Iris Murdoch was not dead before the battle for her memory began. Her husband John Bayley’s first volume of reminiscences, Iris: A Memoir, was published when she was in the later stages of dementia, an undignified, soul-stripping illness whose details Bayley did not spare. After her death in 1999 things sped up. Peter Conradi’s portly authorised biography was smartly challenged by A.N. Wilson’s slimmer unauthorised memoir, Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her, a witty, affectionate, impious account which made disturbing suggestions about Bayley’s feelings towards his wife. There was also Iris, a film with Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as younger and older Murdochs, then two more volumes from Bayley, considered by some to be of questionable taste and veracity, and a spattering of sometimes lurid newspaper features and interviews.
In 2004 the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies was inaugurated at Kingston University. Conradi in his introduction to A Writer at War is mildly critical of the film, on which he was a consultant, for ignoring Murdoch’s work and he can’t bring himself even to mention Wilson. His hope is that these letters and diaries will go further to re-establish her in the public mind as a ‘world-renowned novelist’, the exponent of a ‘strenuous moral philosophy’ rather than as a bisexual nymphomaniac who went gaga. He also suggests that they may turn her into ‘a role model for young women today’. A prospect that, on reading them, seems neither likely nor at all desirable.
Perhaps the greatest myth about Murdoch that both these books inadvertently explode is the fact often restated by her many friends that she was a ‘private’ or, with the inevitable adverb, an ‘intensely’ private person, who would have been appalled by the revelations and dissections of her life and tangled affairs. This is something John Bayley has always denied and he may know best. In support of the notion of her discretion Conradi quotes her friend of many years, Philippa Foot, comparing Murdoch’s ‘secrecy to that of a cat’. Secrecy, however, is not the same thing as privacy, or even reticence. From an early age, as her letters make clear, Murdoch dramatised her inner life through her relationships with others, relationships which could often survive only by being kept apart from one another, but within which she was frequently demonstrative to the point of exhibitionism. There simply could not have been so many later revelations had she not revealed so much herself.
The first part of A Writer at War is what survives of the diary she kept in the late summer of 1939, when she was 20 and then ‘carefully edited’ nearly 50 years later. It describes a time when she and some Oxford friends had formed a touring concert party, the Magpie Players, and were travelling round the Cotswolds bringing dance, ballads and allegorical Tudor drama to varyingly enthusiastic audiences. Here, not quite a writer yet and not quite at war either, Murdoch is at her most endearing, earnestly practising ‘Greensleeves’ on the recorder in a field full of cows, discussing the international situation while wondering with rather more urgency whether the scenery will turn up in time. The journal evokes a Betjemanesque interwar world of japes and ginger biscuits, ‘strenuous breakfasts’ and undergraduate tantrums. ‘Apparently while I was singing “Love is a sickness” yesterday Denys [Becher] gave an appalling display of temperament because he couldn’t find his tights.’
The Magpies went over very well in Aston Bampton, where the local children did some songs and dances in the interval and were ‘most spontaneous and charming’, but at Northleach everything was ruined by ‘a great mob of toughs at the back’ who reduced Denys to tears and sent Murdoch into a rage by laughing all through her ballad. She was inconsolable, she notes, despite the rest of the cast being ‘terribly upset for me’. No more self-conscious than the average 20-year-old, she was more observant than most. There are flashes of vivid descriptive writing and economical touches in the journal that were all too rare in her later work. A solitary walk in the summer dusk ends with a big moth that startles her as it brushes her hand and a ‘very blue sky with Mars deep red on the horizon’.
Talk of politics among the Magpies was desultory, even as rumours of war grew louder: ‘We try not to think of it at all – and find it amazingly easy.’ For Murdoch, a committed Communist at this date, the international situation raised uncomfortable questions. She was more at home debating ideological niceties with Hugh James, who ‘took up the orthodox Bolshevik position … that I should not think in analogies as it was dangerous … he is excellent fun to argue with.’ Non-Oxford people were less satisfactory. The ‘hearty old couple’ the troupe stayed with near Water Eaton were of ‘good working-class stock, but unintelligent. The sort of people who are nice to you when you come canvassing, but who will not buy a copy of the Daily Worker as they “already get the Herald, thank you very much.”’ Later a great mythologiser of her own social status, implying an ‘Anglo-Irish’ ascendancy background which she did not have, Murdoch had already developed a finely tuned sense of class. Anatomising the Magpies’ unsatisfactory audience at Buscot Park she noted that ‘if they had been less genteel they’d have liked the broader things, & if they’d been more cultured they’d have liked the ballads – but they were merely gentry & so got no fun.’
