Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934–1995 by Avril Horner & Anne Rowe (edd) - review by Victoria Glendinning

Victoria Glendinning

Ink & Inclination

Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934–1995


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I knew a man of Iris Murdoch’s generation, attractive to many women, who told me how he dreaded the ‘fat envelopes’ addressed to him at his office, stuffed with closely written pages. Wonderful though Iris Murdoch was, I could not help wondering as I read these overwhelming letters, published for the first time in this book (two printed pages of which constitute ten pages of her writing paper), whether some of her friends and lovers occasionally felt the same. She talked on paper as immoderately as some people talk on the telephone. 

In her youth and in her prime she continually fell in love, or into intense friendships. ‘I find myself quite astonishingly interested in the opposite sex, and capable of being in love with about six men at once,’ she confessed. This led to imbroglios. Here is an extract from a letter written in 1945 to a former love, her Oxford contemporary David Hicks:

but anyway, it started when I went to live with a young man whom I didn’t love but whom I felt sorry for because he was in love with me, and because he has a complex about women (because of a homosexual past) … This was one Michael Foot [the historian M R D Foot] of Oxford, whom you may remember. In the midst of this, the brilliant and darling Pip 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 – in the course of which I somehow managed to avert my eyes and be, most of the time, insanely happy with Thomas. That is until I began to realize that Thomas was the devil incarnate and that I must tear myself away, although I adored him more and more madly every day. Pip, whom I love too, more than I ever thought I could love any woman, fell in love with Michael, most successfully salvaged what was left after my behaviour and married him.

Pip, who became Philippa Foot after marrying Michael and later achieved fame as a philosopher, remained a steadfast friend of Murdoch’s – and at times was more than just a friend. She was not the only one: Murdoch had liaisons with women as easily as with men. The potential public scandal of a relationship with her colleague Margaret Hubbard was the true reason for her resignation from her philosophy fellowship at St Anne’s College in 1962. She would have been completely at home with today’s concepts of non-binary sexuality and ‘gender-queer’ identity. In fact she articulated them. Her gender was fluid: she was just ‘human’, she wrote, and, if anything, ‘a male homosexual’.

There were sometimes scenes, and tears, and too much to drink. But if a lover terminated their affair, she responded with stoicism, assuming the relationship would survive on another level, as indeed it always did, with Murdoch taking the liberty of involving herself (on paper) in former lovers’ subsequent amours. She seemingly never dropped anyone whom she had loved. The editors, faced with hundreds of correspondents, have chosen to focus mainly on a handful to whom she wrote with what she called ‘old loyal love’ over decades.

The intellectual and sexual thrill of the pupil–teacher relationship was central to her personality. Her two mentors, to whom she remained in thrall, were the authors Raymond Queneau and Elias Canetti, one French, the other Bulgarian and Jewish, both older than she, and both married and somewhat elusive. She sustained and analysed her relationships with them in immensely long, confessional letters, in which passionate love was mixed with discussions of philosophy, theology, ethics and literature. These are remarkable outpourings, on which she expended much creative energy. ‘God how I want to write’, she declared in 1943. ‘I want to write a long long and exceeding obscure novel objectifying the queer conflicts I find in myself and observe in the characters of others.’ She always denied that the characters in the twenty-six novels she was eventually to write were taken from life. But many were.

As she grew older, she herself became the guru figure, establishing close relationships with two students – one male and one female – which she did not manage sensibly. But what emerges from her dealings with her students is her kindness and generosity, not only with time but also with money. She moved in and out of Christianity, and her brand of moral philosophy focused on her concept of the ‘Good’. She met Sartre, but gave up on existentialism. She met Derrida and thought he talked ‘tosh’. She believed philosophy should inform ordinary life: as the editors of this book summarise it, for Murdoch ‘a virtuous person is someone who pays sustained attention to the Other’. She certainly did that.

The wisest thing Iris Murdoch ever did was to marry, in 1956, John Bayley, an English don with almost no sexual history, an equable temperament and an intelligence to match her own. They worked all day, together but apart, took holidays with each other and shared a kind of conspiratorial childishness in their ramshackle domestic arrangements. Long-term attachments and new liaisons did not come to an end with her marriage, though a certain amount of subterfuge was necessary to spare Bayley’s feelings. He asked few questions and she told few lies.

Marriage provided her with a safe haven and a reason to withdraw: ‘One achieves a sort of calm closeness and trust which it’s not easy to find otherwise.’ She loved the tempestuous Brigid Brophy, but was not ‘in love’ with her: ‘When I am in love I am INSANE, and although a great glory shines around, the main results are anxiety, misery, despair, destruction, inability to work etc.’ She no longer wanted that, and was not prepared to risk her marriage for it.

The presentation of this volume is exemplary. The editors provide astute and informed introductions to each section, and a handy ‘directory’ of who’s who. The reader grows up and grows old with Murdoch, following the clever, left-wing Oxford undergraduate through war work with refugees, into academic life and beyond, as she embraced her vocation as a novelist. She comes across as utterly dedicated but not conceited, always doubting her abilities, even though she strongly resisted her novels being edited. Over time she became a public figure, travelling with Bayley worldwide, making new friends (especially in the USA) and receiving numerous honours.

She was, surprisingly, a good family woman. An only child, and resolutely childless herself, she loved both her parents dearly, though there are no letters to them here. Her own and Bayley’s ageing mothers became the subjects of shared and time-consuming cares and anxieties. She wrote with tenderness about her mother’s decline into dementia, a trajectory that she herself was to follow not so many years later.

That questing mind became clouded and she knew it. The editors write that Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s was not diagnosed until 1997. It was evident before that. When I was on a panel with Murdoch and Bayley at the Charleston Festival in the summer of 1995, she arrived in a mackintosh, which she did not take off, clutching two plastic bags, which she did not put down. She was unable properly to answer questions from the audience. Bayley fielded them for her with calm cheerfulness: ‘I think what Iris would want to say is…’ Words, in the end, failed her.

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