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Iris Murdoch

July 15 is the birthday of novelist Iris Murdoch.  She was born to Anglo-Irish parents in Dublin in 1919.  Her novels include A Severed Head (1961), The Sea, The Sea (1978), and Jackson's Dilemma (1995).  But she was a philosopher before she was a novelist.  As a student, she wrote in her journal, "For me, philosophical problems are the problems of my own life." 

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

Murdoch studied the classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford.  During World War II ,she was an active member of the Communist Party, but eventually she grew weary of its ideology and left it.  From 1938 to 1942, she worked in the Treasury Department as an assistant principal, followed by a brief stint for the United Nations relief organization, UNNRA (1944-46) in Austria and Belgium. 

Following a year of unemployment in London, Murdoch took up a postgraduate studentship in philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In 1948, she was elected a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she worked as an instructor until 1963. Following that, she devoted herself to her writing, although she did lecture at the Royal College of Art from 1963 - 1967.

Murdoch's first published work, Sarte, Romantic Rationalist (1953), was a critical study.  She had met the philosopher in the 1940s, and she had become interested in existentialism.  At the same time, the great love of her life was a Czech Jewish poet and polymath named Franz Steiner, who died of a heart attack in 1952--in her arms, according to his friend Elias Canetti.  Murdoch had an affair with Canetti; but, in 1956, she married John Bayley, a man six years her junior and a virgin at 29.  Bayley became a professor of English at Oxford and published some fiction.  The two lived for more than thirty years at Steeple Ashton in an old house called Cedar Lodge before moving into the academic suburb of North Oxford.  Murdoch was not interested in children, although she apparently was in sex.  She had several affairs that Bayley tolerated in an otherwise happy marriage of two academics.

By the time her first book was released, Murdoch had written five novels, all of which she destroyed because she wasn't happy with them.  In 1954, she finally finished a novel that she liked.  It was about an Irishman's adventures in London and Paris.  Published under the title, Under the Net, it was a great commercial success.

Among Murdoch's other publications are plays and philosophical and critical studies, including Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992).  Maria Antonaccio writes in Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch (2000) that Murdoch's collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good and Other Concepts (1967), is "arguably one of the most influential and widely read works on moral philosophy to appear in the last fifty years."  Murdoch was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1987.

During her lifetime, the author produced 26 books.  She wrote them out in longhand, copied them, sealed two handwritten copies in plastic bags, and carried them down to her publisher.  She was a perfectionist, and she never let a publisher change a single word of what she had written.

During the last years of her life, while suffering from alzheimer's disease, she became like "a very nice 3-year-old," according to her husband.  In his memoir, Elegy for Iris, John Bayley portrays his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally.

"She was a superior being, and I knew that superior beings just did not have the kind of mind that I had," he wrote.  In 2001, Elegy was made into a movie named Iris by Richard Eyre.  It stars Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet.

Murdoch would not have been proud.  She was not into writing for the fame or the money.  She once said, "Writing is like getting married.  One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."

From her journal entries, Murdoch recalled her earliest memory, from the age of 3 or 4, swimming with her father.  It was the family's "secret religion."  Bayley's Elegy for Iris begins with the couple skinny dipping 45 years earlier on a hot summer's day at the beginning of their courtship:

    "Crouching in the shelter of the reeds, we tore our clothes off and slipped in like water rats.  A kingfisher flashed past our noses as we lay soundlessly in the dark, sluggish current.  A moment after we had crawled out and were drying ourselves on Iris's half-slip, a big pleasure boat chugged past within a few feet of the bank..."

Bayley also recalls the antithesis of that memory--their very last swim together, with Murdoch seriously ill:

    "In her shabby old one-piece swimsuit ...she was an awkward and anxious figure, her socks trailing round her ankles.  She was obstinate about not taking these off, and I gave up the struggle.  A pleasure barge chugged slowly past, an elegant girl in a bikini sunning herself on the deck, a young man in white shorts at the steering wheel....We must have presented a comic spectacle--an elderly man struggling to remove the garments from an old lady...."

In her last years, Murdoch could barely write, "Who am I?" and "How did this anguish start?"  A series of unfinished letters always began with "My dear, I am now going away for some time.  I hope you will be well."  Whether as anchor to or escape from memory, swimming seemed to bring relief: she wrote of one last dip, "Indescribable. Holiness."

Iris Murdoch died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. 

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