I Will Tell You Everything

Rosemary Hill

  • Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War – Letters and Diaries 1939-45 edited by Peter Conradi
    Short Books, 303 pp, £16.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 1 906021 22 1
  • With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch by David Morgan
    Kingston, 143 pp, £13.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 1 899999 42 2

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.’

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