The fictional authors at the centre of Iris Murdoch’s best novel embody the tortured philosopher in search of perfection and the prolific, publicly celebrated novelist  

Written by Miles Leeson

Publication date and time: Published

In her journal on 21 December 1971, Iris Murdoch recorded ‘Finished BP today. Thank God’.  The novel, The Black Prince, had gone through a difficult period of gestation. She wrote to her friend from Somerville College, Oxford, the philosopher Philippa Foot, earlier that summer that ‘My mind seems absolutely seized up, the novel awful – utter inability to think – and generally demon-ridden.’ Her mental health, which fluctuated throughout her life, was at a low ebb in the preceding year and her private writings suggest that she wished to move away from the realism of her previous novel, An Accidental Man (1971).  

Although not yet at the height of her fame – that would come in 1978 when she won the Booker Prize for The Sea, The Sea – Murdoch was well-regarded and widely read by 1971,  having made a name for herself with her debut novel, Under the Net, in 1954, and having already been twice-shortlisted for the Booker. The Nice and the Good was shortlisted for the inaugural prize in 1969, with Bruno’s Dream shortlisted a year later. She would go on to be shortlisted for the main prize three more times, for The Black Prince (1973), The Good Apprentice (1985); and The Book and the Brotherhood (1987). A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970) was longlisted for the Lost Man Booker in 2010, 11 years after her death.  

Most years brought a new novel and she had, since the mid-1960s, split her time between her home with John Bayley in Steeple Aston near Oxford and her London flat in Cornwall Gardens, Kensington. No longer needing to teach philosophy – she left her final post at the Royal College of Art in 1967 – Murdoch dedicated herself to her craft and, barring frequent excursions abroad, wrote continuously each day with her fiction given space in the morning. 

Iris Murdoch, 2001

The Black Prince focuses on an ageing writer, Bradley Pearson, and his desire to create a perfect novel. His friend, the popular genre novelist Arnold Baffin, is a ‘one book a year man’, whom Bradley despises, despite his attraction to Arnold and being envious of his success. Bradley has ambition but produces nothing of note. At the beginning of the novel we find him looking out of his flat at the ‘serene austere erection’ of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower, a central Freudian symbol that haunts him throughout the novel) wishing to get away and escape from London, but a phone call from Arnold asking him to ‘come round here please’ as he may have killed his wife, Rachel, prevents this. Indeed, the black comedy of the novel – and it is devastatingly funny – revolves around figures from Bradley’s past (his sister Priscilla Saxe, his ex-wife Christian Evandale, his ex-wife’s brother Francis Marloe) intruding on his solitude. But the book’s major factor is Bradley’s falling in love with Julian Baffin, Arnold’s 20-year-old daughter, during a tutorial on Shakespeare’s Hamlet – and its devastating consequences. This is doubly uncomfortable as Julian is not only nearly 30 years Bradley’s junior, she also considers him ‘a kind of funny uncle’, which adds a quasi-incestuous hue to their already imbalanced relationship. Bradley is infuriating, deluded, certainly mentally unstable, and at the end of the novel Arnold is dead and Bradley is in prison for his murder: but who really killed Arnold Baffin? The metafictional structure of the novel does not leave us with easy answers. 

The Black Prince is unlike any other Murdoch novel in regard to its structure, so perhaps we can sense a change coming at this point in her career. Opening with a fictional forward by Bradley’s editor, one P. Loxias, we then move on to the central story, subtitled ‘A Celebration of Love’ which has been written by Bradley but subsequently edited by Loxias. Finally, we are presented with four postscripts written by other characters, Christian, Francis, Rachel and Julian, each of which throws doubt on the version of events that Bradley has just relayed to us. The last word is given to Loxias who, we are led to believe, has also edited these postscripts to his own ends. So where does the truth of the story lie? Not only does the novel ask questions of us as readers in relation to love and truth, but it suggests that the author herself is at once removed from, but hovering over, the pages of the novel, playfully distorting our sense of perception and removing any solid grounding in realism.  

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley

In this regard The Black Prince shares affinities with Nabokov’s Lolita, published a decade earlier in controversial circumstances: Murdoch was one of the signatories to a letter to The Times supportive of its UK publication in the face of a possible ban. But the novel is very much her own creation, reflecting on and ridiculing French structuralism’s claim that the author was no longer the ‘God’ of the text. In The Black Prince, it is Apollo, the God of truth and prophecy, in his guise as Loxias, who is placed in the editor’s chair, mocking the author’s freedom, power and intent. Indeed, this Loxias-as-Apollo reading is no secret: the cover of the British first edition of the novel has a classical sculptural image of Apollo looking out at the reader. Murdoch had always used classical imagery, alongside the Shakespearian, to embolden her work, but here it is on display in a self-acknowledging playfulness that is entirely new to her oeuvre.  

