Mark Amory on Iris Mur­doch

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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

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