The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch
After being the only person to sort of enjoy parts of The Black Prince (reviewed here) at our book group last month, I was slightly wary of reading another of her novels so soon. But the Great Iris Murdoch Readalong hosted by Liz Dexter was up to her 1964 novel The Italian Girl in June (yes, my review is slightly late). It’s one of her shorter novels, and I happen to have my late mum’s first edition copy, so I thought why not.
The plot is ostensibly simple: Edmund plans to return home only briefly for his mother Lydia’s funeral, but once there can’t get away due to the situation his brother Otto has got himself into which affects the whole family.
Of course, it’s slightly more complex than that. Edmund and his older brother Otto are both artists, Edmund a wood engraver and Otto a stonemason. Otto lives and works at the family manor with his wife Isabel, and teenage daughter Flora. Otto has an new apprentice, David Levkin from Leningrad, who lives nearby with his sister Elsa. And what of the ‘Italian Girl’? She is Maria Magistretti, known as Maggie, the housekeeper/nanny, the latest in a long line of Italian girls who’ve looked after the family. Otto has taken to sleeping in his studio and drinking far too much; Isabel suspects goings on. Meanwhile Flora is back from school, she’s a wild child that only Lydia could really control – and she is also in a predicament and demands Edmund’s help.
Edmund keeps saying he must go. Isabel reproaches him rather bitterly…
“Perhaps you’re right, Edmund. You’d better get back to your good life. I shouldn’t have bothered you like this. It’s just that I’m caged, bored. I want emotion and pistol shots.”
Emotion and pistol shots: Lydia had wanted these things too. They were just what I feared and hated. I fled from the room.
The character of Lydia, although dead, haunts this novel throughout – calling her Livia, as in Claudius’s grandmother would perhaps have been too obvious, but she had a similar hold on her family, in particular terrorising Isabel, who is the most interesting character in the story, marrying into this demanding family, being spurned yet being made of strong enough stuff to keep going, despite retreating into her own rooms, surrounded by her things, as Edmund describes:
It was an Edwardian room with dreams of the eighteenth century. I backed away from the fire and leaned on the end of the mantelpiece, carefully shifting some ivory water-buffaloes out of reach of my elbow.
The water-buffaloes made me laugh. The Black Prince has similar (brass) ornaments too. Why water-buffalo?
Edmund, like The Black Prince‘s Bradley is another rather asexual cipher for everyone else’s attentions, although Flora, like Julian in the aforementioned novel, has him atremble a bit! For the most part, he is controlled and the total opposite of his brother, although often exasperated by his family. Thrust into Murdoch’s literary farce, everyone’s secrets are revealed to him. It’s not just a comedy though, this novel has tragedy too before its resolution. And what of the Italian girl? What’s her role? Apart from saying she comes into her own later, that would be telling.
Compared with The Black Prince written ten years later and packed full of literary allusion, The Italian Girl is much slighter and definitely more pacy. I gather from Liz’s write-up that it has many of Murdoch’s trademarks. It’s undoubtedly not her best, but was an enjoyable diversion nonetheless. I did, however, really like the wood engravings by Reynolds Stone that bookend the novel (see right).(7/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Iris Murdoch, The Italian Girl, (1964, Chatto & Windus) Vintage paperback, 176 pages.
BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)