A Fairly Honourable Defeat
|A Fairly Honourable Defeat|
First edition cover
|Published||1970 (Chatto & Windus)|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
A Fairly Honourable Defeat is a novel by the British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch.
The lives of several friends are thrown into disarray by the machinations of Julius King. Julius makes a bet with his ex-girlfriend Morgan that he can break up the homosexual couple Axel and Simon; meanwhile, Morgan and her brother-in-law Rupert are conned into embarking on an affair, and Morgan's nephew Peter is falling in love with her.
Julius King, returning from a university job in America, seeks out his old school friends, Rupert Foster and Axel Nillson. His former lover, Morgan Browne, Foster's sister-in-law, has arrived in England at the same time. Foster's attempts to keep them apart are thwarted by Morgan Browne, still in love with King and determined to confront him. At the same time, she is avoiding her husband, Tallis Browne, who still loves her.
The plot is complicated further when, almost immediately and by accident, Julius King meets Tallis Browne. King is intrigued by his old lover's husband, a rather nondescript fellow with not much personal presence but considerable moral integrity.
King himself is a man of formidable intellect, and he does not suffer anyone gladly. He is irritated by what he sees as self-satisfied and patronising conduct in his friends, and he sets out, without much concern for the consequences, to put them in compromising situations. Morgan, his love from the past, will not leave him alone, and though he has a quick way of chastening her for her importunities, he determines to include her in his plans. Rupert Foster, rather full of himself since he has just finished his book on the power of good and love in life, is ripe and ready to be fooled, and Morgan, full of the hot air of spurned love and dramatising her problems for all to see, appears to be just the mate for Rupert, if King can somehow get them together. To make the game more interesting, he takes on the extra task of breaking up the homosexual relationship between Axel Nillson and Simon, Rupert's brother.
Using a mixture of high cunning, sheer criminality, and pinches of blackmail, King tempts his friends into situations which they would never have contemplated and which ultimately result not only in revealing flaws in their characters but also in causing serious harm to Rupert, for which King, a cool, nerveless fellow, takes no responsibility. Everyone learns how ridiculously vulnerable they are, but Axel and Simon escape from King's labyrinth of “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t,” strengthened in their love and less inclined to be shamefaced about being homosexual. Whether Morgan Browne learns anything is unclear, and the damage done to the Fosters is gratuitously cruel.
Characters in A Fairly Honourable Defeat
- Julius King, academic
- Rupert Foster, his former colleague, a senior civil servant writing a book on living morally
- Hilda Foster, Rupert's wife
- Simon Foster, Rupert's brother
- Axel Nillson, Rupert's colleague and Simon's partner
- Morgan Browne, Tallis' wife, Julius's rejected lover and Hilda's sister
- Tallis Browne, Morgan's estranged husband
- Peter Foster, Rupert and Hilda's son
As is always the case in Murdoch's novels, the characters carry a load of surface information with them. What everyone looks like, does, eats, thinks, and desires is laid out quickly, and Murdoch returns on several occasions throughout the novel to give more information as it is needed to support twists in the plot. Despite this determination to hide nothing, Julius King, who is the central figure in this game of deception, is curiously thin. It is made clear that he finds Rupert's self-satisfaction and optimism offensive, but what he does to Rupert and to others goes beyond sophisticated, mischievous chastisement to vindictiveness. What makes him more puzzling is the very late revelation that he suffered as a concentration camp victim during the war. Nothing is made of this, and nothing is explained of his puzzling indifference to the disaster that he causes. He is, in the end, quite happily enjoying the sights of Paris, smug in having got away with as much as he did and in his “fairly honourable defeat.”
Murdoch has always had a tendency simply to "stop" a novel, seemingly satisfied that enough is enough, but loose-endedness is particularly obvious in the way she leaves characters in this work. It is not simply a question of why King is so mean-spirited; other characters are also abandoned quite up in the air. Tallis Browne (who must be the worst housekeeper in the history of the novel) is a thoroughly good man, but his situation is simply unresolved. It may be, however, that theme influences the fate of the characters, since life perceived as "muddle" (as Murdoch puts it) does preclude resolution; this could explain why Murdoch allows her characters to do quite incredible things, inconsistent with what is expected of them.
Murdoch is usually not strong on depth in character. She likes breadth, lots of interesting participants doing surprising things. On the surface level, she does look with considerable scarifying skill at the innocent pomposities of a good man (Rupert) and on the torments and timidities of homosexuals trying to escape a life of cheap thrills. There is an impressive example of literary economy in the way in which Tallis Browne makes his integrity and moral determination clear with one thunderous slap across the face of a racist thug. Depth of characterisation and consistency, however, are not really required here; Murdoch is often manipulating characters to illustrate ideas. In fairness, however, it should be recognised that her characters of "surface" can possess astonishing body: Leonard Browne, for example, Tallis’ dying father, personifies a stunning, thick, violent flow of language, a ranter who merits a place in a Beckett novel.
