The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Bradley Pearson, an unsuccessful novelist in his late fifties, has finally left his dull office job as an Inspector of Taxes. Bradley hopes to retire to the country, but predatory friends and relations dash his hopes of a peaceful retirement. He is tormented by his melancholic sister, who has decided to come to live with him; his ex-wife, who has infuriating hopes of redeeming the past; her delinquent brother, who wants money and emotional confrontations; and Bradley’s friend and rival, Arnold Baffin, a younger, deplorably more successful author of commercial fiction. The ever-mounting action includes marital cross-purposes, seduction, suicide, abduction, romantic idylls, murder, and due process of law. Bradley tries to escape from it all but fails, leading to a violent climax and a coda that casts shifting perspectives on all that has preceded.

Chief amongst Iris Murdoch’s ( influences for this 1973 novel is Hamlet. It is openly referenced and discussed throughout, especially by Bradley. It is noted in the Post-Scripts that Bradley Pearson shares initials with the Black Prince, the title of Pearson’s fictional as well as Murdoch’s real work.

Also present is the influence of Freud, especially through the frequent sexual imagery based on recurrent references to the phallic Post Office Tower. Bradley’s possible proxy admission of homosexuality is made possible through his seeming self-identification with Shakespeare throughout his narrative, and in his claiming both Hamlet and Shakespeare were homosexual. It is strengthened further by the moments in the book where he finds himself attracted to Julian, during each of which her gender is made ambiguous.

The final of these is when he finally achieves sexual arousal, having previously been unable, when Julian has dressed herself as Hamlet. These themes are discussed by Francis, himself a homosexual, in the Post-Scripts. It is also notable that the two characters Bradley has achieved intimacy with, Julian and Christian, are not clearly female in characterisation or name. An attempted seduction by Rachel, a more traditionally feminine character, is described passionlessly by Bradley’s narrative. Subtler Ancient Greek influences are seen in Bradley’s quest for a pseudo-Platonic perfection in his writing and his purported asceticism.

This is rich and thought-provoking fiction of the highest calibre.

432 pages in Vintage Classics paperback edition

ISBN 978-0099589259

Iris Murdoch

Scroll to Top