The tour ended on 31 August, three days before war was declared and the last entry sees her forlorn on a blacked-out platform at Reading station – ‘God! It was dismal’ – trying to get back to London and realising that life will never be the same again. In the letters that make up the rest of the book, simultaneous correspondences with two Oxford contemporaries, Frank Thompson and David Hicks, Murdoch, if still not quite a writer, is now at war and no longer the ingénue of the student troupe. The ‘playtime of the ’30s when we were all conscience-ridden spectators’ was over. She remained a Communist, however, toeing the Stalinist line. As world history repeated itself in the comedy of student politics, Roy Jenkins who, with Tony Crosland and others, had left the Party because of its defence of the Soviet invasion of Finland, found himself in correspondence with Murdoch, trying to untangle the administration of the rump Oxford University Labour Club from that of the breakaway Democratic Socialist Club. He wrote to her several times, he told Conradi. ‘Dear Miss Murdoch,’ he began each letter, ‘Dear Comrade Jenkins,’ she wrote back, relentlessly.
With other correspondents she was more forthcoming. As the letters to Thompson and Hicks make clear, the emotional drama that would characterise the rest of her life and her fiction had begun, that cat’s cradle of sexual and psychological entanglement which fascinated and rapidly, it seems, became necessary to her. ‘I can live in letters,’ she told Hicks, a remark that seems at first surprising for she was not, in any usual sense, a good letter writer. Unlike Elizabeth Bowen or Penelope Fitzgerald, with both of whom she might be compared as a novelist, there is no sense of her trying out obviously literary ideas. There is scant detail in description, little incident and the few character sketches are laconic. Léonie Marsh, a mutual friend who had been in love with Thompson, is ‘still the same charming, aggressive, nervy, individualist. Definitely three-dimensional. A person.’ The letters also evoke less than her journal about the texture of the times. The recipients, both of whom were abroad, could have got little sense of what Oxford and later London were like during the war.
This was partly, perhaps, because Murdoch didn’t want to be there. Her frustration, while writing to men who were on active service, at being stuck in Britain away from events, is a constant refrain. Yet when she finally got a job, in 1945, with UNRRA (the United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Association) and went to Salzburg, what happened around her did surprisingly little to awaken that ‘commonplace literary ambition’ which, she told Hicks, was now her ‘only guiding star’. The description of her visit ‘with 4 UNRRA chaps’ to Berchtesgaden has all the slapdash of her later writing at its worst, the flat adjectives, the missing details and the repetitions which she never seemed to notice but notoriously refused to allow any editor to remove:
The whole place wrecked & blasted, since the raids of last February – & the whole place entirely desolate & deserted. We saw only one American soldier in the distance while we were there. We wandered about by ourselves & explored the houses. The whole region was completely silent. The only sound we heard all the time we were there was the bells of a woodsleigh passing along the road. All completely silent & deserted … Tomorrow I am going on a tour of the lakes.
There is no mention of what the house was like, what vestiges if any remained in the ruins of the Führer’s taste in decoration. Yet Murdoch clearly was preparing herself in these letters to become a writer. She had by now, she told Hicks, ‘an intense desire to write a novel & objectify certain of the things I have been realising lately about people & the puzzles that beset them.’ In 1944 she submitted a manuscript to Faber, only to have it rejected by T.S. Eliot personally. Despite this, the impulse to create did not, as she half feared, leave her. In 1945 she was still wrestling with what she realised were her besetting demons as a writer. ‘Oh heaven this effort not to say things – to suppress the adjective, to shorten the sentence, to streamline the paragraph. Creating, for me, is a mad effort to keep the door sufficiently shut.’
It was not the events in that ‘nebulous place called the world’ that propelled this torrent but the people, especially herself and the puzzles of their interior lives. She wanted ‘to get inside every sort of mind’. Accordingly, her letters were not designed to entertain but, with remarkable self-assurance, purely to engage, to draw her correspondent into an intimate, private bond with herself. This is perhaps what she meant by living in them. It may also be the reason, as Philippa Foot noted with some irritation, she received such an enormous number of proposals of marriage. Both Thompson and Hicks at various points wanted to marry her.
How compelling her letters are to other readers depends largely on how interested they are in Iris Murdoch and how willing they are to be drawn into the involutions of her mind and heart. Thompson and Hicks were both fascinated, but were cast in different roles. To Thompson, the unrequited lover, she was an exotic, a ‘dream-girl … a poetic Irish Communist’. She wrote to him about philosophy and politics and literature and quite a lot about sex, with the confidence of one who has the emotional upper hand. ‘I should tell you that I have parted company with my virginity,’ she announced in 1943. ‘This I regard as in every way a good thing … There have been two men, I don’t think I love either of them … I wonder how you react to this – if at all?’ She was curious too to know about him: ‘How have you fared with women in the East? I don’t mean from the grand passion point of view, but just from the sex experience point of view.’
