History: This book was published in 1961. Despite these serious overtones, A Severed Head is regarded by many readers as the most entertaining of Murdoch's novels. As British novelist William Sutcliffe put it, "Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch's other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down."
Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a 41-year-old well-to-do wine merchant who is married to an older woman called Antonia. It never occurs to him that his ongoing affair with a young academic called Georgie could be immoral. Actually, he considers himself to be a very lucky man. Displaying quite a number of macho attributes in his relationships with women, Lynch-Gibbon is shocked when, out of the blue, his wife tells him that she is going to leave him for Palmer Anderson, her psychoanalyst and a friend of the couple's, with whom she has had a secret affair for quite some time. The break up is very friendly, and both Antonia and Palmer appear to be sympathetic with Martin and still want to be friends. He moves out of their London house but still does not want to publicize his affair with Georgie, let alone become engaged to her. Georgie is very hurt by this, and confides to Honor Klein.
Honor Klein, Anderson's stepsister, who is a lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge, is staying with Palmer, and intervenes in the situation by telling Palmer and Antonia about the affair with Georgie, all the details including the abortion. Martin is shocked that this occurred, and suddenly is questioning his love… He continually changes who he is in love with throughout the book, Antonia, Georgie, or Honor. He confronts Honor in the wine cellar, and then physically attacks her, but doesn’t feel remorse for it, but instead becomes attracted to her.
Like a man possessed, he follows her to Cambridge and, in the middle of the night, breaks into her house, only to find her in bed with her stepbrother. At this point, Palmer turns into a harder, less ambiable man, demanding Martin not tell Antonia. Martin, however, is more disturbed as to whether he can love a woman who has incestuous relationships with her brother.
Georgie attempts suicide, and ends up in the hospital. Martin is overcome by his own needs and spends months away. And then Martins brother Alexander tells him that he and Georgie are engaged to be married. Martin goes off the deep end and drinks for days on end.
Palmer, in his shame of being caught with his sister, and, for fear of getting caught by Antonia, starts to be mean to Antonia, and she breaks up with him. Martin and her get back to together for a short time. But, out of the blue, Antonia confesses to him that she has also been sleeping with his older brother Alexander for quite some time.
In the end, Georgie and Palmer go on a long trip together, Antonia and Alexander get married, and Honor and Martin end up together.
Review: Murdoch succeeds in presenting a middle-aged bourgeois who initially thinks of himself as a survivor but realizes that he is in fact a victim. Throughout the novel, all the main characters insist that they have long overcome conventional morality, that they are free agents in the truest sense of the word, but in spite of his hedonism Lynch-Gibbon's residual moral posture just will not go away. Murdoch is particularly good at conveying the atmosphere of benevolence and the apparent lack of hard feelings among the individuals that have wronged and been wronged. ("It is not at all our idea that you should leave us. In a strange and rather wonderful way we can't do without you. We shall hold on to you, we shall look after you," Anderson says to Lynch-Gibbon, who sees himself as a cuckold rather than anything else.) At times funny, sad at others, A Severed Head also deals with more serious issues such as abortion (Georgie terminates her pregnancy at an early stage of her relationship with Lynch-Gibbon) and attempted suicide (again it is Georgie who tries to take her own life after being rejected by both Lynch-Gibbon and his brother).
Opening Line: “You’re sure she doesn’t know,” said Georgie.”
Closing Line: “I gave her back the bright light of the smile, now softening at last out of irony. ‘So must you, my dear!’”
Quotes: “The loss of Antonia seemed like the impossible loss for ever of all warmth and all security; and it was strange too that although a few days ago I had seemed to divide my being and give to Antonia only a part, it now seemed that with her all was to be dragged away. It was like being flayed.”
“Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. Yes, it is love, I do not deny it. But not every love has a course to run, smooth or otherwise, and this love has no course at all. Because of what I am and because of what you saw I am a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting amorsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies.”
“I pulled out a bottle. It weighed heavily in my hand like a familiar tool or weapon.”
Rating: Very good, but weird.