Fanny Perronet was dead. The opening line of "An Unofficial Rose" echoes that of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", and the novel itself deals with of events set in motion by Fanny's death. Her widower, Hugh, a retired civil servant, considers returning to Emma, his former mistress with whom he had an affair more than twenty years earlier. Hugh and Fanny's son Randall considers leaving his wife, Ann, for his own mistress, Lindsay, who is Emma's close friend and companion. Ann also has an admirer in the shape of Felix Meecham, an Army officer who has for many years been platonically in love with her. Felix's older sister Mildred, the unhappily married wife of Hugh's former colleague and neighbour Humphrey Finch, is in love with Hugh. Although the novel is relatively short, the plot is a complex one- too complex to be summarised here- but it revolves around Hugh's decision whether or not to sell a valuable painting.
The title, derived from Rupert Brooke's poem "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", refers on a literal level to the fact that Randall and Ann run a successful rose-growing business. There is, however, more to it than that. There always is with roses in English literature. A daffodil or a chrysanthemum, a red campion or a viper's bugloss, can be just a flower; a rose has to have a symbolic meaning. It can be a symbol of love, of truth, of beauty, of transience, of Englishness. By an "unofficial" rose Brooke meant a wild rose of the hedgerows which he contrasts with the "official" cultivated flowers of the Berlin garden in which he is sitting, demonstrating his preference for the natural over the artificial.
In the context of Murdoch's novel, Brooke's unofficial rose becomes a complex symbol. All the five elements mentioned above play a part in the book. All the major characters, who are linked by an intricate network of inter-relationships, are in search of love, and some of them are in search of truth and beauty as well. Hugh, for example, is an art connoisseur, and Randall's one obsession, apart from his love for Lindsay, has been his quest to breed the perfect rose. The element of transience is also emphasised; several of the characters (Hugh, Emma, Mildred) are elderly, and are confronted with what may be their last chance of achieving love and happiness.
The unofficial/official distinction perhaps mirrors the division between those characters who act instinctively or spontaneously and those who are more reflective or calculating. Ann, instinctively loyal to her husband despite his infidelity and the younger generation, in the shape of Hugh's teenaged grandchildren Penn and Miranda, fall into the first category. Into the second can be placed characters such as Hugh, who carefully works through all the possible implications of the sale of the painting, and the mercenary Lindsay, who refuses to commit herself to Randall until his financial position has been secured through that sale.
The element of Englishness is not emphasised as strongly in the novel than it is in Brooke's poem, one of the finest evocations of homesickness in English literature. Nevertheless, this is, despite the fact that the author was born in Ireland, in many ways a very English novel, not only in its setting (the Kent countryside on the edge of Romney Marsh) but also in its reserve and delicacy; although it is concerned with strong emotions, these are for the most part expressed quietly, with few violent or dramatic events.
Besides that of the rose, another important image in the book is that of the soldier; Murdoch's choice of Felix's profession was not an accident. Felix states that one should "take life as a job. Just like the Army. Go where it sends one and take whatever comes next". Anthony Nuttall points out in his introduction that this metaphor is borrowed from Plato's "Phaedo", which describes the stoical way in which Socrates met death. In the novel this dutiful stoicism is exemplified not only by Felix, who refuses to declare his love for Ann until after her husband has abandoned her, but also by Ann herself, who accepts her husband's infidelity uncomplainingly. We also see something of this attitude in Emma, who is herself facing death as she is terminally ill.
The novel has been criticised as dealing with too narrow a social spectrum; all the major characters are drawn from the wealthy upper middle classes. (Indeed, with their servants and Tintorettos, they would in some countries be regarded as upper class, but the British have always been reluctant to use this term of anyone not possessed of an aristocratic title). Nevertheless, any novel dealing with personal relationships among a small group of people, especially when many of the characters are related by blood, is likely to be equally narrow in its social compass. If the author attempts to widen the social mix, the result is likely to be a very different kind of work, one dealing with class relationships rather than personal ones.
The book was written in the early sixties, and Murdoch probably deals with sexual matters less frankly than a modern writer would. She implies that there may be a lesbian relationship between Emma and Lindsay, although this is never made explicit. She is, however, more explicit about Humphrey's homosexuality- the reason why his marriage to Mildred is a hollow one- even though male homosexuality was still illegal at the time she was writing. Unlike some sixties writers, however, Murdoch was less concerned with sexual relationships than with emotional states of mind, and her skill in conveying these is masterly. "An Unofficial Rose" well demonstrates why she is regarded as one of the leading British novelists of the late twentieth century.