IRIS MURDOCH, by Peter J. Conradi
(1919 - 1999)
See IRIS MURDOCH, by AN Wilson, here
|The Daily Telegraph||15-8-1999||Crítica do livro "Iris and the Friends"|
|The Evening Standard||19-3-2001||The Prof who never set mucht store...|
|The Daily Telegraph||10.9.2001||Tell the truth about Iris...|
|The Sunday Times||16-9-2001||Crítica do livro "Iris Murdoch: A Life"|
|This is London||17-9-2001||Idem|
|The Daily Telegraph||17-9-2001||Idem|
|The New Yorker||01-10-2001||Idem|
|The Washington Post||11-11-2001||Idem|
|The New York Times||11-11-2001||Idem|
|Guardian||21-12-2001||Age will win|
|The American Prospect||06-05-2002||Watching "Star Trek" with Iris Murdoch|
|London Review of Books||05-09-2002||
|The New Republic||31-12-01||When She Was Good|
|TheYale Review of Books||Fall 2001 issue||The Maze of Murdoch|
|Boston Globe||18-11-2001||Another elegy for the eccentric Iris-Biography|
|Houston Chronicle||30-11-2001||A look at Iris Murdoch|
|NZZ Online||18-01-2003||All about Iris|
|London Review of Books||19-9-2002||Letter from Peter Conradi|
|The Spectator||15-9-2001||The passionate and the good|
|The Guardian||2-6-2003||Then there were two|
|The Guardian||28-8-2003||They knew her too well|
|Slate||22-1-2002||Not knowing Iris Murdoch|
"EXTRACTOS DO LIVRO IRIS MURDOCH: A LIFE"
|1616 - 1925|
|1956 - 1961|
John Bayley, Iris and the Friends, London, Duckworth, 1999
Thoughts that wander through eternity
An account of loss, and of a remarkable and true marriage
WHEN John Bayley’s earlier memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch’s descent into Alzheimer’s was announced, some expressed doubts about the propriety of writing and publishing such a book while she was still alive, even though it was impossible that she should have even known about the book, let alone read it. The doubts were removed by the grace, warmth and honesty of the memoir.
This sequel, covering Iris Murdoch’s last year, is subtitled "A Year of Memories", and, as her condition deteriorated rapidly, it is really more about Bayley himself than about her. The "Friends" of the title may puzzle some. Does he mean friends who rallied round to help him? Or could it be the Society of Friends, the Quakers? It is neither. These are incorporeal friends:
It is possible for both of us to have friends in common with Dr Alzheimer, who certainly does have his friends. And now it’s as if my own memories were becoming Iris’s friends too . . .
No longer able to hold what most of us would regard as a conversation with his wife, to whose care his whole life, round the clock, has to be devoted, Bayley finds freedom and friendship in the indulgence of memory.
Is it a surprise, or is it natural, that the memories in which he moves most freely and happily should almost all arise from his pre-Iris life? It seems to me natural. Now that she is dead, I would imagine that Iris-memories flood his mind and occupy many hours - perhaps to lead to a third volume.
Memories of childhood, in Kent, where his family lived by, and spent much of the time on, a golf course, mingle with memories of books read then or later. They are a means of escape, of making the otherwise intolerable bearable. His mentor, he tells us, is Belial in Paradise Lost, "who, while his more heroic companions are planning a hazardous vengeance upon God, only wants to be left safe to think his own thoughts":
". . . for who would lose/Though full of pain, this intellectual being,/Those thoughts that wander through eternity . . .?"
"Never mind eternity," Bayley says. "I am quite content to wander back to actual years and months, actual places": to that childhood, wartime service in the Army, and an odd encounter with Rosamond Lehmann while his driver, a lance corporal called Curly, seduced the novelist’s cook.
What a pity that it is now "no use trying to tell Iris about these memories as I would once have done . . . It upsets her; a bothered look can come over her face, but usually there is only vacancy and, with luck, a smile".
For the house-bound carer, knowing that things will become worse, reading has apparently become difficult. Late-night television - preferably an American crime movie or series - after Iris is in bed, is a sort of solace. But living in the past, and freeing the imagination to wander, is, for Bayley, the greatest support, what helps him to keep on going: "In memory and daydream there is nothing but solitude. The friend I have come to depend on."
Thinking about "the murderer West and his wife", he concludes:
They lacked the ability to imagine without enacting. Had they been producing Macbeth - an unlikely possibility admittedly - it would have meant nothing to them unless Duncan and Banquo, and Lady Macduff and her children, had really been butchered - and on the stage. For most of us the stage in the head is good enough - in fact what makes the head worth having.
Belial would have agreed, probably with a sly smile . . . So, on the stage in his head, Bayley replays old love affairs, real or imaginary: a German girl in the years of the Occupation, a former Anglican nun whose poem he read in a magazine and to whom he even proposed marriage, and the Big Woman of Gerrards Cross ("why does fantasy insist she should be so big?"). Of his marriage, far less, which may disappoint some readers:
I cannot imagine Iris. But then I never have done. She is not like the Big Woman of Gerrards Cross. Love does not need fantasy, nor imagination either . . .
The abiding impression this book makes is, however, of an enduring and understanding love - a remarkable, true marriage. Bayley writes:
I have thought: here I am married to the most intelligent woman in England, and we have never had a serious conversation. We never talk to each other in a way that would be intelligible to anyone else. Or worth listening to if it was.
We are still talking in that way, and I shall never leave home now. Home is Iris and Iris is home. Dr Alzheimer was a friend who never stopped Iris talking to me, nor I to her.
That should of course be "me" not "I" in that last sentence, but it is still a beautiful conclusion to a book which makes it clear that the marriage it celebrates will continue to fructify in the survivor’s memory and imagination.
The Daily Telegraph, 15-8-1999
The prof who 'never set much store by the truth'.
The Evening Standard (London, England); 19/3/2001; Wilson, A.N.
Read this article here
Tell the truth about Iris, but not the gory details (News)
Daily Telegraph (London, England); 10/9/2001; ,
Read this article here
Murdoch: A Life
By Peter Conradi
HarperCollins, 736 pp
ISBN 0 0025 123 4
September 16 2001
Stranger than fiction
Her fervent admirers will think this silly, but I find it very hard to imagine Iris Murdoch or the characters in her novels having sex. "She faced me now with an intensity and a bright silent defiance which I remembered and loved from long ago." This is Jake in her first novel, Under the Net, possibly copulating - but possibly not. "Her body . . . was like a rigid missile to which I clung as we hurtled through space . . . I let her go and lay heavily on her breasts, completely limp."
Her characters spend an enormous amount of time falling in love with each other, but the actual sex always seems to be a metaphor for something more philosophical. And reading her husband John Bayley's superb but excruciatingly embarrassing memoir, Iris (1998), published - incredibly - while she was still physically alive but mentally almost dead with Alzheimer's, you get the same feeling when he writes about their sex life: "Our bedroom habits," he tells us, "were always peaceful . . . We expected neither sex nor marriage to get anywhere: we were happy for them to jog on just as they were." It sounds cosy, but what does he mean?
Murdoch finally died in February 1999, and Peter J Conradi has achieved a considerable feat in bringing out this exhaustively researched and elegantly written biography a mere two and a half years later, even though he was a close friend of Murdoch and Bayley and had published a book about her fiction.
He chronicles her many love affairs, and reveals that there were lesbian relationships after she married Bayley. But she also denounced promiscuity and bohemianism. "It is a paradox about Iris," Conradi writes, "that she managed to run an increasingly complicated love life, while continuing to appear to many observers chaste if not chilly . . . blue- stocking . . . virginal."
He shrewdly portrays her as the eternal head girl - quite literally, for she was chosen for that honour at the Froebel school in London, which she attended as a young child, and then again at Badminton girls' boarding school. John Betjeman appears only fleetingly in Conradi's narrative; he apparently didn't like her books, but he would undoubtedly have been turned on by her androgynous looks and the disapproving school-prefect gaze that she directed at people for the rest of her life. I remember experiencing it in full when sitting next to her at an Oxford dinner party and admitting to an ignorance of most of Dostoevsky's novels - it was as if one had been caught doing something naughty behind the pavilion
Conradi has organised the biography so that the bulk of it is about Murdoch's early, pre-marriage years. Bayley has already chronicled the later life, and Conradi declares that "the recent past is too close for objectivity". The biography's chief purpose and achievement is to chart the complexities of her youthful relationships - many of them with older men, such as the wildly eccentric Oxford philosopher Donald MacKinnon (with whom she didn't sleep), and the monstrous émigré novelist Elias Canetti (with whom she did) - and to show that they were just as extraordinary as the novels she eventually wove out of them.
Conradi wisely refrains from giving a five-star rating to all her fiction. He admits that quite a lot of her output, particularly in the later years, was below her best standards, and he seems to regret her sheer prolixity (26 novels in 42 years, and no publisher these days wants to keep 26 novels in print). Meanwhile he himself delivers passages of narrative that are as gripping as the best of Murdoch's novels, for example his poignant account of her love affair in the early 1950s with a melancholic middle-aged Jewish exile living in Oxford called Franz Steiner, whom she would possibly have married had he not died suddenly of a weak heart.
Conradi is tremendously good at ambience - he catches the flavour of 1950s Oxford with total accuracy. (I know this, because I was there, as a small boy living in the university. Murdoch's passionate conversations with MacKinnon must have taken place literally above my head, since he and his wife lived on the top floor of our house.) Conradi has MacKinnon and other Oxford characters of the period dead right (for example, his description of the theologian Austin Farrer as "elfin, occasionally waspish") and he manages to make this very Oxfordian period of Murdoch's life, when she was a young philosophy don, as exciting as her earlier Parisian encounters with Sartre and the Existentialists.
He is also a dab hand at comedy when describing the Murdoch- Bayley form of domesticity at the house in which most of their married life was spent, in the Oxfordshire village of Steeple Aston. Bayley has already written amusingly about the squalor into which the ménage descended, but Conradi manages to create a fresh tapestry of absurdities, as chaos descends upon the house.
Wisely, he refrains from giving us a detailed rerun of Bayley's account of the destruction of Murdoch's mind by Alzheimer's, although this does mean that the biography ends abruptly. It begins slightly too slowly, with much about Murdoch's Scottish-Irish ancestry, and her placid London upbringing as the adored only child of an easy-going minor civil servant and his pretty but rather vacuous wife.
There are a few surprises in the book. Bayley has always claimed that he had almost nothing to do with the writing of Murdoch's novels, which he usually didn't read until they were in galley proof. Conradi, however, argues that there was much "direct influence" from Bayley's own books and articles of literary criticism: "When he enthused about Henry James . . . her novels . . . became Jamesian. When he wrote a brilliant study of Tolstoy, his ideas . . . found their way into The Nice and the Good." And there is a glimpse of Murdoch, a Communist party member in her undergraduate days, turning Thatcherite in the 1980s and observing that the striking coalminers "should be put up against the wall and shot".
But on the whole, the biography doesn't change or challenge the existing image of Murdoch. Nor, regret-tably does it make one want to reread much of her fiction - Conradi himself sometimes seems to be groaning under the sheer quantity of it (although the best of it, such as The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea, still seems superb).
Now we wait for the screen version of Bayley's book about her, with Kate Winslet and Judi Dench sharing the main role. The film will probably trivialise it all, whereas Conradi's feat is to make her seem even stranger than her fiction.
Sunday September 16, 2001
Who really knew Iris?
Obsessive, merciless, an intellectual in love with erotic danger, Iris Murdoch remains mysterious in a tactful new biography by Peter J Conradi
I knew Iris Murdoch - pretty well, I think - for 30 years, and my immediate response after reading this life of her by my assiduous homonym (who shares my middle initial but has a snazzy Sephardic variant of my surname) is to realise that I did not know her at all.
My memories of her are still shockingly vivid and intense. That blunt, bold, deliberate handwriting on letters and postcards, like the unjoined-up lettering of a preternaturally intelligent child. The way she once materialised in a corner of my college rooms in Oxford, smiling at me and enjoying the few moments of invisibility she had enjoyed: I yelped when I saw her, as if I had seen a ghost. Her boy-soprano singing voice, which treated me on another occasion to a rendition of 'Waltzing Matilda', and the growly brogue of the same voice in another register when she argued with me. Her helpless laughter, her showers of tears. The way our teeth clashed when she gave me a kiss, and the darting, adder-like sorties (am I being caddish?) of her tongue between my lips.
But how do you reconcile the wise omniscience of the mind and the flirtatious waywardness of the body? When we first met, she seemed as impersonal as an angel, until - in a copybook example of what the existentialists called a gratuitous action - she abruptly de-levitated and lured me out on a pub crawl.
I had my Iris; I had no way of knowing how many others had theirs. She asked questions (and often requested that I tell her three interesting things about my day, which turned me into a storyteller and occasional liar, though it also had the charmed effect of making the dreariest day interesting), but never answered them. Obliquity, evasiveness or downright secrecy kept her multifarious aspects separate. Among the myths she loved was that of Psyche, inducted into heavenly bliss by Cupid, then sworn to silence about forbidden delights. He sealed her lips by placing his finger over them. She illustrated the point with her finger on my face. I understood the embargo, although kisses breached it.
The great achievement of her emotional life, as narrated by Conradi, was to ensure that no one knew about her affair with Elias Canetti. From her marriage to John Bayley in 1956 until her death in 1999, even her closest friends thought Canetti had been merely her guru, not her sadistic sexual tormenter. In Bayley's own memoir of Iris, he denied she had ever got intimately entangled with any of the lesbians she befriended. Conradi, however, has discovered that she resigned her fellowship at St Anne's in 1962 because the college principal warned her about 'a mutually obsessional attachment to a woman colleague'.
Nevertheless, it's a sign of Conradi's tact that, even after his access to her journals and his dogged disinterring of ancient lovers, he allows Iris to remain mysterious, or at least insolubly contradictory, her warring motives masked by that ambiguous Gioconda smile.
She despised psychotherapy, and said she analysed herself in her novels; interestingly, she supervised a doctorate on allegory by A.D. Nuttall which required her to read Prudentia's Psychomachia, which represents the mind as a battlefield, as hers was.
Her philosophical high-mindedness clashed with her romantic attraction to fables and fairy tales. She delighted in erotic danger: one of her early lovers was the anthropologist Franz Steiner, an expert on tribal taboos and their infringement. (Conradi wonders whether she might have enticed him to defy a medical taboo by having sex with her and risking his weak heart; he surmises that Steiner died while they were making love.) Yet this alarmingly diffused, indiscriminate sexual energy was exorcised or pacified by the innocence or happy infantilism of her marriage to Bayley.
They reminded Stephen Spender of Hansel and Gretel, with no suspicion of incest. Bayley volunteered to be her 'child-bride'; she calls him 'puss' in her journals, and often in my hearing addressed him as 'old chicken' - not exactly sexual endearments.
When the disparities between principle and practice obtruded, Iris simply denied them. (Her Protestant Irishness often manifested itself in statements of table-thumping absolutism.) Despite her own feckless youth, she censured promiscuity in an interview with Adam Mars-Jones in 1985. Conradi too easily assumes that 'she had no memory of her own bohemianism'; the issue of her later reactionariness is one he prefers to dodge. When I lamented the Falklands war, Iris told me that I couldn't understand what was being fought about 'because you're not English'. Hardly a philosophically respectable way to win an argument, especially coming from one who was so proud of having been born in Dublin.
Bayley, wooing her, knew what would be required of him, and said: 'I could live in any contradiction indefinitely with you, and never mind the mornings when one wakes up early and alone.' She advised him how to cope with her malleability by citing another myth: 'Simply hang on to me as if I were Proteus.'
Conradi traces the protean facility of her metamorphoses back to Canetti's theory of Verwandlungen, which celebrated the individual's fission into a quarrelsome company of personae. At first, this seemed like a deviously magical power: Canetti, as Conradi demonstrates, is the prototype for the devilish enchanters in her novels. Yet it also entailed a Shakespearean self-negation which made it a sacred grace rather than a devious profane talent. Canetti, Iris said, had enough selves to stock a 'Hindu pantheon' (and, like those randy polymorphous gods, a goodly supply of willing houris).
Covering the transition between sex and spirit, she called Canetti an 'angel-demon'. All of Iris herself is in that shaky, splicing hyphen. She is becoming harder to understand, now that the process of sanctification is under way: in a forthcoming film, she is impersonated by Judi Dench, the English epitome of sweet, fubsy domestic cosiness. All her life, people deified her. At Oxford, Denis Healey called the communistic Iris a 'latter-day Joan of Arc'. But, as she told her lover Frank Thompson when reporting that she had lost her virginity while he was away at the war (in which he was killed), 'I'm not a Blessed Damozel you know.'
No, indeed: in the reminiscences of others, she often resembles Lilith, Lucifera, Salome and their fatal mythic sisters. Olivier Todd, who knew her at Cambridge after the war, could not decide whether her aura was redolent of roses or sulphur. She cast her Oxford tutor Donald Mackinnon - a famously disincarnated brain, on whom Tom Stoppard partly modelled the philosopher in Jumpers - as Christ, and called herself the penitent harlot Mary Magdalene. Mackinnon, whose marriage frayed as a result of their intense but cerebral liaison, denounced her in 1992, declaring 'there was real evil there'.
She could, as Conradi admits, be a predatory, merciless Venus. Perhaps Iris made atonement for this tendency to hurt others by volunteering in turn to be hurt by them. A character in The Black Prince announces that 'of course Shakespeare was a masochist', though Conradi hastily chastens the assertion by arguing that masochism here means 'that healing surrender to the otherness of the world which is for Iris an aspect of virtue'. Remembering her joy in Canetti's violent sexual conscription of her (usually in an armchair, with his wife in the next room preparing supper for them), I am unconvinced.
She expected such casual brutality from intellectual mentors. During the Thatcher years, she badgered Kenneth Baker about funding cuts for education, but despite her worship of Socrates and his tutorial methods, she found perversity in pedagogy. A teacher, she told a friend who was setting out to become one, can employ 'a certain sadism but ideally' (and here Iris the Platonist slips in) 'this should be entirely veiled'. Another of her Oxford tutors, Eduard Fraenkel, notoriously pawed his female students. Iris accepted this as part of the learning process.
Conradi never really confronts such inconsistencies, or else he finesses them with a slack New Age transcendentalism. He teases critics who treat the novels as gospels, but his own early study of the fiction, to which he often refers, is called The Saint and the Artist. He has intrepidly researched the first half of her life - her wartime job in Whitehall, her postwar work with refugees in Austria, and those experimental amours - but after 1956 his account loses focus, and the woman becomes a machine manufacturing novels. Oddly, he's least revealing on the years during which he knew her, first as a fan and finally as a carer.
Perhaps he feels pre-empted by Bayley's memoirs of her anguished but ultimately placid loss of identity. I suspect, however, that the problem lies in his allegorical or mystical veneration of her. They explored Buddhism and yoga together; Conradi's beliefs make him credulous about the paranormal phenomena in her last books, and he shares the reverence of the water-diviner who, when a willow rod 'jumped violently out of her hands at the very spot for a well' on the Spenders' property in Provence, commented: 'Madame à la fluide.'
At the very end of his book, he fudges criticism of Bayley's harrowing account of her last years by remarking: 'Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara sees the Bodhisattva as willing to be, according to the needs of the Other, like a bridge, a boat, or a road.' I know I'm an unsoulful earthling, but that to me is mumbo-jumbo and it covers unclear or incomplete thinking.
Still, Conradi's Buddhism is a guarantee of modesty. He is unpossessive about Iris, and begins by acknowledging that this will not be the last biography of her. I doubt that anyone else will succeed in solving the mystery, and I hope not. Bayley once argued that great fictional characters, like those of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, remain unknowable, endlessly surprising us and renewing our infatuation with them. Iris - now such a mythic, metamorphic character herself - is the living proof of that proposition.
WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 12 2001
Peter Conradi’s biography gives another picture of Iris Murdoch. For its first 300 pages it is mainly about the wild sex-life of this brilliant daughter from a modest Irish family
The prevailing image of Iris Murdoch in people’s minds nowadays is of the elderly lady, still beautiful although dying of Alzheimer’s, so vividly portrayed by her husband John Bayley in his book Iris. Or else it might be, a little before that, of the serene middle-aged novelist, in her dirndl-like skirt, black karate tunic or startling tangerine mackintosh, whose searching mind was forever turning over the question of the nature of the Good.
This biography gives another picture of her. For its first 300 pages it is mainly about the wild sex-life of this brilliant daughter from a modest Irish family who lived in Chiswick and struggled to send her to school at Badminton. From the moment she arrived at Oxford, aged 19, in 1938, she was falling in love again and again, and, with her affairs regularly overlapping, was often sharing the bed of more than one man.
Yet there is a strangely bodiless feel about all this love. Behind it all, one feels an unending quest in Iris for the man from whom she might learn wisdom. Two figures especially stand out in her Oxford days. One is Frank Thompson, the gentle, scholarly idealist (and the brother of the left-wing historian E. P. Thompson) who was murdered when he was caught with the partisans in Bulgaria in 1944.
The other is Franz Steiner, a Czech Jew who lectured in social anthropology in Oxford in the 1950s, by which time Iris was a Fellow of St Anne’s. They were intensely in love with each other, and there is a hint in this book that Steiner, who was ten years older than Iris, may have died from a heart attack when he was actually in her arms.
One other lover was perhaps less loved than these, but had an even greater influence on Iris. This was Elias Canetti, the famous and terrifying author of Crowds and Power, with whom she spent much time in London in the early 1950s after Franz’s death. Arrogant, dominating, he both liberated and enslaved her for a time, and she never lost touch with him. She went through strange episodes in which he identified her with another of his lovers, Friedl, and she willingly acquiesced in the fantasy. From him she learned at first hand about both the charm and the evil that go with power.
The turning-point in her life was her meeting, and marriage in 1956, with John Bayley. He has told his side of the story in Iris — how, already 29 and quite inexperienced in love, he fell desperately for her when he saw her passing his window in Oxford on her bicycle. She fell for his vivacity, his fun and his innocence, and both have acknowledged that in some ways they had a child-life together, an endless exchange of jokes and stories and simple tenderness. Yet there is another John story to be told — that of his toughness and reliability. While Iris was steadily writing her novels, he became the Warton Professor of English at Oxford, after all.
Her novels, which made an enormous mark in Britain, are really moral romances. She once told me she hated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. His kind of acrid, discouraging realism was not what she wanted from art at all. Her stories tell of people’s faltering attempts to achieve a state of happiness and goodness, usually through various forms of love. Whenever you start one, you feel the excitement of freedom, the uncertainty of what will happen, the promise present in somewhere like the rainy streets of London. Mysterious Canetti-like figures brood over some of them — usually a source of evil, but also wakening other characters to neglected truths. The best of her books subtly tease the mind with the play of human longings and of hard, contingent reality.
Some of them are also very funny — one of the best is A Severed Head, in which each successive sexual twist in a modern Restoration comedy also reveals a fresh psychological depth in the characters. This biography shows how those rapid switches of love and sexual desire that were sometimes criticised as unrealistic in her novels have an undeniable source in her own experience.
