I first read The Bell years ago and it remained in my memory as an excellent book, but this time round I think my reading tastes have changed because, although I still liked it, I no longer found it so enchanting. Iris Murdoch wrote beautiful English, with detailed descriptions of the location – Imber Court, Imber Abbey and the lake and woods around them. But I just couldn’t work out the layout and that is actually relevant in this book. There was also too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters – Michael Meade – for my liking, and yet for all the description he didn’t seem a real person, but more a mouthpiece for Murdoch’s philosophical thoughts. In fact most of the characters, with the exception of Dora, come across more as stereotypes than real people.
A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself. The various characters include Dora Greenfield who is staying at Imber Court whilst her husband Paul is researching the Abbey archives. Paul is thirteen years older and is an art historian. Dora had left him six months earlier because she was afraid of him and was returning for the same reason. She is a young woman, a rather silly young woman who thinks one thing and immediately says the opposite, but Paul is probably the most obnoxious character in the book – he is a manipulative bully. The other residents at Imber Court are a mixed-up bunch, there for both religious and other reasons. As the date for the installation of the new bell approaches their weaknesses begin to be exposed.
Much of the book is taken up with discussions and examining the thoughts of the characters about the relationship of goodness to power. On the surface everything appeared to Dora to be peaceful, but underneath stresses and strains are causing the community to diverge into two parties. It’s not just a matter of organisation but also of morals and there is an impending sense of evil and menace. Bearing in mind that The Bell was first published in 1958 this must have been quite a shocking book at the time – about the relationship between religion and sex and the angst and self-denial that it depicts.
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (2 July 2009)
- Language English
- ISBN-10: 0099470489
- ISBN-13: 978-0099470489
- Source: I bought this book
For a rather more positive view of The Bell see The Senior Common Room.