In early 1960s London, Martin Lynch-Gibbon heads home to his mature and beautiful wife after an afternoon frolicking with his young and delectable mistress. While he beams with the smug satisfaction of a man having two cakes and eating them both, his wife tells him she’s leaving him for her lover, instantly upending his perfect, convenient equilibrium. While roiling with jealousy and resentment, Lynch-Gibbon becomes uncomfortably aware that his impending single-dom may give his mistress aspirations toward respectability, and that his devotion and attraction to both these women is entirely dependent on his duplicity: losing one of them would negate his affection for the other.
A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch’s 1961 comedy of the sexual mores of the terribly polite, terribly misbehaving English middle class twists with a plot worthy of a French farce, and reeks of Hammer House of Horror menace. Lynch-Gibbon is so haplessly gormless that the reader roots for him, despite his swithering, especially when a third woman enters, stage left, whose Machiavellian air and adroitness with Samurai swords suggests she may make mince-meat of them all. As always Murdoch’s work feels refreshingly direct and honest, risky and funny. Caring nary a jot for deviations into the wider world, allusions to Greek tragedy excepted, Murdoch throws all her energy behind one main hypothesis, that love is often neither warm nor generous, but spiteful, greedy and not a game to be played by the faint of heart.