Iris also once said to me that she never read biographies of writers. It was the truth in their work that interested her. However, she and John appear to have assented to their friend Peter Conradi’s writing this book, for which he had access to her journals — they knew a biography was bound to appear some time.
Peter Conradi’s book is a rich and affectionate but level-headed account of her life, if occasionally as muddled as she could sometimes be herself when it delves into such abstract matters as the question of her Platonism. Yet, with the revelations about her early days, I wonder if, in the present climate, someone is not already writing a much more critical book about her.
Iris Murdoch in her prime
John Bayley's extraordinary pre-mortem memoir of Iris Murdoch was notable for its stark revelations and lack of information. Though he was prepared to chart his wife's distressing descent into Alzheimer's disease in forensic detail, Bayley spared the reader many facts about her past. Facts would have been gossipy, and perhaps, as he suggested, he wasn't the best authority on them anyway. Their intimacy seems to have been of the kind in which certain things are never discussed (whether they were going to have children, for instance) and his famous wife remained in some ways as mysterious to him as to anyone.
Peter Conradi, a close personal friend of the Bayleys and long-term admirer of Iris's work (his scholarly study of her fiction has just gone into a new edition), now steps forward to plug the gap with this chunky volume. With unrestricted access to Murdoch's papers and a great deal of scrupulous original research, he has amassed "so much material that an archive will accommodate the overflow".
Encyclopaedic, "official"; it looks as if it's going to be deadly. But, against the odds, Conradi has managed to produce a biography that is both admiring and judicious and that gradually draws you in to the colourful, peculiar world Murdoch inhabited and refracted through her novels.
Murdoch was the only child of adoring parents and seems to have had an idyllically happy youth. Clever, hard-working and beautiful, she managed to avoid the usual frustrations and difficulties of adolescence and went to liberal progressive schools, the last of which, Badminton, was non-denominational, veggieish and run by a strong-willed Sapphist who subscribed to the Left Book Club and once went to a ball dressed as The League of Nations. From this entertaining and benignly batty background Murdoch went on with a scholarship to Oxford to read English (later changed to Greats), discovered Communism, discovered sex and graduated with a First the year before the outbreak of war.
During the war, Murdoch (still card-carrying) worked at the Treasury and later joined the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, with postings in Belgium and Austria. She endured the dangers and privations of life in wartime London with apparent insouciance (prepared for it by the cold baths of Badminton, perhaps) and knew that by comparison with her combatant friends, she was having an easy time. Her Oxford contemporary and the man she probably would have married at that date, Frank Thompson (brother of E P Thompson) volunteered the day before war was declared and was on active service for almost five years. The shocking story of his death, brilliantly and movingly recounted here, suggests some of the sources of Murdoch's subsequent preoccupation with abstract moral problems. Both her work as a philosopher and as a novelist might be seen as a way of digesting the meaning of the war.
Murdoch went to Cambridge just as Wittgenstein was leaving it, but spent the following decade in a succession of intense relationships with various intellectual "masters", including Raymond Queneau, Franz Steiner and Elias Canetti. Ardent, eccentric and self-possessed, Murdoch attracted both men and women alike and had a bracingly busy sex life, up to the time of her marriage, at least. When she and John Bayley fell in love in 1954, they were both academics who aspired to be novelists; with the publication of Iris's first book, Under the Net, later that year, their careers began to polarise - his towards literary criticism, hers towards fiction writing (she gave up her Oxford philosophy fellowship in 1963).
This whole stretch of her life, when she produced her best-known work and burrowed further and further into marriage with her "co-child" husband, surprisingly makes the least interesting part of the book. It feels as if she did the living first, and the writing second. Those who want details of Murdoch's decline will be disappointed: Conradi deliberately passes over the indignities of the last years, so exhaustively documented in John Bayley's memoirs (and presumably the focus of the forthcoming biopic). Is this Lear without the mad scenes or a timely reminder that there was much more to Murdoch than her pathetic final illness? Conradi clearly intends the latter and leaves us with an observant, delicate and almost complete picture of a woman whose books define her class and time and whose utterances once made students fall off their chairs with surprise.
17 September 2001
Her lovestruck victims
Iris Murdoch doled out heartbreak
IRIS MURDOCH died in 1999, aged 79, after suffering for several years from the Alzheimer's disease memorably described by her husband, John Bayley. Peter Conradi, a critic of Murdoch's work and a friend, began work on this book in 1997. "As she forgot her past, I rediscovered it," he writes in his introduction. The absence of frustration in his tone attests both to his loving kindness as a friend and to his drawbacks as a biographer.
During the last months of Murdoch's life, Conradi burrowed among papers and conducted scores of interviews, while Bayley sat at home and wrote. No tension is apparent: the first of Bayley's memoirs about his wife was dedicated to her biographer. In the second, Conradi had a walk-on part - he finds some letters from Iris to a wartime lover, which set Bayley off on a what-if track. Yet comparisons are inevitable.
Bayley, in his two short books, gave a vivid portrait both of his marriage - of the happy domestic squalor and the joyful babbling closeness - and of his wife - of her goodness, her ease, her unworldliness and her drive. Conradi is faced with the difficult task of fleshing out a picture which has been sketched so well and so recently as to be firmly fixed in the minds of likely readers.
It is perhaps for this reason that he concentrates on the years before Murdoch's marriage to Bayley in 1956. He has unearthed a mass of material about her schooldays - first at the progressive and experimental Froebel Institute in west London and later at Badminton in Somerset, under the headship of a forward-looking martinet, Quaker and lesbian, with whom Murdoch, a scholarship girl, remained in touch always.
The Murdoch parents are well drawn: Irish Protestants, her father a civil servant from the north, her mother from Dublin. The family lived in quiet self-sufficiency in a terrace house in Chiswick, in what the daughter later described as "a perfect trinity of love". It was from her father that Iris learnt a love of books and, according to Conradi, her reverence for older, male teachers. Her mother comes across as easy, untroubled, affectionate. "How did I do it, will you tell me that now?" she would say about her brilliant child.
Murdoch went up to Somerville to read Greats in 1938, and discovered alcohol and Communism. She was attractive, hugely intelligent, passionate and chaste. She attended Eduard Fraenkel's class on Agamemnon ("He'll probably paw you a bit, but never mind," warned her female tutor briskly) and flourished in the seminar described by another pupil as "a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat".
After graduating with a First, Murdoch worked for the Treasury, drank in bohemian Fitzrovia, and became involved in a startling number of love affairs. She came a cropper, badly, over a Hungarian sadist whom she stole from her closest female friend and flatmate, but otherwise seems to have doled out more heartbreak than she received. This despite what Conradi describes as her "remorseless kindness" to her lovestruck victims. She was horribly bereaved, twice; first by the loss of a soldier whom she had learnt to love by letter, and then, in 1952 (after her return to Oxford, where she taught philosophy at St Anne's), by the German poet Franz Steiner. The death of the latter led to a long and potentially destructive affair with Steiner's friend Elias Canetti, almost certainly the most monstrous of Murdoch's monsters.
Then it was that Bayley, seven years her junior, hove into view and stole her away by a process of bumbling stealth. Sapphism was rampant at St Anne's, and Bayley had to contend with Murdoch's female as well as male lovers. He appears to have done so mainly by not doing so. She still had affairs, but only one - with an unnamed woman - appears to have threatened the harmony of a marriage which allowed her to write the novels she had previously seemed to live.
This book is a doorstopper, without being the least bit definitive. About halfway through, Conradi writes, rather desperately, that "in the interests of clarity, this biography follows a few strands only". In fact, he doesn't manage even that - Murdoch's parents, for instance, are out of the picture after leaving her at boarding school until her mother's dementia decades later. On the other hand, the best sort of literary biography - that which weaves the life and work into a seamlessly absorbing whole - can be its subject's worst enemy, making any return to the writer's books superfluous. No danger of that here: Conradi's failure, despite coming up with all sorts of good ingredients, to make a decent meal of Murdoch's life left this reader hungry for the consoling richness of the fiction
The good apprentice
Alex Clark on Peter J Conradi's attempt to find the real Iris Murdoch out of her own hazy self-image
Saturday September 29, 2001
Iris Murdoch: A Life
Peter J Conradi
706pp, HarperCollins, £24.99
Most writers might prefer their works to stand in for biography in the messy stand-off with posterity; fat chance, in a culture obsessed with not only retrieving the facts of who did what to whom, but teasing out the secret, unacknowledged meanings of each action. For Iris Murdoch, who consistently denied that she could lay claim to a clear self-image, an identity or even a memory, a biography might have seemed a puzzling enterprise, fraught with the dangers of seduction, pretence, and wishful thinking.
In her polemic "Against Dryness", Murdoch argued that literature must resist the temptation to smooth over the contingencies of everyday life, arguing that against the consolations of form "we must pit the destructive power of the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea of character". Modern biography, instead of grappling with the opposition, dissolves it, attempting its own kind of consolation - the achieved life, neatly rounded off by death - at the same time as it argues for a "character" that, however complex and contradictory, can yet be apprehended.
If Conradi is aware of these problems, he battles valiantly to disguise it. His introduction establishes his credentials, hinting that Murdoch all but authorised him as her biographer and making it clear that he was both fan and friend, even when these assurances seem Pooterish. They sometimes met for lunch and he once offered to stand on his head: "She declined, but put the incident into The Good Apprentice." He was invited to Christmas lunch with the Bayleys; "this invitation came unworkably late (Christmas morning)". He was there when Murdoch began her descent into Alzheimer's, and was remembered in her will, so we are inclined to believe in their closeness, even if we wonder why he is telling us.
Conradi has clearly laboured long over this insanely detailed account of Murdoch's earlier years - the final few are "too close for objectivity" and have already been staked out by Bayley - and his portrait offers us some fascinating insights into her intense strangeness and the peculiar originality of her mind, which veers between crystalline intelligence and muddled sentimentality. Conradi's readings of her novels, and his willingness to admit their infuriating patchiness, also make sense, and show a keen understanding of her own commentary on them. And yet just as Murdoch peopled her life and works with gurus, some of whom may have been charlatans, Conradi's subject seems to wow him to the point where he accords her mythological status, imperilling any sense of distance.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his description of Murdoch's early adulthood, which certainly saw its fair share of melodramatic excess. Prefiguring the Shakespearean "love-vortices" of her novels, Murdoch played heavily on her natural charisma. A series of losses - of her soulmate Frank Thompson in the war, of her anthropologist lover Franz Steiner to heart disease - played themselves out against the backdrop of numerous dalliances, flirtations and triangles.
In all, Murdoch agonised over the possibility of inflicting harm, of being not "good", and her accommodations involved some fine distinctions: flirting, for example, was morally defensible, but being a flirt was not. Intimacy came easily to her, but she always suspected herself of withholding something. In a letter written during one entanglement, she hints at a defiant masochism that Conradi skilfully teases out: "One wants, more, to be judged - I have far more of the bitch about me than you've ever realised."
If Iris the bohemian lover juggled a post-war libertine sensibility with a more punitive moral self-consciousness, then she met her match in Elias Canetti, the "black prince" of her life and, later, her novels. In Conradi's version, Canetti was a man who knew how to wound, accusing Murdoch of hastening his friend Steiner's death either by proposing to him or by engaging him in heart-sapping sex. It wasn't long before he had added her to his harem, with dramatic consequences, particularly when one of his other mistresses, Friedl, lay dying. In a bizarre act of identification, Murdoch carved Friedl's name on a bench where she (Friedl) and Canetti had once made love; she also promised his wife that she would take care of him if he were widowed. "Canetti has all possible mythological meaning for me," she wrote, and, separately: "He subjugates me completely."
Canetti's hold over Murdoch lessened considerably when she married the ever-tolerant Bayley, although he had taught her an essential lesson about the nature of power and collusion. Conradi competently traces Canetti's appearances in her fiction, most notably in The Flight from the Enchanter , but he is never able to resist entirely the supposition that, in choosing Bayley over Canetti, Murdoch was choosing a good life over a morally dubious one. The truth must have been more complicated, although Murdoch's disdain for psychoanalysis warns her biographer off more than a peremptory investigation.
The adventures of youth were largely suspended in favour of marriage and child-like domesticity, Conradi turns his attention to Murdoch's philosophical voyaging; to the influences of Sartre, Queneau and Weil, and to her growing Platonism. In the last lies her career-long dialogue with the seductions of art, her fascination and fear at the thought that Plato might have been anti-art and pro-censorship. This conflict informed her attitude towards the novel: despite its formal structures, apparent obfuscation and reliance on symbol, emblem and pattern, literature, she argued, was as much "a truth-seeking activity" as philosophy. The tensions between literature and philosophy, and between political ideologies and the search for a secular religion, absorbed Murdoch throughout her life, but Conradi never fully animates these intellectual positions.
he explain Murdoch's greater success as a novelist than as a philosopher (even
given the obvious popularity of one form over the other), construing blandly
that her relative lack of distinction in philosophy sprung from an urge towards
more direct communication. Murdoch "helped restore moral philosophy to the
people", he argues, without adequately explaining how it was that her densely
allusive fictions, peopled with mythomaniacs, religious ecstatics and
psychopomps, quite performed this function. Writing of The Black Prince, Candia
McWilliam brilliantly notes that "you are bound at some point to wish
existential freedom upon the characters in order that they may arrange things
another way". This is an intensely clever formulation of a question that should
have been central to this book, and which goes right to the heart of this
writer's identity. In her fictions as in her life, freedom was the key; but some
freedoms come at a higher price than others.
A new biography focusses on the novelist's early questings.
by JOHN UPDIKE
There would be no need to complain of literary biographies—so often superfluous, bloated, and carping—if they were all as good as Peter J. Conradi's "Iris Murdoch: A Life" (Norton; $35). Conradi offers a real expansion of our sense of the preëminent English novelist of the second half of the twentieth century; he brings to the table personal and literary intimacy with his subject, and a treasure lode of hitherto unpublished journals that she had kept (with some post-factum excisions) since her college days, plus caches of her letters retained by their recipients. A professor emeritus of English at Kingston University, he had been acquainted with Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley, since 1981, and was especially close to them in the last decade of the century, as Murdoch, from about 1994 on, slowly sank into the fog of Alzheimer's disease. Upon her death, in 1999, Conradi was named her co-executor. The matter of his writing her biography came up while she was still alive, and, though self-effacing and considerably secretive, she gave him her blessing in 1997, saying simply, "You're a good friend." In her remaining few years, to the extent that she was able, she collaborated with him by providing interviews and suggesting contacts. Conradi had, in 1986, written a book-length study of her work ("Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist," revised and reprinted in 1988 and 2001) and, in 1997, collected her essays, under the title "Existentialists and Mystics." He is fond but not infatuated: he strives to see, with an occasional touch of irritation, into the sometimes murky psychology of his verbose, seductive subject. On the second page of "The Saint and the Artist," he provides as brisk a summary of her artistic failings as an adverse critic could desire:
She can be uneven, over-intellectual or romantic. There is some unfinished and repetitive writing. The books can seem contrived or over-plotted, the characters sometimes insufficiently imagined. Her social range is not huge, she says little about work and often appears to take money for granted. She can seem to be playing a complex game with the reader. There is, as early reviewers noted, "too much" in the books.
His biography, his introduction says, "might have been entitled 'Young Iris' "; it is preponderantly concerned with the relatively obscure years between Murdoch's birth, in 1919, and the mid-fifties, when, with the publication of her first novel, in 1954, and her marriage to John Bayley, in 1956, her restless questings—intellectual, religious, and amorous—arrived at a settled vocation and a permanent relationship. But Conradi's critical acumen and literary learning also bring to Old Iris some enlightening aperçus as he surveys a massive oeuvre and an increasingly public existence. For example: "Her best fiction is part-fed by a species of cool rage which may relate to a radical contemptus mundi et vitae, but is sufficiently rooted in the world for it to live in the imagination of the reader." With delicacy and a finely apt quotation, he measures out judgment on the propriety of Bayley's loving yet ruthlessly exposing memoir "Elegy for Iris," which, published while Murdoch was still alive, brought letters of gratitude from other caretakers of Alzheimer's victims but also protests from those who, Conradi writes, "felt Iris was cast in this very public role of quixotic benefactress without her consent. Like the gentleman witnessing Lear's madness, it was a 'sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch / Past speaking of in a king!' " The biographer relays Francis Wyndham's comically majestic picture of Murdoch at her desk: "Like a Henry Moore statue seated between two massive piles of manuscript, moving only to write, one pile of empty paper, the other full, her industry phenomenal." Of the not infrequent carelessness of her writing, and her spurning of editorial advice (most persistently offered by her American publisher, Viking), he cites Plato's "emphasis on the provisionality of all imagery" and her own remark, in a review of a book by her acolyte A. S. Byatt, that the novel is "the most imperfect of art-forms"; we are led to the conclusion that a spiritual virtue of sorts, a way to "escape definition," lay behind "the wilful obstinacy of her imperfection—as in her refusal to be edited."
Along with its felicities of perception, its warm sympathy with its subject, and its wealth of fresh material, Conradi's book has a few imperfections of its own, including some woolly sentences and misattached modifiers surprising in an English professor (e.g., "Like William Golding, and perhaps Muriel Spark, the Second World War made Iris think anew about human wickedness and irrationality"). And there are oddities of format. The ample, sprightly notes in the back are difficult to consult, since they are headed only by chapter numbers while the chapter running heads give only the titles. Divisions within the chapters are marked by spelled-out numbers in capital letters, a distractingly obtrusive device that possibly, in its extra distinctness, has the advantage of enabling Conradi to cover a large territory in swift strides: the chapter titled "Discontinuities" takes up, in sections of one or two thousand words, Murdoch's dim sense of personal identity, her "only recreation" of learning languages, her fitful artistic connection with the theatre, her disappointments with film adaptations of her novels, her happy marriage (she called her husband Puss and signed her checks "Iris Bayley"), her love of urban anonymity, her Buddhism and Platonism, and "four lesser novels from the 1970s."
John Bayley's memoir and Conradi's life both emphasize Murdoch's selflessness. "Nobody less narcissistic than Iris can well be imagined," Bayley writes, and observes that, as Alzheimer's closed in, "Iris's own lack of a sense of identity seemed to float her more gently into its world of preoccupied emptiness." Conradi, a practicing Buddhist who rejoiced with Murdoch in the happy possibility of a Godless religion, approvingly writes, "Both the saint and the true artist were equally, in her coinage, 'unpersons.' " And yet the young Iris abounded with a good firm sense of herself, enough so that as a schoolgirl "she didn't care much what people thought. . . . She was there to get on with things and enjoy them." The cherished only child of a Protestant Irish couple transplanted to England, she remembered her isolated little family as "a perfect trinity of love." (She made much of her Irishness in interviews, and, indeed, was born in Dublin and spoke with a brogue. Yet at the time of her birth, Conradi shows, her father, a civil servant from Belfast who had served as an officer in the British Army for three years of the First World War, had already moved to London and was working there. The infant and her mother, a gifted singer from a colorful family of faded Dublin gentry, the Richardsons, followed within a year.) Iris had an English upbringing, enlivened by summer visits to her many relatives in Ireland. The Chapmans of Portrush remembered Iris's childhood personality as one of "goodness, kind-heartedness, strangeness, strong will and shyness"; a friend from Oxford recalled "something 'aboriginal' in Iris—'simplicity, naiveté, power, and space.' "
Her father, a gentle, bookish, and modestly paid clerk in the Ministry of Health, scrimped and borrowed to send her to expensive progressive schools. At the age of five, she was enrolled at the Froebel Demonstration School, near their home in London's West End; the Scots headmistress, Ethel M. Bain, led her charges in elaborate chivalric rites that included jousting with "King Bain" and eating a boar's head concocted of sponge cake. At the age of thirteen, Iris went away to Badminton School, in a suburb of Bristol, on a scholarship, which gave rise to the taunt, in a letter from her fellow-writer Brigid Brophy, that she had been a "poor girl who only just made it into a rich girls' school." The headmistress, the formidable Beatrice May Baker—who until her death, at ninety-seven, remained a friend of Murdoch's—exposed her rich girls to a regimen of cold baths in the morning, serious academic studies, and, as Fascism took hold on the Continent, left-wing idealism. A teacher recalled Iris as "a good hockey player, interested in and gifted at art (painting), not particularly musical, though she 'had a go,' but excelling at classics and English." Conradi adds, "It would not be surprising if Iris's omnicompetence aroused dislike or envy; none has stepped forward to say it did." By her senior year, she was head girl and translating Sophocles, praising the Soviet Union, meeting W. H. Auden, winning prizes, editing a collection of poems by Bristol schoolchildren, and conducting her first romance, initially an epistolary one, with James Henderson Scott, a poetry-writing Belfast dentistry student and a convert from Methodism to Catholicism. After they met, she cooled the romance, though they did sail to Belfast together and "climbed the tower of Queen's University, tying a friend's pyjamas to the flagpost." Scott recovered enough from Iris's rejection to fall in love elsewhere and to give his inaugural lecture as Professor of Dental Anatomy at Queen's in blank verse. When he died, she wrote his widow that he had been to her a "great awakener."
There was much awakening to come. She won a stipend of forty pounds a year for three years at Somerville College, Oxford. The acting dean warned the new students, "The women are still very much on probation in this University. You may think that it doesn't matter if you do something a little wild, but I can tell you that it will." Wild Iris took root; while remaining a virgin, she fended off as many as six proposals in one term. Michael Foot, a fellow-Oxonian who was to be one of her conquests, recalled that "practically everyone who was up with Iris fell for her. She had personality and that wonderful Irish voice." She also had a stocky figure and an arguably plain face, but it was left to her prospective mother-in-law to remark, in 1954, "She's like a little bull!" Of her Oxford years Iris later wrote, "My God, that was a golden time." Many of her college friends remained so for the rest of her life. Conradi explains, "Friendships formed just before the war partook of the same intensity as did politics and love; no one, after all, knew who would survive the coming onslaught." Murdoch had intended to study English but switched to classics—"Mods and Greats"—a degree that took four years instead of three. She joined the Communist Party, probably in 1938, and spent two August weeks in 1939, the last days of peace, touring with the Magpie Players, singing and "enacting the roles of 'care-free students.' " Among the men who engaged her interest at Oxford were Frank Thompson, a poet and Wykehamist who spoke six languages, enlisted in 1939, and eloquently corresponded with Iris until his death in Bulgaria in 1944; Eduard Fraenkel, a Jewish refugee classical scholar, physically deformed and intellectually intimidating, who taught her in his "Agamemnon" seminar; and Donald MacKinnon, another instructor, a High Anglo-Catholic who taught philosophy and was, according to George Steiner, "that most searching of modern British moral philosophers." Her involvement with all three was chaste but passionate; they enamored her mind and haunt her fiction.
