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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Time of the Angels

Iris Murdoch

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Title: The Time of the Angels
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966
Length: 242 pages
Availability: The Time of the Angels - US
The Time of the Angels - UK
The Time of the Angels - Canada
The Time of the Angels - India
Il tempo degli angeli - Italia
  • The 2001 Vintage Classics edition comes with an Afterword by Richard Holloway

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Our Assessment:

B+ : truly strange, but interesting approach to tackling issues of morality and faith

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Tne NY Rev. of Books . 17/11/1966 Denis Donoghue
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/9/1966 Walter Allen
TLS . 8/9/1966 Miriam Allott

  From the Reviews:
  • "Miss Murdoch writes, it's difficult not to feel, as the initiate of a mystery, possessed of secret knowledge. She isn't going to profane the mystery by letting us in on that knowledge. This comes out strikingly in her presentation of her characters. All but the two major characters are beautifully rendered." - Walter Allen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)t must be said that The Time of the Angels, intelligent, technically adroit and compulsively readable, cannot be cited with satisfaction as evidence of more than an original and entertaining minor talent. (...) Too many signposts point in too many directions. (...) Iris Murdoch's intricacies appear to run nowhere but into the sand." - Miriam Allott, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Time of the Angels is a distinctly philosophical novel, Murdoch's contrived scene allowing her to address questions of faith and morality -- in her distinctly ... unusual fashion.
       The story has Carel a recently appointed rector of what amounts to a "non-existent church" -- bombed in the war, all that's left of it is a tower; it was a Wren church too (and "he never made anything prettier"). Carel is widowed, and lives there with a housekeeper, Pattie, an illegitimate woman who (probably) had a Jamaican father; his own daughter, twenty-four-year old Muriel; and his ward, Elizabeth, the nineteen-year-old semi-invalid daughter of his youngest brother, Julian, who apparently "died many years ago of a mysterious illness".
       Carel is a dominating figure, yet in a way not much of a presence: a running joke in the novel is how poor Pattie has to turn away everyone at the door, since he refuses to see anyone. He has effectively cut himself -- and certainly Elizabeth, of whom he is very protective -- off from the world. Pattie -- his one-time lover, but since also dismissed from his bed -- and Muriel still move to some extent in the outside world, but the Rectory itself is a world unto itself, which is rarely breached by any outsider. (What exactly Carel does with his time also remains fairly unclear, since little space in the story is devoted to him.)
       Carel has another brother, Marcus, and Elizabeth is also his ward; nominally he shares responsibility with Carel for her care, but he's lost touch and hasn't played much of a role in her life in recent years. Marcus' efforts to see Carel, and especially Elizabeth, also don't come to much: Pattie simply won't allow anyone to pass, and it's essentially impossible to communicate with anyone inside this Rectory-fortress.
       Marcus is working on a book -- "provisionally entitled Morality in a World without God" -- and The Time of the Angels amounts to several case studies of that very question. There aren't many believers left here; some have merely lost their faith, others have entirely dismissed the god-concept. Marcus himself arguably hasn't gotten far enough in accepting which way the wind is blowing: as someone tells him:

The trouble with you is that you're just a Christian fellow-traveller. It's better not to tinker with a dying mythology. All those stories are simply false, and the oftener that is said in plain terms the better.
       Carel certainly doesn't believe in a god -- though Pattie still does. Among the other characters that figure in the story are the impoverished Russian exile Eugene, who has a place as the porter here; his most prized possession is an icon (of course). Eugene also has a ne'er-do-well son, Leo, who strains to break free of his circumstances and wants to prove what an immoral character he is; he certainly tells a lot of lies -- and eventually and predictably he does something very hurtful and immoral (though this, it turns out, amounts to the more comic take on the question of morality that Murdoch offers; a feint, as it were, that allows a number of characters to get involved in its resolution but turns out only to be part of several minor moral dilemmas, not the major one that will be revealed as the throbbing heart of the book).
       Muriel, meanwhile, is still trying to find her way, and for the time being has decided to devote herself to writing, to see if she can make a go of that (even as Carel is slowly pushing her towards the door); the philosophical poem she is penning seems unlikely to pave the way to success, but then it's just another way of grappling with the issues that she's occupied with. Ethereal Elizabeth, bound in a corset because of a back problem, whiling away much of her time trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle (dear god, Murdoch works fast and hard with her symbolism, layering it on as thick as can be ...), remains an enigmatic creature, revered by Muriel (though when they had their lone kiss their lips remained separated by glass ...), and with maniacally overprotective Carel making sure -- though very much behind the scenes, and almost entirely unseen -- that nothing disturbs her.
       Leo and Muriel flirt awkwardly, prodding each other (and leading each to do something with terrible consequences) and this helps bring things to a boil -- and given what's been simmering in the background (hinted at but not fully revealed by Murdoch), the eventual cataclysms are truly horrific.
       Oh, yes, Murdoch offers good, jaw-dropping fun. Taking place in a Rectory that is already a ruins, Muriel in the end judges that on top of that:
everything's collapsed, the house has fallen down, the only thing that's left seems to be the truth and one may as well look it in the face.
       So she says, anyway, but the truth here comes with a one-two punch and she only knew the half of it -- and then, on top of it all, another knock-out blow is delivered, as one of the characters takes it upon themselves to face the consequences. Yes, Murdoch has some surprises up her sleeve, revealing that not quite everything was as it seemed, or as it was perceived by many of the characters: re-reading the text it's marvelous to see how careful Murdoch is in her presentation, dropping clues all over the place which, at the end, all fall so neatly into place.
       Morality in a world without god ? There's much discussion of the issue here, and the philosophical Murdoch does that quite well with these dialogues and speculations; the novelist Murdoch adds yet more however, in demonstrating just what morality has become in this world.
       An interesting choice is to have Carel, eventually revealed as truly monstrous, remain largely off-stage, with only a few big scenes in which he has his say; his exit, too, is a silent one. (Im)morality is ultimately more shown than explained or defended; Leo's childish acts of rebellion, after all, hardly count as such -- while Carel's betrayals are of an entirely different order, but one's which he only elliptically is called to answer for.
       Like the jigsaw puzzle Muriel and Elizabeth work on, The Time of the Angels is a work that has been carefully and painstakingly planned out, with a precise pattern (or rather blueprint) to it that gradually emerges as the pieces are put in place. It's brilliantly conceived, in that way. From elusive Elizabeth -- remaining almost entirely mysterious -- to the extremely heavy-handed symbolism, with which Murdoch practically batters her readers (the scene where Marcus first comes to see (sort of) Carel at the Rectory again is, from beginning to end, a symbolist tour de force) it all fits and works so incredibly neatly. So of course in the end, when they've all left the ruins that were the Rectory -- the house that metaphorically has now fallen down -- it is, on top of it all, literally condemned: "They'll be pulling the Rectory down next week" !
       But it's this carefully mapped out quality that also is the book's weakness: few turn philosophy into fiction as well as Murdoch, but she does everything so obviously here that it does feel very heavy-handed. And while it's also often quite amusing, it is all a bit much -- including the (admittedly jaw-dropping) revelation of what's really been going on in Carel's household.
       Bizarre, fascinating, certainly very readable -- and with some interesting philosophical issues cleverly considered -- The Time of the Angels is nevertheless a somewhat unsatisfying work. But it certainly sticks with you: a truly (if not entirely pleasantly) memorable read.
       [In being so easy to pick apart, and so over-stuffed with ideas and symbolism, this is also an ideal classroom text (or dissertation subject), and can certainly be strongly recommended as such.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2011

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The Time of the Angels: Reviews: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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