Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe

Who was the real Iris Murdoch? A selection of correspondence to friends and especially lovers offers insight into a complicated life.

About a quarter of a century ago I marched into a publisher’s party in the Vauxhall Bridge Road in central London to find the vestibule occupied by a very elderly man and a somewhat younger female sidekick.

“David,” exclaimed my host, Carmen Callil, who stood between the pair like a vigilant Sybil, “this is Sir Victor Pritchett and Dame Iris Murdoch.” As I struggled for something to say – dumbstruck by this sudden access of talent and celebrity – the baton was gamely seized by Dame Iris. “Are you very left wing?” she straightaway demanded. I muttered something about being a member of The Labour Party, but the author of The Sea, The Sea was proudly astride what subsequent inquiry revealed to be one of her great 1980s hobby-horses. “I used to be,” she declared. “But I’m not now. No. All because of” – and here the phantom italics positively fizzed in the air – “that dreadful man Scargill …”

One wouldn’t normally inflict this kind of retrospective stargazing on readers of a newspaper, were it not that the incident offers some idea of what it felt like to be tumbled into the slipstream of Murdoch’s very considerable personality – a personality which, it turns out, was quite as breathlessly maintained throughout her six-decade stint as a letter-writer. The woman who, as friends attest, enlivened train carriages on the Oxford to Paddington line with her views on the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the woman who addressed her friends, lovers and professional colleagues went about the business in exactly the same way: at all times impulsive, affectionate, brainy, loyal, free-associative and, at least occasionally, horribly vulnerable. The effect is oddly appealing and – whatever you happen to feel about her novels – deeply impressive.

This bumper selection of her letters, put together by a brace of academics from the Iris Murdoch Archive Centre at Kingston University, is patently something rather more than an attempt to trumpet her qualities as a correspondent. It is also, 16 years after its subject’s minutely documented death from Alzheimer’s disease, and in a world where the canon is apparently in sharp retreat, aimed at furbishing up her status. This much may be inferred from the introduction, in which the editors remark that “since the late 1990s her writing has been internationally celebrated and her reputation revived. Her fiction is now hailed by many as a paradigm for morally responsible art and her philosophy is seen as important matter for debate in the field of virtue ethics.”

No doubt they are. And no doubt Angus Wilson’s novels – to name another writer of the same generation in danger of slipping away on the historical tide – still have their admirers. Murdoch herself, it should be pointed out, had intermittent qualms about her staying power and more than once hazarded that she might end up as the modern age’s Charles Morgan: an immensely fashionable mid-century writer whose éclat was silenced more or less from the moment of his death. In Murdoch’s own case, the difficulty of separating wheat from chaff, of wondering whether the vast and largely unedited doorstoppers of her later career aren’t liable to dull our appreciation of the sharper, earlier work, is complicated by the process, put in train very soon after her death, and propelled yet further by Richard Eyre’s 2001 biopic, that began to detach Iris the writer from Iris the celebrity figure. To put it starkly, literary “reputation” is always going to take a back seat when the subject, together with her husband, John Bayley, has appeared in a colour supplement montage under the heading “Great lovers of their time”.

Presumably, Mesdames Horner and Rowe thought this separation beyond their remit. But Living on Paper, despite its mammoth length, is odd, or perhaps only elusive, in other ways too. Few of the letters discuss particular works in progress, and those that do tend to confine themselves to procedural points (“Much thanks letter and about Moy,” runs a note to Jane Turner at Chatto from 1993 about The Green Knight. “Of course she would be unlikely to be able to run after nearly drowning. But fictionally she can. The runic stone, being near suddenly to its old home, sends out warm rays … ”) Then there are the missing correspondents – nothing here, for example, from her great friend AS Byatt, or from Bayley, to whom she was married for more than 40 years. The preamble talks about certain letters having “been destroyed” or being “unavailable at the time of writing”, but one would have liked to hear a bit more about these omissions or absences and the editorial policy that kept them out. On the other hand, it couldn’t be said that any of the chronological compartments of Murdoch’s life are ignored – if Bayley sometimes looks to be a conceptual black hole at the volume’s core this is merely because his presence is taken for granted, with just a handful of parenthetic nods to “my husband” or John breaking his ankle falling over in the garden. And so each of the figures first adumbrated in Peter Conradi’s excellent Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001) moves reliably into view: the intent, coruscating schoolgirl; the love-struck undergraduate; the wartime civil servant; the 50s philosophy don; the altogether ferocious-looking “lady writer” of the trend-hungry 60s, who, while heedless of her appearance (“I’ve just been to a wedding where the bride wore a mac,” one guest reported after her marriage), had herself photographed by Snowdon looking as if she had just walked off the set of Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

All this – particularly those Snowdon portraits – raises the question of the kind of person that Murdoch imagined herself to be and the personal and communal ideals, or even myths, that she carried with her. These can be glimpsed in even the half-humorous scraps, as in the note to her publisher Norah Smallwood from 1975 lamenting the latter’s dislike of Watership Down: “They are not fascists. There are fascist bunnies in the story but they are the baddies who are defeated, after many exciting adventures by the goodie social democratic rabbits.

It’s a marvellous tale and highly moral, the hero is a saintly rabbit with excellent moderate views on how a warren should be run.” At the same time they are most conspicuously on display in the very large number of letters that dwell on various aspects of her emotional flight-path. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Kate Winslet in the 2001 film Iris. Photograph: Buena Vista/PA The anatomist of Murdoch’s complicated love life probably needs a private detective rather than a biographer. Grand obsessions burn on; old flames flicker brightly in the background. The early 60s, for example, find her married – to all intents and purposes, happily – to Bayley, conducting a highly charged relationship with the novelist Brigid Brophy (while assuring her inamorata that “I’m not in love with you, and don’t want to be. When I am in love I am INSANE … ”) and sending endless wistful notes to her former lover, Elias Canetti. The Brophy correspondence is more than usually worth attending to in its suggestion that Murdoch was not up to the younger woman’s fighting weight, shrank from her matter-of-factness (“I confess I am surprised that you altogether dislike my work,” goes a letter from November 1960, “as I should have thought it was complex enough to have some things in it which would touch your heart and mind”), and deeply resented her accusations of bad faith and duplicity.

“You ask, or wonder, why I don’t lie ‘more suavely’,” Murdoch writes in July 1962. “I don’t lie more suavely because as it happens I am not lying.” The letters to Canetti – a sulky recluse, famous for not answering telephones or disclosing his whereabouts – are troubling in a different way, for they demonstrate just how anxious she was to keep in touch with a man whose habitual tricksiness can sometimes look very like an attempt to manipulate her feelings. “My dear, I have not had my envelope back by post and could not get any answer from your London number though I tried a number of times,” runs a plaintive little note from October 1965.

One can overdo Murdoch’s slightly otherworldly side, her protestations of naivety – “I never get over the awful sense of surprise when somebody hurts one,” she wrote to her old friend Philippa Foot – and the sometimes detached benignity of her gaze. The letters to her younger friend David Morgan, which talk about how getting to know someone “involves the removal of romanticism” and chide him for his fecklessness, are notably tough-minded. As she grows old the benignity increases, the progress turns more stately, the waters more placid and the impulsiveness yet more disconnected. The last letters, squeezed out beneath the weight of dementia, are poignant in the extreme. “I am tired and desiring another novel, which does not appear to me yet – perhaps it will never appear,” she tells her long-term confidante, Sister Marian from Stanbrook Abbey, late in 1995, before adding, in a line that could have come straight out of one of her novels, “I think of the past, and you and me in the past.”

• To order Living on Paper for £20 (RRP £25) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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