In 1942, she graduated from Oxford with a first and, having registered as "willing to carry out war work in the short-staffed civil service," was assigned to the Treasury and moved to London. She resigned from the Communist Party, possibly on the Party's advice, and omnicompetently became expert in the details and mathematics of government bureaucracy. She found a quaint flat, 5 Seaforth Place, in a tiny alley off Buckingham Gate, and eventually shared it with Philippa Bosanquet, a lifelong Oxford friend and eventual philosopher of note. Early in 1943, with typical honesty and dispassion, Iris wrote to Frank Thompson some personal news:
I should tell you that I have parted company with my virginity. This I regard as in every way a good thing. I feel calmer & freer—relieved from something which was obsessing me, & made free of a new field of experience. There have been two men. I don't think I love either of them—but I like them. . . . I am not just going wild. In spite of a certain amount of wild talk I still live my life with deliberation.
In 1944, she applied to join the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association. She worked in the London office for fifteen months, acting as a secretary and calculating postwar salaries for civil servants drafted into war work. After a stint in Brussels, she was posted to Innsbruck, the headquarters of the French zone of Austria, to Puch, in the American zone, and, finally, to Klagenfurt and Graz, in the British zone. This Continental tour, which ended in July of 1946, reinforced her cosmopolitan tendencies; she met Sartre and Raymond Queneau, read Rilke and Simone de Beauvoir, and imbibed the astringent but intoxicating liqueur of existentialism. She was also exposed, close at hand, to the misery of war and its aftermath, which had created millions of displaced persons, many of whom were repatriated to certain death in Stalin's Russia or Tito's Yugoslavia. Refugees and exiles henceforth figured heavily in her personal acquaintance and in her literary imagination. She herself became, once she returned to England, a sort of displaced person, academic but not quickly assimilated by academe. She won a Commonwealth Scholarship to Vassar, but admitted on the visa application form that she had been a member of the Communist Party and was denied entry under the McCarran-Walter Act. (Hence the United States, though she did eventually visit a few times with her husband, is a distant, fabulous, forbidding realm in her fiction; she has no American novel like Muriel Spark's "The Hothouse by the East River" or Martin Amis's "Money.") Conradi marks this postwar period as her low point:
The failure of her attempt to get to Vassar left her depressed, lost, lacking the sense of a future. She was unemployed from July 1946 until she went up to Cambridge in October 1947, and her financial situation was dire. Under a photograph of herself taken that bitter winter of 1946-47, in a cold and snowy London, she wrote in her photograph album a single, expressive word: "Nadir."
It was in this desolate time, when neither her romances nor her attempted novels were working out, that she drew closest to Anglo-Catholicism, befriending clerics and converts, drawing too close to Donald MacKinnon for his wife's comfort, and reading the writers made fashionable by Christian existentialism—Unamuno, Heidegger, Berdyaev, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Gabriel Marcel. At Cambridge, where she had been granted a studentship in philosophy, she met Wittgenstein, but did not quite fall under his spell; she seemed, according to the writer Elizabeth Sewell, "really a stranger," who "never fit in." However, her faithful friend Philippa, now Philippa Foot, told her of a philosophy tutorship at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and when Murdoch won the job, in July of 1948, her life got back on track, a track it never left: Oxford became her professional and imaginative base of operations—a sheltered theatre of philosophical and erotic venturing, an island of dreaming towers wherein men and women flitted and form-shifted with the freedom of bodiless spirits, in an ether of intelligent self-regard and benign androgyny, Prospero and Ariel entwined and not even Caliban denied his portion of love.
After parting company with her virginity, young Iris had become a bold and busy sexual adventuress. The loved child had grown to be a love addict. Her entanglements have the prolixity more of the sixties and seventies than of the forties and fifties. Looking back, in 1968, on her journals from 1945 onward, she noted, "That business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) seems a bit sickening." In medias res, however, in 1952, she pleaded in her journal, "I mustn't live in this torment of emotion" and then parenthetically added "(Empty words—I shall always live so)." In 1948, she wrote, "One of my fundamental assumptions is that I have the power to seduce anyone." The main men, after the mysterious two in 1943, were Michael Foot (Iris was his first lover, and, when rejected by her, he was accepted by her flatmate Philippa); Tommy Balogh (a "brilliant but abrasive" Oxford tutor, he had been Philippa's lover and, fickle as he was, gave Iris much grief); David Hicks (he was the first man to kiss her, in 1938, and in 1946 jilted her after a whirlwind engagement); Franz Steiner (a frail, polymathic Czech-German Jewish anthropologist and religious poet styled by Iris "the most beloved" of "my Jewish teachers," he had a heart condition that made physical intimacy perilous and brought about his death at the age of forty-three); Arnoldo Momigliano (this Jewish Italian scholar came up to Oxford from London on weekends, read Dante with Iris in her flat, and travelled with her several times in Italy); and, making the biggest impact of all, Elias Canetti. A Sephardic Jew born in Bulgaria, Canetti lived in England for most of his life but composed his sinister, Nobel Prize-winning works in German. Introduced to Iris by Franz Steiner, he ensnared her in his tyrannical London ménage, which included his one-armed wife, Veza, and his slavish mistress, Friedl; he became the archetype of all the domineering monster-masters in her fiction. With uncharacteristic explicitness she described their lovemaking in her journals:
[He] held me savagely between his knees & grasps my hair and forces my head back. His power. He subjugates me completely. Only such a complete intellectual & moral ascendancy could hold me.
Canetti's fierce spell was incongruously broken by the advent of mild, innocent, stammering, hyper-English John Bayley. From 1953 to 1956, the two men warred in her affections, which were not confined to the list above, or altogether to men. The triumphant Bayley was awarded with a solemnly confessed roll call of his predecessors, as we read in his "Elegy for Iris":
Had I not heard all about them, the people of her past and present, at one time or another during the period of our own intimacy? It appeared that I had not. Unknown figures arose before me like the procession of kings in Macbeth, seeming to regard me with grave curiosity as they passed by. There was so-and-so with whom she had first been to bed, and so-and-so and so-and-so who had wanted to marry her. . . . There seemed so many of them, these fortunate persons, and to my amazement, I had just learned that some quite ordinary people, as I thought of them, acquaintances and even colleagues of my own, had at some time or other in the past been recipients of Iris's kindness. They had desired her, and not been rejected.
At the age of thirty-seven, Murdoch married a man six years younger and lived with him, in Oxfordshire houses famous for their messiness, like a (Bayley's phrase) "co-child." She had cleared the decks for what her journal a couple of years earlier announced: "My task after all to write—thank God for this much of a solution." Her tumultuous love life had been a long tutorial in suffering, power, treachery, and bliss; the romantic seethe was for her, like the sea for Conrad and war for Hemingway, a treasury of essential impression. Her promiscuity, if we call it that, manifested the openness of which other aspects were her avid intellectual appetite, the empathy with others that made her a famously kind and attentive friend, and the "Negative Capability" that Keats named as Shakespeare's secret. When we read Murdoch, we feel the ideas and images and imagined personalities pouring through her, unobstructed, cumulative, complicating, gaining power over her mind "without," as Keats said, "any irritable reaching after fact and reason."
Her published novels began sharp, terse, angular, and blithely enigmatic, on the French model of Queneau, and she ended as one of the most expansive and leisurely expositors since the Victorians. Her early mode achieved its masterpiece in "A Severed Head," which I remember being passed around among young suburban couples in the early sixties as a species of news. This news—that we tend to love, that love is ambient and uncontrollable and comically, cruelly protean—never grew stale for her, though for the reader the filaments she spun from this centrifuge could feel, even in the best of her late books, like "The Sea, the Sea" and "The Philosopher's Pupil," like cotton candy. Her characters make an exclusive diet of one another; she once defined happiness as "to be utterly absorbed in at least six other human beings." Utter absorption can cloy. Murdoch gives her characters the full benefit of her past emotional tumult but sometimes denies them what Conradi calls "her own native good sense, that of a cheerful, prudent Ulsterwoman." The philosophical problem she insistently poses—can the Good survive the death of God?—pales to abstraction amid the demonic mischief and moral anarchy of her plots. Indubitably concrete and alive are her world's details, human, animal, mineral, behavioral, and atmospheric. The descriptions of nature, dashed down in commaless strings of adjectives, like those of Saul Bellow, phrase the gloria mundi. She possessed the quality she missed in Sartre, as she noted in her calmly brilliant first book, "Sartre: Romantic Rationalist": "Sartre has an impatience, which is fatal to a novelist proper, with the stuff of human life." She was beautifully patient with stuff, putting it all down in a steady harvest, a student of philosophy and the classics, alert to the ripples and quirks of contemporary life, a word child who, confident of being loved, could afford to lavish her attention on everything around her.
A Word Child
'Iris Murdoch: A Life' by Peter J. Conradi
Reviewed by Tim Page
Sunday, November 11, 2001; Page BW04
By Peter J. Conradi
Norton. 706 pp. $35
The late Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) is in sudden danger of becoming more often read about than she is actually read. A vital and prolific author for more than four decades -- with 26 substantial novels, six volumes of philosophy, and sheaves of plays, poetry and literary criticism to her credit -- she may now be best known as the senescent heroine of Elegy for Iris (1998), a memoir fashioned by her husband, Oxford don John Bayley, that tells of Murdoch's slow disintegration from Alzheimer's disease.
Elegy for Iris was a surprise bestseller. Although Bayley came in for the inevitable charge of exploitation, the book was of enormous value to readers with their own experience of what have been dubbed, truthfully if indelicately, "dementing illnesses." Told in a manner that was tender but unsparing, leavened throughout with wistful humor, it brought home the numbing, cloudlike sorrow of Alzheimer's disease, from the ghastly initial suspicion that something is "not quite right" with a loved one, through diagnosis and palliative efforts, through the long, immeasurably sad process of decay and farewell. Bayley's portrait of one of the most brilliant, independent and articulate women of her era reduced to a child's world of tantrums and TeleTubbies is indelible and haunting.
Peter J. Conradi devotes only five pages of his splendid new biography to Murdoch's final affliction. In fact, almost half of Iris Murdoch: A Life has run its course before Conradi arrives at the publication of Murdoch's first book, a monograph on Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1953.
Murdoch was then in her mid-thirties and already something of a legend. Born into a distinguished Irish Protestant family in 1919, she had grown up in England and attended Somerville College at Oxford. There she became an outspoken member of the Communist Party and fell in love with a classmate and poet named Frank Thompson, who would lose his life in the struggle to bring socialism to Bulgaria. Her later lovers included the Austrian poet Franz Steiner (who also died young, from a heart attack) and the novelist Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.
Murdoch was also enthusiastically bisexual throughout much of her life. "One of my fundamental assumptions is that I have the power to seduce anyone," she said in 1948, and she seems to have proven her point with considerable aplomb.
This is fun stuff -- Dame Iris as a distaff Byron -- and Conradi tells a good story. Yet the emphasis, properly, is on her work. Conradi is Murdoch's literary executor, and knows her catalogue as well as anyone. He is forthright about his favorites among her books (A Severed Head, The Sea, The Sea and several others) and blunt about herfailures (her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, was "confused" and "over-respectfully received"). He writes perceptively of her idiosyncratic Platonism (has any other philosopher been so many different things to so many people?) and does his best to place her in the continuum of 20th-century letters.
Yet Murdoch resists easy placement. It is not only the marked differences we find from one of her works to the next -- from what Conradi calls the Shakespearean comedy of A Fairly Honourable Defeat through the mystical (and sometimes elusive) moral parables she presents in her more recondite novels -- but also the fact that she is one of those authors who leave some readers decidedly cold. The critic and Columbia University professor George Stade once accused her of writing "Harlequin romances for highbrows." "Writing this bad cannot be faked," he continued. For the critic Harold Bloom, on the other hand, Murdoch's death meant that there were "no first rate writers left in England."
One need not subscribe wholeheartedly to either of these opinions to admire Conradi's biography, for it is a marvel of sympathy and intelligence. He brings the rarefied milieu of Oxford and Cambridge to vivid life, with thumbnail sketches of some of the finest writers and thinkers in postwar England. (I particularly appreciated the chance to learn more about the scandalously undervalued satirist Honor Tracy, now out of print and out of mind in the United States.) And while Conradi acknowledges that communism attracted many idealistic and otherwise admirable young Britons, he keeps running track of Stalin's body count, a welcome corrective to the more typical paeans to romantic Leftism.
At the end, of course, there was Murdoch's Alzheimer's disease, and Conradi, although succinct, writes of it with welling feeling. "Deserted by language, she found other ways of communicating love or gratitude: through physical affection -- she would kiss the hands of friends -- or by bowing with her hands together in prayer," he writes. "Beauty of mind gone, that of spirit remained. The last visit happened when Michael Bayley drove Iris and John down after Christmas, 1998, weeks before her death. . . . Jim [O'Neill, Conradi's partner] washed and tended to Iris and read to her from the newspapers. She said gently, in what was perhaps her last coherent sentence: "I wrote." Jim agreed. 'Yes, darling, you did.' " •
A friend who watched Iris Murdoch writing a novel said she looked like a massive bronze figure by Henry Moore, seated at a table between two tall stacks of paper, motionless save for her writing hand traveling rapidly across each page before transferring it to the full pile and taking a fresh sheet from the stack of empties.
For her part, Murdoch said she couldn't write fast enough. She produced 26 novels in 40 years, allowing herself by her own account 30 minutes between completing one manuscript and starting to think about the next. She hated talking about her work (''People . . . don't have to like my books, but at least they can keep their mouths shut''), found the slightest criticism intolerable and unequivocally rejected any form of editorial interference. The only person brave enough to suggest improvements was her New York editor, Marshall Best.
Murdoch had no time for psychotherapy, taking the same dim view as her character Honor Klein, who told the narrator of ''A Severed Head'' that what he needed was a good analysis: ''She said it as one might say 'a good thrashing.' '' But ''Iris Murdoch: A Life'' makes it clear that Murdoch used her novels to conduct a long and thrilling course of public therapy. She once claimed to an inquisitive biographer that she based all her characters on herself.
This was certainly true of the plain, drab, mousy women in her books who turn out to be secret vamps, or potent sexual enchanters. The most spectacular of these is Klein herself, a Cambridge academic who strikes others at first sight as ''a pretty harmless old don,'' like her creator. Murdoch was teaching philosophy at Oxford when she wrote ''A Severed Head'' in 1960. She stood out in the university for her shaggy pudding-basin haircut, shapeless clothes and beat-up canvas shoes (she was still wearing black plimsolls a quarter of a century later when she went to Buckingham Palace to be made a dame by the queen).
Students regarded her with amazement and awe. A friend of mine, who had badgered his college for months to secure her as his tutor, sat up all night for a week desperately trying to write an essay fit for her to read at his first tutorial, for which he arrived 30 minutes late, because at the last moment he didn't dare face her without a stiff drink (which meant waiting another half-hour for the pubs to open). When he finally tapped on her door -- red-eyed, unshaven, whisky-smelling, with his essay still unfinished -- she received him coldly, lying on the floor with her legs propped up against the top of her desk.
It was a trick she had learned 20 years before from her own Oxford philosophy tutor, Donald MacKinnon, who liked to teach from the floor, rolled up in his carpet and sucking a razor blade. MacKinnon was famous for stabbing himself with his pen in public lectures. The young Iris saw him as a Christ figure, with herself as Mary Magdalene (until Mrs. MacKinnon put a stop to their relations).
Murdoch was a natural storyteller and mythmaker, apparently in compensation for an uneventful and conspicuously happy childhood. Born in 1919 into a lower-middle-class Irish Protestant family in a run-down part of Dublin, she was the child of an unambitious government clerk and his equally unremarkable wife. The only interesting thing Peter J. Conradi can find to say about either of them is that (apart from the encounter that produced Iris) theirs was a mariage blanc.
Both adored their only daughter, and wept as copiously as she did when the time came to hand her over to a girls' boarding school. Here she was swiftly promoted as a star. She played field hockey for the school, won essay prizes and ended up as head girl, warmly applauded by a fearsome headmistress (''They would sit and discuss the Good''), who remained ever afterward a Murdoch role model.
Oxford contemporaries remembered Iris as dumpy, square-headed and yellow-haired, with the face of a young lioness. Actual or prospective boyfriends saw her as a knight in armor or alternatively a fairy princess. Few who met her could resist her. The marriage proposals she turned down were soon too many to list. She had her first serious love affair with a boy called Frank Thompson, who was later captured and shot as a British major in the Balkans in 1944. His memory haunted Iris all her life.
She was 24 when she took the first of what Conradi calls her demon lovers (he was the Hungarian economist Thomas Balogh, a future personal policy adviser to the prime minister). Based in Brussels after the war, she visited Paris, met Sartre and worked briefly in Central European camps for displaced persons. Refugees and exiles touched her heart (''Such persons are windows through which one looks into terrible worlds''). This was a period of intense sexual and worldly initiation. Rereading one of her diaries later, she said its endless giddy permutations between rival lovers made her feel quite tired.
Again and again, behind Conradi's bald, flat, studiously factual narrative, Murdoch fans will recognize the stuff of plots to come. She considered herself at the time to be in training ''for inclusion among the harlots of history.'' In fact, of course, she was making her preparations as a novelist. Already at 26, nine years before she published her first novel, she told an old friend she was beginning to feel she had invented him (''You're just . . . a character out of my unsuccessful novels'').
The love of her life was a Czech Jewish poet and polymath called Franz Steiner (he knew well over two dozen languages, according to Conradi), whose heart condition gave peculiar urgency to their rare lovemaking. ''Demented with grief,'' she recorded in her diary, when Franz died suddenly in November 1952. He died of a heart attack in her arms, according to his friend Elias Canetti, who sent for Iris just over a month later and promptly made her his mistress.
Canetti, a cruel and refined power adept, was the prince of demon lovers. He didn't so much disbelieve in God as take him for a hated rival. He believed he would succeed, where Christ had failed, in abolishing death. Meanwhile, he treated other people as his creatures and creations. He had a one-armed wife (people said her husband had almost certainly bitten off the missing arm) with whom he boasted that he never slept. She would open the door to Iris and, once the lovers had completed their strenuous business together, serve up a meal for the three of them.
Murdoch told Canetti he knew everything she wanted to know: ''And very much more!'' he rapped back smartly. ''Let us have none of this English modesty!'' He had already written his single novel (and would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981). He claimed to have discovered Murdoch, and never forgave her for giving him the slip with a rival who accepted Canetti at his own valuation as Pluto, god of the underworld, ''wanting to whisk Iris off to Hades.''
THIS was John Bayley, then a junior Oxford lecturer, younger than Murdoch and still a virgin at 29. He pictured himself to her as a harmless fruit bat: ''small, and no trouble, and furry. . . . I could hang inconspicuously upside down in the corner of your ceiling while you did your work or entertained your lovers.'' The upshot was the resounding defeat of Canetti by Bayley, who not only married Murdoch in 1956 but presided triumphantly over her second incarnation as a novelist.
Between them they created the magical setting so lovingly described long afterward in Bayley's widely read books about Iris: the leaky, rat-ridden, dust-coated Oxfordshire manor house without heating or water mains where, over the next four decades, Murdoch transposed her astonishing powers as a fabulist from fact to fiction. Successful writers of popular romance have traditionally created in their books glamorous and exciting dream worlds they never inhabited in reality. The strange thing about Murdoch is that she exercised her gifts successively in the spheres of actuality and fantasy.
It explains both the slapdash, sentimental, self-indulgent side of her work and her brilliant imaginative originality. It makes this one of the strangest literary lives I have ever read. Conradi, a critic, a former professor of English and a friend of Murdoch's, plods through it with indefatigable industry. His exhaustive bibliography, nearly 1,800 footnotes and innumerable interviews make his book invaluable from a documentary point of view. Its almost total lack of humor, imagination or literary sensibility will send readers back with renewed relish to his subject's novels.
Hilary Spurling's most recent books are ''The Unknown Matisse'' and ''La Grande Therese.''
Dossier do New York Times sobre Iris Murdoch aqui.
Sunday, December 2, 2001
By Peter J. Conradi
W.W. Norton. 706 pp. $35.
'One of my fundamental assumptions," novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch bragged at age 29, "is that I have the power to seduce anyone."
And so, it seems, she did. On the romantic front, practically everyone who entered Oxford with Murdoch "fell for her," recalled Michael Foot, the English politician and one inamorato among many. Beautiful in a bulldoggish way, hyper-sensual and hyper-verbal in a brash manner that mesmerized both male and female peers, the young Irishwoman with the slight brogue compiled a mini-university of intriguing lovers - among them Czech anthropologist Franz Steiner, Italian historian Arnoldo Momigliano, and Bulgarian sociologist-novelist Elias Canetti - before marrying literary critic John Bayley in 1956 (which slowed her wanderlust but didn't stop it).
Yet the flocks of would-be and already-were lovers who drew her into histrionic romantic melodramas - the sort reimagined for her later fiction - formed just one element of her appeal. Over the years, philosophical admirers, impressed by her effort to locate some version of Platonic "good" in the godless world of existentialism, praised Murdoch as a secular saint. Young literary disciples such as A.S. Byatt modeled their careers on hers, promising Murdoch a lifetime of intellectual fealty.
In fact, from her emergence as "head girl" at her progressive boarding school through her mature decades of post-marriage stability, producing more than 20 novels that mixed astonishing originality with pop-fiction contrivance, Murdoch stirred singular veneration and deference from others. Her mid-1990s descent into Alzheimer's disease, chronicled by her husband in his best-selling Elegy for Iris and two other memoirs, provided Murdoch a further poignant celebrity, soon to be mass-marketed in the Miramax film Iris, starring Judi Dench.
Peter J. Conradi, Murdoch's literary executor, might forgivably have reeled before such material in taking on this first full-length biography. Instead, the retired literature professor somehow managed to wrap his arms around it all. His eye-opening, encyclopedic, resourcefully reported biography smoothly sounds not an elegy for Iris, but a paean to the formidable woman whom John Updike recently anointed "the preeminent English novelist of the second half of the twentieth century."
Conradi's biography falls into a genre literary critics dub the "Blotner," after Joseph Blotner's crammed-to-the-rooftop life of Faulkner. It's the kitchen-sink approach that tucks in the public-school grades of a subject's great-great uncle, if the author managed to snag that info cold. Call it biography as department store, with elevators and escalators taking you between the books and love affairs and friends and ideas.
Yet that's exactly the biography appropriate to Murdoch, because she herself became the least abstemious - if that means abstract and schematic - of highbrow storytellers. In her fine early study of Jean-Paul Sartre, the young St. Anne's College tutor upbraided the pope of existentialism for displaying, in his novels, "impatience . . . with the stuff of human life." Later, in her famous essay "Against Dryness" (1961), Murdoch similarly skewered the postwar literary era's "fear of the real existing messy modern world full of real existing messy modern persons, with individual messy modern opinions of their own."
So in most of her own novels, and especially the later ones, Murdoch became the Earth Mother of over-the-top detail and intricate circumstance. It's utterly fitting that Conradi's groundbreaking biography reflects her expansive narrative style, stocked with sensational emotion, gothic detail, and elaborate intellectual positioning.
