FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

Reading: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea

February 24, 2012

Tags: reading, Iris Murdoch

I have been reading Iris Murdoch’s fiction since last summer, perhaps before then. I took three novels with me to Vietnam on November 1, and bought another there (which I gave away, for I had a copy at home). I began to read in order, thinking I would stop at novel seven, The Unicorn, when I would read the review I had written in the mid-sixties for the New Yorker, which William Shawn paid for but never printed. But I couldn’t find my old Iris file and simply went on reading those novels I had on my bookshelf.

Why was I reading her at all? For years since my mother’s Alzheimer’s and death, and since Bill Hedges’ similar illness and death, I had avoided all films, books, even television programs focused on Alzheimer’s. I never saw the film about Iris, and though someone gave me Iris, a biography, I never read it. And though I owned a full 13 of her 26 novels, I had not read more than the first seven.

If you have read my memoir you know how I got to Iris Murdoch in the first place. In an effort to please William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, I had agreed to write a book review for the magazine and had chosen The Unicorn. The only thing I remember about that review is that I knew I had to read the first six novels she had written in order to evaluate and analyze the seventh. I then wrote a review in the manner of a graduate student, taught not to retell plot, but to analyze. My review was nine-tenths analysis and one-tenth content, exactly the reverse of what the New Yorker would want to print.

Recently, I found five of Iris’ novels in the Strand bookstore, all of them cloth-bound first editions, each of them less than the price of a new paperback. And yesterday I finished The Sea, The Sea which won the Booker Prize in 1978. It’s a novel in the guise of an autobiography by a London-based actor/producer/director who has retired to a small house on the Northwest English coast to live alone and write a book about one particular relationship with an older woman who was an actress and his first lover. Fairly early on I grew to dislike the main character, and a bit later wrote on a page at the back of the book, “Iris is able to make me believe that this dreadful little man is writing this dreadful little book. The illusion is magnetic and keeps me reading.” I could have added, “very slowly, far more slowly than any volume of hers thus far.” But then I decided to take the day off and read straight through to the end.

I stopped once again at one of those magical/ludicrous/comical moments in an Iris Murdoch novel that only the existence of her prior 324 pages prevent one’s desire to toss the book out the window. Here is the famous retired actor/director/producer in his small house by the sea, having “freed” his long lost love by locking her in his bedroom, even though she wants to go back to her tyrannical husband. He also has to manage four other guests, some of whom arrived for an arranged weekend which he had forgotten about. The local hotel is full and he has but one real bedroom:

That night we slept as follows: I slept in my bedroom,
Hartley [the woman] slept in the middle room, Gilbert [cook]
slept on his sofa. Peregrine slept on the cushions in the bookroom,
James [cousin] slept on a couple of chairs in the little red room, and
Titus [son] slept out on the lawn.


There are wild and crazy happenings in all of Iris’s novels. Perhaps she specializes in them. And wonderful dogs as well. I am expecting a dog to turn up here and somehow reorganize the novel, especially since the absent male—the husband of Hartley and the father of Titus has just gone off to acquire a large, full-grown collie. Well, yes, there is at least one scene with the dog, a scene I read with an insight that escapes the autobiographer, who continues to believe that the “old” woman (probably in her sixties) still loves him (and not her brutal husband). As he writes, “…love seeks its own ends and discerns, even invents, its own charms.”

Should you run right out and buy this novel? Possibly, since it won the Booker, and since one might find it a cautionary tale for those who may wonder whether they have sufficient self-knowledge with which to write an autobiography. At the end, Charles confesses that he “cannot now remember the exact sequence of events in those prehistoric years.” He continues, “…that our memory, which is our self, is tiny, limited and fallible, is also one of those important things about us, like our inwardness and our reason. Indeed it is the very essence of both.” Charles, alone at the end, is somewhat wiser, somewhat kinder. He’s given up the dangers of the sea and the small house to return to life in London.

If you’ve read this novel, I’d enjoy hearing from you.