At a stage of life when, as she admitted to Hicks, she was often ‘cutting a figure to myself’, she was trying out personalities and attitudes, talking as much to herself as to Thompson. ‘Greats is fun,’ she noted, ‘– but the philosophical part at least seems a bit frivolous at times … The only problems that [matter] are the moral ones – & there I speak a different language from Aristotle.’ Her own moral, emotional, language was developing as she wrote. Thompson was not irrelevant, her warmth towards him is palpable, but he was as much audience as interlocutor and Conradi’s assertion that she had started to fall in love with him is not obviously borne out by the letters. After he was killed in Bulgaria, shot for assisting the anti-Fascist partisans, Murdoch claimed, quite untruthfully, that they had been planning to marry. Conradi’s suggestion implies that she was merely elaborating the course events might have taken had their relationship continued along a trajectory it had already assumed. It seems more likely that with his death their amitié amoureuse, in which Murdoch had been the more beloved, lost its narrative rightness. If he were a tragic hero then the plot required him to be recast in a larger, more dignified role. Each needed to be nearer the centre of the other’s story to give the drama of his execution its due weight.
With Hicks, to whom she really was, briefly, engaged, she was more on the defensive. Yet here, too, the impression is of a narrative being propelled largely for its own sake, to see what will happen. The love affair seems to blow up out of the letters to the point where, when they finally managed to meet again after many delays and disappointments, Murdoch herself felt they had been set up by the momentum of the correspondence, ‘framed’ to the point where ‘it would have been so dreadful if we had not fallen in love, after that build up.’ They duly did fall in love and agreed to marry, after which there followed three months of letters, before Hicks wrote to call it off. During the engagement Murdoch busily revolved every permutation of the situation, measuring her feelings for Hicks against Sartre’s account of ‘love-in-absence’ and preferring Proust’s description of the presence of the beloved as a ‘negative’, which ‘we develop later alone’. She seems to have developed an entire album of snapshots of their likely future, discussing her need for Hicks to dominate her, the possibility of their having children and the likelihood of adultery on either side. If he were unfaithful, she warned, ‘I don’t think I should take that very calmly.’ Typically, however, in her non-Aristotelian way, she had ‘been to bed’ with a French boy she had met in Vienna. ‘A fully conscious act, which I do not regret at all, unless it upsets you, & please don’t let it.’
There were pauses, however, in her headlong rush towards a fascinatingly complicated marriage. Hicks seemed not to be writing back very often. His parents’ question about ‘my sense of humour’ took Murdoch aback. More generally, their shared preoccupation with their own interior lives led her to complain to him of ‘a certain lack of interest in or curiosity about me. I suspect that you are more concerned about my effect on you than about me myself.’ It is increasingly hard as the letters go on to imagine that there would have been room for two people in this marriage. Murdoch’s response to Hicks’s decision to end the engagement is so calm as to suggest a hint of relief reinforcing the stoicism. ‘What do I suggest? Well, I suggest we quietly call it off … There seems little choice – and in my saner moments I do see that it would have been risky.’
That was in 1946. Her first published novel, Under the Net, appeared eight years later in 1954, shortly followed by The Flight from the Enchanter. Both were huge successes and after a brief misplaced attempt by critics to bracket her with the Angry Young Men, Murdoch settled into fame and popularity as the provider of a steady stream of fiction in which educated middle-class men and women found themselves and their predicaments reflected on a larger scale, more daring and more sophisticated than in most real lives. Homosexuality, though not, as Wilson pointed out, the lesbianism that played a large part in Murdoch’s own life, adultery, divorce, psychoanalysis, unacknowledged children and the endless permutations of marriage, knitted together with a number of philosophical meditations, made for compulsive reading. While the Angry Young Men wanted to shock, Murdoch flattered her readers that they were unshockable. A ‘metaphysic of the drawing-room’, as she calls it in A Severed Head, was beyond such pettiness. Her own particular moral code, developed now by way of her marriage to Bayley and many more affairs, might be summed up, as she put it to Wilson once, as: ‘Incest perfectly ok. Cheating in exams unthinkable.’ And if her prose was often uneven and the plots and even the characters at times repetitive, it was also true, as Elizabeth Bowen said, that ‘from the first … you feel yourself in a world, when you open one of Iris’s books.’