Nonetheless, while Conradi indefatigably presents chapter and verse of Murdoch's life - from her childhood years in a "perfect trinity of love" as the only child of a lower-middle-class Irish Protestant couple, through her postwar work for the U.N. relief agency in Austria and Belgium (which left Murdoch with lifelong sympathy for refugees and outcasts), into the decades of growing public recognition as an author - he permits himself to dwell where he wants to dwell.
Confident of his control of the material, Conradi designs his book in a lopsided way that will please some and irritate others. Although Murdoch lived till age 79 and published 95 percent of her work after her 1956 marriage to Bayley, Conradi spends two-thirds of his book nursing us up to her mid-30s. Announcing his decided preference for her "formative" years, he provides a sensible explanation for why his book might have been titled Young Iris: that the later years are "too close for objectivity," and that Bayley, in any case, has commandeered them.
It's an inspired choice. Murdoch intuitively understood that if a writer must choose between life and art, better to live rambunctiously first and write later, when the body surrenders more easily to the mind's ambitions. For readers of Murdoch's fiction, it's enormously entertaining to watch Murdoch before she became a kind of public building in her country. Conradi tracks the previously unrevealed sexual follies she conducted between World War II and 1956, as she evolved from overcommitted adventuress to companion (lifelong, as it turned out) of the shy, stammering Bayley.
Here, of all the Murdochian mini-dramas in this virtual anthology, none is likely to grab literary attention as much as Murdoch's sadomasochistic relationship with Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for literature, the fearsome London-based Sephardic Jew whose Auto-da-Fe is one of the great 20th-century novels.
"He subjugates me completely," reads one journal entry by Murdoch, usually the domineering partner in her relationships. Married to a one-armed woman named Friede while presiding over a London harem that included another mistress, Canetti would make love to Murdoch in his armchair as Friede cooked dinner for the three of them in the next room.
According to Conradi, Murdoch's long, torturous affair with Canetti was her greatest secret. The story of how the shy, callow, six-years-younger Bayley arrived as Murdoch's "improbable rescuer" from the maelstrom is just one among many fine episodes that Conradi pulls off. Ever accommodating toward Murdoch's dalliances with both men and women, Bayley comes across here as in his own memoirs - enormously generous, the partner who made it possible for Murdoch to become what she became.
Conradi, in turn, succeeds because he draws on all the advantages of the authorized biographer and then some: familiarity with Murdoch personally from nearly 20 years as a friend, access to the unpublished journals she kept from college on, entree to her surviving intimates.
Having published an earlier critical study of his subject, Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, he properly downplays critical assessment here, sticking to serviceable summaries of the novels and useful capsulizations of their significance. Yet he nonetheless provides welcome insights when he discusses elements of Murdoch's fiction: the recycled gurus, "devil lovers," mystics, and mountebanks; the frequently woolly plots and descriptions; the wonderful way existentialist choice leads to imbroglios for her characters. On top of that, he's tireless in tracking the roman-a-clef links between the novels and Murdoch's life, a de rigueur bit of fun in any literary biography.
Always illuminating, Conradi's book rumbles into town like a traveling circus, replete with sideshows, dancing bears and acrobatics, and a charismatic star who never strays out of the audience's sight lines. If, as an Oxford friend once said, Murdoch operated as "a collector of souls," Conradi somehow manages to come up with dope on almost all of them. Trading metaphors as Dame Iris sometimes did herself, it's enough to bring kitchen sinks back into style.
Murdoch, an unlikely liberal icon
Iris was an authoritarian yearning for the certainties of religion
Friday January 18, 2002
Nuns And Soldiers is the only important English novel whose first word ("Wittgenstein...") is a philosopher's name. Its author, Iris Murdoch, was always clear that philosophy came first and art limped behind. The one clarified while the other entertained - a secondary, and sometimes wicked, activity. Most art, even the very greatest, was just "self-consoling fantasy". This was a high English moralist - and one with a puritan message.
Now, Kate Winslet and Judi Dench pretend to be that dead, fastidious soul. But the person they imitate thought acting was lying. Plato was leader of Murdoch's philosophical pack - with his ideal structures of clear, philosophic knowledge that fall away once the human arrives on the scene. What - she always wanted us to think - could be less like herself than an actor, someone paid to be someone else before moving easily on to the next gig? But give over, Iris.
Murdoch said she hated the ego in all its selfish, sentimental mess and its craving for dominion. Art - especially romantic art - fed the self. But, being human, Murdoch was inconsistent. Her divide between art and philosophy was always breaking down. For philosophy, too, gave the ego space to parade. Enter, stage left, the anti-hero - the villainous other man (after Plato) in her life.
This person she described as free, independent, lonely, powerful and rational. The product of science, and an ideal citizen, he was modern philosophy's pin-up boy. Paradise Lost had already described his appeal: "His proper name is Lucifer."
The English liberal thinking classes have always loved their Iris. But she was an odd kind of patron saint for them. For mature Murdoch came to hate modernity, seeing its subjectivities as being the fruit of old Adam's loins. This did not stop her from writing novels which enjoy a good old plunge in the messy self - as Hugo and Cassandra, Jasper and Francesca, bed-hop with unsated vigour in that Murdochian territory which forever lies between Chelsea and Oxford. And perhaps there was an insincerity in so enjoyable a literary dip which always left her (and us) gagging for more.
She preached order, transcendence and objectivity with all the intensity of one whose life showed little of these qualities. This is not just a question of mouldy pork pies going walkies in the kitchen and only being sighted some years later. She was a fashionable philosopher - with a celeb's gift for the au courant (as one of her characters might put it). In her youth there had been communist activism, followed by the existentialism which duly preceded flirtation with God-less religion. She was an agnostic Graham Greene, sharing his attraction to commitment and an aversion to keeping the powder dry.
A philosophy which might be good politically, she concluded, was not always good morally. And this was what had happened to liberalism. It had been corrupted into thinking that obedience to an institution was always a bad thing. As English liberal left-ism ran into political trouble in the 1970s Murdoch was on hand, ready to moralise with a don's easy conviction.
Now, she thought that the black polo-neck by the Left Bank had covered a sick soul. From being a Sartrean in the 50s she had leap-frogged to 70s neo-conservatism, pausing only to demonise the 60s. And the sermons that followed became familiar. There were fogeyish defences of the Book of Common Prayer. She defended the right of the Protestant Irish (from whom she sprang) to political autonomy, while in education she lamented a comprehensive sea of anarchy.
Those luminous eyes were as big as George Eliot's. Like Eliot she could never let go of God - wishing He was around while knowing He wouldn't turn up for her. Art was only unsatisfying because she wanted it to be religion, to speak to her unsatisfied instinct for transcendent values. But it was only found wanting because she had - as the philosophers might say - "confused the categories".
"Un-selfing" was her game - and perhaps her creed - but she couldn't escape the clutches of the self. She created various Murdochs. Sometimes they ran in parallel - as in her earlier affairs of the heart. And the later clothing of the self saw her as a Tolstoyan bag-lady arriving at her publishers with ever more undisciplined (and reverentially unedited) manuscripts.
She seems a period piece now - from a time when the universities were central to British culture, when dons had dominion, and appeared on the Brains Trust. Like others at school and university in the 70s I devoured the novels. Their dramas of uncertainty speak to the adolescent mind - as does their author's longing for certainty. But the continued taste for their passion shows that adolescence is not always a question of dates.
Age will win
Iris Murdoch's fall could not have been more marked: perhaps the greatest novelist of her generation, she was reduced to a state of perpetual puzzlement by Alzheimer's. Martin Amis gets the first look at Richard Eyre's tender, raw portrait of her decline
Friday December 21, 2001
'Like being chained to a corpse, isn't it?" This remark was offered to John Bayley by a fellow-sufferer in an Alzheimer marriage. He found himself "repelled" by the simile, and didn't care to give it the demolition it deserved. A corpse, we may reflect, has several modest virtues: it is silent, stationary, and, above all, utterly predictable. A corpse, so to speak, has done its worst. In addition, a corpse is not loved, and a corpse will not die.
Moreover, the corpse John Bayley was allegedly chained to was Iris Murdoch: the pre-eminent female English novelist of her generation, and some would say (Updike is one of them) the pre-eminent English novelist of her generation period. There can be no argument about the depth, the complexity, and indeed the beauty of Murdoch's mind: the novels attest to this. And so the terror and pity evoked by Alzheimer's are in her case much sharpened. Bayley gave us that tragedy in three leisurely acts, namely Iris, Iris and the Friends, and the more tangential and novelistic Widower's House. The recent movie, Iris, unfolds the story before our eyes in 100 minutes.
Very broadly, literature concerns itself with the internal, cinema with the external. In Bayley's meditative trilogy, the agony is partly eased by the consolations of philosophy, by the elegant and entirely natural detours into Proust, Hardy, Tolstoy, James. Richard Eyre's movie, on the other hand, for all its subtlety and tenderness, is excruciatingly raw. As you collect yourself while the credits roll, you find you have developed a lively admiration for cancer.
The Bayleys were eccentric - "out of centre" - in their complementary brilliance (he is a novelist, a quondam poet, a literary critic of effortless fluidity). But they were also famously eccentric in their temperament and habits; and if you're an American, you don't know the type. They're the kind of people who like being ill and like getting old, who prefer winter to summer and autumn to spring (yearning for "grey days without sun"). They want rain, gloom, isolation, silence. "We had no TV of course," writes Bayley, commalessly; and the reluctant acquisition of a radio feels like a surrender to the brashest promiscuity. The Bayleys were further cocooned and united, it has to be said, by their commitment to extreme squalor.
At their place, even the soap is filthy. "Single shoes [and single socks] lie about the house as if deposited by a flash flood...Dried-out capless plastic pens crunch underfoot." An infestation of rats is found to be "congenial, even stimulating". Every where they go, they have to hurdle great heaps of books, unwashed clothes, old newspapers, dusty wine bottles. The plates are stained, the glasses "smeary". The bath, so seldom used, is now unusable; the mattress is "soggy"; the sheets are never changed. And we shall draw a veil over their underwear. On one occasion a large, recently purchased meat pie "disappeared" in their kitchen. It was never found. The kitchen ate it.
One of the unforeseen benefits of having children is that it delivers you from your own childishness: there's no going back. John and Iris, naturally, did not toy long with the idea of becoming parents; it was themselves they wished to nurture ("two quaint children" and "co-child" are typical Bayleyisms). This is intimately connected to their embrace of dirt and clutter, a clear example of nostalgie de la boue - literally, homesickness for the mud, for the stickiness and ooziness of childhood, babyhood, wombhood. The plan seems to work. Professor Bayley and Dame Iris are crustily cruising into a triumphant old age. And then a three-year-old comes to stay, to live, to die. It is Iris Murdoch.
Richard Eyre's movie is devotedly faithful to the main lines of Bayley's narrative. Yet there is also an undertow of creative defiance. He has taken a highly unusual story about two very singular people - a story saturated with oddity, quiddity, exceptionality - and he has imbued it with the universal. How?
In the Iris books, Bayley glides around in time and space, indulging his "intellectual being", in Milton's phrase, "the thoughts that wander through eternity". Eyre, characteristically, is direct and rigorous, almost geometrical in his approach. He constructs a double time-scheme of present and past, and lays down a reciprocal rhythm of back and forth, ebb and flow. Throughout, the film tremulously oscillates between the 1950s, when the two principals are just entering each other's force fields, and the 1990s, and the protracted visit from "the dark doctor": Doctor A.
Thus, in the opening scenes, we watch the young Iris riding her bicycle (comfortably outspeeding the more timorous John), her head thrown back in exhilaration, appetite, dynamism; she is rushing forward to meet the fabulous profusion of her talent. Then we fade to the elderly Iris, in the chaos of her study, working on what will be her final fiction. In the margin she writes out, again and again, the word "puzzled". "Puzzled" puzzles her; she is puzzled by "puzzled". "All words do that when you take them by surprise," says her husband, comfortingly. Iris puzzles on; and in her eyes we see an infinity of fear. "It will win" is the pathologist's prognosis. It will win: age will win. Eyre's emphasis is very marked. Iris becomes a tale of everyman and everywoman; it is about the tragedy of time.
What scenarists would call the "back story" is a comedy of courtship. A vital symmetry establishes itself here, because young John is younger than young Iris (31 to her 37) and most decidedly the junior partner. He is a lovestruck provincial virgin with a bad stammer. She is a robust bohemian and free spirit; and he soon learns "how fearfully, how almost diabolically attractive" she is to all men (and most women). Her numerous lovers are artists and scholars, big brains, dominators. And her greatest resource is the private universe of her imagination. This, though, turns out to be John's entrée . In at least two senses, Iris settles for him, however lovingly. She intuits that domesticity - and the scruffier the better - will liberate her art.
The "front story", the age story, begins with the onset of the disease, and spans the five years between diagnosis and death. Soon, "the most intelligent woman in England" (Bayley's plausible evaluation) is watching the Teletubbies with a look of awed concentration on her face. This is now Iris at her best. A clinging, smothering dependence is punctuated by spells of terrifying agitation; she rattles the latch; she bolts, she flees. Alzheimer's is symmetrical, too, in its way: each new impoverishment reduces the awareness of loss. It is John's sufferings that multiply; and we are not spared his surges of rage, bitterness, and contempt. He had always wanted to possess her mind and its secrets. Now, as total master, he does possess it. And there's nothing there. Murdoch-readers won't mind (because they already know), but the movie never quite gives a sense of the intellectual height from which she fell.
Certain cerebrovascular disasters are called "insults to the brain". As already noted, the more prodigious the brain, the more studious (and in this case protracted) the insult. Iris's brain was indeed prodigious. Returning to her novels, with hindsight, we get a disquieting sense of their wild generosity, their extreme innocence and skittishness, their worrying unpredictability. Her world is ignited by belief. She believes in everything: true love, veridical visions, magic, monsters, pagan spirits. She doesn't tell you how the household cat is looking, or even feeling: she tells you what it is thinking . Her novels constitute an extraordinarily vigorous imperium. But beneath their painterly opulence runs the light fever of fragility, like an omen.
Eyre's film is built on the cornerstones of four performances. As the young Iris, Kate Winslet is slightly hampered by the conventionality of her good looks; but the seriousness and steadiness of her gaze effectively suggest the dawning amplitude of the Murdoch imagination. Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent play Bayley quite seamlessly (their stutters must have been calibrated by stopwatch); much more is asked of Broadbent, of course, and it is duly given. As for Judi Dench, as the mature Iris: she is transcendent. I knew Iris; I have respectfully kissed that cunning, bashful, secretive smile. It is as if Dame Judi and Dame Iris were always on a metaphysical collision course. Her performance has the rarest quality known to any art - that of apparent inevitability.
Maritimers talk of a turn in the tide as the moment when the waves "reconsider". Over and above its piercing juxtapositions of youth and age, Iris has an oceanic feel, and this provides a further symmetry. Although she never cared for George Eliot (or, relevantly, for bath water), as Bayley notes, Iris's "wholly different plots and beings remind me of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss saying, 'I am in love with moistness.'" And Against Dryness was one of the more famous of her philosophical essays. The imagery of Eyre's film is against dryness: the lakes and rivers in which John and Iris habitually immersed themselves; the sea, of course (Iris's key novel was The Sea, the Sea); and the rain, the rain, that seemed to hide them from the world. Hold yourself in readiness, too, for the floods of your tears.
Footnote. In the row behind me at the screening of Iris sat John: Professor Bayley. When I staggered up to him, afterwards, it seemed to me that, of the dozen of us in the theatre, John was easily the most composed. He wasn't undone by Iris, as we were. He had already lived it. He alone was perfectly prepared.
© Martin Amis.
This article first appeared in Talk magazine. Iris is out on January 18.
Iris through the looking glass
Iris Murdoch's final days have been lovingly brought to the screen by Judi Dench and Richard Eyre. Kate Kellaway knows better than most how poignant the portrayal is...
Sunday January 13, 2002
When I first saw Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film about Iris Murdoch I did a double-take. There was Iris. Based on John Bayley's memoirs, the film describes the last years of an uncommon marriage and Murdoch's decline into Alzheimer's. Bayley emerges as heroically inventive and optimistic in his love, even after Iris is lost to him. I felt moved by the film for all the obvious reasons but haunted for a reason of my own.
I met John Bayley and Iris Murdoch in north Oxford in September 1995. I did not know then that Iris was unwell. I was charmed by them and incredulous at their house which turned squalor into an art form. I was there to write an Observer 'Room of One's Own' feature, about their kitchen. I was impressed by Iris's indifference to our meeting, and when she got up from the congested table and wandered off into another room I wasn't suspicious but amused. I thought her admirably eccentric. She was like a sphinx: kindly but remote. Her mind was elsewhere, a good thing, I thought.
In retrospect, I see that she was in an erratic twilight just before darkness took over. Much of the amusement of that day now turns to poignancy. I remember how John Bayley, like a sweet shepherd (or sheepdog), rounded Iris up every time she strayed, and when she felt, as she sometimes seemed to, suspicious or panicky he would either pay her no heed as a tolerant parent might a mutinous child, or try to be soothing. (In an Omnibus about Murdoch to be screened on 23 January on BBC1, John Bayley, Warton Professor of English at Oxford, literary critic and novelist, modestly uses the single word 'soothing' to sum up what attracted Iris to him in the first place.)
Now I know that what I took to be Murdoch's hauteur was hesitation. Bayley tried to keep her talking. He summoned her back to the table with the words: 'Darling, come and say whether you like anything in the kitchen.' At the time, I supposed that it was merely her genius that needed this kindly custodian. Bayley reassures me that Iris loved society: 'Right up to the end, she loved meeting people.'
She described marriage gregariously as a 'long conversation'. But their love was more complicated than that: Bayley describes solitude, in his memoirs, as 'one of the truest pleasures of marriage'.
I happily described their kitchen: 'insouciantly itself, recklessly squalid... on every surface, there are bottles and containers, full and empty: French brandy, Bolls Curry Powder (hot), onion salt, bottles of red wine... there are newspapers on the floor, a beanstalk on the windowsill trying to get to the giant, a salad bowl on the floor in which two recumbent Balinese salad servers - a man and a woman - slumber. The room doubles as a wardrobe for Bayley's clothes... in a corner there's a mountain of his shoes.'
How many lost things were there? Looking back on it, it seems as though the house itself were suffering a kind of dementia. I described Iris and John wandering about the kitchen together in a preoccupied way, 'as if hunting for something lost'. Iris said: 'I like everything. I like the bottles and I like the plates.' Then, suddenly warming to the project in which we all seemed to be involved, she asked me: 'Would you like to see what is going on in the cupboards?' and opened them up. I asked what was going on and she replied: 'We really don't know.' Looking at the pretty blue-and-white-striped mugs, she noted, with pleasure: 'They are all together.' And then she admired a painting, a still life of white flowers: 'That's Barbara Dorf,' she said. 'She is stunning.' John introduced me to a picture of a healthy, rather wicked-looking worm which, he said, reminded Iris of him. What is he up to? I wondered. 'He may be creating the world,' Iris said. I asked her whether they could find everything? Did they have everything they needed? 'We have everything we need - and more,' she replied. Before I left, John took me to see Iris's study. I still remember how keen he was to do this. It might have been a museum piece by then; it must have been clear she would never work in it again.
The kitchen is almost a character in the film. For Iris, strange as it may sound, it became linked to her love for John. Bayley wrote recently that he was 'profoundly moved' when he found a last entry from her journal from late 1995. 'She wrote of "overwhelming love for Puss [her name for me], for the pictures in the kitchen and the plates on the dresser".' He reflected: 'Hers was a strange and touching love, for me as for the things in the home and the kitchen, and it seemed to grow at once stronger and more helpless as Iris [her own words] "wailed into the dark".'
When the article appeared, a distraught representative from Chatto, her publishers, rang to reproach me for writing it. Had I not realised that Iris was not at all well ? The word Alzheimer's was not mentioned. John Bayley observes now that her publishers, like so many of her friends, felt 'very possessive about her'.
The film is like a trick of memory. It was uncanny to feel as if I had been behind a camera myself seven years ago, without knowing what I was seeing. I could hardly believe the film was not shot in the house I remembered. Bayley, too, was impressed by the illusion and surprised by the 'lack of bother' he felt watching the film. He admires it but feels comfortably removed from it. He praises Eyre for his 'very great tact'.
Eyre explained to me, in so far as it was possible, the technical side of the illusion. He and the set designer, Gemma Jackson, visited John at home with his new wife, Audi, the friend Iris once took to be 'an angel' - in some confused annunciation. Audi ordered them to: 'Imagine the most untidy place you have ever seen in your life and then multiply it by five.' From that came 'a studio set in Pinewood that took four or five weeks to construct'. Eyre agrees that 'the feel is very close, although we slightly changed the geography'. John tells me he was happy to donate some of his 'old books' to Gemma. Deposits of his books are seen in the film, but all the other effects are inauthentic.
The result is an illusionist feat. I was amazed watching footage on Omnibus to see that Kate Winslet really does look a little like the young Iris. Bayley himself seems to have missed her beauty as a young woman, stubbornly describing her as 'homely and kindly, not in any conventional sense pretty or attractive', although he concedes he always found her face 'mysterious'. Bayley disliked the dress that Iris wore on one of their first dates so much that he almost fell out of love with her. It was 'a flame-coloured brocade' that would be worn only by a 'silly girl who had not the taste to choose her clothes carefully'.
Ruth Myers, the costume designer, implies, correctly I am sure, that Bayley's own taste may not have been entirely reliable, that he would probably have preferred to see Iris in an 'old Aertex blouse'. She decided that the young Iris must wear the 'dress of the moment' and Winslet dazzles and flares in scarlet organza-over-taffeta.
Dench looks, towards the end, more like an old waif. 'Everyone remembers Iris in blue,' Myers recalls. She combed 'local Oxfam shops' for old baggy cardigans and pale blue pinnies which gave her the look I remember of a cleaning lady disinclined to clean.
Lisa Westcott, the hair and make-up designer, contributed to the witchcraft. It helped that there was a natural likeness between Dench and Murdoch but Westcott gave me a revelatory tutorial. Judi Dench wore three wigs. The first was ' a short bob, always greasy and with bed hair. Not so much white hair here. Then, I add tiny wefts to lengthen the hair a bit.' The second was 'a bit more white, slightly finer, longer than wig one. This will do for a few scenes before I add extensions for a little more length and whiteness.' With the third wig 'the fringe is growing all the time and getting in her eyes. This is the wig she'll have when she goes to the nursing home. With bed hair, you get lots of separations; I want to see some scalp. My own device is the wide plastic parting. Now I am losing Judi's hairline, blanking her out, putting Iris Murdoch there.'
Her account of the wigs is unsettling, their gradual disintegration a metaphor for what was going on beneath the hair line. In the scene where Dench is driven off to the nursing home, Westcott popped in opaque contact lenses: 'Very milky as if her spirit had left her. I wanted there to be no glitter, no life. This was hard as Judi's eyes are so alive.'
Bayley has many bouquets to bestow on Eyre and his team but most of all, he wants to see in print his admiration for Vale House in the Botley Road, Oxford, run by 'the marvellous Tricia O'Leary'. The small nursing home where Iris dies in the film was not built in Pinewood. It is 'the real thing'.
