Love and Friend­ship

The London Magazine - - PRISCILLA MARTIN -

Liv­ing on Pa­per: Let­ters from Iris Mur­doch 1934-1995 Edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe , Chatto and Win­dus, 2015, 666pp, £25 (hard­back)

Un­der the Net, the let­ter an­nounc­ing Finn’s re­turn to Ire­land is the last of many rev­e­la­tions that Jake has got ev­ery­thing wrong, while Sadie’s let­ter, which patently cons him into buy­ing a past-it and cun­ning’. A chap­ter in A Sev­ered Head con­sists of the nar­ra­tor’s let­ters to his wife (‘Dar­ling’), his mis­tress (‘My dear­est child’), and three of in­creas­ing can­dour be­gin­ning ‘Dear Dr Klein’, ‘Dear Honor Klein’, ‘Dear tempted to write a fourth. In An Ac­ci­den­tal Man a se­ries of let­ters be­tween mi­nor char­ac­ters em­ploy the clas­sic strat­egy of win­ning or win­ning back a lover by feign­ing in­ter­est in a third party.

gen­er­ous cor­re­spon­dent. Film star Sadie, whose pos­ses­sion of a heart is du­bi­ous, boasts to Jake of an ‘enor­mous pile of fan mail’, though she never reads it and leaves it for her sec­re­tary to an­swer. Mur­doch had no sec­re­tary, and an in­creas­ing amount of fan mail, and an­swered all such let­ters her­self, in the lat­ter part of her ca­reer, spend­ing sev­eral hours each day in cor­re­spon­dence. Al­though she claimed (to the de­mand­ing Brigid Bro­phy) to ‘de­test writ­ing let­ters’ and ‘hate re­ceiv­ing let­ters’, there are more than 3,000 in the Mur­doch ar­chive at Kingston Univer­sity. This col­lec­tion does for those to Rory Cochrane, an Amer­i­can writer and trans­la­tor. They met only once but for years kept up what the ed­i­tors de­scribe as ‘a ro­man­ti­cally charged friend­ship’ by cor­re­spon­dence. There is a kind re­ply to an Amer­i­can stu­dent who is writ­ing a piece on The Bell and she in­vites him

to cor­re­spond fur­ther about it, though she thinks he would be bet­ter off study­ing Shake­speare and Jane Austen. She com­plains about a ‘crazy’ fan in At­lanta, who phones and writes, thinks Mur­doch is the au­thor of Agatha Christie’s later thrillers, wants her ‘to have a blood test to de­ter­mine whether I am male or fe­male’ (per­haps not so crazy in view of Iris’s de­scrip­tion of her­self as ‘a male ho­mo­sex­ual in fe­male guise’) and be­lieves the nov­els are love let­ters to her.

There are plenty of love let­ters in this book. It con­sists mainly of let­ters to sec­tions of the book, ‘School­girl and Stu­dent’, ‘Work and War’, ‘Aca­demic and Au­thor’, range from 1934 to 1954, when Un­der the Net came out. In these two decades Mur­doch was an ex­em­plary school­girl, an un­der­grad­u­ate at Ox­ford and a civil ser­vant in Lon­don. Af­ter the war she worked for refugees with the United Na­tion Re­lief and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Ad­mi­nis - search po­si­tion in Cam­bridge and re­turned to Ox­ford as tu­tor in phi­los­o­phy at St Anne’s Col­lege. Cor­re­spon­dents in­clude: Frank Thomp­son, a dear and gifted un­der­grad­u­ate friend, ex­e­cuted on an SOE mis­sion in Bul­garia in 1944, with whom Mur­doch was, per­haps ret­ro­spec­tively, some­what in en­gaged; clas­si­cal scholar Momigliano; No­bel-prizewin­ning au­thor Elias Canetti and Franz Steiner, with whom she had af­fairs. She sounds most in love with Ray­mond Que­neau, her ‘ab­so­lute’, a sublime trib­ute from the whom she for­tu­nately fell in love and mar­ried.

lat­ter re­la­tion­ship lead­ing to her res­ig­na­tion from the col­lege in 1963. She the Royal Col­lege of Art in Lon­don un­til 1967. The next sec­tion is en­ti­tled

two stu­dents, the painter Rachel Brown, later Rachel Fen­ner, and David Morgan, who was to write an ac­count of their friend­ship, With Love and Rage. Her close­ness to Morgan, who had had a very trou­bled child­hood and ado­les­cence, was ar­guably in­ap­pro­pri­ate but, though of­ten ex­as­per and they last met in 1995. Al­though she asked David to de­stroy ev­ery com­mu­ni­ca­tion from her, let­ters to him and to Rachel ap­pear in this col­lec­tion. She had a lov­ing and tem­pes­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship with the au­thor Brigid Bro­phy, which calmed when Bro­phy, though mar­ried to Michael Levey, fell in love with Mau­reen Duffy. Mur­doch sounds in love with the po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Michael Oakeshott, mar­ried and in love with some­one else him­self, with whom she com­mis­er­ates as a fel­low suf­ferer. She was still clearly long­ing to see Canetti, now mar­ried to his sec­ond wife and not very till Mur­doch’s death and sur­vived the prob­lems caused by her af­fairs with hus­band. She ad­mit­ted that she could be in love with sev­eral peo­ple at once.

