Queer Places:
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
University of Cambridge, 4 Mill Ln, Cambridge CB2 1RZ
5 Seaforth Pl, London SW1E 6AB, UK
Oxford Crematorium Headington, City of Oxford, Oxfordshire, England

Iris Murdoch.jpgDame Jean Iris Murdoch DBE (15 July 1919 – 8 February 1999) was an Irish and British novelist and philosopher. She attended one of the glittering salons hosted by Elizabeth Bowen at Bowen’s Court since she was twenty years younger than her hostess and has often been mythologised as something of an honorary man.

Murdoch is best known for her novels about good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Murdoch replied to all the letters she received from fan, and spent up to four hours a day on correspondence. (“I have had a letter from an electronics engineer (male) in Walsall who changes his clothes every evening and becomes Hilda,” she wrote her longtime lover, the novelist and critic Brigid Brophy, in 1969. “He seems to think I should do something about it. Have written him a relaxed letter.”) Her first published novel, Under the Net (1954), was selected in 1998 as one of Modern Library's 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Her 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea won the Booker Prize. In 1987, she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II for services to literature. In 2008, The Times ranked Murdoch twelfth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".[1] Her other books include The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), The Red and the Green (1965), The Nice and the Good (1968), The Black Prince (1973), Henry and Cato (1976), The Philosopher's Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985), The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), The Message to the Planet (1989), and The Green Knight (1993).

Murdoch was born in Phibsborough, Dublin, Ireland, the daughter of Irene Alice Richardson (1899–1985)[2] and Wills John Hughes Murdoch. Her father, a civil servant, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down. In 1915, he enlisted as a soldier in King Edward's Horse and served in France during the First World War before being commissioned as a Second lieutenant. Her mother had trained as a singer before Iris was born, and was from a middle-class Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Iris Murdoch's parents first met in Dublin when her father was on leave and were married in 1918.[3]  Iris was the couple's only child. When she was a few weeks old the family moved to London, where her father had joined the Ministry of Health as a second-class clerk.[4]  Murdoch was brought up in Chiswick[5] and educated in progressive independent schools, entering the Froebel Demonstration School in 1925 and attending Badminton School in Bristol as a boarder from 1932 to 1938. In 1938 she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, with the intention of studying English, but switched to "Greats", a course of study combining classics, ancient history, and philosophy.[6] At Oxford she studied philosophy with Donald M. MacKinnon and attended Eduard Fraenkel's seminars on Agamemnon.[3] She was awarded a first-class honours degree in 1942.[7]

Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot had a 60-year friendship, although there was a brief period around 1968 when their friendship became physical. Soon, as Philippa explained, they realised that their feeling for each other was "not best expressed" in that way. The affair quietly ended; they remained close and loving friends for another 30 years. "Essential you" was how Iris described her friend. Philippa called Iris, after her death, "the light of my life". They met in Oxford in the autumn of 1939, as the war was starting. Iris was 20 and had been at Somerville for a year; Philippa Bosanquet was a year younger. They were both studying philosophy. They had eager, brilliant minds but were otherwise very different. Philippa was cooler, taller, more elegant and upper class; she grew up in a grand house in Yorkshire with governesses, ponies and plenty of money. Iris's parents were Irish; born in Dublin, she was smaller, rounder, fairer, more intense and better educated. By late 1943, both with first-class degrees, they were happily sharing a cavernous, cold, mouse-ridden flat in Seaforth Place in London and working as civil servants. Iris was writing long letters to (among others) her platonic love, Frank Thompson, while experimenting with several admirers, including Michael Foot (the future historian, not the Labour politician). Philippa was precariously involved with a former tutor, the clever, predatory economist Tommy Balogh. Within a few months, in an emotional dance her readers might now call Murdochian, Iris had dismissed Foot, who was distraught, and taken up with Balogh, thus badly wounding her friend. Before long the unreliable Balogh was gone, Philippa and Michael Foot had fallen in love and Iris found herself excluded, unloved and unwanted. By the time the war ended, Philippa and Michael – who had survived being wounded and captured on an SOE mission to France – were married, Frank Thompson was dead, murdered by fascists in Bulgaria, and Iris had failed to find a lasting love. In the bleak winter of 1946 she wrote a handful of letters that show how deep the damage had been. The Foots were living happily in Oxford, teaching and studying; she was with her parents in Chiswick, trying and failing to find an academic post. "It seems perhaps a foolish useless gesture after so long," she wrote, "to say – I'm so sorry I caused you both to suffer - but I do say it, most humbly, and believe me I do feel it." As well as a plea for forgiveness, her letter read like a declaration. "Pippa, you know without my telling you that my love for you remains as deep and tender as ever – and always will remain, it is so deep in me and so much part of me. I cannot imagine that anyone will ever take your place. I think of you very often. My dear heart, I love you." Philippa's reply evidently reassured her. "The fact that you do, after all that, still care for me gives me great hope that the past will fall away and this good thing between us will grow and be stronger than ever. Love can work miracles." She was right to fear that Michael found seeing her a strain, but as long as she had not lost Philippa all was well. "I rest, as always, in the thought of your love. My dear, you are most precious to me, most close, always in my heart." Even so, it struck their friends as odd that when Iris was offered a job in Oxford in 1948, she became, for a time, the Foots' lodger.