The film's most poetic scene never happened at all, although John Bayley assured me: 'I believe it might have.' Iris Murdoch/Judi Dench sits on the beach at Southwold and arranges blank pages torn from a notebook on to the shingle; soon, an audience of paper surrounds her. She secures each page with a stone. It is at once a substitute for writing and a precise metaphor about trying to secure memory. But then, in a moment of furious defeat, she gathers up the stones and we watch the blank pages lifted away by the wind, above the sea.
Iris is an extraordinary reminder of how little 'the real thing' matters: art can be more like life than life itself.
released on Friday 18 January.
Volume 13, Issue 8. May 6, 2002.
Just a Story
Watching "Star Trek" with Iris Murdoch.
Sometime in the early 1980s, when I was still a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, I received an invitation from a member of my dissertation committee. He and his wife were having a dinner party for a visiting writer, a much-lionized British novelist who was spending a week or two on the Berkeley campus as a Regents' Lecturer. Was I familiar with the novels, and would I like to come to dinner?
Yes, indeed, to both questions. And could I, I asked, please bring my -- well, whatever word we were using in those days for the man you lived with but hadn't yet married. (I think the current phrase was some acronym derived from census-taking jargon, but I couldn't swear to it. All I know is that we were past "boyfriend," past "significant other," but not yet into "partner.") There was a slight hesitation at the other end of the phone line -- Did they lack adequate seating? Did they fear that a sociologist wouldn't know how to converse with literary types? What, exactly, was that pause about? -- and then the second invitation was duly issued.
In the event, it was my husband-to-be, Richard, who made the greatest social hit. The minute he clapped eyes on the writer's husband, who entered the living room of that fastidious Julia Morgan house wearing one green sock and one red sock, he knew he had found a friend. They were seated next to each other at dinner, as it happened, and while I engaged the Lion in serious literary discussion down at our end of the table, they exchanged jokes and stories and generally amused one another. At the end of the evening, I was informed that the two men had already made a plan for the coming weekend: The four of us were to take a little trip together down the coast to Big Sur.
That's how Richard and I came to spend two nights in Carmel with Iris Murdoch and John Bayley. (As I said to Richard at the time, "How funny. The last time we were in Carmel I brought an Iris Murdoch novel, and this time I brought Iris Murdoch.") I have many terrific memories of this trip, all still as clear to me as if they were preserved on film. There is Iris swimming in the Pacific Ocean at Point Sur, where only a maniac would brave the freezing water, the surf-carved rocks, and the threatening undertow. There is John chatting in the courtyard of our Carmel motel with some of our fellow guests, a husband and wife from the Central Valley who repeatedly describe themselves as "educators." ("Oh," said John afterward, with his usual twinkle, "I thought they kept saying they were hedge cutters.") There are Richard and John exchanging amused glances as Iris talks earnestly with Emil White, the self-appointed curator of the Henry Miller Museum, while he desperately attempts to flirt with her. There is Iris stalled in front of one of Carmel's tourist-trap art galleries, pausing to admire, with great seriousness and attention, a particularly grotesque glitter-flecked seascape. And there, above all, is the half-hour in the living room of our tacky little motel suite when the four of us watch a Star Trek rerun together. John and Iris, who have rarely if ever seen TV, remain riveted to the screen during the whole of the classically sentimental episode. At the end, when the disguised alien is killed while trying to help the starship's crew and reverts, in death, to his own true shape, the two of them turn to each other with tears in their eyes and dismay written across their faces. "It's just a story, it's just a story," they murmur reassuringly.
We saw them only two other times. The first was a couple of years later, on a quick trip to England, when we took the train out to Oxford to have lunch with them. John picked us up at the train station and drove us out to the seventeenth-century broken-down castle, or whatever it was, in which they had lived for many years. I vaguely remember vast unheated rooms, moth-eaten tapestries on the walls, and huge stacks of books piled here and there on the unswept floors. I recall more clearly the derelict quality of the kitchen from which the food emerged under John's ministrations, and also John's enormous pride in the secondhand pea coat he was wearing; he had bought it at an army-surplus shop for something like three pounds. We had a delightful lunch (it was mainly out of tins and packages) and then a pleasant walk to the local churchyard, where Iris was particularly taken with the little dog that curled at the feet of its dead mistress on one of the funerary monuments.
Our final visit was in the summer of 1995, when the three of us (Richard and I by now had a 10-year-old son) journeyed out to Oxford from London. By this time John and Iris had moved into Oxford itself, having abandoned the seventeenth-century wreck for a normal house, but they still drove to the station to meet us. While John waited in the car outside, Iris came in to get us. Her hair was every which way and her slip showed beneath the hem of her skirt, but this was not unusual and I thought nothing of it. (The first time I ever saw her speak in public, she had a long piece of masking tape trailing from her skirt that remained distractingly attached to her during the entire lecture; Iris was never one to pay much attention to appearances.) Still, as we walked around Oxford and looked at the colleges together, I began to notice an alarming vagueness in her conversation. When I asked her, for instance, if she had a new novel coming out, she said yes; but when I asked her its title, she said, "I can't remember."
This tendency became even more pronounced when John left us to attend a college meeting and Iris remained alone with us during lunch at a rather grand local hotel. She could converse about the food itself and about the room in which we sat, but beyond that -- in that capacious mind, which once held everything from ancient Greek philosophy to nineteenth-century Russian novels, which had room for every visual image, from Titian's Flaying of Marsyas to the trashiest Carmel seascape, and in which she used to compose her novels fully, scene by scene, before setting the first word down on paper -- there remained only a series of blanks. Like John, who was still resolutely pretending that nothing was wrong, I felt unable to come to grips with what had happened. "Alzheimer's," said my husband sadly as we sat on the train going back to London. But the word seemed inadequate to my sense of despair.
The strange thing about the movie Iris is that a surprising number of its reviewers, particularly but not exclusively in England, have had similar stories to tell. Iris Murdoch knew an inordinate number of people, and it is very odd indeed for all of us to see her played by Judi Dench -- so much so that this substitution of an actor for a friend (this transformation, if you will, into an alien after death) has come to seem a part of what the movie is about.
In the stills advertising the movie, Judi Dench looks astonishingly, terrifyingly like Iris. But in fact her portrayal did not remind me of Iris at all. Granted, only about five minutes of screen time are devoted to the Iris Murdoch I first knew: the strong, generous, confident novelist who has made her mark on the world. The rest of the performance -- and Dench does her usual magnificent job, there is no quibbling with that -- is devoted to an Iris in decline, an Iris who is ceasing moment by moment to be herself.
There is one particularly wrenching scene in which John has taken Iris to a clinic to be examined for Alzheimer's and they are speaking to the examining doctor. "It's implacable," the doctor says of the disease.
"But it won't win in the end," says John, hopefully, agitatedly.
"It will win," says the doctor.
"Thank you. It's very kind of you," says Iris, and she means it, because honesty matters more to her at this point than anything. What makes the scene so touching is that even as her memory and speech are going, Iris retains this essential quality, her passion for the truth.
An innocent viewer can be swept away by such moments, as I was swept away by similar moments in A Beautiful Mind. But then I had never met the Nashes, nor had I read Sylvia Nasar's book, so I could enjoy (if that is the right word) the movie on its own Hollywoodish terms. Iris is significantly less Hollywoodish than A Beautiful Mind; it is at once more tactful and more unsparing, like the doctor's kind because they are truthful words. (It certainly has a better director -- the marvelous stage director Richard Eyre -- and a cast that can't be improved upon.) Yet it left me cold, and I think this is only partly because I knew the real Iris and the real John.
Iris has been structured as a series of parallel scenes between the lost past -- that golden Oxford period when John Bayley and Iris Murdoch first met -- and the debased present, in which Iris goes progressively downhill. Kate Winslet plays the young Iris, and she is actually very good. In some ways, although she is of course far too pretty, she is closer to the Iris Murdoch I knew than is Judi Dench. Winslet has captured something of Murdoch's deep-voiced seriousness, her placid conviction, her powerful sense of her own powers. Unfortunately, because of the way the movie is arranged, we associate these qualities almost entirely with the young Iris, and so they seem to have disappeared long before the Alzheimer's set in. What Iris ends up being is therefore an elegy to lost youth -- a reasonable subject for a movie, I suppose, but not at all what this one should have been about. For what Iris Murdoch and John Bayley presented, even in late middle age, was a portrait of a loving and deeply satisfying marriage. That condition is briefly gestured toward in the movie Iris, but it is never made as real as either the excitements of the early courtship or the horrors of the later decline.
A large part of the problem lies in the way John Bayley has been portrayed. Both Hugh Bonneville (as the younger John) and Jim Broadbent (as the older one) have chosen to play him as a bumbling, unattractive, stuttering, somewhat inarticulate fellow, a bit of a fool sometimes, and certainly the petitioner in relation to Iris's much-desired, much-petitioned queen. It is true that John Bayley stutters, but the rest of this is nonsense. When I knew him, he was sharp as a tack and very funny, much funnier and sharper than Iris herself. She had a huge, heavy intelligence that tended to squash things as it came down on them; his was much more like a knife, or a scalpel, or a sewing needle, or some other implement that is useful for detail work. I have read the word "besotted" in reviews praising Jim Broadbent's performance, and indeed his face, in some of the scenes where Dench is speaking, deserves the adjective. But John Bayley was never besotted with Iris, at least not by the time he had reached the Jim Broadbent stage of his life. He knew her for what she was -- not fully, perhaps, but well enough to love knowledgeably. And even at the Hugh Bonneville stage, he was not unaware of a certain near-ridiculousness about her: That, indeed, was part of the appeal.
Iris's potential to appear ridiculous, which was perhaps a function of her pure obliviousness to appearing anything at all, is crucially missing from the movie. Instead, we are offered a once-dignified woman who is suddenly reduced to the mindless condition of a Teletubbies watcher. But to the Iris Murdoch who wrote the novels, that element of ridiculousness was essential. She needed to rush in where angels feared to tread in order to capture the human emotions she was after. The novels are never cautious or discreet or merely intelligent; they are great flaming bundles of feeling, not unlike the fireworks display that appears in one of the earliest books. Jealousy and sexual passion and a frequently misapplied desire to manipulate the passions of others are central to the story lines. Characters go vastly astray and are only rescued by the most ludicrously unlikely plot turns -- when indeed they are rescued, which is not always. I would not put Iris Murdoch's novels into the Orwellian category of "good bad books," but nor would I confidently claim for them the status of enduring literary masterpieces. At their best they satisfy deeply, but it is in much the way the best Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s satisfied: through a strange combination of intense sensation and coolly distanced perspective. It is the clash between the distance and the sensation that makes them so interesting as novels.
John Bayley is a writer of a wholly other sort. He never verges on ridiculousness, except on purpose, which is an entirely different thing. Bayley is completely in control of his rhetoric, and his sensibility is a coherent one. He makes us feel his emotions through his intelligence, and vice versa. His whole personality, but particularly his wit, shines through in his writing. This is why he is so much better as a memoirist and essayist than as a novelist; we need to feel him talking to us to get the full thrust of what he is saying. His best books, I think, are The Characters of Love (a literary critical work about how people love, and why we love them as characters, in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Henry James) and Elegy to Iris, which was written after Iris developed Alzheimer's but before she died -- and which became the basis for the movie Iris.
In deriving the movie from John Bayley's book, Eyre and his collaborators made a fatal rhetorical error: They took the narrator's self-presentation at face value. John does, it is true, sometimes portray himself as a bumbling, inexperienced, befuddled young man, and he does construct a fairy tale about this youthful self and the powerfully mysterious Iris. But the way he tells the story is very self-consciously as a fairy tale, and clearly not the kind that has a happy ending. Also, he intercuts the befuddlement with lines of such sharp observation that they almost take your breath away.
I was heartened by her general appearance, and its total absence of anything that for me in those days constituted sex appeal. There was nothing so conventional as that about this woman. She was not "a girl," and she had no girlish attractions. That made the fact that I was in love with her much more exciting. . . .
One cannot imagine the Hugh Bonneville character in Iris thinking anything at all like that about the Kate Winslet character. The movie has simply got it wrong.
Why does this matter so much? Because, by losing the character of John Bayley, the film loses the essence of the love story. Elegy for Iris is not about a great and powerful woman who lost her mind and was loyally cared for by the good but inferior man who loved her. If John Bayley at times makes it seem that way, it is because he is being gallant: He, who still possesses the language in which to tell their story, is consciously diminishing the degree of power he wields in relation to his now-mute wife. We can tell he is being gallant because the language itself reveals his strengths. His sentences show us that John was a man capable of seeing Iris for who she was, the potentially ridiculous mixed with the utterly admirable; and they imply that she, in turn, was capable of loving him for the incisiveness and self-consciousness she lacked. It is this mutuality -- not equality, exactly, but something much more necessary to love -- that made their married happiness so tremendously appealing. And it is this mutuality that disappeared when Iris's mind went. The movie, by tipping the balance of power in Iris's favor, does her a deep disservice, and it does us an injury, too, by depriving this real-life fairy tale of the delicate tragic balance John worked so hard to preserve.
LRB | Vol. 24 No. 17 dated 5 September 2002 | Susan Eilenberg
With A, then B, then C
Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter Conradi | HarperCollins, 706 pp, £9.99
Read this review here
When She Was Good
by Martha C. Nussbaum
Post date: 12.20.01
Issue date: 12.31.01
Murdoch: A Life
by Peter J. Conradi
(W.W. Norton, 706 pp., $35)
Read this review here
the yale review of books
Fall 2001 Issue
Vol. 4, n.º 3
Iris Murdoch: A Life
W.W. Norton & Co., 706 pp., $35
reviewed by Carey Seal
Carey Seal is a sophomore in Silliman and an editor of the YRB
Maze of Murdoch
Conradi peers into the life of an enigmatic scholar.
Read this review here
there were two
He's best known for taking care of his first wife, Iris Murdoch, till her death from Alzheimer's. Now, four years on, John Bayley is basking in wedded bliss with Audi - an old family friend
Monday June 2, 2003
Read this article here
Nov. 30, 2001, 11:10AM
By MALINDA NASH
By Peter J. Conradi.
Read this review here
N Z Z Online
18. Januar 2003, 02:10, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
All about Iris
Peter J. Conradis Biographie «Iris Murdoch. Ein Leben»
Read this review here
From Peter Conradi
Read this letter here
passionate and the good
IRIS MURDOCH: A LIFE
HarperCollins, £24.99, pp.736, ISBN:0002571234
Read this review here
September 3, 2000
Iris Murdoch diaries to lift veil on series of love affairs
by Richard Brooks, Arts Editor
Read this article here
Bayley defends Iris Murdoch against memoir by former lover
By Chris Hastings, Arts Correspondent
Read this article here
EXTRACTS FROM THE BOOK
You ask how Irish she is?'
ONE day in 1888, on the North Island of New Zealand, a runaway horse with an alarmed and excited girl on its back galloped into Wills Hughes Murdoch's view. He was twenty-seven years old, and had been quietly tending his sheep. He managed to race after the horse, to jump out and grab the reins, calm and finally stop it. The girl, Louisa Shaw, who was on her way to school, was that November to be his bride. She was only seventeen when they married.
This mode of meeting and instantly falling in love sounds like something invented by his future granddaughter. Her novels test to the point of self-parody the literary convention of the coup de foudre, or love at first sight: the chance meeting between kindred souls that changes lives for ever. It was as much a family tradition. Wills and Louisa's eldest child Hughes was to meet and fall for his nineteen-year-old future bride on a Dublin tram in 1918, towards the end of the First World War. And John Bayley was first to sight Wills's granddaughter Iris bicycling past his Oxford College window in 1953. In three successive generations the girl at least is on the move, while the man - and twice also the girl - is love-struck, and nothing again is quite as it was.
The Murdochs are a staunchly Protestant Scots-Irish family who crossed the Irish Sea to Ulster from their native Galloway in Scotland in the seventeenth century. The name 'Murdoch' is essentially Scots Gaelic - from Mhuirchaidh, though an Irish Gaelic version, O'Muircheartaigh, meaning navigator, sometimes written Murtagh, is also common. They farmed modestly in County Down, where they prided themselves on having been for seven generations. In the 1880s Wills John Murdoch left the family farm for his spell in New Zealand, to learn about sheep-rearing, and probably also to make good on his own. It was a period of agricultural unrest and depression, and of Irish emigration generally. Family tradition suggests that Wills's uncle had left for Indiana twenty-five years earlier, while his elder brother Richard was also in New Zealand, working as a teacher, and died there, unmarried, not long before the First World War.
Wills and Louisa's first baby, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, was born in Thames, seventy miles south-east of Auckland, on 26 April 1890. When Hughes was a year and a half old, on 9 January 1892, Wills's father died, and Wills came back to help run the family farm in County Down. Legend has it that on the journey home baby Hughes was nearly washed overboard in a storm, but was saved by a vigilant sailor.
The farm was Ballymullan House, Hillhall, in County Down, eight miles outside Belfast, and at that time 'real country.' Even today it has not become suburban, but away from the old main road to Lisburn that cuts through it, it is a quiet country hamlet. Ballymullan House had been left by Wills's great-grandfather, another Richard, described in his will as 'merchant and farmer', to Wills's father Richard (1824-92) and uncle William John (1825-1908). The five-bay, two-storeyed, shallow-roofed eighteenth-century house - 'Georgian' suggests something too English, insufficiently atmospheric and provincial - has dressed-stone corners, some old panelled windows, a large kitchen with a small-windowed 'gam' wall, a grey marble fireplace in the drawing-room, two fine old oak-panelled doors, an orchard and an old yard with a pump that produced 'the most beautiful well water'. There were at least sixty acres of mixed farmland.
Louisa, whom Iris knew well - she died aged seventy-five, living at 8 Adelaide Avenue in Belfast, in 1947 - is remembered by her grandchildren as a cheerful, always youthful person. She was happy and had the gift of making others so. At twenty-one she had to leave her entire family and known world, to sail across the seas to a wholly strange place, and to live in a house with unknown in-laws. She was to share - contentedly - Ballymullan with her mother-in-law and three sisters-in-law - Margaret, Sarah and Annie. There is an echo of her journey in Chloe, also a New Zealander, 'the girl from far-away' in The Good Apprentice.
Two aspects of the household Louisa bravely travelled to join are striking. Iris's father Hughes was brought up on a farm which had been inherited by the brothers Richard and William from their grandfather. Wills, son of the elder brother Richard, chose to leave for the southern hemisphere. Strife or tension between brothers is the main driving force behind the plots of many of Iris's novels, from A Severed Head to The Green Knight. Shakespeare's plots provide one model for this; life, another.
The second aspect, even allowing for the shorter life expectancy of that epoch, is the family's high death-rate. Richard had, it is true, seven surviving siblings, but Wills's sister Isabella died in 1868 aged fourteen, his brother Samuel in 1869 aged four, and his brother James in 1889 aged nineteen. As for Uncle William, the other heir to Hillhall, he had lost six children in infancy, and his wife Charlotte died in 1876. William had another four surviving children, three of them girls, one of whom, Charlotte Clark, was married. She and her elder sister Margaret died within a fortnight of each other in March 1893, aged twenty-seven and thirty-two respectively. Wills's mother Sarah died in 1895, three years after his father. His youngest child Lilian died, aged three, in 1900.
What might such reminders of mortality do to the Murdoch family's religious sense? Wills and Louisa's eldest daughter Sarah, born in 1893, was washed to the wilder shores of Irish Protestantism. Her sister Ella (1894-1990) became a missionary. And Hughes, their only son - perhaps in reaction - probably turned free-thinker. In the following generation Hughes's only child Iris was to contrive to be both passionately religious by nature and by blood-instinct, yet devoutly sceptical about most traditions in practice. Dominic de Grunne, a tutor at Wadham College in the 1950s, observing her over many decades and working, when they first met, on a doctorate on lay religious feeling among seventeenth-century Britons, soon saw in her the extreme 'idealistic puritanism' of her planter-Ulster forebears. Iris was, especially before her marriage, prone to humourless outrage about social and political issues - the wickedness of apartheid being one theme. Friends would later recount how, eyes flaming and flashing, she 'took up the cudgels' and 'stood on her dignity'. She also inherited from her father's side an intense radical individualism.
The Murdoch family burial plot is in the Church of Ireland graveyard at Deriaghy, County Down, not far from Hillhall. The church itself is an ugly Victorian confection. Two family graves, one for each brother - Richard, William - and his descendants, stand side by side like rival siblings within their low railing, opposite the south-facing door. A sum bequeathed around 1868 to keep the gravestones clean had dwindled by the 1920s, so that the grandchildren - who, most summers, included young Iris over from England - had to clean the headstones, scrape the railings, apply paint and keep the weeds in check.
There are many Richards and Williams in the Murdoch family tree. 'Hughes' was one common or standard middle name, 'Wills' another - probably emphasising a connexion with the family name of the Marquesses of Downshire, from whom the Murdochs in the nineteenth century rented eleven and a half acres of land. It is one curiosity of these graves that, as in the kind of doubling novelists delight in, two people buried here bear the same name - Wills's sister Isabella Jane Shaw Murdoch, who was Iris's great aunt and who died in 1868; and Iris's formidable aunt Ella Ardill, also born Isabella Jane Shaw Murdoch, who died in 1990. The 'Shaw' in Aunt Ella's name came from her mother Louisa Shaw from New Zealand, who - presumably - also came of Irish stock, and may indeed have been a distant cousin.
Louisa loved her first-born, Hughes. She used to carry him, at the age of three and a half, to the small National School in Hillhall, and then cry all the way back home because she could so little bear to leave him. Hughes went on to Brookfield, a Quaker boarding school in Moira, outside Belfast. It was a good school, and Wills's mother and his Dublin cousins alike were Quakers. Hughes would send his washing home each week for Louisa to launder, and this became the stuff of family legend: she would cut off all the buttons from the garments before the wash, and sew them all on again afterwards before sending them back, week after week. Probably this was to avoid the buttons being chewed up in an old-fashioned mangle. That the story was handed down suggests that there were other ways of proceeding. 'Did you ever hear of anything so stupid?' asked Louisa's granddaughter Sybil.
The year before her death in 1895, Louisa's mother-in-law Sarah wrote to her about the well-being of the next baby, confusingly another Sarah, aunt to-be of Iris. Great-grandmother Sarah writes affectionately to her daughter-in-law in an educated cursive but unpunctuated script. Some words are misspelt.
Lisburn, Sep 1st 94
My dear Louisa
I can imagine how you will be thinking of Sara it will seem wonderfull to you to hear she never murmured all yesterday nor going to bed nor going asleep and I kept out of the way so Rose got her ready and all was warm she had a lot of little things to amuse her and took her up Annie was here at the time as I did not wish her to begin to fret I sent them early and we stood and lisined not a word Rose told me this morning she went over and over her to she tired and then lay down I called Rose at 5 she went out to milk at once and had milked before she awoke I left my door open that she could come in but she called out MaMa and I called Rose that was the only time she cried not the only time she has said MaMa but that was the only cry she had all the time I hope you are enjoying yourself ever your Afft Mother Sarah Murdoch.
