A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince

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Alas poor Yorick...

Only now, writing this up, do I realise the strange coincidence of going from a book about the court of Henry VIII to a book entitled The Black Prince. A quick go with Google (yes, the Black Prince is yet another of those cryptic historical names liable to send me into a clueless spin) tells me that the Black Prince was an Edward, eldest son of Edward III, that he lived between 1330 and 1376, and that he distinguished himself in the Battle of Crecy at the age of just 16. Bully for him. 

Not so bully for him was the fact that he caught some nasty bug in Spain and died before he had a chance to have a go on the throne. Apparently the nickname Black Prince only came in after he died and is a reference to the fact that he wore black armour (at least according to the good folk behind the BBC History website).

All of which, it turns out when you read the book, is totally irrelevant. Because the Black Prince of the title is a reference to Hamlet and nothing to do with good old Edward the wotsit at all.

Doubtless, if I were the sort of person who reads introductions, I would have had this in hand from the start. But for me introductions are things to be avoided at all costs, at the very least until you’ve actually read the book itself. They’re like the chatty PR you have to deal with before you get to interview someone – full of opinions and bias, slanting your judgement so that, unless you’re very careful, you miss the million-dollar point at the heart of it all.

In this case, however, my aversion to introductions did more than put me on the back foot with the Black Prince. It actually made me struggle to find the start of the book altogether. Clicking into the text on my Kindle, I flicked past the dreaded introduction only to find myself presented with an Editor’s Foreword.  This in turn gave on to Bradley Pearson’s Foreword. ‘Who he?’ I thought and flicked boldly on. Here was the title page – The Black Prince: A Celebration of Love. Somewhat un-Murdoch-like, perhaps but hey-ho, the old girl did write some 25 novels. I wasn’t going to begrudge her the odd flight of sentimentalism.

It was the first line that brought me up short:

It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, ‘Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife’.

OK, yes. Full marks for dramatic effectiveness. But wasn’t it rather over-egging the pudding to state the technique in this way? In contrast to the deft, swan-like mechanisms of the other Murdoch novels I’ve read and loved (The Sea, The Sea – brilliant; The Bell – really, you must) this seemed awkward and clunky. There was a hollow ring to it.

Puzzled, I flicked back to the previous pages, fighting the novice Kindle-reader’s fear that one false click could lose me the entire book. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and a reluctant skim through odd passages of the forewords, the truth became clear: the novel starts with the first foreword. The plunge into fantasy begins there.

This blurring of the lines between the real and the imagined is a staple theme for Murdoch and one of my favourite things about her. All of her characters are, to some extent, prisoners of their perceptions. But in The Black Prince, this is taken to extremes as we read the words of Murdoch’s creation, struggling writer Bradley Pearson, recounting his version of an extraordinary series of events that have overturned his dull existence.

Fencing from behind the shield of Pearson’s persona, Murdoch keeps us guessing. We cannot be sure how much of what Bradley Pearson narrates happened as he describes, if at all. The very idea of objective truth itself is taken apart by the postscripts from various characters, which point towards markedly different readings of events.

Equally, as Bradley holds forth on writing, we cannot be sure how much of it comes from him and how much is a release of the secret fears and obsessions of his creator.

For some, this sense of being perpetually at sea and the long rambling pensees on life, love and art will be too much. No-one is likeable, admirable or noble in Murdoch’s world because all are at pains to broadcast their versions of events regardless of the cost to others. People shift ground shamelessly, forming and breaking allegiances and accounts of reality as best suits their ends. 

Personally, as a struggling writer myself with all the neuroses and delusions of grandeur that that implies, I loved it.  

Picture by zizzybaloobah


Written by Ann Morgan

April 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm

One Response

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  1. Right on!

    toasty redhead

    May 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

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