Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2022

The Italian Girl, by Iris Murdoch

Almost the first thing I learned in English 101 at Melbourne University, was that the English novel has its origins in morality plays. And with apologies to Proper Academics who know what they’re talking about when it comes to Iris Murdoch, I reckon The Italian Girl is not one of IM’s ‘bad novels’ as Kenneth Trodd would have it in the New Left Review from 1964.  His review was paywalled, so I could only read a bit of it, sufficient to know that he took A Dim View of this novel, describing it as a genre between Green Penguins and old Gothic. I think that The Italian Girl has its origins in morality plays and a Shakespearean comedy of errors. The novel masquerades as melodrama and it’s not meant to be realism.  Rather, it uses a modern day quest for inheritance and identity to mask its framework of temptation, sin, resolution and reconciliation.

Some uncredited genius in the Penguin Design section came up with the front cover artwork featuring ‘Eve’ by the engraver Reynolds Stone. The narrator and central character in The Italian Girl is an engraver too, and it is surely no coincidence that Iris Murdoch’s memorial address is quoted on the Reynolds Stone Biography page. Reynolds Stone’s ‘Eve’ references Murdoch’s allusion in The Italian Girl to the 12th century ‘Eve’ of Gislebertus, a sensuous sculpture from a cathedral portal in Autun in France.  Of the original, only the ‘Eve’ fragment survives (in the Rodin Museum), but alabaster replicas show how the entire sculpture would have looked, showing Eve — with the serpent nearby — leading Adam into sin, representing both innocence and evil in one.  (He looks more than ready to be tempted too, eh?)

The Giselbertus Adam & Eve Alabasters in the collection of the Yuko Nii Foundation, 12th-18th centuries (Wikipedia)

So, in The Italian Girl, who is being led into temptation, eh?  Well, everyone in a very small cast of characters.

Set in a Gothic old rectory in the north of England, The Italian Girl is narrated by Edmund Narroway, and his surname is an allusion to the way he has constrained his own life.  He has returned ‘home’ because his mother Lydia has died.  He is reunited with his brother Otto, an alcoholic painter who lives (at Lydia’s expense) with his wife Isabel and teenage daughter Flora. (Who, much to Uncle Edmund’s consternation, has been deflowered before the novel opens.) Also in this compressed cast of characters is Otto’s apprentice David Levkin who is pimping for his sister Elsa, who’s having an affair with Otto.  Finally there is Maggie, one of a series of young women employed by Lydia as nannies who transitioned to cook-housekeepers and companions, though none of them stay very long. Lydia called them all Maggie, though their names were Carlotta, Vittoria, and Maria, the last one, still in residence at the time of Lydia’s death.

These love triangles intersect, but I’ll save those revelations for people who read the book.

Edmund is a diffident, repressed, middle-aged man leading a solitary life.  He has been estranged from his family for some years because he had to get away from his mother’s controlling personality.  Or so he says.

Edmund is a self-deluded, unreliable narrator. The novel is structured so that every member of the household is complicit in manipulating events so that the sexually aloof Edward has no choice but to stay, to witness and to confront sexuality.  But he tells the reader that he stays on after the funeral because he feels a sense of responsibility, imagining his privileged position in this dysfunctional household, as being ‘in loco parentis’ to Flora (who despises him and his moralising).  But he also badly wants to know what’s in Lydia’s will.  He’s hard up, living in three miserable rooms. 

I have my suspicions about Edmund, and so does Maria.  She comes into the room as Edmund is in a compromising position with Flora.  When she subsequently tackles him about this, Edmund tells us that she has misinterpreted the situation.  He is outraged, but look at the ambiguity of his answer!

‘Do you often jump on young girls?’

‘I haven’t touched a woman in years!’ The words fell out between us, and then I blushed scarlet with rage at her asking and my answering. (p.117, underlining mine.)

When Isabel makes a pass at him, flashing her bare breasts, he says it’s ‘years since he’d seen a woman’s breasts.’ Maggie, the eternally silent superior servant who seems to be everywhere, witnesses this too, and again Murdoch writes ambiguity into his denial:

… She had also witnessed and doubtless misunderstood the scene with Isabel.  The notion that Maggie might think me a philanderer provoked an incoherent apoplexy of indignation.  Yet at the same time I violently regretted having made the admission.  Such thing were nobody’s business but my own.

She seemed to be accepting what I said with cool credulous interest.  ‘No girls at all? And no boys either?’

‘No!’ I added more quietly, ‘Certainly not!’ and glared into those rather moist dark eyes.

She gave a secretive little smile and returned to her sewing.  I found myself hot with emotion. (p.118)

Is this emphatic denial ‘No’ to girls, or ‘No’ to boys, or ‘No’ to both?

As with other novels by Iris Murdoch, it pays to read between the lines.  A stray fragment of text was what triggered my suspicions about Edmund.  Towards the end of the story when he is pursuing David to the railway station, the paragraph begins:

After so much solitude, so much prison life, I was confused by such a close crowding of faces. (p.148)

Huh? ‘Prison life’? Is ‘prison’ a metaphor for the constraints in his life?  Or is this an unintended revelation that slipped out in his narration because he is confused?