I will be glad to see Wills home he is very soon missed here
Wills had taken Louisa, and probably the four-year-old Hughes, to the smart Dublin Horse Show, a key event in the Irish - and especially the Anglo-Irish - social calendar well into the twentieth century. Hughes was to inherit his father's love both of horses and of betting on them. Both Sarah and Louisa were clearly anxious about Louisa's absence from her second baby, yet the fact of her absence might suggest that Hughes had more of her love than did either of his two sisters Sarah and Ella. Ballymullan House was not a large establishment: as Sarah's letter makes clear, Rose doubled as nursemaid and milkmaid. The family were not well enough off to employ a wet-nurse.
In the event, Ballymullan House did not pass to Hughes. There were several years of mounting debts, and probably the farm failed. Wills went to a funeral in the rain, developed pneumonia and died, intestate and aged only forty-six, on 1 December 1903. The family address at the time was 3 Craig Fernie Terrace, Lisburn Road, Belfast. The Certificate of Probate on Wills's estate describes him as a 'retired farmer' and tells us that he left £1,274. The farm had been sold the year before.
Louisa was left on her own to bring up Hughes, Sarah and Ella. So bereft was she without Wills that she would often say her children alone kept her going. It is not clear how they lived, in those days before widows' benefits. She was poor, but uncomplaining, and somehow made do. Despite the family burial plot at Deriaghy being in a Church of Ireland graveyard, the family belonged mainly to Hillhall Presbyterian congregation, and partly to Malone Presbyterian Church. After a split in the latter some breakaways, such as Grandmother Louisa and Aunts Ella and Sarah, counted themselves Irish Evangelical, though the two aunts, on marrying, took the faiths of their husbands: Baptist for Ella when she married the carrier Willy Ardill, Brethren for Sarah when she married the quiet, easy-going self-taught dentist Willy Chapman.
Sectarianism in Ireland is of course not a two-cornered but a three-cornered fight, with Catholic, Church of Ireland (i.e. Anglican) and the various powerful competing Non-Conformist traditions all vying with each other. Moreover the Protestant Non-Conformist traditions in Northern Ireland are intensely individualistic, quarrelsome and fissiparous. Brethren, Baptists and Elamites were at the cutting edge of turn-of-the-century Northern Irish Protestantism, much subject to internal splits. By 1911 there were no fewer than six sects with less than ten members. Iris, direct heir to exactly such a tradition of stubborn, radical Ulster dissent, developed a 'faith' that emphasised the urgency and loneliness of the individual pilgrimage.
Iris's formidable Aunt Ella spent many years as a missionary with the Egypt General Mission, in which it did not much matter what denomination you belonged to. She learnt and spoke good Arabic and 'used to teach the young Egyptians to love God.' Her older sister Sarah spent many of her holidays on a farm near Carryduff, five miles south-east of Belfast, belonging to an uncle who was 'saved', Thomas Maxwell. At around nineteen she was, together with her cousins, 'saved' too, and on her marriage she became a member of what on the mainland are sometimes known as Plymouth Brethren, in Ulster simply as 'Brethren.' Willy, her husband-to-be, was Treasurer to the e Apsley Hall Brethren at Donegall Pass. Even today Ulster 'Brethren' - unlike their Scots cousins - have no women elders.
Both the Yeats and the Parnell families, like Iris's, had Brethren connexions. The Brethren originated in Aungier Street, Dublin in 1827-28 when a group of men including a doctor, a lawyer, a minister and a peer started meeting together without any ritual, set prayers, forms of service or ordained ministry: they wished to return to the simplicity of the early apostolic Church. They believed in a 'timetable' of Last Things and taught that the saved can be caught up in the 'Rapture' before Christ's return, and so spared hellfire.
Willy and Sarah Chapman belonged to the Open Brethren, who split off in 1848, and who differ significantly from Exclusive Brethren. Open Brethren both fraternise and worship freely with other evangelistic Christians, and practise believers' (not infants') baptism. Although to leave the Church was still a momentous and alarming thing to do, your family might not necessarily refuse to break bread with you afterwards. Iris was pleased when her second cousin Max Wright, who taught philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast, wrote a book, a painfully humorous account of just such a departure. Wright's family home contained thirty-seven Bibles. At fifteen he had shouted a gospel message at an unresponsive terrace of red-brick houses. There was constant pressure on Brethren to go all out for salvation, which led, one commentator believed, to a resulting impoverishment of outlook. Sarah and Willy Chapman's three children, Iris's closest living relatives, were bought up as Open Brethren, and Iris and her parents spent the second part - after Dublin - of many of their summer holidays before the Second World War with these cousins. Muriel, the eldest, was Iris's particular ally.
The years before the First World War were the era of Edward Carson's inflammatory Unionist speeches against Home Rule, of 'not-an-inch-Jimmie', of 'Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right', of a developing siege mentality among many Ulster Protestants. While the Murdochs and Maxwells who were Brethren were unquestionably Unionist, they also - even if male and so eligible - did not dream of voting, 'For we have here no continuing city, but we look for one that is to come.'
When Hughes went to London at the age of sixteen in June 1906 to train for his civil service exam, first as a boy clerk at Scotland Yard then, later that year, with the Charity Commission, he, who is remembered as gentle, liberal, and free-thinking, was escaping from what his daughter Iris was to term the puritanism of his 'black Protestant' forebears. A letter from Hughes to his mother shortly after his arrival still evinces some fundamentalist piety, but perhaps the fleshpots of London helped wean him from it. This was a puritanism from which Iris claimed to have inherited something of value. Hughes would stay on friendly terms with both his sisters, and perhaps achieved this the more effectively by rationing their time together.
In 1908 he took his civil service exams, and in 1910 is shown certified as a 'second Division Clerk' with, in turn, the Local Government Board, the Home Office and the Treasury. In the four years running up to the outbreak of the First World War he worked at the 'General Valuation Department (Ireland)' in Dublin, staying with his Uncle Elias and his son Harold in Kingstown (later Dun Laoghaire), just outside the city, where they ran two ironmongers' shops. From there it would have been a two-and-a-half-hour train journey to spend a weekend with his mother and sisters, 110 miles away in Belfast. Hughes swam in the so-called 'Forty-Foot', the natural pool 'for gentlemen only' by the Kingstown Martello Tower, both immortalised early on in Joyce's Ulysses. Swimming there was his idea of bliss, and he always referred to it reverentially.
Photographs show him as a tall and attractive fair-haired man, with a self-contained air and a mild blue-eyed gaze that seems both retiring and contemplative, yet also 'present.' The quality of quiet inwardness for which he is recalled, and which must have won him admirers, is visible too. The Murdoch family photograph album begins with cards from two girls, one strikingly beautiful, signed 'With love from Daisy, October 1916' and 'To Hughes with love from Lillie, October 1917.'
In January 1916, when mainland conscription started, there was none in Ireland, for fear of its political unpopularity. Hughes enlisted on 19 November 1915; the first photographs of him in his regimentals date from 1916. He was accustomed to farm life - 'He was very horsey,' Iris remarked - which was why he entered a yeoman cavalry regiment, the First King Edward's Horse, 'The King's Oversea [sic] Dominions Regiment.' Whether, like Andrew in The Red and the Green, also an officer in King Edward's Horse, he did 'bombing from horse-back' - galloping in single file past German gun-emplacements and hurling Mills bombs into them -- is not recorded. Generally, cavalry regiments were kept some distance from the front, and Iris later thought that this saved her father's life.
Six months of Hughes's war diary survive, starting at the end of 1916. The writing is spare and, even allowing for the fact that it is written 'on the move', the tone is notably impassive, without subjectivity. On New Year's Eve 1916 he is laying four hundred yards of telephone wire, in full view of the German trenches at Miraumont, to connect the artillery observation post to that of his regiment. He and his fellows were soon under shellfire. All afternoon they heard the shells coming, and they would throw themselves flat on the ground until after each set of explosions. Shrapnel fell round them for some hours. When they had finished they 'beat it back along the Hessian trench' and rejoined their horses. The line they had laid that day was cut by shellfire almost at once, and had to be relaid in heavy rain five days later. Again Hughes's party was spotted. A 'whiz-bang' dropped overhead about ten yards away, followed by a 'perfect storm of shells round about.' They got safely away, but only just.
Hughes's diary notes not merely the death of companions - on 22 March 1917 he writes: 'Four B Sqn men were killed, and about 15 wounded' - but also the casualties among horses, which he loved, and is remembered as having taken care of. Even at the front, his mother would proudly and wonderingly relate, he kept half his food for his horse. On 23 March 1917 he takes dispatches through the lines and is stopped 'about four times by the French and ten times by the English patrols, each way.' On 8 April his Lieutenant-Colonel - one Lionel or 'Jimmie' James, author-to-be of a regimental history which Hughes purchased - wrote to Louisa that her son was 'a most excellent and trustworthy British soldier' of whom she should, like him, be proud.
After the post-Easter Rising executions in April 1916 Irish opinion turned against the British government, and King Edward's Horse found difficulty recruiting subalterns in Dublin. On 11 May 1917 - during the Arras offensive, when 159,000 lives were lost in thirty-nine days - Corporal Murdoch was interviewed for a commission by Brigadier-General Darell at Nesle, and two weeks later left Peronne, on the Somme, for Dublin and then Lisburn. The journey home took one full week. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant" on 22 February 1918.
Musing about these diaries after they came to light in 1987, Iris pondered various matters. One was that 'when (31.12.1916) my father wrote in his notebook, "All the afternoon shrapnel was dropping all around...'' ', Wittgenstein, perhaps in similar circumstances, but fighting on the other side, might well have been making notes for the Tractatus. Even their ages - one born April 1889, the other April 1890 - were 'practically the same.' She sadly notes that after the war Hughes 'never saw a horse again, except the milkman's horse.' He enjoyed betting on them, however, like his father, and surprisingly, being Irish, did it quite well.'
In the last months of the war Hughes was on leave from his regiment, which was stationed at the Curragh. One Sunday in Dublin, probably in uniform, he met Irene Richardson in a tram, en route for the Black Church on the corner of Mountjoy Street and St Mary's Place, where she sang in the choir. They fell in love. Irene was dark, petite, very beautiful and spirited. Dublin is a great singing city, and 'Rene' (rhyming with 'teeny') as she was always known had a beautiful voice. She was training as a singer, and had already started performing at amateur concerts. She sang the standard operatic arias, and was particularly fond of 'One Fine Day' from Madama Butterfly. Its story of an innocent girl made pregnant then abandoned by the sailor she loves perhaps distantly echoes her own, happier story.
Hughes and Rene were married in Dublin on 7 December 1918 - a photo shows Hughes in full-dress uniform. Rene's sister Gertie (later Bell) was a witness. On the wedding certificate Hughes gives his army rank, second lieutenant, under 'profession', and his address as 'Marlborough Barracks.' Jean Iris Murdoch was born on 15 July, St Swithin's Day, the following year, just over seven months later. The marriage was probably therefore hasty. Even in October 1918, when Iris would have been conceived, an early end to the war was not certain. Her character Andrew Chase-White in The Red and the Green, born, like Hughes, in a colony and serving, like Hughes, as a young officer in King Edward's Horse, feels some pressure from relatives to marry and make his wife pregnant before he has to go to the front and a likely death. Arthur Green's hypothesis that Hughes might have felt he had a comparable duty to perform before his marriage seems unlikely, Iris was probably a happy accident.
The extended Murdoch family comes out as a very intelligent, middle-class organism, stuffed with independent minds, a model example of Protestant and British Ireland. One group stems from the Brethren and has strong dental and medical associations; the son of one of Iris's first cousins was a Unionist politician, while a second cousin was Professor of Philosophy at Queen's University. Uncle Elias, a Presbyterian married to a Quaker, and Harold, a Quaker, ran the two well-known ironmongers' stores at Dun Laoghaire; another cousin, Brian Murdoch, also a Quaker, became Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin. Cousin Sybil also married a Quaker in Reggie Livingston; and some Richardsons are Quakers. There are today a mere 1,500 Quakers in the whole of Ireland, and if the frequency with which Quakerism turns up in Iris's fiction invites comment, it is also disproportionately reflected in Irish history, being particularly prominent in famine relief, big business and education. If Iris was herself touched by Quakerism's emphasis on integrity, quietness and peace, its belief in the availability of Inner Light to all, that all are capable of growing in wisdom and understanding, it is as likely to be from her headmistress at Badminton School as from her Irish relations that the influence came.
Rene's family represents another strain in the history of Protestant middle-class Ireland: Church of Ireland rather than Presbyterian, Dublin-based rather than from Belfast, former 'plantation squires' rather than 'plantation farmers.' Not yeoman farmers and merchants like the Murdochs, the Richardsons, a complex and highly inter-related family, began as major land-owners in the seventeenth century and became minor gentry in the eighteenth, when Catholics were debarred from sitting in Parliament and holding government office, as well as suffering many petty restrictions, and Protestants had a virtual monopoly of power and privilege. Thereafter, the family's status declines. It mattered to Iris that she was grandly descended from Alexander Richardson, 'planted in Ireland in 1616 to control the wild Irish', as she put it, and living at Crayhalloch in 1619. Readers of An Unofficial Rose will recognise the similar name of the house 'Grayhallock', with its links to the wealthy linen merchants of County Tyrone. Alexander Richardson's family motto 'Virtuti paret robur' is proudly quoted in The Green Knight, and translated as either 'strength obeys virtue' or 'virtue overcometh strength.'
In the 1990s an amateur genealogist from Ulster, Arthur Green, wrote up his patient investigations into Iris's family history. He showed, amongst much else, that she was 'una bambina do sette mesi', painted her parents' marriage as a hasty register office affair, and tried to show that her claims to be descended from the Richardsons of Drum Manor, and her identification with an Anglo-Irish background, were, in his word, 'romanticism'. He also queried whether her father's civil service status on his retirement in 1950 was as exalted as she believed. Green, at the suggestion of A.S. Byatt, sent these findings to Iris's publishers, Chatto & Windus. Iris defended her pedigree with (at first) some stiffness, later lamenting that she had not asked more questions of her parents, and so been better-informed. She referred Green to O'Hart's History of Old Irish Families, telling him she had lodged copies of relevant pages with her agent Ed Victor for safekeeping. Both Rene's father Effingham Lynch Richardson and her grandfather Robert Cooper Richardson merit a mention in O'Hart which is noted for being, before 1800, notoriously untrustworthy, a source of myth, not fact. Given the burning of papers during the Troubles of 1921-22, the chances of establishing the truth seemed remote.
Fortunately, and unbeknownst to Iris, at the start of the twentieth century the Rev. Henry G.W. Scott, Rector of Tullinisken in County Armagh, had documented these Richardsons well. James I indeed granted the original Alexander Richardson Drum Manor, or Manor Richardson, in County Tyrone. Alexander's son William married Mary Erskine, heiress to the Augher Castle estate. County Tyrone, which in turn descended to their son Archibald. William left Drum Manor to his second son Alexander, who in 1682 married Margaret Goodlatte of Drumgally. His third son William, as well as inheriting lands near Augher, also obtained a lease of lands from his brother Alexander in the townland of Tullyreavy on the Drum Manor estate, where he built a house by the lake known as Oaklands, Woodmount or Lisdhu. O'Hart erroneously identified Crayhalloch with Drum Manor Forest Park and also with Oaklands, as if all were different names for one house, instead of separate Richardson estates, from each of which Rene could claim descent.
William (d. 1664) and Mary Erskine had three further sons. The eldest, James, married Mary Swan (1671-1740), heiress of William Swan, and their son Alexander (1705-71) succeeded to the estate of over a thousand acres at Farlough Lodge, strikingly situated above the Torrent river: a small five-bay, two-storey Georgian house with a dressed sandstone front and a square central porch near Newmills, County Tyrone, not far from Cookstown. Through the eighteenth century the head of the family was churchwarden and member of the vestry of Drumglass and Tullinisken parishes, overseer of the roads and an officer in the militia. Iris's great-great-great-grandfather, for example, was Alexander's eldest son John Richardson of Farlough (1727-85), who married Hannah Lindsay in 1757 and was a JP, High Sheriff of Tyrone in 1778, and Captain of the Dungannon Volunteers in 1782. Owning more than a thousand acres, successive heads of the family lived, it can be assumed, in some comfort as modest country gentlemen.
The Richardsons also produced serious artistic talent and had continuing artistic tastes, well before Iris emerged to give them retrospective interest. They formed a large extended family which included two women writers, one of them distinguished. Iris's great-great-aunt Frances Elizabeth Fisher (née Richardson) published well-received volumes of verse such as Love or Hatred (three volumes) and The Secret of Two Houses (two volumes), also a book about Killarney. The better-known is Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946), who wrote under the name of Henry Handel Richardson. She was the daughter of Walter Lindesay Richardson MD, model for Richard Mahony in her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1917-21). Henry Handel Richardson was second cousin to Rene's father Effingham Lynch Richardson. Like Rene she was musically talented, going to Leipzig to study music before turning to writing. She spent her early life in Australia and then Germany, belonging, like her cousin Iris, to a broad British and European and not merely an Irish world.39 In her unfinished autobiography Myself When Young (1948) she refers to her strongly Protestant Irish Richardson relations, and their penchant for odd names 'such as Henry Handel and a Duke, more than one Snow and several Effinghams.' In The Unicorn Iris was to award her foolish character Effingham Cooper a key moment of insight.
The nineteenth century saw a downturn in Richardson fortunes, with the sons of yet another Alexander Richardson (1758-1827) squandering part of the £8,000 realised from sale of the Farlough estate. The phenomenon of downstart Anglo-Irish gentry was so familiar as to earn its own ingenious characterisation. Sir Jonah Barrington, whose racy memories of Irish history both Yeats and Joyce plundered, defines as 'half-mounted gentlemen' the small grantees of Queen Elizabeth or CromwelI living off two hundred acres. The Richardsons had been grander, somewhere between 'gentlemen every inch of them', whose finances were 'not in good order', and 'gentlemen to the backbone', from the oldest settler--families, generally also 'a little out at elbows'. Most of Iris's immediate maternal forebears were minor men-of-law - Dublin was a litigious city with many attorneys - belonging to the Protestant Irish lower-middle class. Rene's paternal grandfather Robert Cooper Richardson, grandson to Tyrone's High Sheriff, born in 1827, and son of Robert Lindesay Richardson, a revenue officer, was a clerk at the Dublin Probate Court. Robert Cooper's son by his first wife Hannah, Effingham Lynch Richardson, a 'law assistant' born in 1857, after a first marriage without issue made a second to Elizabeth Jane Nolan, daughter of William Nolan Esquire. Effingham and Jane had two daughters, Gertrude Anna (born 1891) and Irene Alice (born 29 March 1899), mother-to-be of Iris.
Rene's father Effingham Lynch Richardson died on 6 July 1904, not long after Ulysses' 'Bloomsday', one tradition making his death, officially from 'erphelsocora of the groin', drink-related. The fact that the Rev. A.W. Barton, Rector of St George's, rather than one of his three curates, took the funeral service, suggests that the family were actively involved in the life of the Church of Ireland at parish level. Iris also claimed Catholic ancestors. Curiously, a second Effingham L. Richardson was shown living at 40 Iona Road, Glasnevin, Dublin, until 1947, and working until 1934 at the Dublin Ministry of Labour. This second E.L. Richardson, a first cousin of the first, was re-baptised as a Catholic before marrying in 1883. Rene and her elder sister Gertie took 'Cooper', not among the baptismal names of either, as their middle name; they lived thereafter in the house of their grandfather Robert Cooper Richardson, and the twice-adopted name suggests gratitude to him for his generosity in fostering them after their father's death. The only story Rene would tell of her grandfather was that, though a man of industrious habits who at first kept his family well, when the 6 p.m. mail van arrived he would be facetious about this, in his Dublin manner. It was a signal for his first drink of the evening.
From 1906 the girls lived with their grandfather at 59 Blessington Street, a 'wide, sad, dirty street', Iris wrote, with 'its own quiet air of dereliction, a street leading nowhere, always full of idling dogs and open doorways.' It runs parallel to Leopold Bloom's Eccles Street close by, and is halfway between St Joseph's Carmelite Church and the Anglican 'Black' Church, at the heart of that cheerless north inner city to which the Joyces retreated across the Liffey, with all their baggage in two large yellow caravans, when their fortunes took a downturn. Within a twilit world there are degrees of gloom and seediness. It is not hard to see why the 1906 move that Rene's grandfather made, away from the address given as 34 'Upper' Rutland Street, where Rene and Gertie were growing up, was propitious. A street of ill-repute, Joyce placed Nighttown and its brothels at the end of it at that time.
The northern inner city had been defeated first by the Duke of Leinster choosing in the 1740s to build on the South Side - 'Where I build, Fashion will follow' - and next by the exodus of gentry to England from around Luke Gardiner's Mountjoy Square after the 1801 Act of Union. But, above all, by the massive immigration into the area of starving country people during and after the Famine, resulting in the division of whole terraces into tenements. In their novel The Real Charlotte Somerville and Ross's down-at--heel, petit-bourgeois, essentially vulgar Protestant heroine Francie lives, in 1895, around Mountjoy Square, very near Blessington Street - like the Richardsons. Today number 59 is divided into seven flats, the ground floor having been around 1990 a betting-shop.
A marriage brings two worlds, as well as two people, into collision. Hughes's cousin Don Douglas, grandson of Elias and so a 'solid' Murdoch by birth, regarded the Richardsons as rackety, and recalled Hughes's marriage as a serious social blunder. If Rene had, by the hypocritical standards of the day, 'got herself into trouble', such odium would be explained. Her sister Gertie must also have been pregnant when she married, on 26 February 1919: Gertie gave birth at 59 Blessington Street to her eldest child Victor four months later, only three weeks before Iris was born at the identical address, probably in the same room. Gertie's Scottish husband Thomas Bell, like Hughes, was a Second Lieutenant in King Edward's Horse. There must have been a double courtship. It is striking that there is no Murdoch witness to Iris's parents' marriage certificate, especially as Hughes's uncle lived close by in Kingstown, and his mother and sisters in Belfast. Rene's father is moreover shown, erroneously, as a solicitor (deceased). The Law Society in Dublin has no record of a solicitor called Effingham Richardson. In fact he worked in a solicitor's office, 'law assistant' probably signifying a clerk. Perhaps Rene and Gertie enhanced his status to compensate for any loss of caste on Hughes's part, or perhaps their mother had misremembered and misinformed them.
Iris's birth at 59 Blessington Street was probably difficult, perhaps, John Bayley believed, with the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby's neck. Rene had also had a rough time from Hughes's sisters and mother. She 'didn't fit in with the Protestant ethic', thought Iris's first cousin Cleaver Chapman. As an Elder in the Apsley Hall Brethren assembly, his words come with some authority. Rene was beautifully made-up, cheerful and bright; she loved the coffee-shop, Cardews, in Kildare Street, where she went as a 'flapper.' Her new sister-in-law, 'wonderful' Aunt Ella, was bossy and critical and on occasion ungenerous, smiling but lacking charity. Rene handled the disapproval very well, with tact, patience and good grace.