After leaving Oxford Murdoch went to work in London for HM Treasury. In June 1944 she left the Treasury and went to work for the UNRRA. At first she was stationed in London at the agency's European Regional Office. In 1945 she was transferred first to Brussels, then to Innsbruck, and finally to Graz, Austria, where she worked in a refugee camp. She left the UNRRA in 1946.[3]  From 1947 to 1948 Iris Murdoch studied philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. She met Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge but did not hear him lecture, as he had left his Trinity College professorship before she arrived.[3] [8] In 1948 she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963.

In 1956 Murdoch married John Bayley, a literary critic, novelist, and from 1974 to 1992 Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, whom she had met in Oxford in 1954. The unusual romantic partnership lasted more than forty years until Murdoch's death. Bayley thought that sex was "inescapably ridiculous." Murdoch in contrast had "multiple affairs with both men and women which, on discomposing occasions, Bayley witnessed for himself".[9][10] Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1954. She had previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph about Jean-Paul Sartre published in English. She went on to produce 25 more novels and additional works of philosophy, as well as poetry and drama.

In 1959, Michael Foot fell in love with someone else and Philippa Foot was alone again. Almost at once, her friendship with Iris intensified; Iris confessed in her journal "a certain sense of relief after the removal of the barrier between P and me …" A letter came from Philippa saying that to find Iris "meant very much to her". Iris felt able to talk to her freely again. In the late 1950s Iris, whose bisexuality became more apparent as she grew older, took up with the openly lesbian writer Brigid Brophy; and there were affairs with other women too, one of which shook her marriage and led to the decision to leave Oxford in 1963 for London and a teaching position at the Royal College of Art. With Philippa beginning to spend more time teaching in the US, Iris reflected on their bond and her nature. "I think I was in love with you in Seaforth days," one letter from the early 60s reads, "and this has never stopped. I trust you don't mind. (Given a fair field in early youth I think I might have become a pretty serious homosexual. However its too late to undo that damage now.)"

From 1963 to 1967 Murdoch taught one day a week in the General Studies department at the Royal College of Art.[3]  The long friendship between Murdoch and Philippa Foot became, around 1968, a short-lived love affair; Philippa later gave the impression that it was Iris who decided that only by physical expression could the last barriers between them be removed. By 1969 the affair was over; and that year Philippa resigned her Somerville fellowship and moved to the US, eventually becoming a professor at the University of California. She returned every year to Oxford; a stream of blue air letters from Iris continued for the next 20 years, always affectionate, always concerned. She hoped her friend would find a new love and wrote to her of "the wonder and miracle of love springing up again – the surprises of the world! Good, good … Grab and distribute all the happiness you can."

In 1974, Murdoch wrote to her friend Naomi Lebowitz, a professor of English and comparative literature at Washington University, in St. Louis, to ask, “what am I supposed to think about Flannery O’Connor?” The Southern writer had been mentioned, Murdoch told Lebowitz, by her “mad fan in Atlanta Georgia.” Murdoch initially thought that the reference was to Flann O’Brien. “The one was female, the other male, but who cares these days?” she added. The fan, Betty Hester, had sent her O’Connor’s complete stories, but Murdoch was unimpressed. “I read one or two and thought them very accomplished but was not really moved,” she wrote. “Should I persevere, is she very good?” Murdoch and Hester, who called herself Betty, corresponded for more than thirty years, until the onset of Alzheimer’s disease made it impossible for Murdoch to reply. Even then, John Bayley, asked Hester to continue. “She loves hearing from you,” Bayley wrote Hester in January, 1997, “and she sends loving greeting. Please go on writing to her because it means a lot to her—a really very great deal.”

In 1976 she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 1987 was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[3]: 571, 575  She was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Bath (DLitt, 1983),[11] University of Cambridge (1993)[12] and Kingston University (1994), among others. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982.[13] Her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, was published in 1995.

Iris Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1997 and died in 1999 in Oxford.[8] There is a bench dedicated to her in the grounds of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she used to enjoy walking.[14]

My published books:

See my published books