A Severed Head book review

Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a lucky man. He has it all – a comfortable, tastefully decorated home; a gracious, loving wife whose beauty is only just beginning to fade, and a mistress practically young enough to be his daughter. There is no question of him leaving his wife, and his mistress appears to accept that. He is, in a word, complacent. And it is his complacency – his hubris, if you will – that trips him up, throwing his life into turmoil.

A Severed Head was Iris Murdoch’s 5th published novel; like her others, it’s about love. But nothing so simple as the pure, unadulterated love of one human being for another, if there is such a thing. Love, for Murdoch, is far more complex, corrupted by obsession, insecurity, ego. And, in this case, incest. She was, after all, a philosopher. Her novels are preoccupied with morality, the power of the unconscious, and the fluid nature of gender and sexuality.

The character of Martin Lynch-Gibbon is one that will be familiar to Murdoch fans. Middle-aged, well-to-do, and self-regarding, he finds himself caught in a moral dilemma, thanks to a revelation by his wife, Antonia: she, it appears, is in love with her psychoanalyst. She wants a divorce, but neither she nor her therapist, Palmer Anderson, want to lose Martin. As Palmer tells him, “In a strange and rather wonderful way we can’t do without you. We shall hold on to you, we shall look after you. You’ll see.”

Martin, for his part, is shocked by his wife’s infidelity. Palmer has been his close friend; his wife, he thought, considered their marriage a happy one. At first he refuses to accept it, insisting that this – their marriage – is what’s real. He’s done nothing to deserve this . . . it’s all a horrible mistake. You can’t help shaking your head at the self-delusion of a man who can blithely carry on a clandestine affair for some time yet manage to feel so betrayed when his wife does the same.

In spite of his pain, Martin takes it on the chin, behaving like a gentleman, even if he doesn’t feel like one. Antonia and Palmer comment on this time and again, expressing their gratitude to him for taking it so splendidly. Athough he’s feels he probably shouldn’t be taking it “splendidly”, Martin finds himself unable to detach himself from their orbit. They insist that he join them for dinner, stay the night, and allow them to help him through this awful time. Which, they assure him, will lead to him being a better, happier man.

And so begins a rather complicated, but very modern, ménage. Martin is unhappy but acquiescent, playing the role of the child while his wife and her lover act very much as benevolent but controlling authority figures. As for Georgie Sands, his erstwhile mistress, Martin avoids her like the plague, afraid that she might now expect something more substantial in terms of a commitment. “What I really wanted most just then,” he confesses, “was to put Georgie in cold storage. It is unfortunate that other human beings cannot be conveniently immobilized.”

Into this unholy alliance steps Palmer’s half sister, the formidable Honor Klein. Due to arrive on the 5:57 train from Cambridge, she appears like an avenging angel – or a disapproving one, anyway. Honor seems to be the only family member who finds the current set-up distasteful. She has no use for the so-called “civilized and intelligent” way Martin has accepted his cuckoldry, and says he might have won his wife back if he’d made an effort. “Sooner or later,” she says, “you will have to become a centaur and kick your way out.”

When Martin does finally meet up with Georgie, she offers him the consolation and understanding he craves, but asks him to make their affair public. He can’t, he says: “It would hurt Antonia so if she knew.” As a kind of peace offering, he takes her back to Hereford Square, to the house he shared, until recently, with his wife. While they’re looking around the place, they hear someone come in. Assuming it’s Antonia, Martin shoves Georgie out the back door, only to realize the intruder is Honor Klein.

Klein, having seen Georgie’s handbag on the table in the hall, confronts the young woman, worms the truth out of her, and tells her brother and Antonia that Martin has a mistress. Now it’s their turn to be shocked and dismayed: “How can you have told such lies, Martin?” Antonia asks. “I can’t conceive how you could sit there pretending to be virtuous and let us carry all the guilt. It’s not like you, Martin.” When Martin challenges Klein as to why she spilled the beans, she says simply she thought they should know and tells him, sarcastically, that he’s heroic. “The knight of infinite humiliation. One does not know whether to kiss your feet or to recommend that you have a good analysis.”

And there’s more humiliation in store. Having come to the realization that he’s in love with the woman he hated most, Honor Klein, Martin takes the train to Cambridge, breaks into her house, and finds her in bed with her half-brother, Palmer. Seeking consolation once again from his mistress, Martin sends Georgie a letter begging for her sympathy and understanding. She doesn’t reply; instead, his brother, Alexander, calls to say he and Georgie are in love and are planning to marry. While this shocks Martin it absolutely enrages Antonia, who, it turns out, has been sleeping with Alexander for years. So Martin, poor thing, has been betrayed by his wife, his mistress, his closest friend, and his brother. And, in a way, by his best friend’s half sister, if you count his unexpected passion for Honor Klein.

A Severed Head touches on several issues which were certainly taboo at the time. Incest, of course, is one – and remains so. Another is abortion. Early on we’re told that Georgie became pregnant the previous year, but kindly took care of it without troubling Martin. As he puts it, “I got off with an extraordinary ease . . . I had not had to pay. It had all been quite uncannily painless.” For Martin, at any rate.

By the end of the book, everyone has switched partners, something that happens rather frequently in Murdoch’s tales and could be considered a harbinger of the upcoming sexual revolution. The author, after all, was no stranger to unconventional relationships. In 1956 she married the novelist and literary critic John Bayley who appears not to have been terribly interested in sex. Murdoch, however, had numerous affairs with both men and women, in particular a longstanding, passionate friendship with the writer and animal rights activist Brigid Brophy. It was an odd marriage in many ways, but it was solid. It lasted 43 years and ended only with Murdoch’s tragic death from Alzheimer’s.

As for the severed head, that can be interpreted in several ways . . . the marriage has been destroyed, having had its head cut off . . . various characters “lose their heads” in the course of the narrative. Specifically, though, it appears to refer to Honor Klein, the demon samurai of the story. As she tells Martin, because of who she is and what he has witnessed – the incestuous relationship between her and her brother – she’s become an object of fascination for him:

“I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies. And who knows but that long acquaintance with a severed head might not lead to strange knowledge. For such knowledge one would have paid enough.”

The price, for Martin, is the loss of complacency. And that is never a bad thing, for any of us.


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If you’re sick to death of hearing that 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40, and so on – that life for the boomers just gets better and better – that growing old means getting fitter, richer, and having more sex – welcome! We are as one, as they say.

It’s time, I think, for a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek look at the boomers by one of their own. I try not to complain about getting older – I mean, consider the alternative, right? But, as Leonard Cohen so aptly put it, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, most of us aren’t as rich as we thought we’d be – well, who is? But still, didn’t those old Freedom 55 ads make you think you’d at least own a sailboat by now? Even if, like me, you’re terrified of the open sea??

And what about those of us who are still supporting our (practically) grown-up kids? Come to think of it, there’s almost no way to talk about these things without sounding like a whiner – but I’ll try.