately-described sequence (in which the wire of the tower’s lightning conductor figures prominently) Mor manages to lead a rescue of the boys; Don runs off, and Nan and Felicity return. Then the climax of the book comes at a dinner when Rain’s portrait of Demoyte is formally hung in the school: the Hanged Man. Nan and Mor are reunited, and Mor and Rain have a last meeting as Rain has a conceptual breakthrough and finishes the already-hung portrait in the way she wanted.
So what’s happening here?
The book seems to be meant as mimetic fiction. The affair between Mor and Rain is clearly the main story, with Felicity’s magic a sub-plot. Murdoch probably didn’t consider Felicity’s witchcraft as a coherent way to interpret events in the novel; she probably didn’t think of the book as a fantasy. On the other hand, without accepting that magic it’s difficult to see what sort of plot relevance chapters eight and fourteen have to the overall book. And it’s interesting that the novel breaks from Mor’s point-of-view only for those two chapters.
As fantasy, the ‘supernatural’ seems to be perfectly harmonised with the depiction of the ‘real.’ The language and tone doesn’t shift. That can be read a number of ways, I think; you can say that it makes Felicity’s magic inherently ironic, since we ‘know’ that it’s not on the same plane of reality as the rest of the book, or you can say that it gives the magic the same level of realness as the mimetic world around it. Either way, much of the power of Liffey’s appearance to Felicity is the matter-of-fact way Murdoch describes her; there’s no easy distinction between the everyday and the spirit world, at least for Felicity. As such, her character seems to me to be well-observed. Murdoch’s created a girl with a strong mythopoeic sense, a myth-maker who has the creative power to plan her own rituals.
The presence of these two chapters has the potential to materially change the way one reads the book. It is of course possible, and likely Murdoch’s intent, to see Felicity as mildly delusional. But the book gives us no explicit reason to doubt the existence of Liffey or Angus. Felicity’s ritual does predict the outcome of the book. And the magic element she brings in points up the importance of the woodcutter, and the way his appearance at Mor’s house seems an omen of Nan’s discovery of the affair. The two chapters make the book stranger, and stronger; not least because in some ways they seem to go against the basic symbolic system of the novel, and so make the book overall more complex.
At this point it’s necessary to consider the themes of the novel as a whole. To do so I’ll start with Byatt’s observation that one of Murdoch’s great concerns is the representation of life in the novel and in art. That’s relevant here, in a novel with a painter as one of the main characters, and in which the painting and unveiling and repainting of a work of art tracks with the development of the plot. Byatt quotes an article by Murdoch criticising an idea Murdoch calls ‘dryness,’ a tendency to the formalised, patterned, or crystalline in art. Says Byatt:
The pursuit of sincerity as opposed to truth leads, as [Murdoch] sees it, to what she calls fantasy, and it opposes to imagination a process which leads to myth-making, to a dry and facile ordering of experience into false and easily comprehended wholes whilst, as Miss Murdoch insists, ‘Reality is not a given whole.’
Murdoch’s use of the word ‘fantasy’ here seems to me to be specific to her argument, with no especial bearing on the genre of the fantastic (though it may be suggestive of a danger to which the fantastic is particularly prone). The opposition of ‘sincerity’ and ‘truth’ Byatt refers to is a conflict between a personal, ‘self-centred,’ idea of the world and an ‘other-centred’ idea of a character placed, as Murdoch says, “against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him.” The upshot of all this is that Murdoch is stating an interest in naturalistic, or novelistic, character; and, further, saying that the individual character is not an isolated entity, but the product of a whole society, an objective reality that forms and contrasts with the individual.
This can all be seen in The Sandcastle, starting with the image which gives the novel its title. It’s from a recollection by Rain, remembering her childhood as “a time of terrible dryness, as if it were a long period of drought”:
I can recall, as a child, seeing pictures in English children’s books of boys and girls playing on the sand and making sandcastles – and I tried to play on my sand. But a Mediterranean beach is not a place for playing on. It is dirty and very dry. The tides never wash the sand or make it firm. When I tried to make a sandcastle, the sand would just run away between my fingers. It was too dry to hold together. And even if I poured sea water over it, the sun would dry it up at once.