This is a novel ripe for reconsideration with regard to its intertextuality; the art and literature it employs to draw our attention to the fictiveness of the story itself. Naturally our minds first think of Shakespeare, and of Hamlet. After completing her tenth novel, The Time of the Angels (1966), Murdoch was at a turning point, asking – much as Bradley Pearson does – whether she was ever going to publish a masterpiece and, if so, was now the time to attempt it? ‘Must get back to Shakespeare’, her journal records, and she spent the next year of her life re-reading all of his poetry and plays: the effect on her writing was to be profound and marks a break with her earlier work.  

The play-within-a-play scene from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Whilst there are Shakespearian references in her first period, it is with The Nice and the Good (1968) that we feel the rising influence of the bard: with The Black Prince it comes front and centre. Bradley informs Julian that Hamlet is a ‘second rate’ play because it is here, and in the Sonnets, that Shakespeare reveals himself too much alongside his obsessions. The comedic effect of this should not be lost on the reader as Bradley has plentiful obsessions himself. Murdoch herself is also present here, and the figures of Bradley and Arnold present two sides of her; on the one hand, the tortured philosopher-novelist always attempting (and as she saw it failing) to produce a perfect work of art, and on the other, the prolific and celebrated novelist she had become in the public eye. Certainly, there is here a sustained psychoanalytic reflection on her own sense of self; later, her image would be substantially changed following her death, when revelations about her private life were made public in various biographies and in the publication of her letters in 2015. However, there is also a hint at rivalry with other novelists here. At this time, she was a close friend of A. S. Byatt, later to win the Booker herself with Possession (1990), and had earlier been Byatt’s mentor. Byatt herself had written the first book-length work of literary criticism on Murdoch in 1965. That Arnold Baffin has the same initials as Antonia Byatt is, I think, no accident. 

Perhaps the central image that should draw our eyes is Titian’s late 16th century painting, The Flaying of Marsyas. Murdoch first saw this work at the Royal Academy in 1983 but she had been obsessed with it for many years prior to seeing it; indeed, it is mentioned in her earlier work, A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970). It depicts the concluding scene of the myth of Apollo and Marsyas, a mortal who challenged the god to a musical competition and, naturally, lost: now hung upside down he is being flayed alive as his punishment. This scene of torture, however, is offset by the odd smile on the face of Marsyas which, Murdoch said in an interview, is ‘an image of the death of egoism’, and although being a cruel picture, it became for her ‘a sort of icon, a religious icon’: indeed, she thought it ‘the greatest picture in the world’. 

The Flaying of Marsyas by Titian

In 1984 the National Portrait Gallery in London commissioned the artist Tom Phillips to paint Murdoch’s portrait, which is currently on display. Both Murdoch and Phillips had seen The Flaying of Marsyas at the Royal Academy and their mutual love for it meant that Phillips ‘started a fairly hasty copy of the picture to act as a backdrop so that she might sit in front of the head of Marsyas.’ The painting took three years to complete and has become recognised as a defining image of Murdoch, as well as a Phillips masterpiece. 

For Murdoch, as for The Black Prince, there is a tension between the figure of the saint and that of the artist. The creative spirit of the novel is asking if, in seeking perfection, which only a god can achieve, we are ruling out the necessity of creating good and accessible art. In her journal in the spring of 1971 she wrote, ‘The false God nourishes. The true God slays.’ At the end of the novel we are left pondering if Bradley has undergone this flaying and if his languishing in prison is a result of his ego-ridden murder of Arnold, or as a scapegoat for another character. The jury is still out among readers. 

Having read and re-read Murdoch’s works for 20 years this novel is, I think, her very best. It shows us both the confident artist at the height of her powers, and yet undercuts that with a metafictional work that displays both the artifice of fiction and the conflict that lies at the heart of any writer. This is why this novel, and indeed all her fiction, continues to endure; as Bradley tells us, ‘the rag bag of human consciousness is only unified by the experience of great art or of intense love’. 

Miles Leeson is the Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre, University of Chichester 

Iris Murdoch by Tom Phillips, oil on canvas, 1984-1986