Iris Murdoch Thames Walks

These Thames Walks trace the magnetic presence of the Thames in Iris Murdoch's novels, from the Isle of Dogs to Cheyne Walk.

the presence of water

Her stories are full of water: the sea off the coast of Dorset, rivers in France and Italy, bogs in Ireland, pools in Bath, and most frequently of all, the river Thames.

Water means spirit, and loss of self in cosmic consciousness, or in ordinary death – characters drown or nearly drown in several of her novels. That Iris Murdoch loved swimming is well known, and her characters often voice her own enthralment by the magnetic presence of the Thames.

Novels referred to:

  • The Time of the Angels (1966); Under the Net (1954); Henry and Cato (1976), A Severed Head (1961); The Sea The Sea (1978); Message to the Planet (1989); A Word Child (1975); Bruno’s Dream (1968)

Thames Walk 1: Isle of Dogs to Westminster Bridge

The Time of the Angels takes place in a fog-bound rectory in winter in a bombed-out part of East London apparently in the 1950’s or early 1960’s. Iris Murdoch may have conjured up its haunted otherworldly atmosphere full of menace and “bad angels” all the more easily because this was a part of London she didn’t know well.

Muriel is a typical Murdochian “captive princess”. She comes to the rectory with her atheist priest father and her damaged cousin Elizabeth in the darkness of winter, and her first vision of light and normality takes place when, tentatively out walking, she discovers the life-giving river nearby.

We guess this takes place somewhere on the Isle of Dogs: 
“The river’s all around us here. We’re on a sort of peninsula, it loops around.” (p. 67) Here the city has been so changed since post-war days that little trace of this particular “time of angels” remains, but it’s worth a pilgrimage and a good place for our first view of the river, like Muriel’s:

“There was a space of pavement and a lamppost. Then some more steps and suddenly water … fifteen to twenty yards of swift flowing water, a dark luminous amber …” ( p. 68)

From here we can take transport (Jubilee and Bakerloo Line or Bus Route 15) to our next significant Thames site: Blackfriars Bridge.

In Iris Murdoch's novels the Thames is both a life-giving artery pulsing through the city, and a “river of tears bearing away the corpses of men, immense and black beneath the old cracked voices of the temple bells …” (Bruno’s Dream, p. 82)

For Jake Donaghue (Under the Net) it is life-giving, compelling, thrilling. At the western side of Blackfriars Bridge we now look for the wall above some steps from which one moonlit night he slipped hedonistically into its baptismal embrace:

“My blood buzzed behind my skin with a nervous beat. The water took my ankles in a cold clasp. Then the water was about my neck and I shot out into the open river. The sky opened out above me … cascading with stars …” (p. 120)

We can imagine Jake swimming well out and seeing “on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of water was running with light.” (p. 120-1)

We continue west along the Victoria Embankment. Here Martin Lynch-Gibbon (A Severed Head) walked in the grip of his cataclysmic falling-in-love experience:

“upon the surface of the fast flowing water itself there played a warm light, turning its muddy hue to an old gilt., as if some pure part of the sunlight had escaped to play here under the great vault of the mist. The strange light suited my mood and as I sauntered slowly along beneath the shadowy cliff of New Scotland Yard I began to feel, if not relieved of pain, at least a little more able to collect my wits.” (p. 148)

We read Iris Murdoch for the same reason: to collect our wits - meaning our intellectual, moral, and aesthetic wits. Her novels themselves seem a place where “some pure part of the sunlight” escapes, to light the way in the search for meaning, as well as pleasure and levity.

Now walk under Waterloo Bridge noticing with Martin:

“the long gracious pillared façade of Somerset House. Receding, swaying, variously browned and greyed, it seemed like a piece of stage scenery. Below it upon the river, clear yet infinitely soft and simple as in a Chinese print, two swans sailed against a background of watery grey light …”

In the distance is “the great form of St. Paul’s” and “directly opposite across the river the warehouses, their fronts touched by diffused but increasing intimations of sunlight.” (p. 152)

We have to train ourselves to look simultaneously at the river banks before us – with the London Eye and other new construction – and at the older scene where Iris Murdoch’s stories took place, which makes us reflect on how ever since the Romans first settled here the city has been constantly transformed against earlier versions of itself.

Continuing west we come to Hungerford Railway Bridge.

