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The novel, the painting, and the bible story

April 16, 2016

Murdoch’s Rose, Tintoretto’s Susanna, and Daniel chapter 13

Iris Murdoch’s sixth novel, An Unofficial Rose, opens with the funeral of Fanny Peronett. Her widower Hugh, a retired civil servant, stands by the grave. He is now the sole owner of a beautiful and valuable painting, which Fanny had brought to the marriage; a preparatory study for a priceless Tintoretto, Susanna Bathing. He glimpses his ex-mistress Emma Sands, across the churchyard.

Emma has become a successful novelist but remained single.  She is living in an intense relationship with Lindsay, her beautiful companion. Lindsay is younger, poorer, and on the make. Hugh soon discovers that his son Randall, a successful rose breeder, is in love with Lindsay. Randall’s teenage son Steve has recently died, and Randall has all but left his wife Ann to run Grayhallock rose nursery and look after Steve’s highly strung sister Miranda alone. Miranda’s Australian cousin Penn is visiting for the summer. Anne’s neighbour Mildred, the complaisant wife of Humphrey, Hugh’s civil service colleague, whose otherwise distinguished career has been ended by a gay sex scandal, and her brother Felix, recently home from the army, live nearby. Mildred secretly loves Hugh. Felix loves Anne. Minor characters circulate.

The crucial scene plays out in Hugh’s London flat. A thunderstorm rages as Randall asks advice. He needs more than his father’s blessing. Lindsay will only elope if he has money, a lot of it, and Randall has a suggestion, sell the Tintoretto. Hugh is shocked, but tempted. Years earlier he had failed to leave Fanny for Emma. Giving Randall the money will free Emma for himself. When he asks Mildred’s advice she is torn in a different direction; selling the painting will free Anne for her brother Felix, but lose Hugh for herself.

The painting is sold and it releases the lovers. Randall and Lindsay elope and, with Mildred’s pushing, Felix reveals his love for Ann, which is reciprocated. But there are complications. Miranda also loves Felix, and he has a French girl pining for him in India as well. Penn loves Miranda but he’s young and messes up his seduction. The second time around, Hugh makes less headway with Emma than he had hoped.

The novel is driven by the female characters. While Anne remains passive at its centre, the other women act. Emma manipulates Lindsay and Hugh. Lindsay manipulates Randall. Miranda engineers her mother’s rejection of Felix, and Mildred gets her man. As the novel ends Felix, Mildred and Hugh are on a slow boat to India. Felix to meet up again with the French girl. Hugh, though he doesn’t yet realise it, to end his days with Mildred.

susanna tintorettob

The novel’s preparatory Tintoretto is fictional, but Susanna Bathing is real; a star exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna. It depicts a voyeuristic bible scene. The apocryphal Daniel 13, omitted by protestants for some reason, tells a simpler story of illicit sex, albeit with higher stakes.

Joakim, whose house was also used as a courtroom, marries Susanna, a chaste and beautiful girl from a good family. Soon two of the old judges grow lustful having her around. First they catch each other trying to spy on her. Then they team up and hide in the garden until Susanna comes for her bath. The painting shows the moment after Susanna has sent her maids away, but just before the old men pop out and demand sex under threat of accusing her of having an affair. Susanna is trapped, but refuses to yield. She screams, the servants return, the old men carry out their threat, and in due course there is a trial. Despite her previously impeccable character, the fraudulent testimony of two men trumps that of one woman. Susanna is led away to execution.

But then Daniel speaks up, and somehow persuades everyone to let him conduct a retrial. By interviewing the men separately, he exposes their lies. One says he saw Susanna and her boyfriend under a tiny mastick tree, the other under a huge oak; they had not got their stories straight. The tables are turned, the old men executed and Susanna saved.

So why did Murdoch chose that painting? She surely wasn’t making any direct comment on the novel’s love tangles. Perhaps she just liked it, a beautiful piece of medieval soft porn, just right for an adultery facilitating trade.

Jim Thornton


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