Iris Murdoch Readalong: The Nice and the Good (1968)

Iris Murdoch’s eleventh novel starts with a bang: civil servant Joseph Radeechy has shot himself at the office, leaving Octavian Gray and Richard Biranne to deal with the fallout. The incident delays Octavian’s departure for idyllic Dorset, where he and his wife Kate live in community with various hangers-on: Mary Clothier and her son Pierce; Biranne’s ex, Paula, and their twins; and the Grays’ daughter, Barbara, whenever she’s home from her Swiss boarding school. I loved the initial introduction to a household so full of joyful bustle, the witty dialogue of children and servants, and a memorable dog and cat. It’s a hot summer and there are games and jaunts down to the rocky beach and an abandoned graveyard.

Gradually the focus shifts to would-be judge John Ducane, the legal advisor to Octavian’s department. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, he’s just breaking off an affair with a younger woman. He’s decided he’s in love with Kate, with whom he shares an occasional kiss. Octavian knows all about this and finds it amusing – I thought of him and Kate as the Oberon and Titania of their enchanted pastoral world, presiding in lordly yet playful ways over the other mortals’ romantic entanglements. (“Midsummer madness,” John remarks at one point.) Again as in A Severed Head, it seems everyone’s infatuated with everyone else, in different ways and at different times. A distinction is often drawn between loving and being in love – the two do not always coexist.

Gotta love/hate these vintage Penguin covers.

Ducane helps the department look into Radeechy’s death in hopes of avoiding a public enquiry. It seems the man was involved in some bizarre stuff – witchcraft with prostitutes? – and was being blackmailed for it. However, the city and country divide is stark, and so the investigation never overpowers the more low-key interpersonal intrigues down in Dorset. There are lots of important though secondary characters in this ensemble cast – so many that I struggled to pay attention to all of them (Uncle Theo?). Of these I’ll just give a special mention to Holocaust survivor Willy Kost. Thankfully, there’s a much more positive vision of Judaism here than in A Severed Head or The Italian Girl.

Liz has written a wonderful summary of the novel and its themes, set in the context of the Murdoch novels that have come before. I especially noted and liked the duplicated moments, such as two scenes of women jealously observing other mistresses; the instances of dramatic irony; and the sequences composed mostly of dialogue (e.g., Chapter 40). There’s a gripping scene where three characters are stuck in a sea cave due to a rising tide, and the book ends on what seems to be a sighting of a flying saucer. You also have to love the late lion-and-lamb moment of Montrose the cat and Mingo the dog curling up in a basket together.

I kept looking back to the title and asking myself who is really ‘good’ here and what the real value of being ‘nice’ is. Murdoch pardons Radeechy’s peculiar behavior as “minor evil” at most, while Willy’s experience in Dachau is surely the clearest example of human evil at work.

“Ducane’s so nice – ” / “He’s so good –

“The point is that nothing matters except loving what is good. Not to look at evil but to look at good.”

Meanwhile, there are brief mentions of goodness as a state of mind or a matter of personality:

 “in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible”

“I think being good is just a matter of temperament in the end. Yes, we shall all be so happy and good too. Oh, how utterly marvellous it is to be me!”

That last quote is a glimpse into Kate’s thoughts: so unrealistically optimistic you have to wonder whether Murdoch is making fun of her. And yet Kate is one of the most stable and contented characters.

This falls about in the middle of the pack for me in terms of how much I’ve enjoyed Murdoch’s novels. There’s a lot going on, perhaps too much, and the reader’s sympathy is spread thin across so many characters. Still, it’s summery, light-hearted fare that manages to also hint at deeper ethical questions.

My rating:


Here’s my ranking of the eight I’ve read so far:


Favorite: The Bell

The Sea, The Sea

A Severed Head

The Nice and the Good

Under the Net

The Black Prince

The Italian Girl

Least favorite: An Accidental Rose


I’m Murdoch-ed out for the time being, but I’ll keep an eye on Liz’s ongoing Iris Murdoch readalong project to see if there are other novels I’ll try to find secondhand in the future (at least The Unicorn, I think). Join in for one or more!

Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?

10 responses

  1. Excellent review. I keep dipping into and out of Murdoch, she can be patchy but when good there’s a huge amount going on and it sticks in your head a long while after. The Unicorn is one of my favourites so far (as is The Bell, good choice), and I have to say I adore that cover. It’s trashy, but also compelling. Gotta love those old yellow Penguins.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Good to have another vote for The Unicorn. I will seek that one out on my next trip to Bookbarn in Somerset — they have a great Penguin section.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Much to my embarrasment, I have yet to read any Murdoch. I have my Dads copy of The Sandcastle in the 746 though so I’ll start there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know anything about that one, but here’s Liz’s review from the readalong:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! I meant to take part in the Iris Murdoch readalong with that one, but life got in the way…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this review, thank you for putting so much thought into it. It’s a favourite of mine of the first half of her books as there’s so much packed into it. I can’t help but think she’s laughing at Kate but then she’s uncomplicated and positive so who knows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll hold onto it for a reread some years in the future, and try to give it more of my undivided attention then.


  4. I’ve got a matching cover for The Red and Green (which I discovered second-hand when it was too late for the discussion). Mind you, a couple of the others I’ve read for the event (The Sandcastle and Under the Net) have been in library permabound editions, so many they had these risque covers underneath as well! (I don’t think so, but it’s fun to think about.) Although I’m not Murdoched out, I do know what you mean with some authors, and availability is creating some breaks for me in this readalong as several of the books are only available for use in the reference library and I don’t do well with surging through Murdoch. The next I have is The Accidental Man, although the library might fill a gap between now and then. Have you read much/any biographical/memoir stuff surrounding her?


    1. I think I’ll come back for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine in February, since I try to read all my existing “love” titles in that month anyway. I’ve seen the biopic about Murdoch and own one of John Bayley’s books about her, but haven’t read it yet.


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