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  • “We Must Not Forget That There Was a Crime”Incest, Domestic Violence, and Textual Memory in the Novels of Iris Murdoch
  • Emma Miller (bio)

Throughout her literary oeuvre Iris Murdoch repeatedly returned to the theme of domestic violence, particularly of a sexual nature. Her 1958 novel The Bell depicts Nick Fawley, who claims he loves his sister, Catherine, “with a Byronic passion,” surely referring to Lord Byron’s relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.1 Then there is an ostensibly consensual brother-and-sister incest featured in A Severed Head (1961); consanguinity and sadomasochism in The Unicorn (1963), as well as the possibility of father-daughter abuse; sibling incest in The Red and the Green (1965); and father-daughter abuse in The Time of the Angels (1966); and these are just the ones that feature incest as an overt theme before 1966. Although there is a flirtatious kiss between blood relatives, aunt and nephew Morgan and Peter, in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), a novel with an emotionally abusive relationship between Morgan and Julius, who manipulates Morgan and her relations throughout the novel, Murdoch does not offer another prolonged and direct treatment of incest in her creative writing until the 1980s. In The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), John Robert Rozanov is “obsessed” with his granddaughter, Hattie, and The Good Apprentice (1985) features numerous cases of potential incest: between an aunt and nephew, a brother and sister, and a father and daughter, as well as incestuous interest between “affines.”2 This novel also depicts the incarceration of the father [End Page 65] by his wife. In The Message to the Planet (1989), Murdoch once more alluded to the possibility of father and daughter incest.3 However, the actual occurrences of incest and quasi-incest may far exceed those that are immediately obvious; arguably, there are allusions to incestuous connections of some degree in almost every one of her novels.4

Iris Murdoch was one of the first authors to depict incest directly as an abusive practice, and such an approach was unusual in the decades after World War II. Michael Freeman comments in his study The Moral Status of Children that “professional interest in child sexual abuse” can be found as early as 1886 but that nothing extensive was done about the problem until the latter part of the twentieth century, and that even in 1953 when the Kinsey reports revealed “that many children had sexual experiences with adults,” this seems to have “caused little concern.”5 The Kinsey reports were the result of two in-depth studies on sexual behavior in the United States, led by psychologist Alfred C. Kinsey; the first volume, focusing on men, was published in 1948, and the second volume, on women, was released in 1953. The research was unprecedented in terms of the size of the sample of people used as evidence (volume 1 “was the largest and most detailed work of sexual science ever conducted”) and the number of sexual activities it considered.6 Although Murdoch was careful in interviews about divulging her reading matter, Peter J. Conradi, Murdoch’s good friend and official biographer, has stated that, “as a highly intelligent and well-read writer, it would have been surprising had she not known . . . about Kinsey.”7

It was not until the second wave of feminism, though, with the publication of works like Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975), and Erin Pizzey’s Women’s Shelter Movement that domestic abuse, and more particularly incest, came to be generally acknowledged as an actual and widespread occurrence in the UK and the United States. However, as a consequence of the suppression of the voices of the victims, or survivors, of sexual crimes, there were no recognizable means of narrating incest as an abusive activity within mainstream literary culture. In Father-Daughter Incest, Judith Herman asserts that there is “a vastly elaborated intellectual tradition which serves the purpose of suppressing the truth about incest” and that “originates in the works of Freud.”8 As I will discuss in more detail later, health professionals frequently blamed mothers and daughters for [End Page 66] the acts of an abusive father. In the foreword to the second...


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