The "defeat" of the title may be that of Tallis, failing to renew his relationship with his wife; however, in a sense, all the protagonists are comically defeated in one manner or another. Rather than a wicked or satanic character, Julius is a Loki-like mischief-maker who juxtaposes and undermines Tallis' moral standing. Ultimately, this is a novel about various forms of silence. It illustrates the paradoxical notion that what remains unsaid, what is kept secret, can emerge as a violent and dangerous undoing. Iris Murdoch puts realistic characters in contrived situations, and shows how their moral views and understandings affect their lives.
On the surface, Iris Murdoch is manipulating the pretensions of middle-class life and revealing how easy it is to make a good man fool himself into disaster once his vanity is aroused. Rupert ought to know better, is certainly intelligent enough to know better, and even Morgan, who is not unintelligent, ought to have more sense than to think that everyone in the world must naturally fall in love with her. Julius King makes good his boast of being able to turn people into puppets by appealing to their inclination to think far too well of themselves, even if innocently so. Good, in a sense, is no match for evil under such circumstances. Nor is it much consolation that King believes it necessary to confess his tricks to the really good man, Tallis Browne. Browne may order him to tell Hilda the truth, but it is sadly too late, and ordering him to leave London is not much punishment. Nor does the good man possess the power to draw his wife back to him or save his father from the inexorable horror of a painful death. In a sense, Tallis Browne's home, a squalid mess, is a symbol of the nature of things, for however hard Browne tries, the mess goes on. There is some consolation in Axel and Simon, who illustrate the proposition that honesty and courage may be some defence against malevolence; malevolence is only partly defeated, however, and in Rupert's case, it quite wins out.
Murdoch has ambitions beyond realism for this novel, and in a mix of parable, allegory, and farce, she is, on the secondary level, exploring the continuing battle between evil and good in the contemporary world. In an unsystematic way, which is not uncommon in Murdoch's more ambitious novels, King can be seen as a Satan figure, Tallis Browne as a rather powerless Christ figure, and Leonard Browne as the dying God of Christianity, with Morgan, Hilda, and Rupert representing feckless humanity, constantly falling out of grace, despite good intentions. Some dim echoes of William Shakespeare are also present, and one can see Julius as an Iago, a debased Prospero, or any of the several manipulators of vain mortals in Shakespeare's work. If The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Othello seem to be floating about, it is quite intentional. Murdoch likes to pile literary, biblical, philosophical, and mythological images in and on, and this novel is loaded without restraint.
The novel's title has to be considered with some care. It is a phrase which Murdoch uses again, in passing, in a later novel, A Word Child (1975), and is central to an understanding of how Murdoch sees human beings contending with the malevolent vagaries of life. In this work, it can be applied to at least three of the major characters. King clearly thinks he has done well, has managed some king of partial victory over the forces of sentimental do-gooders, and if in the end he must retreat before Tallis Browne, it is, in his eyes, an honourable defeat.
Tallis Browne is also partially defeated, barely capable of saving part of the situation for those whom King has so coldly manipulated. He, too, wins a bit and loses a bit. In his case, however, there is no question that he is on the side of right from the beginning, and he can take some satisfaction in stopping what has been going on. He is a good man always doing good work, but he cannot retrieve the Fosters completely, which is not surprising since he is conditioned to partial success, partial failure. He cannot solve all the social injustices of the city of London; he can only keep trying, aware that defeat is ever-present, however honourably he acts.
To a lesser, much sadder extent, Rupert is the victim of an honourable defeat. His vanity may be, in part, the reason for which he gets involved with Morgan, but his love for her as a relative and as a human being who, he thinks, needs him and whom he can help is also a predominating motive in his getting into the mess and makes it impossible for him to get out. Morgan is in trouble because of him, however innocent he may be in the matter, and it is his duty to practice what he has preached in his book. What he does not know is that it is a joke, but one which he takes so seriously that he is destroyed by it, defeated, albeit honourably. It is, perhaps, not insignificant, if ironically so, that he dies in such a small body of water. For all of his grand gestures of romantic heroism, he has proved to himself that he is a much smaller man than he thought.
"Muddle" is the word that Murdoch likes to use in characterising human life, and that is exactly what this novel illustrates: that life, however practised, for good or ill, is never quite as neat or responsive to theory as Murdoch’s characters would like it to be. The best and the worst laid plans go awry. Tallis Browne is left, in the end, still fighting gamely against the chaos of his kitchen.