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Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954)

John Wilson

Iris Murdoch

Under the Net is Iris Murdoch’s first novel. It is also by far the most “London” of her novels. While several of her later novels are set in London – often in upper-middle-class homes in West Brompton – only in Under the Net is the city an essential part of the story. Far more of the action takes place on the street than in any of her later novels. The mood of the story varies with the character of the district in which each part is set, including the extensive bomb-sites that still existed at the beginning of the 1950s. The writing captures not only of the appearance but also the atmosphere of place. Except for chapters 7 and 8 about Holborn Viaduct and the City bomb-sites, most places are evoked impressionistically by one or two details.  Particularity is mostly achieved by the names of streets and pubs and the numbers of bus routes.

This is the most light-hearted of Murdoch’s novels. The central character and narrator, who addresses the reader directly, is Jake Donaghue, a writer in his thirties. Jake hasn’t really tried to get much of his own writing published but makes a reasonable living as the regular translator of a successful French novelist, Jean-Pierre Breteuil.  As narrator Jake reveals how he thinks and that taking a decision consists mainly of determining how he feels about the situation. This leads Jake and his associates through a series of highly comic (and somewhat improbable) situations. None of the large cast of characters is particularly young, but none is in a “stable relationship”, and, while most have done quite a lot in their lives already, most of them undertake a new departure in the course of the novel. The reader inhabits Jake’s mind with its sense of freedom.

One essential feature aspect of Murdoch’s 1950’s London which strikes the modern reader is that there is no difficulty in finding affordable accommodation, at least for white people without children. Jake prefers to live in his friends’ flats because of his ‘shattered nerves’, not because he can’t afford to rent a room.

Jake and Murdoch both step lightly across London.Jake has lived in many parts of the city without becoming rooted anywhere. He has friends that he may run into in pubs, particularly in Soho, but he is not invested in local friendships or a local. Jake emphatically does not have a “manor”, or a “circle of friends”. Perhaps London is the only British city where this is possible.
The novel is largely a series of comic set-pieces loosely structured by Jake’s searches for two people, Anna Quentin and Hugo Belfounder. Jake believes Anna is the love of his life. She is a well-known singer of French chanson. She is six years older than Jake, and has had many other lovers.  Hugo is a rich industrialist and currently the owner of a leading British film studio, whose star actress is Anna’s sister, Sadie. Jake is almost obsessed with Hugo as a thinker. They met as volunteer guinea-pigs at an unlikely-sounding institution called the Common Cold Research Unit (which really existed), and talked non-stop for weeks, and continued to meet and talk after they were both barred from the CCRU.

As well as London picaresque, Under the Net is somewhat about ideas, most of which are treated as dubious.Jake’s friend Dave does extra-mural teaching in philosophy, and gives tutorials in his flat. “To Dave’s pupils, the world is a mystery; a mystery to which it should be reasonably possible to discover a key. The key would be something of the sort that could be contained in a book of some 800 pages”. Dave always tries to dissuade his pupils from philosophy. The book might also be said to include an analysis of love.

When the novel opens Jake has just returned from France. “Until I have been able to bury my head so deep in dear London that I can forget I have ever been away I am inconsolable”. He meets his sidekick Finn in the street, who informs him that Magdalen (Madge), the woman in whose flat they’ve both been living rent-free, has thrown them out because she intends to get married. Magdalen has the top half of “one of those repulsive heavy-weight houses in Earls Court Road”.  It’s a “dusty, sunny July morning” and Jake observes that it’s more than two hours till opening time (until the 1980s pubs in London opened 11am to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm).  In almost every minor crisis Jake considers whether the pubs are open. After a short meeting with Magdalen Jake goes to Mrs Tinkham’s newsagent’s in Charlotte Street, which he uses as an accommodation address, taking a 73 bus. The rather appealing seediness of Mrs Tinkham’s shop and the street is efficiently evoked. Jake clearly likes the way it is. Mrs Tinkham has many cats, and has an ambition for her feline matriarch Maggie to mate with a Siamese tom who lives in the same street, but so far all her kittens have had nondescript fathers.

Jake begins his search for Anna in his characteristic way by “working Soho”, by which he means going into a lot of pubs in the hope of finding someone he knows who knows where Anna might be. Eventually he gets a lead that takes him to Hammersmith Mall between the Doves and the Black Lion (A. P. Herbert’s manor, incidentally) – “a labyrinth of waterworks and laundries with pubs and Georgian houses in between” (the waterworks is probably included for effect, it was actually across the river in Barnes). Jake does find Anna in The Riverside Miming Theatre. She gives him her thoughts on the essence of love and on mime, and suggests he asks her sister Sadie to let him stay in her luxury flat in Welbeck Street.  So he goes and finds Sadie at a very posh hairdresser’s, and she tells him that Hugo Belfounder is harassing her, and invites Jake to be her resident bodyguard. This is the first mention of Hugo, and where the backstory of Jake and Hugo is told. Jake tells the reader “my acquaintance with Hugo is the central theme of this book.” He doesn’t believe Sadie (who it later emerges is telling the truth) and assumes that she is pursuing Hugo, and that Hugo must love Anna.