Rene liked to joke about North and South Dublin, and to be ironical at her own expense, socially speaking. When Iris's husband John Bayley in later life complimented her gallantly by saying that he was sure Rene must have been 'the toast of Dublin' when she was a girl, she would jokingly reply, 'Only of North Dublin.' While Dublin north of the River Liffey was seedy and poor, the rich, smart suburbs stretched out to the south, from Rathmines to Dalkey. None the less, Rene had started to make her mark as a singer, and as a charming and modest personality.
Like her mother-in-law, she had a happy temperament. There was a great deal of amateur opera about in Dublin, 'that great singing city', as Joyce's own life, and his story 'The Dead', display. After her marriage Rene gave up professional performance, although choir-singing continued, and her beautiful voice was most often heard privately. She never said she minded abandoning her training, had 'no great agony about it', and appeared indifferent to fame and ambition. She knew she was talented, but did not take her gift too seriously. Iris, on the other hand, minded for her, and grieved for her mother's loss of career. In her fiction she depicted wife after wife who has abandoned career for her husband.
The fine comic writer Honor Tracy first met Iris and John in Dalkey around 1958. A big jolly woman with rubicund and endearingly porcine features, Honor wore her flaming Anglo-Norman red hair somewhere between en brosse and beehive, had an occasionally combative manner, and appeared to be one (mainly) for the ladies. Thus began a close friendship that survived until Tracy's death in 1989. Over the following thirty years her graphic letters provide an extravagant, loving, tough-minded and unreliable chorus to Iris's developing self-invention and what Tracy termed her 'weird extravagant fancies':
You ask how Irish she is - the answer is, strictly not at all. Her father was of Ulster Protestant stock, but that is really a Scottish race, and Murdoch is a Scottish name. Mr Murdoch was a Civil Servant and happened to be posted to Dublin (pre-Republic) for a short time, during which Iris was born. She makes the most of it, as people are very apt to do: the number of English people who claim 'Irish grandmothers' is a famous joke in Ireland.
The 'Jean' of Jean Iris Murdoch must indeed be Scots-Irish, from the Murdoch side, albeit never used. From the first she was known as 'Iris', complementing her mother's 'Irene'. One charm of her name is that 'Iris' does not quite belong to 'Murdoch': 'Jean' or 'Jeannie' Murdoch might be some tough lady from Glasgow; Iris Murdoch confounds two sets of expectations. An accidental charm is that another 'Iris' was goddess of rainbows, many-coloured, protean, hard to pin down.
'Irish when it suits them, English when it does not,' was what Honor Tracy's erstwhile friend and neighbour Elizabeth Bowen said the 'true' Irish claimed of the Anglo-Irish - both the Protestant Anglo-Irish like the Bowens, and also 'castle Catholics' like the original Tracys. Tracy, for example, spoke aggressively County English when in England, yet with a brogue when the Bayleys visited her house on Achill Island in County Mayo. Is Tracy's wit at Iris's expense partly tribal? It is certainly an irony at the expense of someone who - to an extraordinary degree - was to become the darling of the English, far more than of the Irish, intellectual and cultural establishments. She loved to tease Iris about her Irishness in away that was envious, admiring, combative, ignorant (as in her letter above) and flirtatious. Iris took this in good part - in The Red and the Green she was to create an Anglo-Irish character for whom calling himself Irish was 'more of an act than a description, an assumption of a crest or a picturesque cockade'. Both Iris's parents showed their Irishness in their voices. Rene had a Dublin voice, a 'refined' voice, with that Dublin habit of pronouncing 'th' as 't', especially at the start of a word - for example, 't'ings like that.' Hughes had a very mild Ulster intonation and idiom: 'Wait while I tell you!' he would advise. Young Iris had a slight brogue, acquired from her parents. Well into adult life she would sometimes pronounce 'I think' as 'I t'ink'. On 1 April 1954, on a trip to Glengarriff on the Beara peninsula, most westerly of all the peninsulas of Cork, she noted, 'I have an only partly faked-up impression of being at home here.'
The last of Tracy's Catholic Anglo-Norman ancestors to have lived in Ireland was Beau Tracy, who left in 1775, when Iris's great-great-great-grandfather was High Sheriff of Tyrone. Tracy, born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, educated in Dresden and at the Sorbonne, first lived in Ireland at the age of thirty-seven, when the Sunday Times sent her there as a special correspondent in 1950, and she set six of her thirteen books there. But no one ever agrees about who is entitled to lay claim to Irishness. Iris's Belfast cousins today call themselves British, not Irish, while Hughes's humorous comment on a photograph of Paddy O'Regan, Iris's boyfriend of Irish descent around 1940, was, 'Typically Irish - he looks as if he wants to fight something.' With both parents brought up in Ireland, and an ancestry within Ireland both North and South going back three centuries, Iris had as valid a claim to call herself Irish as most North Americans have to call themselves American, generally after a shorter time on that continent.
Iris recorded on an early dust-jacket that 'although most of her life has been spent in England, she still calls herself an Irish writer'. From 1961, with the Anglo-Irish narrator of A Severed Head, and following her father's death, this changes permanently to 'she comes of Anglo-Irish parentage', a doubtful claim if meant to refer to an Ascendancy, land-owning, horse-riding background. Iris never claimed to belong to the Ascendancy as such, and it is doubtful that Rene used the word. Yet Rene certainly knew that her once grand family had, in her own phrase, 'gone to pot'. Iris's interest in this pedigree dates from August 1934, when she discovered on holiday in Dun Laoghaire that the Richardsons had a family motto, and a 'jolly good one'. She noted that, as well as 'virtue', 'virtus' in 'Virtuti paret robur' could also mean 'courage ... But never mind, away with Latin. We shall be climbing the Mourne mountains next week, the Wicklow mountains the week after.' Pious about distant glories the family may have been. Snobs they were not. Hughes got on very well with Rene's brother-in-law Thomas Bell, who had been commissioned with him in the same regiment and now worked as a car-mechanic at Walton's, a Talbot Street Ford showroom; one of Thomas's four sons, Victor, later a long-distance lorry-driver for Cadbury's, appears with Iris in holiday snaps; a further two, Alan (also known as Tom) and John Effingham Bell, also worked for Cadbury's in Dublin, as fitter and storeman respectively. They lived on Bishop Street. If by Anglo-Irish is meant 'a Protestant on a horse', a big house, the world of Molly Keane or of Elizabeth Bowen's Bowen's Court, this is not it.
In her first year at Oxford, in an article in Cherwell entitled 'The Irish, are they Human?', Iris was to refer to the Anglo-Irish as 'a special breed'. In her second, after the IRA had declared war on Britain in January 1939, which was to cause over three hundred explosions, seven deaths and ninety-six casualties, and at the start of what in Ireland is called the 'Emergency', she was treasurer of the Irish Club, listened to Frank Pakenham (later Lord Longford) talk of 'chatting with De Valera' and herself gave a paper on James Connolly, Communist hero of the 1916 Rising. To Frank Thompson in 1941 she wrote of Ireland as 'an awful pitiful mess of a country', full, like herself, of 'pretences and attitudes ... but Ireland at least has had its baptism of blood and fire.' The Richardson family motto 'Virtuti paret robur' is often repeated in her later journals, like a talisman or mantra. Iris saw herself, like her friend from 1956 Elizabeth Bowen, as caught between two worlds and at home in neither.
To be of a once distinguished Protestant family in Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century still conferred a sense of caste. As recently as 1991 Iris defined her mother's family as Anglo-Irish gentry whose 'estate in County Tyrone ... had vanished some time ago'. Insistence that one's family was still 'gentry', no matter how impoverished, was partly tribal Protestantism. Even those Irish Protestants in the early Irish Free State who came of humble stock felt that they emphatically belonged, none the less, to a 'corps d'élite' :
Ex-Unionists - including those who were not very bookish -- were proud of the Anglo-Irish literary heritage. They prided themselves ... on possessing what were regarded as Protestant virtues, a stern sense of duty, industry and integrity together with the ability to enjoy gracefully and whole-heartedly the good things of life. (This) esprit de corps ... was voiced with vibrant force by Yeats in his famous and thunderous intervention in a Senate debate in 1925. Speaking for the minority, he declaimed, 'we are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Berkeley; we are the people of Swift; we are the people of Parnell.'
Iris's willingness to mythologise her own origins, and to lament a long-lost demesne (in her case, a real ancestry), both mark her out as a kinswoman of Yeats. The 'Butler' appended to the Yeats family name proposed a not entirely fictitious connexion to that grandest of clans, the Anglo-Irish Dukes of Ormonde. Family pride runs through much of Iris's rhetoric about her background, both in interviews and also in Chapter 2 of The Red and the Green, with its authorial identification with the old Protestant ruling order, as well as its claim for that order to speak for the whole of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant alike.
The relation between Iris and her cousins was complex. Another Richardson relative she claimed, who had presumably not suffered from the general Richardson decline, was a Major-General Alexander Arthur Richardson, serving with the Royal Ulster Rifles in the Second World War. The Belfast family phrase 'the Ladies' bathing-place' amused Iris. So did the Belfast cousins calling a 'slop-basin' - for tea-slops - a 'refuse-vase' which the Murdochs considered a genteelism. If Iris's family found the Belfast cousinry genteel, Belfast cousin Sybil Livingston conversely thought the cigarette-holder Iris sported for a while 'posh'; and she was amazed in 1998 to learn that Rene had a sister of any kind, let alone one with four sons, giving Iris first cousins in Dublin as well as Belfast. 'You are my only family,' Sybil recalls Iris saying - mysteriously as it might appear: perhaps there was a remarkable depth of reserve on both sides. Sybil around 1930 had passed on to her a 'wonderful' party frock of Iris's, pale blue satin, with a braid of little pink and blue and white rosebuds sewn round the neck and sleeves. For Iris, a much-loved only child, as for Elizabeth Bowen, Ireland represented company.
Iris believed that, after her birth in Dublin, her parents lived with her there for one or two years, until the inauguration of the Irish Free State at the very end of 1921. These Dublin years, often mentioned in interviews - again, like Elizabeth Bowen - confirmed her Irish identity. Around 1921 all Irish civil servants were offered the choice of moving to Belfast or London. It is easy to see why, in the political turmoil of those years, with the Troubles, the introduction of martial law, and then the civil war looming, Hughes, who was after all not merely a Protestant and an Ulsterman but also an ex-officer, might have opted for London, a city he had known on and off since 1906. Iris said he came to England to find his fortune but saw this as a radical move, a kind of exile. In fact, if Iris as a baby spent even as much as one year in Dublin, it was only with her mother. On Iris's birth certificate Hughes gives 51 Summerlands Avenue, Acton, London W3 as his address, and his civil service position was second division clerk in the National Health Insurance Committee, working in Buckingham Gate, London (apart from his three years' active service) from 15 June 1914 until 24 November 1919, when he joined the Ministry of Health. Cards from fellow-conscripts during the war give his working address as 'Printing, Insurance Commission, Buckingham Gate, London, S.W.'. The move to London - in reaction against the madnesses of Ulster in 1914, just as much as against those of Dublin in 1921 - had already begun. Presumably Iris was born in Dublin because Rene could rely there on kin and womenfolk to help with the birth. And perhaps Rene and Iris had to wait for Hughes to find the flat in Brook Green where they first all lived together.
Honor Tracy was certainly right that the value to Iris of her Irishness was great: '... my Irishness is Anglo-Irishness in a very strict sense ... People sometimes say to me rudely, "Oh! You're not Irish at all!" But of course I'm Irish. I'm profoundly Irish and I've been conscious of this all my life, and in a mode of being Irish which has produced a lot of very distinguished thinkers and writers' - Bowen, Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, Goldsmith and Yeats all epitomised Irish modes of expression while living in England and 'regretting Ireland'. The term 'Anglo-Irish' is less unhelpful if it means, as Arthur Green argued and the OED allows, some broad confluence of English, Irish and indeed Scots-Irish - a product, in fact, of both islands. It is from this point of view interesting that Iris believed she had Catholic Irish connexions, as well as Quaker, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ones. The pattern of English life, she wrote in 1963, can be dull, making little appeal to the imagination. Ireland, by contrast, was romantic. Moreover she identified, until 1968, with Ireland-as-underdog. England had destroyed Ireland, one of her characters argued in The Red and the Green, 'slowly and casually, without malice, without mercy, practically without thought, like someone who treads upon an insect, forgets it, then sees it quivering and treads upon it a second time.'
Iris's Irish identification was more than romanticism. Her family, Irish on both sides for three hundred years, never assimilated into English life, staying a small enclosed unit on its own, never gaining many - if any - English friends. When Hughes died in 1958, having lived for forty-three of his sixty-eight years in England, there were only, to Rene's distress, six people at the funeral: Iris and John, Rene, cousin Sybil's husband Reggie, Hughes's solicitor, and a single kindly neighbour, Mr Cohen who owned the 'semi' with which the Murdoch house was twinned. Not one civil service mourner materialised. Iris's first act that year of bereavement was to take Rene and John to Dublin, to find a suitable house for Rene to move back to. The following year Rene took Iris and John to see Drum Manor. There was a dilapidated gatehouse, and some sense of a gloomy and run-down demesne. Rene and Iris were reverential.
As Roy Foster has shown, the cult in Ireland of a lost house was a central component of that 'Protestant Magic' that both Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen shared: Irish Protestantism, Foster argues, even in its non-Ulster mode, is a social and cultural identity as much as a religions one. Some of its elements - a preoccupation with good manners together with a love of drama and occasional flamboyant emotionalism, a superstitious bent towards occultism and magic, an inability to grow up, an obsession with the hauntings of history and a disturbed love-hate relation with Ireland itself - can be found in Iris as in Bowen and Yeats. Bowen's Protestant Irishness made of her a 'naturally separated person': so did Iris's. Yeats, coming from 'an insecure middle-class with a race memory of elitism', conquered the inhabitants of great houses such as Coole Park through unique 'charm and the social power of art', rather as Iris later visited Clandeboye and Bowen's Court. Both Yeats and Iris elevated themselves socially 'by a sort of moral effort and a historical sleight-of-hand'. Each was, differently, an audacious fabulator, in life as in art.
In the confusion of her latter years when much was to be forgotten, the words 'Irish' and 'Ireland' were unfailing reminders of Iris's own otherness. Both struck deep chords, and she would perk up and show particular interest. In Provence in June 1997 she remarked emphatically, 'I'm nothing if not Irish.' The following winter, sitting at the small deal kitchen table after a bracing walk on the Radnorshire hills, she disconcerted her hearers by asking, 'Who am I?', to which she almost at once soothed herself by musing, 'Well I'm Irish anyway, that 's something.' A lifetime's investment in Irishness, visible in every decade of her life, was then, as it had always been, a source of reassurance, a reference-point, a credential, somewhere to start out from and return to.
Iris's early memories were of swimming, singing and being sung to, of animals, and of wonderment at the workings of the adult world. She sat at the age of about seven under the table while her parents played bridge - either reading a favourite childhood book or, as she put it, 'simply sitting in quietness' and listening in astonishment to the altercations and mutual reproaches of the adults at the end of each rubber. Wonderment, imaginative identification with a fantastic range of creature-kind, capacity to feel strong emotions, secretiveness, and also Irishness: these are recurrent and related themes within her story.
Early photographs show her a blonde, plump, exceedingly pretty baby, flirting in a straw Kate Greenaway bonnet with her mother, and even more with her photographer-father, in Dalkey in August 1921. If the family was by then already based in London, neither this nor the Black and Tans, who had that year raided 'rebel' houses in Blessington Street itself, prevented the annual Irish summer holiday. The truce of 11 July that year would have offered holidaymakers, among others, reassurance.
Hughes, Rene and baby Iris lived first of all in a flat at 12 Caithness Road, Brook Green, Hammersmith. Hughes was fairly low down on the civil service ladder but had a permanent position as a second class clerk in the Ministry of Health, a ministry he was to stay at until 1942. He kept a pocketbook in which he noted the day's expenditures, no matter how minor. This same meticulousness shows itself in the young Iris's carefully managed stamp collection. She tucked away in the back both a small 'duplicate' book', in case of losses, and an envelope marked emphatically, 'valuable stamps: King Edward', referring, of course, to stamps pertaining to the short reign of Edward VIII.
What exactly constitutes a 'first' memory? Surely later imaginative significance as much as strict chronological primacy. Iris gave as her 'first' memory not 'My mother flying up above me like a white bird', but herself swimming in the salt-water baths near Dun Laoghaire when she was three or four years old. Her father got quickly to the further side, where he sat and called out encouragement. In 1997 she could still enact the excitement, fear, sense of challenge, and deep love entailed in her infant efforts slowly to swim to the other side and regain her father's protection - a powerful enough proto-image in itself of her continuing life-quest for the authority of the Father. Another version has Hughes first of all persuading her to jump in, and into his arms.
Swimming was the secret family religion. It is not merely that Hughes liked to swim in the Forty-Foot: swimming is mentioned on postcard after postcard, in letter after letter, from and to Iris over many decades, and the word order of one particular card from Sandycove, Dun Laoghaire, from her mother to Iris makes clear which activity carried the greater weight: 'Had a bathe this morning - after Church.' Churchgoing is likely to have occurred mainly because Rene was still singing in the choir.
In her journals Iris would recollect, especially latterly, many songs her mother taught her. In January 1990 she records:
Recalling Rene. A prayer she must have taught me when I was a small child. I remember it as phrased -
Jesus teacher: shepherd hear
bless thy little: lamb tonight:
in the darkness: be thou near me:
keep me safe till: morning
She must have taught it to me word for word as soon as I could talk.
Rene also sang to Iris 'Tell me the old, old story of Jesus and His Love'. But who exactly was Jesus's love? The infant Iris, misconstruing this sentence as small children are apt to, used to wonder ...
Grown-up Iris knew the words of the combative 'Old Orange Flute', probably from her father, who could also recite Percy French's 'Abdul the Bulbul Ameer'. Rene sang, as well as works such as Handel's Messiah in a choir, light ballads, French's among others. Percy French songs suggest the comfortable synthetic Irishness Tracy later made fun of in her books. Rene took pride, too, in singing Nationalist or 'rebel' songs:
Here's to De Valera,
The hero of the right,
We'll follow him to battle,
With orange green and white.
We'll fight against old England
And we'll give her hell's delight.
And we'll make De Valera King of Ireland.
After the shootings that followed the Easter Rising, when Rene was seventeen, some protestant Richardsons were pro-rebel; Rene was pro Michael Collins and against De Valera in 1922, when the two found themselves on opposing sides in the civil war. She took delight, when she learnt it later, in the song 'Johnson's Motor-Car'. The Nationalist 'rebels' borrow Constable Johnson's car for urgent use, and promise to return it in this fashion:
We'll give you a receipt for it, all signed by Captain Barr. And when Ireland gets her freedom, boy, ye'll get your motor-car.
Grandma Louisa, after a visit to London in the twenties, would often recount Iris sitting on the pavement and weeping inconsolably about a dog which had been hit by a car. Iris was to give the death of a pet dog as a first memory, and first trauma, to characters in successive books. The dog might have been hers: a photograph of Hughes with a mongrel (possibly containing some smooth-haired terrier) survives, and a smaller third hand must belong to the child Iris, otherwise wholly hidden behind the animal. Another shows Iris proudly stroking the same beast on her own.
There were cats also, Tabby and Danny-Boy. Danny-boy uttered memorable growling noises on sighting birds from the windowsill. Seventy years later Iris recalled her father wishing the cats goodnight before putting out the lights. They attracted friends: Cousin Cleaver recalls Hughes putting out fish and chicken for the neighbourhood strays. There seems never to have been a time when Iris was not capable of identifying with and being moved by the predicament of animals - dogs especially. When the Mail on Sunday invited her in 1996 to contribute to a series on 'My First Love', her husband John, writing on her behalf, told of her first falling in love as a small girl with a slug. It is not wholly implausible. Cousin Sybil remembers Iris and Hughes carefully collecting slugs from the garden, and then tipping them gently onto waste land beyond. In the autumn of 1963, seeing John's colleague John Buxton look sadly at his old dog Sammy during dinner, Iris was moved to tears and could hardly stop weeping. The dog died a few weeks later.
Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J Conradi
Iris Murdoch always claimed she was Irish. But was she mythologising herself? Peter J Conradi, in a new biography, uncovers the true extent of her often troubled connection to Ireland
Peter J Conradi
Saturday September 8, 2001
In 1998, not long after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Iris Murdoch disconcerted friends by asking, "Who am I?", a question she almost at once answered herself, "Well I'm Irish anyway, that's something." As the mind of the brilliant novelist and philosopher faded, she still clung to a deep identification with Ireland. Her Irish connection was reflected in a lifetime's intellectual and emotional engagement and - before her illness - transformed her from a romantic, Marxist nationalist to a hardline Unionist and defender of the politics of Ian Paisley. Born in Dublin to a father from Belfast, she was always proud that she carried within her so many different Irish traditions, and she set three fictions in Ireland: the novels The Unicorn (1963) and The Red and the Green (1965), and the short story Something Special (1958).
"The pattern of English life," Murdoch wrote in 1963, "can be dull, making little appeal to the imagination." Ireland, by contrast, was romantic. Moreover, she identified, until 1968, with the underdog. England had destroyed Ireland, one of her characters in The Red and the Green argued, "slowly and casually, without malice, without mercy, practically without thought, like someone who treads upon an insect, forgets it, then sees it quivering and treads upon it a second time". As late as 1964 she maintained crossly and implausibly that she had an Irish accent "you could cut with a knife. I may have misleading Oxford overtones - but the vowels are Irish."
Her sense of Irishness had a strong element of myth-making - she cherished her distant links with the Anglo-Irish landed gentry though her immediate family were of far more humble stock. But her identification was more than romanticism. Her staunchly Protestant father's family had come to Ulster from Galloway in Scotland and farmed at Ballymullan House, Hillhall, in County Down for eight generations. She was a direct heir to a Nonconformist tradition of stubborn, radical Ulster dissent, and developed a "faith" that emphasised the urgency and loneliness of the individual pilgrimage.
Her aunts, on marriage, moved to take the faiths of their husbands: Baptist for Iris's formidable Aunt Ella when she married Willy Ardhill, Brethren for Sarah when she married the quiet, easy-going self-taught dentist Willy Chapman, treasurer to the Apsley Hall Brethren at Donegall Pass. Sarah and Willy Chapman's three children, Iris's closest living relatives after her parents, were brought up in the strict, teetotal sect known on the mainland as Plymouth Brethren, but in Northern Ireland termed simply Brethren. Between the wars, Iris and her parents divided many of their summer holidays between Dublin and, with these cousins, Northern Ireland. Murdoch's second cousin, Max Wright, who taught philosophy at Queen's University, wrote a book to describe his departure from the Brethren. His family home contained 37 Bibles, and at 15 he was regularly sent to shout a gospel message at an unresponsive terrace of red-brick houses.
