Iris Murdoch Readalong: The Italian Girl

A short Gothic drama about hedonism versus the ethical life, this was my seventh Murdoch novel, and, alas, one of the less memorable ones (along with An Unofficial Rose and The Black Prince). Narrator Edmund Narraway, an engraver in his forties, arrives at the family home, a Victorian rectory in the North, one moonlit night shortly after his mother’s death. He’s locked out, but fortunately there’s another night prowler about who can let him in: David Levkin, the apprentice to Edmund’s drunken stonemason brother, Otto.

Edmund finds his mother Lydia’s body laid out on her bed and recalls the almost Oedipal relationships she had with him and his brother. Hints of incest are also there in Edmund’s infatuation with his niece, Flora, while various characters are in love (or lust) with David and his peculiar sister, Elsa, who both live in the property’s summer house. As in A Severed Head, the language of possession marks these shifting bonds as unhealthy and obsessive.

Murdoch often sets up stark dichotomies between characters and situations, and here Otto and Edmund serve as the two poles: “Otto’s Gothic, you know,” his wife Isabel says to Edmund. “He is the north. He’s primitive, gross.” In contrast, Edmund clings to the narrow way (as his surname suggests) of morality, taking a hard line on his niece’s ethical dilemma and largely avoiding the sexual temptations that come his way. “You are a good man,” Isabel tells him. “You are the assessor, the judge, the inspector, the liberator. You will clear us all up.”

I found this setup a little too simplistic (the brothers are also referred to by the shorthand of “wet-lipped” and “dry-lipped”), and the generalizing about Jews that bothered me in A Severed Head is worse here: there’s a whole chapter entitled “Two Kinds of Jew.” Given the title, I was unsure what role Maggie, the latest in Lydia’s series of Italian servants, is meant to play. She’s virtually speechless until the final chapter, and seems most like a nun.

A surprise will, a fire, and an interlude in an “enchanted wood” keep things moving along quickly, and it’s Murdoch’s shortest novel, almost what you’d call novella length. But this mostly felt to me like an unnecessary reprise of A Severed Head (and perhaps The Unicorn, which I haven’t read but know has a very Gothic atmosphere).

 My rating:


I’m participating on and off in Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to get through some of the paperbacks I own. See also her interesting introductory post on The Italian Girl. I have two more readalong books lined up for later in the year: The Nice and the Good in September and An Accidental Man in December. Join us for one or more!

Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?

14 responses

  1. As a teenager I used to read a lot of Murdoch, but I haven’t since. I’m not sure how motivated I feel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting. Annabel said much the same thing. I wonder if it was a moody teen thing to do? 🙂 I don’t think I read her until my mid-twenties. Liz (who runs the readalong) started reading Murdoch in her early teens and has reread most of the novels several times since then. This is really a re-reading project for her, whereas I’m just jumping in on a few books where I happen to own the paperback and haven’t read it yet. So far my favourites have been The Bell, The Sea, the Sea, and A Severed Head (which is nice and short, too).

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I will put her higher up my list then, and see how I feel about her these days.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d love to hear how you react to her after a gap – I certainly feel differently now about the ones I read as a teenager. I love hearing about re-readings and how the story changes in the gap as the reader changes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She’s on the list – but keeps on being bumped downwards …..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I understand that feeling.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. iconoclasticnan1 | Reply

    When I read her over the decades, with long intervals between novels, I was always delighted to escape into her beguiling and intriguing scenarios. Now, reading one after another, especially these gothic ones, I find myself much less ‘enchanted’ and even irritated by them. Much happier now with ‘The Red and the Green’. I somehow feel that the characters here are somehow thin and plot-driven so I really don’t care about them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is why I haven’t been participating every month, just off and on. Even with a few months in between, I’m starting to find the characters and plots too similar. I suppose any author’s quirks could become annoying after a while! I don’t know anything about The Red and the Green; I’ll look out for Liz and others’ reviews of that one.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] and we’ve had a bit of discussion in the comments already. Bookish Beck reviewed it on her blog but did comment that she felt she got more out of my assessment than out of the book […]


  5. I think the thing about IM which I find very interesting is that people tend to love her whole oeuvre as a set of shifting perspectives on the same kinds of characters and situations, or not at all. A few people will read one or two but I think I know more people that read and re-read her whole set of works than I do people who read other authors’. I’m a completist myself so I do do it with others, but Murdoch is the one I come back to. I did start reading them in my teens and was enthralled by the transgression and glamour but stayed for the characters and truth about goodness. I think you must either get annoyed by the saminess or sucked into her world.

    Red and the Green is a slight anomaly, being her historical novel, but it’s still got many of the same characters.


  6. […] me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she […]


  7. […] Ducane helps the department look into Radeechy’s death in hopes of avoiding a public enquiry. It seems the man was involved in some bizarre stuff – witchcraft with prostitutes? – and was being blackmailed for it. However, the city and country divide is stark, and so the investigation never overpowers the more low-key interpersonal intrigues down in Dorset. There are lots of important though secondary characters in this ensemble cast – so many that I struggled to pay attention to all of them (Uncle Theo?). Of these I’ll just give a special mention to Holocaust survivor Willy Kost. Thankfully, there’s a much more positive vision of Judaism here than in A Severed Head or The Italian Girl. […]


  8. […] [my phrase] edition of Iris Murdoch’s “The Italian Girl” (read her review here) and decided to send it to me. How lovely! Thank […]


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