The 1960s were her heyday as a writer, the period when her literary reputation was highest and when her fiction was most in tune with socially experimental times. It was then, in 1964, while she was teaching philosophy at the Royal College of Art, that she met David Morgan, who was one of her students. The account he has written of their relationship combines his own reminiscences with some of her letters to him and veers between the unsettling and the excruciating. It reads like a Murdoch novel in which the narrative has suddenly been taken over by one of the less perceptive minor characters. Emotional and psychological nuances are blunted while the plot lurches horribly out of control. When they met, Murdoch, at 44, felt, she said, an instant affinity with the 24-year-old Morgan, her ‘wolf boy’ or ‘wolfling’. He was handsome, troubled and by his own account only patchily educated. They saw each other at first once a week and wrote every four days. She listened attentively to the details of his complicated love-life and promised him in return that ‘if you are patient I will tell you everything about myself.’ He was understandably flattered, if slightly baffled.
At their first private meeting Murdoch explained her rules for the relationship. He was not to sleep with her, but as they sat on the sofa in her London flat they kissed. A book lay between them. ‘It had become impossible not to touch you,’ she wrote to him afterwards, ‘to draw you a good deal closer – and perhaps it’s surprising we held out so long with only Piero della Francesca between us like a drawn sword.’ Morgan thoughtfully compares this with his own feelings about the encounter. There was the excitement ‘that a famous novelist was interested in me’, then a ‘moment of revulsion’ when he kissed her and the thought, as she pulled away from him sharply, ‘that she must have had dentures and was afraid that I might dislodge them’. As events develop it is hard to know whom to feel more anguished for. On the one hand there is Murdoch, positioning herself carefully at restaurant tables so as to have the light behind her, with the confidence, she tells Morgan, of ‘25 years behind me of being told in the most extravagant terms that I am beautiful’, all unaware that she reminds him (‘and I say this with tenderness’) of Wurzel Gummidge’s sister.
On the other hand there is Morgan, pouring out his heart, the story of his disturbed adolescence, part of it spent in institutions, and his present anxieties at such length that he begins to worry in case her profound preoccupation with him is interfering with her work as ‘a great novelist writing deathless prose … making me responsible down the ages for a misplaced adjective, a half-completed sentence’. When he tells her of this concern she seems at first puzzled to know what he is driving at, then, realising, she said, as he recalls: ‘That’s very thoughtful of you – I can see why you might think – … but no – err – it’s OK.’ On the contrary: his triangular love-life, the time he was nearly raped and his attempt to get one of his girlfriends to have sex with another man while he watched were all grist to her professional mill. Of the latter occasion she wrote to him: ‘If I had been there I would have been very excited and questioned you closely about what you saw and what on earth you intended.’ She wanted too to meet the competing girlfriends, to steep herself in every aspect of the situation and she did. But this was not Oxford and the metaphysics of the drawing-room were not well understood by 1960s art students. Nevertheless, she took it remarkably well when one of the enraged girlfriends, sick of the interference and Murdoch’s regular subsidies of Morgan’s income, jumped her from behind during the degree show, pulling her hair and hissing: ‘You and your five-pound notes.’
The relationship cooled but never quite died until Murdoch’s final illness overtook her. Morgan knows, and seems still to resent the fact, that, even at its height, he was a small player, that she had many such relationships and in the scale of her affections he was on the ‘B’ list, not one of what he calls the ‘higher’ friends. He got lunch and London. They got the later evening slots and Oxford. As she lost interest in him he was moved further out in those ‘agonisingly small steps, over a period of years, by which she said goodbye’. Of the multiplicity of her intimacies he concludes she was ‘too decent to go in for bit-by-bit tactics when it came to accustoming people to her infidelity … she did it by keeping them so far apart they didn’t know enough about each other to get jealous’.
With her illness she lost the power to control the situation. The dividing walls in the maze of adjacent relationships came down and everyone was simultaneously on view. ‘Now she’s dead,’ as Morgan puts it in a characteristically direct postscript, ‘and we have discovered there were so many of us, the people she knew try to work out where we stood in the pecking order of her affections.’ And so, inevitably, the quarrelling began. Morgan’s book is cast as a letter to Conradi, who in turn refers to it in A Writer at War. There he places the relationship with Morgan among those friendships Murdoch enjoyed with younger men that were, though ‘very affectionate’ also ‘transparently sexless’. Clearly, as so often in a Murdoch plot, somebody is not telling the truth. Even without her the sacred and profane love machine grinds on.