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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) - in full Dame Jean Iris Murdoch, married name Mrs. J.O. Bailey


British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths. As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text. Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease.

"She wanted, through her novels, to reach all possible readers, in different ways and by different means: by the excitement of her story, its pace and its comedy, through its ideas and its philosophical implications, through the numinous atmosphere of her own original and created world--the world she must have glimpsed as she considered and planned her first steps in the art of fiction." (John Bailey in Elegy for Iris, 1998)

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin  the name 'Murdoch' is essentially Scots Gaelic. Her mother, the former Irene Alice Richardson, was an Irishwoman who had trained as an opera singer. Wills John Hughes Murdoch, Iris's father, was an English civil servant who had been a cavalry officer in World War I. Following the war, he worked as a government clerk. The family moved to London, where Murdoch grew up in the western suburbs of Hammersmith and Chiswich.

Murdoch studied classics, ancient history and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford. During World War II she was an active member of the Communist Party, but eventually became disappointed with its ideology and resigned. From 1938 to 1942 she worked at the Treasury as an assistant principal, and then for the United Nations relief organization UNNRA (1944-46) in Austria and Belgium. After a year without employment in London, Murdoch took up a postgraduate studentship in philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1948 she was elected a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she worked as a tutor until 1963. Following that time, Murdoch devoted herself entirely to writing. Between the years 1963 and 1967 she also lectured at the Royal College of Art.

Murdoch's first published work, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), was a critical study. Murdoch argued that Sartre's political passions were responsible for inconsistencies in his philosophical though, ignoring  inconsistencies in his political though that resulted from his philosophy. She had met Sartre in the 1940s, becoming interested in existentialism. While in Paris, Murdoch would stand and listen to the café talk amongst, for example, the actor Roger Blin, Henry Miller and the writer Jacques Prévert. When Simone de Beuvoir invited Murdoch to join in a talk with her, she made it plain that she just wanted to listen. 

Murdoch's great love was a Czech Jewish poet and polymath called Franz Steiner, who died of a heart attack in 1952  in her arms, according to his friend Elias Canetti. She had an affair with Canetti but, in 1956, Murdoch married John Bayley, who was six years younger and still a virgin at 29. He became a professor of English at Oxford and also published fiction. They lived more than thirty years at Steeple Ashton in an old house called Cedar Lodge, then moved into the academic suburb of North Oxford. Murdoch never took any interest in children; she had some affairs, which Bayley tolerated in the otherwise happy marriage of two scholars. Bayley wrote some reviews on Murdoch's behalf and later answered her letters, but did not affect her writing much. However, they shared one passion, swimming, which they practiced whenever they had an opportunity to plunge into water. Bayley installed a water heater in Murdoch's small swimming pool, built at Cedar Lodge's greenhouse.

Murdoch made her debut as a novelist with Under the Net (1954), which had as its protagonist the Sartrean hero Jack Donaghue. A Severed Head (1961) exploited Jungian theories of archetypes. The novel was turned into a play with the help of J.B. Priestley, then later (1971) a movie starring Richard Attenborough, Lee Remick and Claire Bloom. A Severed Head analyzes Freud's theories about male sexuality and desire, and particularly the fear of castration.

The Bell (1958) is among Murdoch's most successful novels. It depcts an Anglican religious community in Gloucestershire. The events focus on the replacement bell to be hung in an abbey tower. Finally the difficulties of the task culminate in an effort to move the bell along a causeway to the gates of the nunnery  the bell suddenly falls into the water and sinks without a trace. The story was later televised.