So Rain’s trying to make the reality around her conform to the image she sees in books, and it doesn’t work. The dryness that keeps the sandcastle from cohering is metaphorically the quality in art that moves away from living reality, reverting to the sterile and patterned. By contrast, water-images running through the book seem to refer to living art — Rain’s first name, for example. Intriguingly, Felicity’s ritual in chapter fourteen, the purest example of myth-making in the book, is performed at the ocean’s shore; a parallel, perhaps, with Rain’s sandcastle, but also a movement away from the association of myth with dryness.
Now there is a paradox in Murdoch writing against the formal and patterned in art. Any story is by definition a shaped, patterned creation. The artful designs of Murdoch’s plots in particular are necessarily complex and highly worked. There is in fact on a structural level something farce-like (though not farcical) in Murdoch’s plotting and the precision of the way events develop in her novels; it’s part of what makes Under the Net so reminiscent of Wodehouse. And her ability to concretise meaning in specific symbols, like the sandcastle, is clearly an example of the pattern-making inherent to art. On the face of it, that’d seem to contradict with her theory of formalised dryness; the book’s strength and meaning derives in part from it’s symbolic power, but that reduction of the story to symbols is what Murdoch’s criticising.
But then Byatt also quotes Murdoch as criticising the jouranlistic story, “a large, shapeless quasi-documentary object … telling with pale conventional characters some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts.” So there’s a tension for Murdoch between pattern and formlessness. Her aim, I presume, is to create a work of symbolic meaning that also has or implies the complexity of life and human character. That is, character and symbol not as solitary things-in-themselves, but as contingent, shaped by the characters and symbols around them; the character as part of society, the symbol as part of a broader meaning, pointing to what Murdoch says is “in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian, and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality.”
For Murdoch (again I quote her 1961 article “Against Dryness,” whose importance Byatt has stressed), “The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer … attempts to console us by myths or by stories.” One can argue that Felicity’s magic is fundamentally an attempt at consolation; an attempt to console herself for the loss of her dog, an attempt to bring her parents back together when she has no real power to do so. Given that the devisings of the rituals are fundamentally creative acts, one can still refer to her as an incipient artist. But more than that: deliberately or not, Murdoch leaves the story open. It is quite possible to view the ghost of Liffey as a reality, and quite possible to view Felicity’s magic as effective. Whether one believes in ghosts and magic in everyday life is beside the point; it’s possible to view these things as actually existing within the reality of the story. That is, it’s possible to view the novel as a work of fantastic fiction.
I would argue that Felicity’s chapters are a striking and perhaps even necessary way to complicate the story. They provide another perspective on events, and on the world as a whole. Murdoch, at least here, is modernist and not, I think post-modern: the world has a reality beyond the separate perspectives of those that live in it, a reality that may be reachable, but then it also may be through the comparison of those separate perspectives that one finds the real. One expects Mor’s perspective to be more accurate; but, deliberately or not, Murdoch leaves open the possibility that Felicity’s closer to the truth.
Narratively, Felicity’s chapters give a new and stunning dimension to what you as a reader think you know. They open the book up. Because Murdoch never explicitly undermines Felicity’s perspective, you have another way to think about what you’re reading. And not only do they make the book strange, they create a remarkably distinct reading experience. For seven chapters you’re reading a mimetic work aiming at naturalism; then, suddenly, without shifting away from the characters or established story, you find in chapter eight you’re reading something that could be inspired by Charles Williams or Dion Fortune or M.R. James. Chapter eight changes everything.
I find the conflict of realism and fantasy enriches both readings of the book. The contrast of both attitudes, the implicit contradiction that is still contained in one story, pulls the narrative into new and intricate shapes. If we’re going to have a narrative at all, then we’re going to have a shape to the story, and Murdoch seems to want to make that shape as complex as possible. Consciously or not, that’s what she did in the eighth chapter of The Sandcastle. Chapter eight is a shock, a surprise, an opening-out of limits. It shows what the right mix of the fantastic and the real can do, and how both those things can be enhanced by presence of the other.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.