Published in 1957, The Sandcastle is the third of Iris Murdoch’s 27 novels. For those who have yet to dip their literary toes into Murdoch’s work, I think her novels from the 1950s are a great place to start. I find most of her work is pretty accessible but these early works gently ease one into the sometimes cerebral world of Mudoch’s fiction. Contrary to my intentions, I have probably now scared more than a few of you off. You shouldn’t be.
At the risk of gross oversimplification, I think it is fair to say that most of Murdoch’s novels are really just soap operas. Sure, they may delve into politics, religion, philosophy, morals and any number of other deep thoughts, but they are at heart soap operas. And I mean this in a good way. Lots of English folk running around having affairs or near affairs with other English folk. These are the kind of affairs that, while physically consummated, most times seem to be driven much more by intellectual stimulation than physical. Some of her later work in the 70s takes on a real who’s shagging who kind of vibe. These earliest novels deal with many of the same issues but the affairs are undertaken with far more seriousness, or in a reflection of the more rigid moral standards of the time in which they were written, don’t happen at all.
The Sandcastle (finally he gets around to the book at hand) takes place at a “sound and reputable public school of the second class”. Bill Mor, a senior master at the school, and his wife Nan have a less than ideal marriage. Both seem bored and at odds about their future ambitions for themselves and their family. Their two teenage children seem equally alienated from family affection. This is the kind of family that Americans like to look at and think, “tsk, tsk, those English”. You know the kind of family where a handshake between father and son seems like a gross public display of affection. (No doubt you in England have an equally reductive stereotype of American families that you fall back on when you feel intellectually lazy.) So all this goes along as one would expect until the famous young painter Rain Carter comes to campus to paint a portrait of the former headmaster. And let me just say stuff happens. Rain and Bill…well I’m not saying…and then the son who appears to have more than a mancrush on one of his father’s friends not to mention a Maurice-ian relationship with his best pal Jimmy Carde does something that is really scandalous, but isn’t necessarily what you think it might be…but it is wife Nan who ends up defining the outcome in an unexpected way. (Her manuever at the end reminded me a bit of Dorothy Whipple’s short story called The Handbag.)
Hard to say if any of the characters will ever get what they want and be happy, but most readers will. So for those of you sitting on the fence about Murdoch, do you really want to continue to be that person. The one who has never read anything by Dame Iris? Grab one of these novels from the 1950s and if it helps, think of them as really smart chick-lit. Remember how saucey Kate Winslet…I mean the young Iris Murdoch was in the movie Iris? Well art imitates life.