Mark Amory on Iris Murdoch
Living on Paper: Letters from
Iris Murdoch 1934–1995
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AS TWENTY-SIX novels poured from Iris Murdoch in the second half of the 20th century, I occasionally wondered whether the sexual shenanigans of her characters were based on experience or imagination. An unjust friend added the comment that many passages read like Woman’s Own, but of course Murdoch, a distinguished philosopher teaching at Oxford, had never read Woman’s Own so she would not know that. Perhaps she was a quiet virgin with fantasies?
Well, that turned out not to be true. ‘I can’t divide friendship from love or love from sex,’ she wrote. ‘I am not a lesbian in spite of one or two unevents on that front. I am certainly strongly interested in men. But ... I think I am something rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise.’ I cannot disentangle that last bit and there were quite a few quite serious unevents as well as quite a few men, but the collected letters are not the place to gain a balanced view on this topic or indeed on Iris Murdoch. Almost everything has been detailed in the authorised biography by Peter Conradi, which appeared in 2001. Letters supply a personal voice to a particular friend. It is best if an intimate goes to live abroad and has to have everything recounted and explained – the doings of shared acquaintances, the feelings and events in the life of the writer. A diary is different again, with no reader envisaged, less coherence or explanation required. Of course I except those who are planning publication all along.
Letters in chronological order cannot help giving a version of a life, but a haphazard one with incidents mentioned because they have just happened and the letter just happened to survive. The recipients have only a shadowy presence. An editor’s terse notes and introductions can make all this comprehensible but not balanced. Here Murdoch’s parents and first great love Frank Thompson are scarcely mentioned. Naturally she does not write to her husband, and in the same way Margaret Hubbard, the affair with whom led to her having to resign her Fellowship at St Anne’s, was close to home so no letters appear. It is luck that she describes the tangle that most affected her life, and even then it is factual rather than illuminating: Iris Murdoch was having an affair with Michael Foot (MR D Foot, the historian, not the politician) who had a homosexual past. Her friend Philippa Bosanquet was breaking up with Thomas Balogh. Murdoch fell in love with Balogh, Foot was unhappy. Philippa fell in love with Foot and married him. She got the philosophy post Murdoch wanted. Foot hated Murdoch, Philippa hated Murdoch. Murdoch came to hate Balogh (‘the devil incarnate’). Much later Murdoch had a fling with Philippa, who was a great and lasting friend. It reads so like farce that it seems inconsiderate of Foot not to have had an affair with Balogh, but in fact it was real and complicated and painful.
All the passages about passion and sex energise Murdoch and her writing. Otherwise it can become a bit dull. Murdoch began as a communist and spied for the Party, copying Treasury documents in 1942 and leaving them in a tree. She ended as a Thatcherite (‘we have a jolly woman prime minister’). She was Irish (born in Dublin) but left as an infant and never went back for more than a week or two. Later she became passionate against the IRA, not to mention something of a bore on the subject, and said the only novel she was ashamed of was The Red and the Green because it appeared to glorify nationalism. She loved the Beatles and knew all the words, but came late to Dance to the Music of Time: ‘I have become a convert to Powellism (Anthony not Enoch). I believe I am in love with Widmerpool. Isn’t it terrible?’
Meanwhile her career progressed smoothly. After a year at Cambridge, she came to Oxford for good, apart from the interval mentioned above. Her novels brought her immediate fame in the Fifties. She was curiously grouped with the Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis) when she was clearly neither angry nor a man, and soon became a constant bestseller. She won the Booker with The Sea, The Sea. Her admiration for the French (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Raymond Queneau, whom she loved) distanced her philosophy from her Oxford contemporaries. Sometimes she decides not to marry someone the reader has scarcely met; when she does marry John Bayley the reader scarcely meets him. They were happier than many of their friends had expected. Travel and conferences make tedious subjects but things drift along on the good will that her goodness, intelligence and generosity engendered. The later books get longer and are less well received. Some last letters touchingly show her stumbling, muddled. Alzheimer’s and silence descend.
Much sex and passion: Iris Murdoch