Reading: Doris Lessing’s Geography

February 20, 2012

Tags: Doris Lessing, reading

The Cleft, a novel of Lessing’s nineties, is portrayed both as a gigantic rock edging the sea on one side and a noxious cavern on the other, and the distance between male and female. It is also descriptive of female sexuality. Lessing has always been free to speak her mind about the sexes and to refuse to be labeled either feminist or anti-feminist. Here, she speaks from the persona of an aged Roman man, who is trying to write a history out of bits and pieces of recently recovered, and often incomplete, records of people called Memories. The early humans he writes about seemingly have no conception of time, nor does their land seem seasonal. At first the women bear babies from some mysterious concatenation of ocean and moon, and all babies are female. Then a baby, born with different sex organs, is placed on the Cleft to die, but is rescued by a giant eagle and taken somewhere. That place, which intrepid females uncover holds “monsters” the narrator knows were men, and from that time forward the two groups couple both for sex and for procreation, though they continue to live separately.

What drives the brief novel is the tension between the male’s desire to explore new territory, even to risk venturing out on a rough sea to reach perhaps another shore, and the female’s desire for the safety of the babies and small children. Possibly as interesting is the Roman narrator, who considers his world the best and most enlightened possible, and here Lessing cannot resist writing from an allegedly Roman point of view that resonates loudly for a twenty-first century British or American (or Chinese) reader. Here is a piece of that passage (p. 216):

I sometimes imagine how all the known world will be Roman, subject to our beneficent
rule. . . . Truly we make deserts bloom and the lands we conquer blossom. . . . Some
greater power than human guides us, leads us, points where our legions must go next.
And if there are those who criticize us, then I have only one reply. Why, then, if we lack
the qualities needed to make the whole earth flourish, why does everyone want to be a
Roman citizen? All, everybody, from any part of our empire and beyond, wants to be a
free man inside Roman law, Roman peace.


Do I recommend this book to you? Yes, if you are a Lessing addict as I am and have somehow missed it. Yes if you like imaginative recreations of the two sexes, and life without the New York clutter of the Glass apartment where Franny and Zooey live.

Yesterday I had lunch with an 86-year old sociologist who lives in my building and who was reading a copy of Lessing’s The Grandmothers, another recent volume I have missed, but will gather up soon and write about here. Yes, the blog is unleashing me.

On Feral Teeth

February 20, 2012

Tags: film

I have to comment on the feral teeth of Keira Knightly in “A Dangerous Method.” I can’t get them out of my brain. But perhaps I should begin by saying that, while most people claim to look first at people’s eyes, I have always looked first at their teeth. The reason is simple: I had teeth so crooked that I learned never to smile except with my lips locked. My mother referred to me as a “dental cripple,” and I went from crooked teeth to braces, never showing my mouth to anyone.

So her teeth, large and animal-like, shooting out of a huge feral jaw, at first repelled me. I could feel my body cringing in my seat. She frightened me. And her story was also frightening, for her thin (and to me beautiful) body had grown up sexually excited by pain and other forms of cruelty inflicted by her father.

But this was to be a film about the work of Jung and Freud, or rather, about the younger Jung’s application of the older Freud’s “talking cure,” declared by the film makers as “A Dangerous Method.” Yes, we might ask, dangerous for whom? The patient Keira plays becomes a doctor who herself treats patients with the talking cure. So was it dangerous for her?

The danger in this film is to Jung’s family life, for his beautiful and rich blond wife is having babies and the too-handsome-in-the-film actor playing Jung quite easily falls for his patient, and breaks the taboo forbidding patients and doctors to become lovers. Or rather the danger has to do with the male libido—with Jung’s need for those feral teeth that I found frightening. Nothing makes this clearer, not even Freud’s apparent breaking with Jung over this taboo, than the fact that, though he has taken a second mistress, he doesn’t want to let go of the first one. She leaves him. He is depicted at the end as depressed, though he has his family of beautiful children and his wife, and even his new mistress.

Reading: Serendipity Stirs the Imagination

February 19, 2012

Tags: reading, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Literary bits and pieces

For many months I have been reading Iris Murdoch “from the beginning,” which has been my habit since retirement. I settle on an author, and read in order the whole ouvre, or, in her case, the body of fiction. During the past several years I read through Jane Austin, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Doris Lessing, Marilyn French, Naguib Mahfouz, J.M. Coetsea, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster. But I avoided Iris Murdoch, not to mention Virginia Woolf, though I won’t explain my reasons here, but in a later blog. What I want to write about here is serendipity: an accident that may happen in a bookstore (as long as we have bookstores) one especially endearing, mind-teasing, and yes, so full of pleasure, if you are a reader like me. (more…)

Select Works

"Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

Quick Links