A Fairly Honourable Defeat

by Iris Murdoch

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Julius King, returning from a university job in America, seeks out his old school friends, Rupert Foster and Axel Nillson. His former lover, Morgan Browne, Foster’s sister-in-law, has arrived in England at the same time. Foster’s attempts to keep them apart are thwarted by Morgan Browne, still in love with King and determined to confront him. At the same time, she is avoiding her husband, Tallis Browne, who still loves her.

The plot is complicated further when, almost immediately and by accident, Julius King meets Tallis Browne. King is intrigued by his old lover’s husband, a rather nondescript fellow with not much personal presence but considerable moral integrity.

King himself is a man of formidable intellect, and he does not suffer anyone gladly. He is irritated by what he sees as self-satisfied and patronizing conduct in his friends, and he sets out, without much concern for the consequences, to put them in compromising situations. Morgan, his love from the past, will not leave him alone, and though he has a quick way of chastening her for her importunities, he determines to include her in his plans. Rupert Foster, rather full of himself since he has just finished his book on the power of good and love in life, is ripe and ready to be fooled, and Morgan, full of the hot air of spurned love and dramatizing her problems for all to see, appears to be just the mate for Rupert, if King can somehow get them together. To make the game more interesting, he takes on the extra task of breaking up the homosexual relationship between Axel Nillson and Simon, Rupert’s brother.

Using a mixture of high cunning, sheer criminality, and pinches of black mail, King tempts his friends into situations which they would never have contemplated and which ultimately result not only in revealing flaws in their characters but also in causing serious harm to Rupert, for which King, a cool, nerveless fellow, takes no responsibility. Everyone learns how ridiculously vulnerable they are, but Axel and Simon escape from King’s labyrinth of “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t,” strengthened in their love and less inclined to be shamefaced about being homosexual. Whether Morgan Browne learns anything is unclear, and the damage done to the Fosters is gratuitously cruel.

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