Iris Murdoch is at her witty, merciless best in this fictional account of a group of friends and relatives who are victims of their own lack of self-awareness. There are characters who fall in love but do so with the wrong person or fall in love with the right person for the wrong reasons or who think they are in love but are not really or who are in love but lack the conviction to follow through on their feelings. Then there are those who lose their beloved to another because their maneuverings have the exact opposite of what they had contrived to accomplish. There is enough star crossing of lovers to allow Anthony Nuttall, who wrote an insightful introduction to this Penguin Classic edition, to suggest that, An Unofficial Rose is Shakespearian in all its plotting and sub plotting. However, it begins with a funeral which to me seems somewhat Dickensian.
Chapter one introduces all the important players. Sixty-seven-year-old Hugh Peronett, supported by family and friends is attending the funeral of his wife, Fanny. He is musing over whether he really loved her or married her for her money. As he leaves he catches a brief glimpse in his peripheral vision of Emma Sands, with whom he had had an adulteress affair some twenty-five before. Hugh met Emma through his wife as they had been friends at boarding school.
With much detail revealed in the first chapter about Hugh and his family including: his fifteen-year-old grandson, Penn visiting from Australia, his son, Randall his daughter in law, Ann as well as their fourteen-year-old daughter, Miranda one would think the story was all about him. However, the story soon shifts to Ann and the rose nursery she runs with husband Randall. She and Randall have become estranged since the death of their son Stephen who died a year before of Polio, a disease rarely mentioned in our era of corona viruses and the like but which was a raging epidemic back in the nineteen fifties of the last century. Randall has given up on the horticultural business and is trying to become a writer. This ambition is stymied by his tendency to spend all day in his study drinking. Beyond alcohol, Randall’s only other solace is an affair he is having with Lindsay Rimmer who is Emma Sand’s secretary/companion and perhaps, though it is never stated outright, also her lover.
With one of the character’s named Miranda I thought there would be some sort of reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In a way, there is except that here the Miranda character is not a sweet innocent young woman being manipulated into love and marriage by a benevolent father. Here she is a manipulator herself, maneuvering to steer her mother away from Felix, a man who has been in love with Ann for many years but who is the object of Miranda’s teenage affection. The novel is very much about meddling in other people’s lives in order to get one’s own way. Hugh ends up selling part of his wife’s inheritance to provide Randell with an income so that he can achieve financial independence and get out of his marriage with Ann. Hugh’s motive for doing so is his hope that Randell will elope with Lindsay and then, with Lindsay out of the way he might be free to court Emma and continue on their abandoned affair. However, in the background, Mildred Finch, the wife of an old colleague is trying her best to wheedle her way into Hugh’s life and engage in an extra marital affair, a project concocted with her husband, Humphrey’s consent as he had married contrary to his sexual orientation.
It does not do this novel justice to outline these relationships as I have done and make it sound like a soap opera. In fact, this is an elegant comedy of errors with a philosophical depth that touches on existentialism. Ann as a central character comes across as weak and indecisive. Randell abandons her and leaves for Italy demanding a divorce and she does nothing. Then Felix proposes marriage and still she does nothing. In not acting she is choosing oblivion. No choice is a choice; the choice of being left alone and sad.
The charm of this book is in the way it is woven. It reads like a stage play with characters making their entrances, revealing their stories and making their appropriate exit in an orderly fashion. The story is built steadily layer upon layer. While this was not the best-selling of Iris Murdoch’s novels it demonstrates a mastery that anyone trying to learn the creative potential of literary fiction can appreciate. It has a lot to say.