The Italian Girl, Iris Murdoch

I have just finished reading The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch and a brief essay on Murdoch by A.S. Byatt. This captivating, short novel, wherein a son returns home for his mother’s funeral and then all hell breaks loose, is a very gratifying read that handily incorporates Murdoch’s philosophies about love and goodness.

It would take at least a term of study to gain insight or understanding of Iris Murdoch and her works, and I apologize to those of you who have studied her in depth for this hasty summary on such an eminent writer.

Dame Murdoch was a Lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford as well as a novelist; two of her essays, The Sublime and Good and The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, examine virtue and beauty. Dame Judi Dench played her in the movie Iris (which I have yet to see). Murdoch died of Alzheimer’s.

A.S. Byatt writes of Murdoch’s philosophical search for ‘transcendent good outside human imperfections and vanities.’ She has been compared to Shakespeare in this respect–Cordelia used to portray truthfulness.

The narrator protagonist, Edmund, is unmarried, 40, and an engraver (how appropriate) who is estranged from his mother and his childhood home. He admits that he is not a ‘public mourner,’ hopes to find out what is in the will, and then make a hasty retreat to his solitary simple life where he ‘does not crave luxuries’. Instantly the ‘the familiar pattern of the house’ seems ‘to enter his body magnetically’, and when brother Otto, sister-in-law Isabel, and now grown and beautiful niece Flora plead with him to stay and ‘sort them out, clear them up’, and ‘set them free’, he soon finds himself becoming ‘a part of the machine.’ He has arrived at the crossroad– imperfections and human vanities abound.

Brother Otto carves tombstones. Otto’s assistant David and his sister Elsa, the Levkins, are sexually involved with the master and mistress of the house. Flora is pregnant, and there is something about the dark and quiet nanny Maria. Is Edmund attracted to her?

As with Shakespeare, this novel contains many authorial aphorisms, but they fit perfectly within the contexts of story and character.

‘It is not punishment, it’s acceptance of death that alters the soul, that is God’.

At times, Murdoch has her characters speak to someone in the room in a one-sided dialogue– as if you were listening to them have a telephone conversation–except the other character is in the room.

‘You say she looked for me everywhere, the bus just before ten, of course.’

I was surprised by this deviation in dialogue form, and good or ill, it inspires experimentation.

Murdoch also fittingly titles her chapters-A Moonlight Engraving, Isabel Feeds The Fire.

I am still thinking about why the Italian nanny-housekeeper was given the honour of the title of the book. Is it because she is the catalyst, which finally gives Edmund the new direction he has been secretly hoping for? Does she represent past, present, and future come together, or the love that transcends vanity?

The Italian Girl was a rich example for me in how to incorporate themes within a compelling story, but it also contains beautifully described landscapes, suspense, and humour. For years I have been intimidated by Murdoch’s philosophies and so I avoided her fiction. This book is a lovely read, and you do not have to take a long, hard look at philosophy, unless you are so inclined.

For more on Dame Murdoch go to:

The Italian Girl Chatto and Windus Ltd. 1964, London (no ISBN or SBN number)

Iris Murdoch by A.S. Byatt Longman Group, 1976, Essex ISBN 0 582 01252 X


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