A Severed Head is Iris Murdoch’s fifth novel, published in 1961. It follows a claustrophobic circle of Kensington literati as their liberal sensibilities hilariously contort their relationships into a farcical drama of love, loss and the occasional academic tangent. While Kensington is best known for its high society lifestyle and the national institutions that are the museums there, Murdoch’s novel shows us what life might have been (and might still be, who knows) like behind closed doors.
The novel begins with the well to-do wine merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon believing he is entirely capable of maintaining a relationship with both his wife, Antonia, and his lover, Georgie; he is soon surprised to find out his wife, Antonia, has fallen in love with her psychoanalyst, Palmer.
From Georgie’s flat off Covent Garden, Martin returns home to Hereford Square only to find out he must decamp for the sake of his stuttering marriage. He moves from Hereford to Lowndes Square while occasionally dropping back in on his old house to pick up the odd crate of wine or piece of art. Punctuating these scenes are visits by Martin to Palmer’s house in Pelham Crescent, just a five-minute walk from his and Antonia’s old house. Palmer’s house is best characterised in the scene where Martin enters the dimly-lit drawing room to find Antonia and her therapist lingering a second too long in an intimate coil.
Add to the mix Palmer’s haunting Cambridge classicist sister, Honor Klein, and the occasional appearance from Martin’s brother from Oxford, Alexander. What you get in A Severed Heard, is a world where the intellectualisation of love and sex results in a cacophony of ridiculous situations where actions are rationalised to the point of ignoring basic common sense.
One thing critics often pick up on when discussing A Severed Head is the motif of visibility, or lack thereof, in the novel. Only two scenes occur outdoors and neither of these in full daylight. Fog and mist are common backdrops to sequences where our sufferer-in-chief, Martin, struggles to find his way towards clarity, which, without ruining the ending, he finds in the most obvious of ways. Rooms, ceilings, walls and doors close the characters off from the wider world and in these highly-controlled environments, they are able to enact their adulterous and, as continual reference to classical literature demand, fantastically out-of-touch lives. South Kensington and Gloucester Road stations become a portal into this world, and in one memorable scene Palmer rings Martin as he arrives back in the area after another tumultuous shift in the relationships of the novel. People do not simply pass into Kensington – they must step into it and once in, it is difficult to leave the suffocating closeness of it all.
The small pocket of extreme wealth in Kensington is home to the unfolding novel; however, the area does not serve the novel in another way but to signpost the sort of person Murdoch is presenting. You will not find any of these characters doing a hard day’s work; instead, you will find them stewing over their continuous ardent desires and impulses. In one of the final movements of the novel we find ourselves at the foot of Georgie’s bed in Charing Cross Hospital over in Fulham. What is striking about this scene is how much all these people need each other to survive. While the novel does not shine a great light upon the people of Kensington, what it reminds us of is that even those who live in total wealth and professional ease suffer just like the rest of us.
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