"'It's as good as the real thing! cried Dora.
--'Nothing's as good as the real thing,' said Peter. 'It's odd that even a perfect imitation, as soon as you know it's an imitation, gives much less pleasure. I remember Kant says how disappointed your guests are when they discover that the afterdinner nightingale is a small boy posted in the grove.'
--'A case of the natural attractiveness of truth,' said Michael."
(from The Bell, 1958)

In Murdoch's early works such as The Sandcastle (1957), the style is polished and the books are generally short. Her later works are large, over 500 pages in length. In The Red and the Green (1965) Murdoch took her subject from history and set the story on the eve of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin, in the midst of World War I. "Christopher had always played the cynic in political discussions. But in fact, though this would not have led him to lift a finger himself, he felt a strong romantic sympathy with the whole tradition of rebellion in Ireland and with the Sinn Feiners as the present representantives of that tradition... Like many scholars who ostentatiously eschew the field of action, he had a strongly developed sense of the heroic. While with the sensibility of an artist he apprehended an epic splendour always latent in the tragedy of Ireland." (from The Red and the Green)

Often, Murdoch used fantasy and gothic elements, but her characters were realistically portrayed in their attempts to find meaning to their lives in extraordinary situations. In the 1950s, Murdoch wrote, "We live in a scientific and anti-metaphysical age, in which the dogmas, images, and precepts of religion have lost much of their power," and we have been left with "far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality." Many of her novels have a religious or philosophical theme, but she avoided clear political statements. "As I said, I do not think that the artist, qua artist, has a duty to society. A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist's duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer's duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done." (from Existentialists and Mystics, Peter Conradi, Ed., 1997) In The Time of the Angels (1965) the protagonist is Carel Fisher, an eccentric Anglican priest in an inner-city parish, who engages in devil worship. His daughter Muriel finds out that his niece Elizabeth is his illegitimate daughter, and lets him die following an overdose of sleeping pills. "Those with whom the angels communicate are lost," says one of the characters. In The Unicorn (1963) characters from the world of convention enter into a medieval world of contingency.

In the experimental novel The Black Prince (1973) the narrator is a self-conscious writer, Bradley Pearson. He is obsessed by perfection and sees the artistic calling as "a doom," a Last Judgment. A passionate love awakens his Black Eros, a source of love and art, and he lands in jail for a crime he did not commit. "Can there be a natural, as it were Shakespearean, felicity in the moral life?" he asks. The Good Apprentice (1985) was an allegory of the battle between good and evil, focusing on the protagonist's suffering. Stuart Cuno has decided to become good, and his methods include celibacy, chastity and the abandonment of a promising academic career. Stuart's stepbrother Edward Baltram is tormented by guilt because he has, he believes, killed his best friend. Stuart goes to rescue Edward from his 'journey to the underworld' and causes a final catastrophic clash of forces. Murdoch's major work is considered The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 1978. The narrator, Charles Arrowby, is a tyrannical director-playwright who, after 40 years, again makes contact with his worn-out childhood sweetheart, bullies her without being able to change, and then starts an affair with an equally monstrous 18-year-old girl.

Among Murdoch's other publications are plays and philosophical and critical studies, including Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). Maria Antonaccio writes in Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch (2000), that her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good and Other Concepts (1967), is "arguably one of the most influential and widely read works on moral philosophy to appear in the last fifty years." Murdoch was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1987. From the mid-1990s Murdoch suffered from Alzheimer disease. First signs were seen on visits to Israel, where Murdoch, who always spoke slowly, had difficulties answering questions. Her last novel was Jackson's Dilemma (1995), a psychological thriller. In the story, Edward Lannion, an aspiring young poet and historical novelist, on the day before his wedding receives a an enigmatic letter from his fiancée. Brad Leithauser wrote in The New York Times that Murdoch's prose is strewn with imprecisions and blatant redundancies  Leithauser also asked why the phrase ''then suddenly'' should appear three times in a single paragraph. The mistakes urged Murdoch's devoted readers to send these comments in letters to the writer.

During the last years of her life, Murdoch became like "a very nice 3-year-old," her husband said. She died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. In his memoir Elegy for Iris John Bayley portrays his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally. "She was a superior being, and I knew that superior beings just did not have the kind of mind that I had." Murdoch's benevolent personality was not broken by her disease. In Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire (1999) Bayley continued his examination of his long romance. Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001), starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet, was based on Bayley's Elegy fo Iris.

