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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 674-695

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Realism Disavowed? Discourses of Memory and High Incarnations inJackson's Dilemma

Richard Todd

Reading Iris Murdoch's Jackson's Dilemma (1995) offers a not wholly dissimilar experience to that offered by reading Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts (1941), in the sense that both are the final works of their authors. As such, and in view of the biographical knowledge we have, both novels raise questions as to the mental state of their authors during the period of composition. In what follows I shall argue that the answers to such questions are not straightforward and that in each case both writer and work suffer diminishment when careless assumption replaces thoughtful attention.

There are, of course, significant differences between the two cases. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) took her own life shortly after completing (but before revising) her last work. The gradual mental and physical decline of Iris Murdoch (1919-99) as a result of Alzheimer's disease led to her death from pneumonia four years after the publication of her final novel. Woolf's last novel was published posthumously under the supervision of Leonard Woolf, who left it unrevised in detail: it has therefore [End Page 674] never been read--indeed, cannot be read--without the knowledge of the tragedy it has always retrospectively been seen as fostering. Murdoch's last novel, in contrast, appeared while its author was still alive, and the questions it has come to raise have to do with how far Alzheimer's had encroached upon her astonishing powers of memory during its composition. The reviews Jackson's Dilemma received show that it certainly caused some puzzlement, and in some cases disappointment, among its first readers. Most strikingly it is different from its immediate predecessors in being very much shorter than them. Indeed, it is the shortest Murdoch novel since The Italian Girl (1964). Not until more than a year after the appearance of Jackson's Dilemma, however, did the news of its author's cerebral degeneration became public. The problem was first described in 1996 in the international press as "writer's block." By 1997 it was acknowledged to be Alzheimer's, with the most knowledgeable and, indeed, intimate account, John Bayley's Iris: A Memoir (American title: Elegy for Iris) not appearing in Britain until 1998 and the United States until 1999. Bayley's memoir appears to date the perceived onset of the illness to 1994.

The effect of Between the Acts never having been read publicly without knowledge of its Nachleben has meant that discussions of it are bound to be predicated, far more than is the case with any of Woolf's other novels, on seeking textual traces of insanity. Yet, as Hermione Lee argues, the first and longer of Woolf's two suicide notes to her husband "is not the letter of an irrational or mad person, but of a person in despair, with no sense of a future, and suffering from a terrible fear of the possibility of a breakdown with no prospect of recovery. The writing of the letter, and the act it presaged, though an act in extremis, was rational, deliberate and courageous" (757).

This suggests that the textual traces we should seek are not so much those of insanity but of a much more diffuse kind that encompasses extremes of courage and despair. Certainly Between the Acts does span an extraordinary range. At one end of the spectrum, we have the daringness of the play on names (such as that of the vamp Mrs. Manresa) coupled with the inner insistence of Mrs. Swithin that it is wrong to play on people's names (28) (unbeknownst to her, Mrs. Swithin herself has a nickname, "Old Flimsy" [23]), or such things as the unflattering self-portrait of Miss La Trobe. At the other end, we have the grotesque episode [End Page 675] of the snake choking in the act of trying to swallow a toad ("It was birth the wrong way round--a monstrous inversion" [72]), or...


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