SPOILER ALERT

The conclusion is not, as some would have it, a clumsy tidy-up of the plot.  Through the catharsis of a cleansing fire and subsequent death, you can almost envisage the final scenes as a Shakespearean comedy celebrating the triumph of good over evil.  In this resolution, the characters transcend temptation and eschew sin.

Denouement

  • Otto and Edmund are reconciled after a fist fight in which an injury to Edmund’s eye heals his moral blindness.
  • Maria, who inherited the lot for reasons I shall not divulge, offers to share Lydia’s wealth with the family.

Exeunt:

  • Flora takes her independence by running away from interfering Uncle Edward, even chucking rocks at him from the top of the waterfall (an erotic symbol, eh?)
  • Isabel leaves, happily pregnant and fulfilling her role as a sort of sexual queen and spiritual protégé  of Lou Andreas-Salomé.
  • David leaves, with the financial security of Elsa’s diamonds.
  • Edmund foregoes whatever proclivities he may have had through rapprochement with Maria.  She’d ‘seduced’ him by ‘losing her shoes’ so that he had to carry her through the thorny wilds of the neglected garden, and thus he discovers the sensuality of a mature woman’s body.  They plan to go to Rome together.

All’s well that ends well!

I read this book for Novellas in November, Week one: Short Classics, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck,

Reference: Review of The Italian Girl by Kenneth Trodd in the (paywalled) New Left Review 1/27 Sept-Oct 1964, partially viewed online.

Image credits: The Giselbertus Adam & Eve Alabasters in the collection of the Yuko Nii Foundation, 12th-18th centuries (Wikipedia) by Immunonuclear – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39261425

Author: Iris Murdoch
Title: The Italian Girl
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1967, first published 1964
ISBN: 9780140025590, pbk, 171 pages
Source: personal library, OpShopFind.


Responses

  1. As I recollect from my reading of a handful of Murdoch, realism wasn’t necessarily her bent. Some books are but by no means all? I’ve often wanted to read this one but so far have not got there. After this post I’m starting to think that maybe it wouldn’t be my next Murdoch – because, well, I do tend to like realism.

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    • No, I don’t think they are, I think they’re masquerading as realism.

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  2. I loved Iris Murdoch’s books back when I read them in the 1960s and 1970s, and I have had it in mind for a while to go back and reread them all. So thanks for inspiring me to make a start soon.

    I intended to major in English at Melbourne University when I went there as a mature-age student, but it was all I could do to get through first year, before fleeing to the welcoming arms of the excellent History Department. When I was there it was all to do with whether F R Leavis approved or disapproved of a book or an author – it was infuriating! I was amused when I read Tom Griffiths’ book “The Art of Time Travel” to learn that he had had exactly the same experience.

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    • Hi Eleanor, you were unlucky. I had a marvellous time doing English there though I wish now that I could have done history too. I loved by that book by Griffiths!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Iris Murdoch and I haven’t read this one! Life is too short for me to get through all the books I want to read! This is another added to my list. See what you’ve done, Lisa! My list would be shorter if it were not for yourself, Sue at WG and Bill at the Australian Legend.

    I love the comments about History departments at Uni. I did one course of Ancient History in my undergrad degree and our lecturer, an elderly & learned gentleman, was so appalled that modern students of History were no longer required to be fluent in Latin that he spent most of the term teaching us that wonderful language.

    I also had an Anthropology lecturer who, when he discovered (I forget how) that none of us had read Beaudelaire, spent two lectures reading us his poems in perfect French in his wonderfully cultured voice.

    I sometimes think I was at the tail end of those fortunate enough to receive something of a classical education at university.

    OK, I am off to see if our library has this particular Murdoch if they are still open due to flooding and lack of heating and water (for weeks) due to gas outages. Things could be worse – at least we’re not in Ukraine!

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  4. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read Murdoch. This could be a good place to start.

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    • You can always have a look at my IM project page on my blog to help you choose but this would be a good one! (sorry to comment-jump but you know what an IM-ophile I am!).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch – Lisa at ANZ LitLovers […]

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  6. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    The novel by Murdoch which I remember best is of course, “The Sea, The Sea”. This clip is interesting- https://youtu.be/m47A0AmqxQE

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a wonderful assessment of the book, and of course there’s a robust literature on IM and Shakespeare and you have it on the nose. If you like that aspect and haven’t yet read The Black Prince, I heartily recommend it.

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  8. This one is on the TBR. I’ve only read The Severed Head which I loved. I’ve heard there are
    ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Murdochs. I think I’ll like this one.

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    • Apart from anything else, I think it will appeal to your sense of humour…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I read this one some years ago and rather enjoyed it, especially due to its brevity and sense of fun compared to say The Black Prince, which although excellent was very intense and long.

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    • I must admit, its brevity is partly why I enjoyed it so much. Because when I think of Murdoch, I tend to think long and complex…
      I have yet to read The Black Prince so I shall see if I feel the same way.

      Liked by 1 person


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