For further reading: Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch by A.S. Byatt (1966); The Disciplined Heart by P. Wolfe (1966); Iris Murdoch: The Shakesperian Interest by R. Todd (1980); Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit by E. Dipple (1982); Iris Murdoch's Comic Vision by A. Hague (1983); The Influence of the Writings of Simone Weil on the Fiction of Iris Murdoch by Gabriele Griffin (1993); Iris Murdoch's Fables of Unselfing by D.J. Gordon (1995); Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, eds. M. Antonacci and W. Schwelker (1966); Elegy for Iris by John Bayley (1998); Iris and Her Friends by John Bayley (1999); Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction by Bran Nicol (1999); Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch by Maria Antonaccio (2000); Iris Murdoch by Peter J. Conradi (2001); Iris Murdoch's Paradoxical Novels: Thirty Years of Critical Reception by Barbara Stevens Heusel (2001); The Saint and the Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch by Peter J. Conradi (2002); Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson (2003); Iris Murdoch, Gender and Philosophy by Sabina Lovibond (2011); Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays, edited by Justin Broackes  (2012); Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts, edited by Anne Rowe and Avril Horner (2012); A Philosophy to Live By: Engaging Iris Murdoch by Maria Antonaccio (2012).  Special thanks to Project Editor Sylvia M. Wood for her generous help with this page.

Selected works:

  • Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, 1953
  • Under the Net: A Novel, 1954
  • The Flight from the Enchanter, 1956 (dedicated to Elias Canetti)
  • The Sandcastle: A Novel, 1957 - Hiekkalinna (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1965)
  • The Bell, 1958 - Kello (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1961)
  • A Severed Head: A Novel, 1961
  • An Unofficial Rose, 1962 - Epävirallinen ruusu (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1963)
  • The Unicorn, 1963 - Yksisarvinen (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1964)
  • A Severed Head: A Play in Three Acts, 1964 (play, with J.P. Priestley, based on the novel of the same title)
  • The Italian Girl: A Novel, 1964 - Italialaistyttö (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1966)
  • The Red and the Green, 1965
  • "The Vine of the Angels", 1966 (sermon preached at 11 am on 16th Oct 1966)
  • The Time of the Angels, 1966 - Enkelten aika (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1969)
  • The Sovereignty of Good and Other Concepts, 1967
  • The Nice and the Good, 1968
  • Bruno's Dream, 1969
  • The Italian Girl, 1969 (play, with James Saunders, based on the novel of the same title)
  • A Fairly Honourable Defeat , 1970
  • An Accidental Man, 1971
  • The Three Arrows; and, The Servants and the Snow: Plays, 1973 
  • The Black Prince, 1973 (Musta prinssi)
  • The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, 1974
  • A Word Child, 1975
  • Henry and Cato, 1976
  • The Fire & the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artist, 1977 (based upon the Romanes Lecture)
  • The Sea, the Sea, 1978 (Booker McConnell Prize) - Meri, meri (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1981)
  • A Year of Birds: Poems, 1978
  • Art and Eros, 1980 (play)
  • Nuns and Soldiers, 1980 - Nunnia ja sotilaita (suom. Eva Siikarla, 1983)
  • Reynolds Stone, 1981 (an address given by Iris Murdoch in St James's Church, Piccadilly, London, on 20 July 1979)
  • The Servants: Opera in Three Acts, 1981 (music by William Mathias; libretto by Iris Murdoch, based on her play The Servants and the Snow)
  • The Philosopher's Pupil, 1983
  • The Good Apprentice, 1985 - Hyvä oppilas (suom. Raija Mattila, 1987)
  • Above the Gods, 1986 (play)
  • Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986 (play)
  • The Book and the Brotherhood, 1987  
  • The Black Prince, 1989 (play)
  • The Message to the Planet, 1989
  • The Existentialist Political Myth, 1989
  • Something Special: Four Poems and a Story, 1990  
  • Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 1992
  • The Green Knight, 1993
  • Existentialists and Mystics, 1993 (first published in Essays and Poems presented to Lord David Cecil)
  • Joanna Joanna: A Play in Two Acts, 1994
  • The One Alone, 1995 (play, limited ed. of 232 copies)
  • Jackson's Dilemma, 1995
  • Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, 1997 (edited by Peter Conradi)
  • From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, 2003 (edited by Gillian Dooley)
  • Iris Murdoch, Writer at War: The Letters and Diaries of Iris Murdoch: 1939-1945, 2009 (edited and introduced by Peter J. Conradi)

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