The Bell is about ideas, religion, sex and human relationships. It is about people who have ideas, who share ideas, whose very thoughts change their lives and impact upon others. But more than this, in a way more simply than this, it is such an English novel.
Set in a dilapidated country house in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the English countryside The Bell examines a lay community. The community has taken up residence in the house to be close to the enclosed order of nuns who are next door at Imber Abbey.
The opening two lines are Murdoch's best "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason." And it is Dora Greenfield who we follow, through her disastrous marriage to Paul, to Imber Court where she joins her husband who is an art historian researching some 14th century manuscripts that belong to the Abbey.
Very quickly we realise that this is a fractious community, a community struggling to find its way and purpose in the modern world. The outside influences of Dora, Paul and the young Toby Gashe bring to light the flaws within the community. The peripheral presence of Nick, encamped in the lodge is a constant shadow over the community, specifically for its leader Michael Meade.
Meade is essentially a good but weak man. Naive, metaphorically blind and an idealist he has established a community but struggles to realise the very human flaws which can destroy such a community. James Tayper Pace is the very religious and austere presence and it is he who ends up as confessor.
The Abbess at Imber Abbey is the ever watchful presence within the novel. From the confines of her closed order she exercises authority over the community outside. But, at the heart of the novel is the bell itself.
Dora is told by Paul about the legend of the Abbey bell - that during the 14th century a nun was suspected of having a lover. When the Abbess asked the nun to confess, she would not. The Bishop arrived to probe the matter further, still the nun would not come forward so he put a curse on the Abbey and the bell "flew like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake". Where the bell remains as the characters prepare for a new bell to be delivered and blessed at the Abbey.
Toby Gashe discovers the old bell whilst diving in the lake and he confides in Dora. Dora knowing of the legend hatches a plan with Toby to raise the bell from the murky depths. This they achieve which sets a sequence of events spiralling out to affect all the characters and ultimately destroy the community at Imber Court.
Not only does the novel nod to realism it is also packed with symbolism and bountiful imagery. It reminds me very strongly of another of my favourite books, Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf which, whilst examining different themes, is set in a country house with the same sense of history and tension running through.
I love country house novels - and this is a perfect example. It is solid, balanced, gripping and utterly re-readable. I have an old and very dog-eared copy that has my scrawling notes throughout and bent corners, tea stains and sticky marks where my fingers have been. This copy is not the one pictured above which is a first edition - my pride and joy - that is kept very safely in a cabinet.
This is a book that I can just sink into. Every time I read it I discover something new; I realise something new about one of the characters or see an event differently. From the butterfly on the train to the raising of the bell from the lake there is so much to see and enjoy. I rant at the characters, I sympathise with them, I grieve for them, I misunderstand them and I am frustrated by them but I love returning again and again to find out what they are up to.
I am not sure why but Iris Murdoch does not seem to be as widely read as other 20th century writers. So, in an attempt to get people reading Iris Murdoch I have a copy of The Bell to give away. It is a lovely edition pictured here which was kindly donated by Fiona at Random House. To be in for a chance to win (I will draw a random winner on Friday 26 Feb) simply answer the following question: In which year was The Bell first published? I am happy to post anywhere so don't worry if you don't live in the UK. Good luck!