Iris Murdoch's novels retell the myths of the ages, situating the timeless archetypes in the familiar world around us.
This series of London Walks explores the city through her novels, in which it is background - but also a catalayst.
London becomes a charged landscape, electrified by currents of ideas and imagery bubbling up through the plots - that's what we are in pursuit of in these walks.
The Murdochian world
Of course readers can enter the Murdochian world without knowing London, but the novels are an intriguing way to "learn" the city. They teach us to slip around both its famous and obscure byways anonymously, as Tim Reede (Nuns and Soldiers) liked to do ("lothano" - I escape notice).
Her characters pursue their fate within a meticulously realized geography, their homes, the neighbourhoods they live in and their movements around the city provide important information about who they are.
Love and chaos
Iris Murdoch's novels are not about good and evil, but good and mediocre (the "nice and the good" and the "sacred and profane" as two titles have it), and the latter is often indicated by that word "muddle". It conveys evil not epic and cosmological, but of a dirty, chaotic, ugly, soul-destroying smallness - grimy litter, for example, or petty crime, rudeness, or callous behaviour.
The Murdochian opposite to this evil is love, "true" rather than egotistical, which means simply the ability to see another person (or animal or work of art) in its inviolable sacred separateness.
Degrees of these opposites are seen in the lives of the characters who appear as familiar recurring 'types' in each novel: the philosopher, the hedonist, the deceived wife, the sequestered but calculating maiden, the delinquent, the artist and artist-manqué.
All of them, the frenzied and the middling-decent, the saints and the ego-monsters are looked upon by their creator with compassion.
Walking London we begin to see them everywhere (as Murdoch must have seen their models) - in the crowds rushing on and off the underground, in pubs and squares, the dreamy-eyed girls, shifty-eyed conmen, tired workers and flustered bureaucrats and academics with their minds on the thought of a stiff drink after work rather than philosophy.
The landscape of the ‘hero’s journey’
On these walks we plunge into London, experiencing the city through the consciousness of Murdoch’s characters.
The city becomes the landscape of the “hero’s journey” as it is enacted over and over in the author's oeuvre by characters one way or another seeking the divine. They fail to find it, but it’s a “fairly honourable defeat”. If, however, they find love and self-knowledge they have at least approached the human “good”.
Iris Murdoch wrote fantasy-ridden realism – neither strictly realistic nor exclusively fantastic – and she makes us see London as containing both reality and fantasy, making it recognizable and ordinary but also pulsing with something unseen, super-natural, otherworldly – that’s what we’re looking out for on these walks.
“Behind the visible world, always just upon the threshold of some possible mode of perception, there was another and more terrible reality,” says Austin Gibson Grey in An Accidental Man. He saw there a dark hole of isolation, jealousy, self-hatred and moral “muddle”.
Sometimes her characters stray from one novel into a minor role in another. Frequently they are neighbours on the same streets and their paths would necessarily cross.
Likewise, our walks in their footsteps loop around and intersect each other, and walkers/readers should mix and match and re-combine them as personal whim dictates.
These walks have been contributed by Barbara Julian