“In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave.”
Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head opens with our smug married narrator, claret merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, winding up a languorous afternoon with his much younger mistress, Georgie. Christmas is approaching, and for Georgie it’s not an easy time as she won’t be seeing Martin; he’ll be spending a quiet holiday with his wife of 11 years, Antonia. Martin admits to himself that he “misled Georgie about the success” of his marriage. Privately, he considers himself very happily married and it’s clear that Antonia and Georgie occupy some sort Ying-Yang design in Martin’s life (and mind). The two women are polar opposites, and by the end of an afternoon of blissful love with Georgie, Martin is practically purring like a cat. Martin, who’s rather patronizing to Georgie, brushes over her disappointments, her loneliness, her needs…
I did not fall desperately in love with Georgie; I considered myself by then too old for the desperation and extremity which attends a youthful love. But I loved her with a sort of gaiety and insouciance which was more spring-like than the real spring, a miraculous April without its pangs of transformation and birth. I loved her with a wild undignified joy, and also with a certain cheerful brutality, both of which were absent from my always more decorous, my essentially sweeter relationship with Antonia. I adored Georgie too for her dryness, her toughness, her independence, her lack of intensity, her wit, and altogether for her being such a contrast, such a complement, to the softer and more moist attractions, the more dewy radiance of my lovely wife. I needed both of them, and having both of them I possessed the world.
Both women exist, it seems for Martin’s needs, and if by the end of that quote, you’re annoyed by Martin, then hang on and read the book. Martin is about to get his just desserts. …
While Martin is busy in his little love nest with Georgie, Antonia is busy with intrigues of her own. She’s undergoing psychotherapy with American Palmer Anderson. Martin knows Antonia has a case of “tremendous transference,” and that Palmer’s “good at setting people free.” We see the warning signs before Martin does, and after leaving Georgie’s place, he returns to the luxurious home and waits for Antonia. She drops the bombshell that she’s dumping Martin and moving in with Palmer. According to Antonia, marriage is “an adventure in development” and that their union isn’t “getting anywhere.” Martin responds: “one doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.”
There’s the question of ethics. Palmer is having an affair with a married patient, but that’s the not only taboo that exists within the pages of this novel. It would probably be natural to imagine that with Antonia exiting the marriage, Martin would cling to Georgie, but no, he avoids her; she was a complement to Antonia, the antidote if you will, and they exist as a pair of bookends. The relationships “strangely nourished each other.”
Martin mentions early on that Antonia is 5 years older than him, and at several points in the novel, he notes, fondly, that she’s aging, and he tends to mention her in the same sentence as his mother–not a good sign. Hilariously, on some level, Palmer and Antonia recognize this, and while Martin is belligerent at his wife being ‘stolen’ (as he sees it), Palmer and Antonia begin to assume the role of parents with Martin as their ‘sick’ child who must be nursed through the agony and pain of the break-up. Together, Palmer and Antonia want to dissect everything with Martin, so when Antonia discovers Georgie, it adds fuel to the madness.
A Severed Head is a focused novel and includes just a handful of characters: Martin, Antonia, Palmer, Georgie, Martin’s siblings Alexander and Rosemary, and Palmer’s sister Cambridge don, Honor Klein. They are all mentioned in the first chapter, and they rotate, in their chaotic relationships, rather like a Shakespearean comedy. There are several points in the novel when Martin (who starts out as classic dickhead and then becomes a buffoon) describes difficulty in seeing his way through mists and fogs. This is, of course, literal, but by the end of the book, Martin’s impaired ‘sight’ is figurative. He’s the last person to grasp what’s been going on right under his nose.
I loved this book; in its exploration of the ridiculous, bad behaviour of a handful of educated, privileged people who have far too much spare time on their hands, it’s brilliant and funny. There’s nose-punching, dramatic scenes and inappropriate groping as these upper middle class people find themselves actors in a tawdry drama.
There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship.
Special thanks to the Gerts for their recent review of Murdoch’s Under the Net which motivated me to dig out one of my many unread novels from this author.