Here Cato Forbes (Henry and Cato), like Jake Donaghue, also had a night-time rendezvous with the river: walking over the bridge in the April mist he dropped into the invisible water a gun, which he had seized from a delinquent boy whom he was naively trying to help. It “vanished instantly silently … as if it had been gently plucked away”. (p.2)

How easily the mighty river absorbs centuries’ worth of offending human detritus into its cleansing vastness. In Iris Murdoch novels it is no mere transportation artery, it is a glittering, potent, living power, cleansing and authoritative and sometimes deadly.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon’s walk took place on a winter afternoon, the cloud cover relenting at dusk. For Hilary Burde (The Word Child) a foggy winter morning on Westminster Bridge was just as evocative.

Walking to Westminster Bridge we can imagine him meeting Biscuit, maid-companion of the woman he will fall in love with and a harbinger of doom, passing him a fateful letter:

“We walked in silence to the middle of the bridge … The fog here formed a dark brown gauze cylinder … The line of brightness which was the terrace of the House of Commons made a very faint impression … upon the dark. So did the moon face of Big Ben far above.” (p. 167, A Word Child)

The literal doom is not for Hilary however, but his paramour.

If you’ve had enough Thames walking for now, end the walk by taking the tube, as Hilary did with his letter in hand, from Westminster Station to the bar on the westbound platform at Sloane Square – one of only two bars within the Underground system (the other being at Liverpool Street Station), both frequented by Hilary the “underground man”.

Iris Murdoch Thames Walk II: Westminster Bridge to Cheyne Walk

Part Two of the Iris Murdoch Thames Walk starts to the west of the Parliament Buildings – we go along Millbank and Grosvenor Road to Cheyne Walk.

We pass the road which leads up to James’ Pimlico flat (The Sea, The Sea), and near the street “inland” from Cheyne Walk where the painter Jack Shearwater tried to live with both wife and mistress (Message to the Planet).

Looking out their top window, Franca Shearwater could see the river between the roofs. In their house the Irish poet Patrick almost died, but revived when the crazy mystic Marcus Vallar lifted the curse which (some believed) he had earlier put on Patrick. Iris Murdoch’s London is full of such magical happenings.

And here also lived Kitty and Gunnar Jopling, together Hilary Burde’s nemesis. On the winter night when he called her out of her warm house to say goodbye, Hilary and Kitty went onto the jetty across the street, in the fog which was “black, thickening and coagulating the air as in Pliny’s description of the eruption of Vesuvius…. The river was obscure … the tide half down and … the emergent mud banks invisible.” (p. 368, A Word Child)

Here Kitty fell in. Standing beside the river on a cold, wet autumn afternoon, the mind is filled with the image Iris murdoch creates of the mud sucking her down into the cold depths.

From here we approach the Lots Road neighbourhood, by the power station, where Bruno Greensleave in Bruno’s Dream lay dying while his son-in-law Danby pursued his rackety mediocre life in the same house.

Here is the part of the river which Bruno’s nurse, the magician-figure Nigel, visited incognito in the night (“lothano”, he would have thought – “I escape notice” – just as Tim Reede aspired to in Nuns and Soldiers).

Nigel “has reached the sacred river. It rolls on at his feet black and full, a river of tears bearing away the corpses …. The wide river flows onward, immense and black beneath the old cracked voices of the temple bells … “ (p. 82)

[Above: Albert Bridge, towards Chelsea, at dusk]

Now we cross Battersea Bridge “into another territory, equally dirty and seedy, but different …” Here on the water’s edge was Bruno’s family’s printing works, and here Danby had to fight a duel with pistols at dawn with Will Boase on the banks of the river at low tide.

Imagine that drama enacted in the early morning light, revealing the mud strewn with “plastic bags and old motor tyres and bottles … the clear glowing light (making) the littered scene seem over-precise, purposive … as if one had wandered suddenly into the middle of a work of art …” (p. 233-4)

The ritualized duel set up by Nigel – Nigel’s work of dramatic art – ends in a muddle of fear, bliss and escape very typical of Iris Murdoch's novels. Danby runs away to where the strand ends in the river, and then he swims.

Again Iris Murdoch gives us the river as murderer – and savior. We end our walk imagining Danby swimming under Battersea Bridge just as Jake Donaghue swam between Blackfriars and Southwark:

“Now there was a sudden peace and silence (and) a strange beatific lightness ….” The mist lifts, sunlight glows and Danby sees “a perfect rainbow hanging over London, bridging the Thames.”

From here walkers can take Iris Murdoch Walk II from Stadium Street through Fulham and South Kensington, or go back to Westminster Station and follow Hilary Burde’s Westminster Walk (V). [to follow]

See other Iris Murdoch walks:

Iris Murdoch walks by Barbara Julian

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