It is like a homecoming. We open the door on a galère of amusingly daffy and improbably named characters whose lives will intertwine for 472 pages: Iris Murdoch scorns readers who find length a deterrent.
The time is the present, the place a damp, oldfangled London where the sound of rain is heard outside the windows of dim rooms meagrely heated by mean electric fires. The gutters are full of puddles, the leaves of plane trees hang heavy with wetness; arriving on doorsteps men furl their umbrellas and divest themselves of steaming mackintoshes. ‘Does it never stop raining in England?’ asks Joan, a painted Parisian widow who smokes and drinks champagne in bed, making sardonic comments, especially about donnish types who ‘find simply living a task of amazing difficulty’. Joan has an old school-friend Louise, whose three virgin daughters have given themselves the posey names of Aleph, Sefton and Moy. They are musical, vegetarian, prone to weeping. They reek of female adolescence, terrified of the Fall that lies ahead, with men and sex and ‘all that roughness and disorder’.
The men in their circle are all in the coils of crisis. Joan’s seductive young son Harvey is Byronically lamed falling from the parapet of an Apennine bridge after a dare by the homosexual but chaste Bellamy. Bellamy is searching for faith, dreaming of angels (in one of his dreams he is, hilariously, a tiny frightened animal named ‘Spingle-Spangle’) and writing heart-pouring letters to a Father Darnien who tells him that the road to Christ is hard, a bread-and-water business; as for the dark night of the soul, he mocks, Bellamy ‘should be humble enough to recognise ordinary boredom’.