When a group of well-meaning neurotics and perverts come together in a lay religious community to try to forge a new and better life, the situation calls out all the humour and insight for which Iris Murdoch is famous. The theme of her novel is the dark conflict between sex and religion, symbolized by the new and the old bells of the abbey convent across the lake. Here is a story which again demonstrates this writer’s unusual sensitivity and her talent for creating character.
Perverts? Really? My imagination ran wild, considering the myriad of possibilities awaiting me. I was also a bit apprehensive, thinking the novel might be distasteful. And what did I find? One character was a homosexual. That’s it. Oh. My. God. I would hardly call that perversion. I’d like to find the person who wrote that blurb and throttle them.
I suppose the cover description needs to be put in historic context. The typical 1970s cover blurb writer came of age when homosexuality was illegal (prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalized private sexual acts between men over the age of twenty-one). So I guess that poor chap didn’t know any better. Fortunately, laws and societal attitudes have evolved, in Britain and in countries around the world. That thought sparked a mini research project to determine whether cover descriptions for The Bell evolved along with societal attitudes. I’m happy to say the answer is, yes. A search on ISBN 0140016880 today turns up Penguin’s 1987 interpretation:
First published in 1958, Iris Murdoch’s funny and sad novel is about religion, the fight between good and evil and the terrible accidents of human frailty. Encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an enclosed order of nuns, is a community of very mixed-up people waiting for the installation of a new bell, but then the old one is rediscovered.
Thankfully, Penguin took sexual orientation completely off the table. “Neurotics and perverts” became “mixed-up people,” which is indeed an accurate description of the Imber community residents. In 2001, Penguin’s even more modern version appeared on the Twentieth-Century Classics edition (ISBN 0141186690):
A lay community of thoroughly mixed-up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an order of sequestered nuns. A new bell is being installed when suddenly the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered. And then things begin to change. Meanwhile the wise old Abbess watches and prays and exercises discreet authority. And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may mean. Originally published in 1958, this funny, sad, and moving novel is about religion, sex, and the fight between good and evil.
This is the best of the three, in my opinion. It retains the phrase, “mixed up people,” and describes the symbolism and themes better than the 1987 version. The Bell is not about old and new bells, any more than it’s about perverts.
This is the first time I’ve studied changes in cover descriptions over time. It was kind of fun. Maybe I’m just weird, but I do think the description matters — after all, it’s often what entices someone to buy a book or check it out from their library.
Have you ever encountered a controversial or inaccurate cover description?
How did that affect your reading?