Iris Murdoch

Frances opened her September 2019 presentation with a biographical summary of key events in the Irish novelist’s life. Iris was born in Dublin in 1919 but left Ireland as a baby and only child when the family moved to London where her father was a civil servant. She attended the Froebel Institute in London, and Badminton School (Bristol) becoming Head Girl. She won an exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford to read English but soon switched to ‘Greats’, studying Ancient History, Classics and Philosophy, and obtaining a first class degree.  After graduation she worked at the Treasury and with Philippa Foot set up house in London at 5 Seaforth Place. From an early age she had decided she wanted to write. Post war she worked for UNRRA, a refugee welfare agency. She won a scholarship to study at Vassar in the USA but was rejected when she honestly confessed to having been a member of the Communist Party. She spent a year studying at Newnham, College, Cambridge before returning to teach philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her romantic life was rather colourful with several engagements and relationships with women.

Eventually, at the age of thirty-seven, she married John Bayley, a stuttering Oxford academic. They led a rather ramshackle life, with Iris spending half her time in London teaching and weekends at their house in Oxford. Some of Iris’s behaviour caused John pain but he was devoted to her and nursed her through her later years of declining mental capacity.  Frances drew attention to Iris’s incredible energy and work ethic. Iris was meticulous in answering endless letters, decorating them with doodles and cartoon drawings.

Iris wrote several books of philosophy, the most well-known being Sartre Romantic Rationalist(1953), The Sovereignty of Good(1970), and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals(1992). She was interested in the idea of ‘the fat relentless ego’, the reality of the ‘inner life’ and ‘attention’ to the virtues of love and being good. In this she was influenced by Simone Weil. She was also interested in the idea of attention to nature and art as an aid to ‘unselfing’. Iris write 26 novels in 40 years, a prolific output of fast paced, detailed and richly textured novels, depicting the moral and emotional experience of being human.

Frances noted that Iris was ahead of her time in writing about difficult and taboo subjects, such as homosexuality (before it was decriminalized) and incest. The Red and the Green was her only ‘Irish’ novel which she later preferred to distance herself from. She was dismayed by the whole Irish ‘Troubles’ question. Recognition of her talents came with the award of the James Tait Memorial prize for The Black Prince, and the Booker prize for The Sea,The Sea.Her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma(1995) is heartbreaking in that it seems to reveal her feelings about losing her power over language when she has Jackson say ‘my power has left me’ and ‘a place where there is no road’.

Another great interest for Iris was art and she was a frequent visitor to art galleries.  An oil painting of Dame Iris Murdoch (1986) by Tom Phillips hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Ginko, a plant used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s is featured in the foreground but interestingly the portrait was painted before she became ill. She was very attached to London and loved water and swimming and this is apparent in her writing. Iris did not believe in God, but was aware of the dangers of losing touch with religion. She was very interested in Buddhism and the spiritual life.

Many letters and journals (more like working notebooks) survive and are housed at the Kingston University archive, along with her Oxford library and her London library. Around 4,000 letters survive and many are published in the book Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1955. Some of the letters in the archive are to her philosopher friend Philippa Foot (shoved in a duffle bag) and others to the French writer and philosopher friend whom she much admired, Raymond Queneau. His were presented to the archive in a very orderly manner.

The talk was interspersed with visuals and several interesting readings by Miles Leeson to illustrate points made in the talk. Question time followed with our members and guests interested in Murdoch’s religion, stage productions of her work, her lack of children and her attitudes to feminism and her dementia. Frances remarked that a chronological analysis of the language in her books is ongoing, to discover the effects of Alzheimer’s on her use of language.

A selection of second hand copies of her novels and some recent new non-fiction titles was on view for members to browse and purchase.

This was a fascinating insight into Iris Murdoch’s life and work, and much enjoyed by our members and visitors. Several members of the U3A group who recently read all Murdoch’s novels were present.

At the end Miles, and a former pupil of Iris’s at Oxford , Maureen Gruffdd Jones drew attention to various upcoming events on Iris Murdoch to celebrate the centenary of her birth, one of which is on October 12that Chichester University, where a distinguished panel who knew Iris, including A. N. Wilson and Kate Levey will be reflecting on 100 Years of Memories. The panel will be chaired by Miles Leeson. Members can track details of these events by searching online for Iris Murdoch at Chichester University. An email with details on this event has been sent to all members.


Lois Coulthart