When Murdoch's father Hughes went to London at the age of 16 in June 1906 to train for his civil service exam, he was escaping from what she was to term the puritanism of his "black Protestant" forebears. From 1910 to 1914 he was back in Dublin working with the General Valuation Department (Ireland), staying with his uncle Elias and cousin Harold in Kingstown (later Dún Laoghaire), just outside Dublin, where they ran two ironmongers' shops. He swam in the so-called "Forty-Foot", the natural pool "for gentlemen only" by the Kingstown Martello tower, both immortalised in Joyce's Ulysses. The son of one first cousin was a Unionist politician. Elias and Harold were both Quakers, as was another cousin, Brian Murdoch, who became professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin. Cousin Sybil also married a Quaker, Reggie Livingston. There are today a mere 1,500 Quakers in the whole of Ireland, but Quakerism frequently turns up in Iris's fiction. Murdoch was touched by its emphasis on integrity, quietness and peace, and the belief that all are capable of growing in wisdom and understanding.
Murdoch's mother's family represents another strand in the history of Protestant middle-class Ireland: Church of Ireland (ie Anglican) rather than Presbyterian, Dublin-based, former "plantation squires" rather than "plantation farmers". The Richardsons began as major land-owners in the 17th century and then minor gentry in the 18th, when Catholics were debarred from sitting in parliament and holding government office, as well as suffering many petty restrictions, and Protestants had a virtual monopoly of power and privilege. Thereafter the family's status steeply declined. While Iris's mother, Rene, described her father, Effingham Richardson, on her marriage certificate as a "solicitor (deceased)", the Law Society in Dublin has no record of him. He worked in a solicitor's office, probably as a clerk. Iris's maternal uncle Thomas Bell worked as a car mechanic at Walton's, a Ford showroom on Talbot Street, while three of his four sons worked for Cadbury's in Dublin, as long-distance lorry driver, fitter and storeman. Two of her Bell cousins married Catholics.
Yet it mattered to Iris Murdoch that she was grandly descended from Alexander Richardson, "planted in Ireland in 1616 to control the wild Irish", as she put it, and living at Crayhallock in 1619 (which became "Grayhallock" in her 1962 novel An Unofficial Rose). Iris's interest in her pedigree dates from August 1934, when, on holiday in Dún Laoghaire, she discovered that the Richardsons had a family motto. Virtuti paret robus - "Jolly good one!" she wrote to a schoolfriend - meant "Virtue overcometh strength". She proudly quoted it in The Green Knight 60 years later.
On an early dust jacket it was stated that "although most of her life has been spent in England, she still calls herself an Irish writer". After her father's death in 1958, this changed permanently to "she comes of Anglo-Irish parentage", a doubtful claim if meant to refer to an ascendancy, land-owning, horse-riding background. She made the narrator of A Severed Head (1961) Anglo-Irish. Insistence that one's family was still "gentry", no matter how impoverished, was partly tribal Protestantism. Even those Irish Protestants in the early Irish Free State who came of humble stock felt that they emphatically belonged, none the less, to a "corps d'élite".
Both Murdoch's parents showed their Irishness in their voices. Rene had a "refined" Dublin accent, with that Dublin habit of pronouncing "th" as "t", especially at the start of a word. Hughes had a very mild Ulster intonation and idiom: "Wait while I tell you!" he would advise. Young Iris had a slight brogue, acquired from her parents. Well into adult life, Iris would sometimes pronounce "I think" without the "h" - "I tink". Her family, Irish on both sides for 300 years, though they had lived in London since 1921, never assimilated into English life, staying a small enclosed unit, never gaining many - if any - English friends. When Hughes died in 1958, there were only, to Rene's distress, six at the funeral: Iris and her husband John Bayley, Rene, one cousin by marriage, Hughes's solicitor and a single kindly neighbour. Hughes had lived for 43 out of his 68 years in England and retired eight years before. Iris's first act in that year of bereavement was to take Rene and John to Dublin, to find a suitable house for Rene to move back to. The following year Rene took Iris to see Drum (sometimes spelled Drumm) Manor, also known as Manor Richardson, in County Tyrone. There was a dilapidated gatehouse, and some sense of a gloomy and run-down demesne. Mother and daughter were reverential.
Murdoch's willingness to mythologise her own origins, and to lament a long-lost demesne, marks her out as a kinswoman of Yeats. The "Butler" appended to the Yeats family name proposed a not entirely fictitious connection to that grandest of clans, the Anglo-Irish Dukes of Ormonde. Family pride runs through much of Iris's rhetoric about her background. As the Irish historian Roy Foster has shown, the cult in Ireland of a lost house was a central component of that "Protestant magic", shared by both Yeats and the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, a good friend of Murdoch: Irish Protestantism, Foster argues, even in its non-Ulster mode, is a social and cultural identity as much as a religious one. Some of its elements - a preoccupation with good manners together with a love of drama and occasional flamboyant emotionalism, a superstitious bent towards occultism and magic, an inability to grow up, an obsession with the hauntings of history and a disturbed love-hate relation towards Ireland itself - can be found in Murdoch as in Bowen and Yeats. Bowen's Protestant Irishness, says Foster, made a "naturally separated person" of her; so did Murdoch's.
Yeats, coming from "an insecure middle class with a race memory of elitism", conquered the inhabitants of great houses such as Coole Parke through unique "charm and the social power of art rather as Iris later visited Clandeboye, one of the Guinness ancestral homes, and Bowens Court. WB Yeats and Iris Murdoch elevated themselves socially "by a sort of moral effort and a historical sleight of hand". Each was, differently, an audacious fabulator, in life as in art.
In 1938, her first year at Oxford, in an article in Cherwell entitled The Irish, Are They Human?, Murdoch was to refer to the Anglo-Irish as "a special breed". In her second year, after the IRA had declared war on Britain in January 1939, causing over 300 explosions, seven deaths and 96 casualties, and at the start of what in Ireland is called the "Emergency" she was treasurer of the Irish Club, listened to Frank Pakenham (later, Lord Longford) talk of "chatting with De Valera" and herself gave a paper there on James Connolly, hero of the 1916 Rising, a Marxist praised by Lenin for fusing, during bitter social struggle, class militancy and revolutionary nationalism. To a friend in 1941 she wrote of Ireland as " an awful pitiful mess of a country" full, like herself, of "pretences and attitudes - but Ireland at least has had its baptism of blood and fire".
She was capable of portraying a Dublin close to her own. Probably after a walking holiday in Glengariff in 1954, she wrote the short story Something Special, about young Yvonne Geary who lives in her Protestant working-class mother's Dún Laoghaire stationer's shop on Upper George's Street; Iris's closest Dublin connection Eva Robinson lived with her foster mother in the latter's largeish newspaper shop on Upper George's Street. Yvonne resembles Eva, and the paternity of both is mysterious. The title Something Special refers to Yvonne's fantasy of escape from poverty.
Murdoch saw Ireland in the 1950s as "something of a dream country where everything happens with a difference". The first draft of A Severed Head (1961) was set in the west of Ireland, the region Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, in The Dead, was bitterly rebuked for not visiting; where the young Yeats projected magic; and whose myth-like primitiveness Synge mapped in The Aran Islands. County Clare inspires The Unicorn (1963). The Scarren in that novel, with its carnivorous plants, stands in for the Burren, and the great cliffs are based on those of Moher. Its gentry may owe their whiskey to the world of Elizabeth Bowen in Cork; their names are from Iris's family. Effingham Cooper takes his names from Iris's grandfather and great-grandfather. Denis Nolan's surname is that of Iris's grandmother. The Unicorn explores Murdoch's theme that life is - or should be - a spiritual quest or pilgrimage. To say that Ireland seems here her chosen "spiritual home" is not an idle metaphor.
Soon she was researching The Red and the Green, even learning some Gaelic. The action takes place during one week of April 1916 leading up to the Easter Rising. Iris invents an Anglo-Irish cousinry of some complexity, with branches on both sides of the Irish sea, and cousins both Anglican and Catholic, a family dramatising within itself the historical tensions, making them immediate and personal. While the Murdochs would have been anti-nationalist in 1916, some Protestant Richardsons, especially after the British executed 16 "rebels", were pro-independence. Chapter two, a seminar on Irish history, gives the January 1801 Act of Union as the major disaster of Irish history, since it demoralised Ireland's ruling class. "Ireland's real past is the ascendancy", ventures one character, who reminds us that many great Irish patriots have been Protestants.
Doubtless Murdoch is mythologising her own family and, following Yeats and Bowen, adopting the historian WEH Lecky's idealisation of "those [Anglo-Irish] aristocrats who think themselves superior both to the English and to the Irish". She asserts that Anglo-Irish writers have "always written the best English". The family name of Barney Drumm is that of the original Richardson demesne, and Barney's mother was indeed a Richardson. Murdoch places the novel's "representative" Catholic "rebel" family, Kathleen and Barney Drumm, and Barney's stepsons Pat and Cathal Dumay, within the seedy gentility of the house on Blessington Street where Murdoch herself was born in 1919, a street that was raided three years later by the Black and Tans.
Within four years of the book's publication in 1965, the Troubles recommenced in the north, and Murdoch's loyalties swung violently. Her cousin Sybil's husband, Reggie Livingston, a specialist in vascular surgery at Belfast's Royal Victoria hospital, often operated on and helped save victims of terrorism. His car had bricks thrown at it, and paramilitaries fired into the operating theatre. The Red and the Green became the one novel Murdoch felt equivocal about. It had, she felt, romanticised violence, idealising the Catholic nationalist cause, investing in that self-perpetuating mythology of blood sacrifice on which the IRA fed. The Troubles were the one topic that could move her to tears of anger and distress. "One's heart is broken over Ireland," she once wrote.
In October 1979, in her journal, she noted approvingly a letter from the writer Honor Tracy, who, though Catholic, wrote: "It is the Stone Age ferocity of the native Irish Catholics in the north which bring these atrocious deeds about... The amount of sheer humbug is breath-taking, and when you think what it has lost in lives and cripplings and blindings. But you know all this." Murdoch was able henceforth wildly to lose her temper about Ireland. After they had argued about Ireland in 1983, she wrote to one old friend, the philosopher Mary Midgley, to defend Paisley, who, said Murdoch, "sincerely condemns violence and did not intend to incite the Protestant terrorists. That he is emotional and angry is not surprising, after 12-15 years of murderous IRA activity. All this business is deep in my soul I'm afraid." She now evinced the laager-mentality of the Ulster Protestant who, she felt, had no hinterland, unlike Northern Irish Catholics. No occasion is recorded on which she allowed that the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland had, in 1968, distinct and legitimate grievances.
Ireland became "unthinkable". It was certainly unwriteable. She tried in early drafts of The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) to confront within it an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant, but the story took off in a different direction. Labour policy on Northern Ireland was a leading cause in her voting Tory in the 1980s. In 1982 she remarked, "It's a terrible thing to be Irish." In The Sea, The Sea (1978) the Northern Irish character Peregrine Arbelow, before his death at the hands of an unidentified sniper, says that "being Irish is so 'awful' that even being Scottish is better". In July 1985, after gaining an honorary DLitt at Trinity College Dublin, Murdoch wrote, "I am always disturbed by visiting Ireland - demonic island, so charming & so mad". Yet, though she lived in England for most of her life, she saw herself as part of the literary and intellectual tradition that produced Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, Goldsmith, Yeats and Bowen - all of whom, as Foster argues, epitomised Irish modes of expression while living in England and "regretting Ireland".
In 1978 Murdoch stated, "My Irishness is Anglo-Irishness in a very strict sense... People sometimes say to me rudely, 'Oh! You're not Irish at all!' But of course I'm Irish. I'm profoundly Irish and I've been conscious of this all my life, and in a mode of being Irish which has produced a lot of very distinguished thinkers and writers."
One of the most intense - and tragic - relationships of Iris Murdoch's life was with the Austrian academic, Franz Steiner. Remembered by friends as a "bird-like, bent, frail" man with a chronic heart condition, this slight, short- sighted figure had a tender affair with Murdoch for a few short weeks in 1952. His death that November was a crushing blow, leaving Murdoch to mourn for "the person who was closest to me, whom I loved very dearly, whom I would very probably have married, if things had gone on as they were going". Later, malevolent rumours - many put about by her later lover, Elias Canetti - had it that Steiner's heart "burst smilingly" after Murdoch had proposed marriage to him.
15 Cedar Lodge
Living with 'mad land-ladies' in 'gloomy rooms in Oxford with terrible gas-meters' was over. 'We have,' wrote Iris, 'bought a country house.' Fourteen miles out of Oxford, off a winding lane in the straggling village of Steeple Aston, and immediately opposite the old school, is a stout old farmhouse built around 1725, substantially added to a century later. The church bells are audible inside. Cedar Lodge cost £3,500, and John got a college mortgage for a sum equal to that which Iris soon inherited from a wealthy great-uncle. The house is fairly long but thin, and, having no damp-proof course on the north side, chilly and damp except in summer. There are two Georgian bays on each floor of the main house, with side windows, and a lunette above at the back. From a lobby you enter a south-facing drawing-room giving on to the big, rambling garden, with its many springs sloping steeply down to a muddy, shallow, stream-fed fish-pond, where in the early days Iris liked to swim, John trailing down in his dressing-gown. There were golden carp that a heron ate. The pond kept drying up -John struggling to keep it open. April 1961: 'Puss very sweet playing with his pond.' Iris loved watching John play.
Iris, a city-girl, loved the idea of living in the country; indeed John believed this was one reason she agreed to marry. Unlike other suitors, he was prepared for the rigours of a country existence. While he was waiting anxiously for her to make up her mind, he asked her, 'Well is there anything that appeals to you about the idea of being married?' Iris considered for a moment, and said, 'Well, yes. I rather like to think of you coming home in the evening, and me rushing out to say, "Darling: the badgers have broken into the garden." July 1992: 'This little picture of our life together touched him very much. He said (today) that he did not think that he would have been much good at evicting badgers!' Iris's natural start as a novelist had been urban. Under the Net and The Flight from the Enchanter were London novels; The Sandcastle, completed in March 1956, before her marriage, suburban. The first novel written in Steeple Aston, and showing something of the imagination and spirit of the place, was The Bell, which many think her best. Before she went to live in the country, Iris might not have done it so convincingly. Though only fourteen miles from Oxford, Steeple Aston was then a real country village inhabited by country people.
It was still a 'deference culture', with squire and vicar held in respect. Iris and John, living in the ex-squire's house, were considered odd birds. The hunt would visit, once killing a fox in a field the Bayleys had bought, much to Iris's displeasure, which she forcibly expressed. The huntsmen were apologetic. During the thirty years they lived there the village changed greatly, only the Rector Michael Hayter remaining. He did not believe in the Christian story but was persuaded by the faith of Patsie, his tall wife, thinking, 'I love the woman, and she believes the story implicitly, therefore it is no trouble for me to do so.' The Tankerville-Chamberlaynes, previous owners of Cedar Lodge as run-down as the house itself, kept horses, and were reputed to sit in full evening-dress on antiquated car-seats to a dinner of tinned pilchards and raw tomatoes. Bayley bohemianism succeeded such broken-down gentility. They inherited a Mr and Mrs Grantham who cleaned and gardened for a while, but the Bayleys did not really want others in the house, and in due course they left.
The house was in a bad way, and comparatively cheap because only a mile or so from the big airfield at Upper Heyford, leased to the USAF and very noisy: about one night a week an immense tanker would zoom in, three hundred feet above the house. Iris and John would turn over and go back to sleep. Iris put such flights into a draft for Mitzi and Charlotte's funny and sad 'idyllic' surrey cottage in An Accidental Man. There were aerial displays sometimes - one gets into The Bell, though probably that episode derives from a display at Giddington, Oxford's airfield, which had fascinated Iris. To the left of the lobby, beyond a box-room, was an unused 'library', painted dark red, the shelves gilt-edged, with an old tapestry in need of re-stitching; log fires burned here during parties. To get to the kitchen quarters you turned sharp right onto a long corridor with a warren of smallish rooms off it on the road-fronting side, past pantries and an old scullery (which had a well that supplied the water-tank by an electric pump that often broke down until, after twenty years, the local health auth(orities insisted the Bayleys go onto mains water). Here Iris washed up, andJohn put in a sauna in 1970 for her arthritis; they enjoyed it like children, then forgot about it. Turning left you reached three very dark rooms en suite an unused dining-room; a small kitchen with a range, in which John had his chair, wrote, and lived half the time, the other half being in bed, where he also read and wrote; beyond that a room with the electric stove. The house was never warm, and only half-lived-in. They knew theoretically where all the rooms were, but never had a sense of quite dominating the house, and had a fantasy that there might be somebody else living in some part of it they had never found.
It was indeed shared by mice, whom they early on watched planning to confiscate Iris's Mars bar. Some gentlemanly rats, there for generations, commuted, coming home late at night after a busy day, one, in an excited state because the drains had gone wrong, in 1964 startling John on the stairs. Disconcerted, he slept that night with a walking stick by the bed. A rather tempting veal and ham pie which they had been much looking forward to mysteriously disappeared - leading to the conceit that whenever something got unaccountably lost (not infrequent) it had 'gone to Pieland' to join the missing pie. Eventually something was done about the rats.
Other rooms could be entered only from outside; one of them, the so-called 'groom's bed-chamber',just opposite the back door, they never really came to grips with. The beautiful loose-boxes stayed full of rubbish of all kinds. A gardener's earth-closet had an uncanny atmosphere. All this may have contributed to their slightly haunted sense of sharing the house with persons unknown. Initially they lived simply in the kitchen. Around 1965 their builder Mr Palmer - and his 'dogs' (i.e. workers), as Iris called them - put in a reinforced steel joist and joined a small dining-room to the hall space, to make one fine big open room. This was the first room you entered, giving directly onto the garden. It made the house even colder. When a boiler was finally put in, it never worked well. John painted the new drawing-room Georgian green, and the upstairs corridor Chinese red, to cheer them up.
They did a minimum of upkeep, both being too busy, and not caring much either. In those days people lived more primitively. The house was fearfully cold in winter. Frequently the roof leaked very badly. A valley-gutter filled up with snow, leaking furiously onto the exact spot where they lay in bed, John once waking up to a steady stream of water pouring onto his face. This was considered a good joke. There was no real heating except for an electric fire which had the habit of blowing the fuse and making the trip-switch jump out, which it did at the slightest opportunity, plunging them into darkness.
In a tumbledown greenhouse, lying sideways on the floor and very green, they found a good Victorian marble bust of Venus, 'thrown in' with the house. Here they created 'Iris's wallow', a pond in which she could swim, six feet deep, ten feet long by eight feet wide, lined with plastic inside concrete. John laid immersion heater elements on the bottom, which when switched on sent up a cloud of bubbles through water of uncertain quality. The system was perfectly safe, and the baby green tench and perch Mr Palmer, a keen fisherman, gave them never minded either being heated or swum with. A note with skull and crossbones none the less warned against swimming with the system switched on. When Angus Wilson in 1972 noticed a single-bar electric fire hanging above the wallow from an overhead crossbar by a piece of string, John replied with a look of concerned technical seriousness, 'The mornings in Oxfordshire can be very cold.' John painted the surround with an Etruscan motif from Volterra, and fixed a picturesque ceramic Poseidon above. Iris clambered through smilax (ground-herb) to get into the pool.
Iris planted a liquidambar, John a silver birch, and her letters show an informed knowledge of plants and of gardening. After two years, she planted old-fashioned roses - Mine Alfred Carriere, York and Lancaster, Rosa mundi, Zephirine de Drouhin - near one of a number of springs, close to a concrete path with box growing alongside. They were very proud of them, but they were perhaps planted too closely together, and some succumbed to black spot. 'Captain John Ingram' went almost entirely black. This right-hand part of the garden became facetiously known as 'Iris's concentration camp for roses'. She also, idiosyncratically, planted giant hogweed seeds, admiring the architectural qualities of the mature plant more than others do. There was no terrace at first, but more than two acres of rough uncut grass. The mowing problem was solved eventually by 'letting all the grass grow naturally', while John created 'rides' through it, for walking about. John collected three slate mortuary slabs, with neat plug-holes for bodily fluids, which lived outside, one incorporated as a working surface by an unsuspecting later owner into the newly smartened kitchen. Lady Violet Powell, wife of the novelist Anthony, was struck by the number of ageing Volkswagen Beetle cars secreted about the garden, which John reassured her were, 'of course, a hedge against inflation.
Upstairs they disposed of their space 'extravagantly'. They shared a big bedroom with a fine large bed obtained at auction for one pound. Iris moved her study twice, starting at the east end upstairs, and ending at the west, where she faced out onto the south-facing gardens, and enjoyed watching generations of foxes and fox-cubs at play; they made their way into The Philosopher's Pupil. John had a work-room, and there was also a spare bedroom at the end of the corridor. Soon both got glandular fever, Iris not too badly, but both were laid up. Being ill together was a new and interesting experience.
Iris liked to entertain, and found the house magical. John's brother Michael, despite the Sellotape on window-cracks, agreed. Her old school-friend Margaret Orpen, now Lintott, recalled ancient newspapers all over the floor, everywhere, including upstairs, and an air of total chaos, Iris paying for taxis for students who had struggled out by bus. Katherine Duncan-Jones found the house elegant, and was charmed by John's habit of chopping up ground elder instead of watercress during ramshackle lunches resembling high teas. Not everyone agreed with Tony Quinton that, while Cedar Lodge was smelly, all the different smells happily cancelled each other out. Fastidious Stuart Hampshire laughed uneasily at the recollection of his fears of the possible consequences of going there to eat: it was 'beyond bohemianism', outdoing Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. There were hats everywhere, and all manner of stones (philosopher's stones, perhaps? They get into novel after novel, demanding to be loved and made sense of). There were liberal collections of dust. Genial John Grigg and his wife Patsy were close friends of the Bayleys, the two Johns having been friends at Eton while Patsy, a fellow Ulsterwoman, had been taught maths at school by Iris's first cousin Muriel Chapman. The Bayleys were frequent guests at the Griggs' houses in Blackheath, at Tamariu in Spain and at Guisachon in Inverness-shire, and all four travelled successfully together, in the USSR (1963), India (1967), the Greek islands and Menton (1973). The Griggs only ever stayed one night at Cedar Lodge. John did the cooking at dinner parties, reheating college food. Once he attempted an ambitious 'sauce verte' for the Powells, A.N. Wilson and Katherine Duncan-Jones, which Wilson recalled fondly as tongue-in-green-slime. A much-heralded 'surprise pudding of Iris's, to general astonishment and after quite a long build-up, consisted in each guest being awarded, from off a huge tray, a single Mr Kipling cake. Stuart Hampshire felt charmed by the unselfconsciousness of it all. Eric Christiansen, history don and younger colleague at New College, thought Iris and John were all the better hosts for seeming to be guests at their own parties, Iris's intense interest in others untainted by any malice or gossip of the Bowra school. She had a way of staring down at her glass, listening very carefully to the speaker, possibly indicating also that the glass was empty. She loved the crowded room, the voices, the possibility of multiplying pleasure through many conversations.