Gresham House, Holborn Viaduct

Jake goes to Hugo’s address accompanied by Finn and their friend Dave, in whose flat Finn is staying. Hugo’s flat is at the top of the building at one end of Holborn Viaduct, otherwise occupied by legal and commercial firms. This building still exists, and appears to be much as it must have been in 1950. The language used in describing this part of London is distinctly romantic compared to the more matter-of-fact or impressionistic language used for other districts. Holborn Viaduct in the deserted city on a summer evening is so dramatic that “even Dave and Finn were impressed”.  They climb the stone steps to Hugo’s flat, and find the door unlocked and Hugo absent. Eventually they notice a note on the door saying “gone to the pub”, so they set off to search the pubs. They stand on Holborn Viaduct again “The intense light of evening fell upon the spires and towers of St Bride to the south, St James to the north, St Andrew to the west, and St Sepulchre,  and St Leonard Foster(sic) and St Mary-le-Bow to the east. The evening light quieted the houses and the abandoned white spires”.

They set off on a long round of visits to named pubs in named streets in the City to the east of Farringdon Street. The Viaduct Tavern and the Magpie and Stump are not described, but the George (demolished 1990) has “one of those cut-glass and mahogany superstructures through which the barman peers like an enclosed ecclesiastic”. (OK,that should be etched glass).They continue roughly eastward, and Jake’s drinking doesn’t stop him noticing the beauty of the evening: “The darkness hung in the air but spread out in a suspended powder which only made the vanishing colours more vivid … we came into Cheapside as into a bright arena, and saw framed in the gap of a ruin the pale neat rectangles of  St Nicholas Cole Abbey… in between the willow herb waved over what remained of streets. In this desolation the coloured shells of houses still raised up filled and blank square of wall and window”.  This lyrical passage ends with the words “we entered a Henekey’s house”.

They don’t find Hugo, but in the eighth pub tried they encounter a friend of Dave’s called Lefty Todd, the leader of the New Independent Socialist Party, which it later emerges Hugo is subsidising. After further conversation they decide to go swimming in the Thames. They cross a “moonswept” bombedarea, following “what used to be Fyefoot lane”and reach some steps into an inlet of the riversurrounded by gutted warehouses.Although he doesn’t say so, Jake clearly responds to the pathos of the destroyed old heart of London.

Among several comic episodes is one in Welbeck Street where Jake eavesdrops from Sadie’s fire escape at the back of her block while people in the backs of the next street speculate loudly about his being an escaped lunatic and what to do about him. The arrangement of facing fire escapes at the backs of blocks of flats is rather characteristic of this part of Marylebone.

When Jake (accompanied by a film-star dog called Mr Mars that he has kidnapped) eventually catches up with Hugo he doesn’t get a chance to talk to him; instead Jake and Mars are caught up in a riot on a film set representing ancient Rome. When the police arrive Jake escapes with Mars’s help. They walk the length of the Old Kent Road back to central London and cross Waterloo Bridge sometime after midnight, and sleep on a bench on the Victoria Embankment. In the morning Jake takes Mars to Dave’s flat off Goldhawk Road. This part of London (west of Shepherd’s Bush Green) doesn’t get much description, but some idea of it is conveyed when Jake takes Mars out for exercise.

The London story is interrupted by an interlude in Paris, during which Jake happens to seeAnna in the 14th of July crowd. He follows her for a long way and almost catches up with her in a wood in the Tuileries Gardens, but somehow loses her among the trees and people and never finds her again. He is left with overwhelming sadness.

On his return from Paris, Jake has a nervous collapse and lies on a camp bed in Dave’s flat most of every day, watching the wall of a large newish hospital. (This is obviously not Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital, and there is no other hospital near Goldhawk Road.) After a few days Jake gets up and walks into the hospital and gets his first-ever job, as an orderly. Injured Hugo is brought in as a patient. Now Jake is desperate to talk with Hugo, but hospital rules strictly forbid orderlies from talking to patients. This leads to the last comic episode, where Jake sneaks into the hospital and into Hugo’s single room at night. After a surprisingly disappointing whispered conversation, Hugo insists he has to get out of the hospital, and Jake leads him out the way he got in. This involves crawling past the night-sister’s office and barricading a store-room against a pursuing head porter. Having climbed out of a window, they then walk east together past Shepherd’s Bush Green and along Holland Park Road, and Hugo leaves Jake behind in Kensington in the early morning.

The novel ends with Jake (and Mr Mars) in Mrs Tinkham’s shop. Jake has thought about Anna, and about Hugo, and his new knowledge that Anna was in love with Hugo. He knows he will see Sadie again; and after Anna is heard singing on the radio “I smiled with a smile that penetrated my whole being like the sun”. He decides to give up translating to concentrate on his own writing, while working part-time in some hospital. He will take a cheap room near Hampstead Heath advertised on Mrs Tinkham’s notice board. The last revelation is that Maggie has finally produced kittens by the Siamese.

Changes to the locations of the novel

The main change to Earl’s Court and Shepherd’s Bush in nearly 70 years has been price. Madge couldn’t afford anything in Earl’s Court now, let alone half a house. Shepherd’s Bush Green has become almost trendy, helped by its Overground station. As it happens, the transient Australians priced out of Earl’s Court have relocated to Shepherd’s Bush, and a local pub, now sadly closed, was rather wittily named The Bush Ranger (Queen’s Park Rangers are the local football team).

John Wilson is a lifelong enthusiast for London the city and for London in literature, art and film. He came to London to study Physics at Imperial College and has lived in various parts of the city ever since.

The photograph of Gresham House on Holborn Viaduct, which was probably the location of Hugo’s flat, is reposted from London Remembers with permission:

All rights to the text remain with the author.

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