Love and friend­ship dom­i­nate these let­ters. Mur­doch writes lit­tle about her work. She of­ten ex­presses doubts about her abil­ity as a philoso­pher and, in­deed, about the value of phi­los­o­phy it­self:

...ev­ery­thing that is im­por­tant and valu­able and good be­longs with the lit­tle piece of us which is not me­chan­i­cal and no one who is not be­mused by phi­los­o­phy or a youth­ful mood re­ally doubts the ex­is­tence of this piece. We know, in the best part that work is of­ten good and love of­ten good. And if we have any cer­tain­ties in the hu­man con­di­tion these are they, and much more ev­i­dent cer­tain­ties than semi-philo­soph­i­cal stuff

She did not dis­cuss her nov­els with her hus­band, friends or edi­tor while

they were in progress and seemed to lose in­ter­est in them af­ter they were A Fairly Hon­ourable De­feat: ‘I am get­ting ter­ri­bly fond of my wicked man [Julius]’ and ‘I am no bet­ter than the swin­ish heroine [Morgan] of my cur­rent novel who is so con­cerned with analysing her own feel­ings she does not no­tice the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers.’ An ear­lier let­ter on re-read­ing Job re­marks on ‘how strongly I feel against Job and pro-God’, which may be the in­spi­ra­tion for the em­bit­tered Job char­ac­ter of Leonard in this novel. She does Bruno’s Dream and to a Max Beck­mann ex­hi­bi­tion for Henry and Cato.

The next three sec­tions, ‘Woman of Let­ters’, ‘Dame Iris’ and ‘Last Let­ters’, move from 1968 to 1995. The cor­re­spon­dents are now mainly friends rath the spa­cious­ness of late nov­els such as The Philoso­pher’s Pupil, The Book and the Broth­er­hood and The Mes­sage to the Planet, which en­com­pass groups and com­mu­ni­ties in con­trast to the cou­ples, tri­an­gles, poly­gons and nu­clear fam­i­lies of the early nov­els. Her po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests are ev­i­dent. Of Ir­ish an­ces­try, she ag­o­nised over the trou­bles of North­ern Ire­land and, polem­i­cally Union­ist, came to re­gret her even-hand­ed­ness in The Red and the Green, her novel about the Easter Ris­ing. Some of the most sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters in her nov­els are gay and she ac­tively sup­ported the re­form of the laws on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. She was very con­cerned by changes in education in Eng­land and in 1988 wrote to Ken­neth Baker, then Sec­re­tary of State for Education, on be­half of her­self and Ox­ford col­leagues to protest that ‘the new Uni­ver­si­ties Fund­ing Coun­cil vir­tu­ally gives any gov­ern­ment com­plete con­trol of the area of higher education’, to de­fend arts sub­jects at the de­mo­tion of Greek and Latin in state schools, which ‘re­moves a In these years she was much in de­mand as a guest lec­turer at con­fer­ences and her let­ters to friends are full of itin­er­ar­ies and vivid vi­gnettes of her trav­els with John. One can feel breath­less at the amount of liv­ing, lov­ing, think­ing, writ­ing, teach­ing and trav­el­ling that these let­ters record. In some of the last let­ters Mur­doch com­plains of tired­ness and wor­ries about the progress and pur­pose of her

Jack­son’s Dilemma. She was de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s disease and the last let­ter in the book, writ­ten to Sis­ter Mar­ian, one of her old­est Somerville friends, in 1995, ends ‘I am tired and de­sir­ing another novel, which does not ap­pear to me yet — per­haps it will now never ap­pear. I - give all this stum­bling –’. She died in 1999.

In gen­eral, the book is very well edited. The se­lec­tion of let­ters is lively and var­ied. It is pre­ceded by a lu­cid in­tro­duc­tion about Mur­doch’s writ and deals ju­di­ciously with the ap­par­ently para­dox­i­cal con­trasts be­tween the moral ide­al­ism of the nov­els and phi­los­o­phy and the promis­cu­ity of her per­sonal life. Be­fore each sec­tion is an ac­count of the events and achieve­ments of that pe­riod, in­clud­ing ex­cel­lent brief sum­maries of the nov­els. The let­ters are fol­lowed by a Direc­tory of Names and Terms, giv­ing biog and crit­i­cal move­ments. There are some er­rors (‘wracked’ for ‘racked’, ‘Sophis’ for ‘Sophist’) and omis­sions. The Clois­ters are not in the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art but the Met­ro­pol­i­tan. Lucy Klatschko is de­scribed as tak­ing Holy Or­ders (the term for the or­di­na­tion of a pri­est) when she makes her vows as Sis­ter Mar­ian. Mar­garet Hubbard should have been in­cluded in the Direc­tory. To mod­ernise ‘ quod aver­tant dei’ as ‘God for­bid’ seems to Wordsworth’s ex­cla­ma­tion, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’, it would have been help­ful to men­tion the con­text of the French Rev­o­lu­tion as well as giv­ing the ref­er­ence. ‘ Voi che sapete the aria con­tin­ues as the ed­i­tors trans­late it. In 1946 Mur­doch writes of aban­don­ing her ‘novel on Car­ring­ton’s telepa­thy the­ory’. The foot­note at­tributes this to Here­ward Car­ring­ton, who worked on psy­chic phe­nom­ena, but her source was prob­a­bly Whate­ley Car­ing­ton, whose book Telepa­thy - rick’s Day card, Mur­doch re­marks, ‘Con­nolly said that all the snakes [ban Con­nolly of the Easter Ris­ing, who vis­ited Amer­ica and was crit­i­cal of it.

The ed­i­tors miss some al­lu­sions. When Mur­doch ends a let­ter, ‘Trust in Re­ac­tionary Tract for the Times’. When she com­plains that a book lacks writes, ‘My ex­ile will pro­duce no tris­ti­tia’, the ed­i­tors trans­late the Latin as ‘sad­ness, melan­choly’ but do not re­alise that she refers to the Tris­tia, Ovid’s sad po­ems writ­ten in ex­ile. Mur­doch’s read­ing in­formed her writ­ing of let­ters, nov­els and phi­los­o­phy.

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