Iris Murdoch’s emotionally hectic novels have been enjoying a comeback lately, with an excellent Radio 4 dramatisation of The Sea, the Sea, and an equally gripping rendition, on Woman’s Hour, of A Severed Head. Her books are distinguished by the rate at which her characters fall in and out of love with one another, usually leaving streams of chaos and pain behind them.
Iris’s letters, especially the ones which were written before she began to write novels, were blueprints for the fiction. In one confessional epistle, to David Hicks — not the interior designer, but an Oxford chum of the same name who had become a British Council lecturer — she outlined the state of play in November 1945:
I went to live with a young man whom I did not love but whom I was sorry for because he was in love with me, and because he has a complex about women (because of a homosexual past) and because he was about to be sent abroad at any moment. This was one Michael Foot of Oxford, whom you may remember. In the midst of this, the brilliant and darling Pip [Philippa] Bosanquet came to lodge at Seaforth, who was then breaking off her relations with an economics don at Balliol, called Thomas Balogh, a horribly clever Hungarian Jew. I met Thomas, fell terribly in love, and he with me, and thus involved Michael in some rather hideous sufferings…
And so on. In the course of time, having helped to break up Philippa’s marriage to Michael Foot (it was M.R.D. Foot the historian, not Michael Foot the politician), Iris then had a madly passionate fling with Philippa herself. To Brigid Brophy, another lover, Iris wrote in 1960, by which time she had become a famous novelist: ‘I am, I think, rather like my books.’ At other points, she tells correspondents that she is a sadomasochistic male homosexual. In another letter, she confessed: ‘I rather like the image of myself as Oscar Wilde.’
This doorstopper of a volume chronicles a series of passions for dreadfully boring sounding Eastern Europeans with high ideas of themselves. The letters to Raymond Queneau are sadly flat, though this could be because they have been translated into English from her rather good schoolgirl French.
One would like to read some of the replies from her correspondents, especially from the philosopher Philippa Foot, who was in some respects her most constant and intelligent friend and correspondent, from undergraduate days until the sad closing twilight years. (A note tells us that when Iris became ill, Philippa was the only person with whom she could be left in her husband John Bayley’s absence.) If we did have at least some of the correspondents’ letters to set beside Iris’s own, then it might be possible, from this immense volume, to see her in clearer focus.
At one point, the editors quote something written back to Iris by Hicks, when they were both in their fifties: ‘Dearest Iris, By God, that was the happiest meeting with you… and I wept with pleasure on the Tube going back to the office. What an absolute darling you are!’
The funny thing is, there is probably not one of her many correspondents who would not have written the same — even Brigid Brophy, with whom Iris had a rather passionate affair, and who, for a brief period, clearly wrote Iris vitriolic letters. Iris’s old philosophy tutor, Donald MacKinnon, who deeply resented his portrayal as Barney Drumm in her Irish novel, The Red and the Green, appears to be almost the only person in the world who ever disliked her. She was deeply and instantaneously lovable. In what that lovability consisted, one would be hard put to define.
An only child of loving parents (she described her childhood as a ‘perfect Trinity of love’) she developed an insatiable social appetite and had an enormous acquaintance. A letter written to Philippa during the second world war, when Iris was working at the Treasury, aged 22 or 23, recorded:
I feel a bit Tchekov [sic] at the moment. Questions such as ‘What is the significance of life?’ which I know to be strictly meaningless assume a sort of expressive meaning. I have a great many friends in London — I have lunch or dinner with a different person every day.
Nor does she really distinguish between friends and lovers. In 1964, when she was in her mid-forties, she wrote: ‘I am not at the moment in love with anyone thank God. Instead, I am sort of quasi in love with about ten of my friends.’
To one of these, the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, she wrote: ‘I hope you don’t mind these letters that just go on and on.’ Whether he minded them or not, he kept them, as did all these correspondents, providing a challenge for the editors. About herself, Iris was clear-sighted. She wrote to Brigid Brophy: ‘I am not a great writer. Neither are you.’ To Philippa Foot, she admitted, by the late 1970s, that ‘I haven’t read any serious philosophy for ages.’ Yet, fatefully, she accepted the invitation to give the Gifford lecturers in Scotland in the 1980s, a challenge to which she was not equal, as made clear by the disastrous book based on those lectures: Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. By then, long before she developed Alzheimer’s, she had begun to disintegrate as a writer.
The best letters in this collection were not written to friends but to the editor of the Times, and they express her dismay at what politicians were doing to the educational system. ‘While we have selective universities (and non-selective universities are not universities), we must have selective schooling.’ Her words went unheeded, and subsequent generations have tried to repair the catastrophic damage done by succeeding secretaries of state for education in the 1970s.
As someone who had the enormous privilege of knowing, and loving, Iris, I naturally fell on this book with eagerness. How the editors were meant to tackle their task, I do not know. A slim selection of these letters, none of which are really very interesting, would have provoked the response: ‘What was the point of publishing that?’ Perhaps a great lump of a book like this was inevitable, given the length of the letters, and the extent of her correspondence. Sadly, though, although she was a prolific letter-writer, she was not a good one. This volume simply does not compare, let us say, with the letters of Ted Hughes, so beautifully edited by Christopher Reid; nor do their have the terse emotional coherence of Philip Larkin’s. They are, like her novels, an incoherent emotional ramble. And in the later ones — long before her mind unravelled — they reveal the lazy non-thinking and rather bogus-sounding ‘spirituality’ in which she liked to indulge. ‘I certainly don’t think Christ is to save us/everyone — I guess that Buddha will save more (and what about Krishna)…’ I should love to know if this means anything.
Yet she was not only a lovable being; she had also a very distinctive imagination. That almost-genius was on display in the best of her novels, such as The Bell, The Sea, the Sea and Bruno’s Dream, but it is not shown here. ‘Darling, was I awful last night?’, she asks Brophy in one of her shorter notes. ‘Dear girl, you are so necessary.’ Reading these words, I can hear Iris’s voice so clearly. It reminds me of a letter which I received from a friend after Iris had died, which quoted Auden’s lines on Yeats: ‘You were silly like us; your gift survived it all’, and I remember thinking — ‘Yes, OK, we may be silly, but surely not that bloody silly.’ Iris’s ‘gift’ survives in the best half dozen or so novels. The silliness survives in the letters.
A.N. Wilson’s memoir Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her was published in 2003.