on 20 February 2010
The last novel by Iris Murdoch which I reviewed for this site, "An Unofficial Rose", has a particularly complex plot, detailing a complicated web of emotional entanglements among a large group of characters. "The Sandcastle", published a few years earlier, is also a psychological study of love and desire, but with a much simpler plot and a much smaller cast of characters.
The central figure is William Mor, a middle-aged schoolmaster at a public school in Surrey, who is considering standing as the Labour candidate for the neighbouring constituency at the next election. (It is described as a safe Labour seat, although in reality Surrey is, and was even in the fifties, a stronghold of the Conservative Party). He is married with two teenage children, but the marriage is not a happy one; Mor's wife Nan is a cold, domineering personality who is fiercely opposed to her husband's political ambitions. Mor meets, and falls in love with, Rain Carter, a young painter who has come to the school to paint a portrait of Demoyte, the school's former Headmaster, and discovers that his feelings for her are returned. He therefore needs to decide whether to leave his wife for Rain, knowing that if he does so this is likely to spell the end of his career at the school and of his ambitions to enter Parliament.
The significance of the book's title becomes clear in a scene where Rain is telling Mor about her childhood. She grew up in the South of France, where she attempted to build a sandcastle on the beach, as she had seen children doing in pictures of England. The Mediterranean sand, however, proved too dry, and her sandcastle collapsed in a heap. This image can be seen as symbolic of the relationship between Mor and Rain, whose dreams of future happiness together might prove to be built out of equally unpromising materials. There may also be an intended reference to the passage in St Matthew's Gospel about the "foolish man, which built his house upon the sand".
Images of moisture and dryness are important in the novel. Rain's Christian name has obvious symbolic connotations; she is like rain falling into the parched desert of Mor's life. Water plays a part in a number of key scenes. In one early chapter Mor manages to drive Rain's car into a river, and the scene, about halfway through, in which they realise their love for one another takes place against the background of a thunderstorm. This storm marks the end of a long, dry summer heatwave which has dominated the first half of the book; again the symbolism is quite clear.
Besides Rain and Mor there are several others who play an important part in the story. Nan's marriage may not be a very happy one, but she is implacable and determined to use every weapon at her disposal to try and save it. The children Donald and Felicity have both, in different ways, been marked by the marital discord between their parents. Donald is a headstrong, rebellious young man; it is an act of reckless bravado on his part which precipitates the novel's final crisis. Felicity is a strange, fey girl, in thrall to her own private superstitions. She is convinced that she has occult powers and that she can communicate both with the ghost of the family dog, who died two years earlier, and with a supernatural being whom she names Angus. On holiday by the sea (another water image) she performs a bizarre ritual designed to divide her father from Rain.
Two characters who play lesser, but nevertheless significant, roles in the story are Demoyte and Bledyard, the school art teacher. Demoyte is a close friend of Mor and encourages his relationship with Rain; there is a suggestion that the elderly former Headmaster may be in love with the young woman himself and is using his friend as a vicarious way of fulfilling his own fantasies. Bledyard, on the other hand, urges Mor to remain faithful to Nan; he is partly motivated by his strong religious faith, which tells him that adultery is a sin, but also by a belief that Rain has a vocation as a great painter from which she will be distracted by an unnecessary romantic affair. (Murdoch also uses Bledyard as a vehicle for a debate on the philosophy of art, especially representational art).
The two most important characters, however, are of course Mor and Rain. Rather surprisingly, given that she was a young woman in her thirties when she wrote the book, Murdoch concentrates more on the middle-aged man than on his younger mistress, who despite her clear intelligence and artistic gifts is portrayed as rather naïve, a girl in search of a father-figure. We learn that Rain's own father, Sidney, who has recently died, was himself a famous painter and a great influence on her life and on the development of her artistic career.
Mor is, initially, a rather austere figure, portrayed as a man of great integrity with a deep regard for the truth. Although he is a freethinker, who does not share Bledyard's religious views, he nevertheless suffers from guilt over his deceiving Nan- not deceiving her in the sexual sense, for his relationship with Rain is never physically consummated, but deceiving her in the sense that he is concealing the truth from her- and this guilt leads him into a fatal prevarication.
This was Murdoch's third novel, after "Under the Net" and "Flight from the Enchanter", neither of which are really favourites of mine. "The Sandcastle", however, is in my view her first great novel, in which she admirably demonstrates her gifts for characterisation and psychological analysis.