A Severed Head
|Cover artist||Val Biro|
|Publisher||Chatto and Windus|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
Primary themes include marriage, adultery, and incest within a group of civilised and educated people. Set in and around London, it depicts a power struggle between grown-up middle-class people who are lucky to be free of real problems. A Severed Head was a harbinger of the sexual revolution that was to hit Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.
Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a 41-year-old well-to-do wine merchant whose childless marriage to an older woman called Antonia has been one of convenience rather than love. It never occurs to him that his ongoing affair with a young academic called Georgie could be immoral. Displaying quite a number of macho attributes in his relationships with women, Lynch-Gibbon is shocked when, out of the blue, his wife tells him that she is leaving him for Palmer Anderson, her psychoanalyst and a friend of the couple's, with whom she has had a secret affair for quite some time. Lynch-Gibbon moves out of their London house but still does not want to publicise his affair with Georgie, let alone become engaged to her.
At roughly the same time Cupid's arrow hits Lynch-Gibbon again. This time he falls for Honor Klein, Anderson's half-sister, who is a lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge, a woman whom he had found rather repulsive at their first meeting. Like a man possessed, he follows her to Cambridge and, in the middle of the night, breaks into her house, only to find her in bed with her half-brother Palmer. When, shortly afterwards, Antonia confesses to Martin that she has also been sleeping with his older brother Alexander ever since he introduced them ("You mean you didn't know at all? Surely you must have guessed"), Lynch-Gibbon's world begins to fall apart. Despite his being a wine merchant, he chooses whisky as his constant companion. In the end, however, he realises that life must—and somehow will—go on.
The story begins with Martin Lynch-Gibbon at his mistress Georgie's house—in the midst of an affair he does not consider to be immoral. After saying goodbye to Georgie, Martin returns home to his older wife Antonia. Antonia informs Martin that she wishes to divorce him so that she can marry Palmer Anderson, her psychoanalyst. Martin "takes it well" and moves out of the house. Before officially moving, Martin returns to his brother Alexander's home. While there he learns that Antonia had already written to Alexander about the divorce—leaving Alexander quite shaken.
Later Martin returns to Hereford Square where Antonia, now acting as a mother figure for him, tries to set up his new accommodation. After fighting with Antonia, he goes to the train station to pick up Palmer's half-sister Honor Klein. A few days later, Martin finally visits Georgie. While Georgie wants to publicise their affair, Martin refuses because he believes it will "hurt" Antonia. However, they do decide to go to Hereford Square so that Georgie can see it. While Martin is showing her around, they hear someone arrive at the house. In a rush of panic, and assuming it is Antonia, Martin rushes Georgie out the back door, despite her protests that she wishes to meet Antonia. The unexpected visitor turns out to be Honor, not Antonia. Honor notices Georgie's handbag, left behind in her rush out the door.
After the event, Martin tries to contact Georgie but is unable to and soon returns to the house. There he finds out that Palmer and Antonia know about his relationship with Georgie. After being scolded like a child by the two of them, Martin finds Georgie and learns that Honor Klein has exposed their secret. Soon after Georgie meets Antonia in an awkward situation.
Later, after a breakfast with Antonia, where they decide that Martin should take a short vacation, Martin calls upon Georgie, only to discover his brother Alexander there. Martin is made even more furious when he discovers that Honor Klein was the person who introduced them to each other. After drunkenly returning to the Hereford Square home, Martin gets into a fight with Honor. After writing apology letters and waiting two days, Martin tries to find Antonia and Honor, only to find out that Antonia has gone and Honor is back in Cambridge. Around this time, Martin also realises that he is now madly in love with Honor.
Besotted, Martin goes to Honor's place in Cambridge and discovers her sleeping with her half-brother Palmer. Even though Martin doesn’t tell Antonia of this incestuous encounter, Palmer believes he has, and begins to act strangely around Antonia. At this time, Antonia decides that she should be with Martin instead, causing Martin to cut off his affair with Georgie officially. A few days later, Alexander comes by to inform Martin that he has become engaged to Georgie, rekindling Martin's feelings for her and making him very upset.
After an angry confrontation with Palmer where he announces that he and Honor will be travelling, Martin receives a package of hair from Georgie. Martin discovers an unconscious Georgie (who has attempted suicide) and is joined by Honor while waiting for the ambulance. After a scene in the hospital where everyone is gathered, Martin confesses his love to Honor. Honor says she knows but it does not matter because she is going away. Upon returning to Antonia, she informs him that she has had an ongoing affair with Alexander and that they will be getting married. In the end, Palmer and Georgie go away together, Alexander and Antonia are together, and Honor stays in England with Martin.
In A Severed Head, Murdoch succeeds in presenting a middle-aged bourgeois who initially thinks of himself as a survivor but realises that he is in fact a victim. Throughout the novel, all the main characters insist that they have long overcome conventional morality, that they are free agents in the truest sense of the word, but in spite of his hedonism Lynch-Gibbon's residual moral posture just will not go away. Murdoch is particularly good at conveying the atmosphere of benevolence and the apparent lack of hard feelings among the individuals that have wronged and been wronged. ("It is not at all our idea that you should leave us. In a strange and rather wonderful way we can't do without you. We shall hold on to you, we shall look after you," Anderson says to Lynch-Gibbon, who sees himself as a cuckold rather than anything else.) At times funny, sad at others, A Severed Head also deals with more serious issues such as abortion (Georgie terminates her pregnancy at an early stage of her relationship with Lynch-Gibbon) and attempted suicide (again it is Georgie who tries to take her own life after being rejected by both Lynch-Gibbon and his brother).
Despite these serious overtones, A Severed Head is regarded by many readers as the most entertaining of Murdoch's novels. As British novelist William Sutcliffe put it, "Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch's other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down."
With J. B. Priestley, Murdoch adapted her book for the stage. The play, directed by Val May, opened at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, in May 1963. In July 1963 it moved to the Criterion Theatre in London, for a run of 1,044 performances. In New York, after four previews, the Broadway production, also directed by May, opened on 28 October 1964 at the Royale Theatre, where it ran for only 29 performances. The cast included Sheila Burrell, reprising her role as Honor Klein, Robin Bailey again playing Martin Lynch-Gibbon and Jessica Walter as Georgie. The novel was also made into a 1970 film starring Claire Bloom, Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough and Ian Holm. The screenplay was written by Frederic Raphael.
On 29 May. 2013, backed by the Iris Murdoch Foundation, it was confirmed that British playwright Michael Starr was to pen a modern adaptation of the novel, for the stage, in 2014.
- William Sutcliffe in The Guardian http://books.guardian.co.uk/top10s/top10/0,,395104,00.html
- Who's Who in the Theatre, 14th edition, Pitman (1967)