'You speak his name as if you were meditating upon it.'
'I am meditating upon it.'
'He's not a saint.'
'He's not a saint. And yet--'
'What about him?'
'He's in England.'
'I know.' (p. 3)
Summary: A Fairly Honourable Defeat is a sort of loose re-telling of Midsummer Night's Dream; in fact, Julius King, the destructively mischievous Puck to the whole thing, at one point calls his manipulations a 'midsummer enchantment'. Hilda and Rupert are a married couple in what seems to be the late 1960s; Rupert is writing a book on ethics and Hilda is actively involved in variously charitable concerns. They have a college-aged son, Peter, with whom they are estranged. Peter is living with Tallis, Hilda's brother-in-law; Morgan, Hilda's sister and Tallis's wife, has been away for two years, living with Julius King in South Carolina, a relationship that has recently broken up. Rupert has a brother, Simon, who is in a relationship with Axel, one of Rupert's co-workers; Axel is an old friend of Julius's. This is a pretty tightly knit cast of characters; they are all the sort of people who might end up at the same garden party or pool party, which is essential to the unfolding of the plot.
Everything begins -- and in a way, begins deteriorating, when Morgan returns to England. Julius happens to be in England at the same time; it is never quite clear why. Morgan is still obsessed with Julius, and sees his arrival as a way to get back together with him; Julius refuses. However, they do have a discussion in which Julius criticizes the illusions of love and boasts that he could sever any relationship. Morgan, perhaps not taking him entirely seriously, bets him that he cannot break Simon's and Axel's relationship. That, at the time, seems to be that; but Julius whispers to Simon that he should visit him next Friday and not tell Axel.
Morgan attempts to seduce her way back into a relationship with Julius by stripping in his apartment. In response, he cuts up all of her clothes into unusable pieces, locks his own wardrobe, and leaves, stranding her naked in his apartment. Simon, showing up on the assumption that Julius wants to discuss presents for Axel's upcoming birthday, finds her there. She convinces him to let her borrow his clothes until she can return with clothes for him. And thus Simon finds himself staying for an extended period of time, stripped to his underpants, in Julius's apartment, in which condition he is found when Julius returns. Simon is immensely embarrassed and is easily convinced by Julius and Morgan not to tell Axel about his hanging around nearly naked in Julius's apartment. In the meantime, Julius is stirring up trouble elsewhere, having arranged for Rupert and Morgan each to receive letters apparently from each other expressing love. Oh, what fools mortals be.
There's one thing that people often hate worse than having a problem, and that is solving the problem. Chaos spreads through all the relationships as people hope that problems go away or deliberately avoid the truth-telling that would resolve everything simply by making festering secrets no longer secrets. Despite Julius's attempt to pass off his manipulations as a mere practical joke, the consequences are quite serious, and will result in a death.
Murdoch's characters are often not very likable people in one way or another; Simon, I think, is the only one here who is mostly sympathetic. Part of this issue is that, while they are to some degree realistic, each of the characters have only a fragmentary morality. This is in great measure why Julius can play Puck, or perhaps at times Mephistopheles, so easily. Hilda and Tallis are overly immersed in action, being both more concerned with charitable activities than themselves or, at times, others; Rupert and Axel are overly immersed in reason, being overly invested in the purely intellectual and abstract; Simon and Morgan are driven excessively by feeling. In what is almost certainly a deliberate move, each of the pairs has a figure who does better than the other; Tallis, Axel, and Simon all fare better in the face of Julius's machinations than Hilda, Rupert, and Morgan. Tallis is sometimes read as being a saintly figure; this is certainly not true objectively, and I don't think it was Murdoch's intention to suggest it. Tallis will end up resolving matters -- albeit too late -- because he is the action-focused character who faces the problem most squarely. But Murdoch at times depicts his selflessness in ways that can hardly be regarded as less than repulsive, and certainly is not to be taken as a generally viable way of living. Of all the characters, I think the relatively silly Simon fares best under Murdoch's pen; he is overemotional to the point of absurd melodrama, but he is in some ways the most honest of all the characters. One of the things that differentiates Simon from Morgan is that Simon is the only person in the entire group who doesn't give himself any airs as an intellectual. He's a bit silly and oversensitive and even at times airheaded, but he knows it. It makes him feel awkward in this apparently clever set -- but it also provides protection, incomplete but real, from Julius's twisting of the cleverness, or perhaps pseudo-cleverness (since evidences of real intellectualism are quite limited), of the rest. Having read the book, I'm not entirely sure where Murdoch was going with the title, but Simon's failure is the only 'defeat' in this book that can really be regarded as 'fairly honourable'.
One thing I noticed is that almost everything I read about this book before reading it myself was misleading. I don't think critics and reviewers have understood it particularly well. There are amusing passages, but it's not the funny book that you would sometimes assume from descriptions, being in places quite cynical and dark; criticisms of the plot as implausible are wholly beside the point for the same reason that criticizing A Midsummer Night's Dream as implausible is beside the point. I can't guarantee that I understood it in every respect, but of all the Murdoch novels I've read, this was one of the smoothest to read. The characters and plot mesh particularly well, and while the characters are not always likable, they are very intelligibly and clearly depicted. One of Murdoch's great strengths, which is seen in full force here, is the instinct for knowing exactly how much to go into detail to show what we need to know. For instance, there is a scene in which Simon is making a cassoulet for Axel's birthday, and we practically go through the entire recipe, but this is not an extraneous detail. It says a lot about Simon's attention to detail when doing something for other people, but more than that, it sets us up perfectly for later when Axel's birthday goes wrong and Simon's meal preparations come to nothing. In the overarching scheme of things, the steps taken to make a cassoulet are not important -- but as a matter of personal relationships, sometimes it matters that you've put your heart into that cassoulet, and particularly when it ends up ruined. The whole book is filled with things like this, which added a great deal to the enjoyment of it.
'No demonstrations please, dear boy. Sit down. Let's have some gin, we need it. Here.'
'Do you blame me terribly?' said Simon. He was feeling limp with joy. He tried to control his face and his voice. He would be quiet, dignified, sober, all that Axel would wish him to be. But whatever came next, he was home and safe.
'Of course I blame you. That you might be thoroughly confused by Julius or eve frightned of him I can understand. But I can't see how you could have gone on lying and mystifying me when you saw how bloody miserable it was making me.'
'Miserable--?' said Simon. They were sitting close to each other now drinking gin. He had been miserable. Axel had been fierce, dangerous, terrible.
'I think I got into such a state of guilty terror worrying about myself. I just didn't see what was happening to you. I though how angry you would be with me. I though how Julius might make you see me differently. I didn't think you were miserable.'(p. 364)
Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Penguin (New York: 2001).