Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 Edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, Chatto and Windus, 2015, 666pp, £25 (hardback)
Letters figure prominently in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. In the closing pages of her first published novel, Under the Net, the letter announcing Finn’s return to Ireland is the last of many revelations that Jake has got everything wrong, while Sadie’s letter, which patently cons him into buying a past-it canine film star at the price of all his cash, delights him by its ‘gentleness and cunning’. A chapter in A Severed Head consists of the narrator’s letters to his wife (‘Darling’), his mistress (‘My dearest child’), and three of increasing candour beginning ‘Dear Dr Klein’, ‘Dear Honor Klein’, ‘Dear Honor’. The first two and least sincere end ‘Yours sincerely’ and Martin is tempted to write a fourth. In An Accidental Man a series of letters between minor characters employ the classic strategy of winning or winning back a lover by feigning interest in a third party.
Murdoch’s own letters seem much less calculating. She was a prolific and generous correspondent. Film star Sadie, whose possession of a heart is dubious, boasts to Jake of an ‘enormous pile of fan mail’, though she never reads it and leaves it for her secretary to answer. Murdoch had no secretary, and an increasing amount of fan mail, and answered all such letters herself, in the latter part of her career, spending several hours each day in correspondence. Although she claimed (to the demanding Brigid Brophy) to ‘detest writing letters’ and ‘hate receiving letters’, there are more than 3,000 in the Murdoch archive at Kingston University. This collection does not include many replies to fans, which would be difficult to track, except for those to Rory Cochrane, an American writer and translator. They met only once but for years kept up what the editors describe as ‘a romantically charged friendship’ by correspondence. There is a kind reply to an American student who is writing a piece on The Bell and she invites him to correspond further about it, though she thinks he would be better off studying Shakespeare and Jane Austen. She complains about a ‘crazy’ fan in Atlanta, who phones and writes, thinks Murdoch is the author of Agatha Christie’s later thrillers, wants her ‘to have a blood test to determine whether I am male or female’ (perhaps not so crazy in view of Iris’s description of herself as ‘a male homosexual in female guise’) and believes the novels are love letters to her.
There are plenty of love letters in this book. It consists mainly of letters to friends and lovers and it is not always clear who is which. The first three sections of the book, ‘Schoolgirl and Student’, ‘Work and War’, ‘Academic and Author’, range from 1934 to 1954, when Under the Net came out. In these two decades Murdoch was an exemplary schoolgirl, an undergraduate at Oxford and a civil servant in London. After the war she worked for refugees with the United Nation Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in Brussels (where she briefly met Sartre) and Austria, held a research position in Cambridge and returned to Oxford as tutor in philosophy at St Anne’s College. Correspondents include: Frank Thompson, a dear and gifted undergraduate friend, executed on an SOE mission in Bulgaria in 1944, with whom Murdoch was, perhaps retrospectively, somewhat in love; David Hicks and Wallace Robson, to both of whom she was briefly engaged; classical scholar Momigliano; Nobel-prizewinning author Elias Canetti and Franz Steiner, with whom she had affairs. She sounds most in love with Raymond Queneau, her ‘absolute’, a sublime tribute from the Platonist and believer in moral absolutes, but Queneau was married and unreciprocating. Perhaps because they were usually together, there are no letters to John Bayley, future Warton Professor of English at Oxford, with whom she fortunately fell in love and married.
Fortunately but not finally. She also had intimate friendships with female colleagues at St Anne’s, Peter Ady and classics tutor Margaret Hubbard, the latter relationship leading to her resignation from the college in 1963. She continued to write philosophy as well as fiction, while teaching part-time at the Royal College of Art in London until 1967. The next section is entitled ‘The RCA Years’, where she formed close and lasting relationships with two students, the painter Rachel Brown, later Rachel Fenner, and David Morgan, who was to write an account of their friendship, With Love and Rage. Her closeness to Morgan, who had had a very troubled childhood and adolescence, was arguably inappropriate but, though often exasperated, she provided him with considerable support, emotional and financial, and they last met in 1995. Although she asked David to destroy every communication from her, letters to him and to Rachel appear in this collection. She had a loving and tempestuous relationship with the author Brigid Brophy, which calmed when Brophy, though married to Michael Levey, fell in love with Maureen Duffy. Murdoch sounds in love with the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, married and in love with someone else himself, with whom she commiserates as a fellow sufferer. She was still clearly longing to see Canetti, now married to his second wife and not very communicative. Perhaps the most important and rewarding friendship was with the philosopher Philippa Foot. It lasted from undergraduate days till Murdoch’s death and survived the problems caused by her affairs with Thomas Balogh, Philippa’s ex-lover, and M.R.D. Foot, Philippa’s future husband. She admitted that she could be in love with several people at once.
Love and friendship dominate these letters. Murdoch writes little about her work. She often expresses doubts about her ability as a philosopher and, indeed, about the value of philosophy itself:
…everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us which is not mechanical and no one who is not bemused by philosophy or a youthful mood really doubts the existence of this piece. We know, in the best part of ourselves, to use Platonic language, that great art is good, that work is often good and love often good. And if we have any certainties in the human condition these are they, and much more evident certainties than semi-philosophical stuff about all is flux.
She did not discuss her novels with her husband, friends or editor while they were in progress and seemed to lose interest in them after they were finished. Unusually she expresses her feelings while writing A Fairly Honourable Defeat: ‘I am getting terribly fond of my wicked man [Julius]’ and ‘I am no better than the swinish heroine [Morgan] of my current novel who is so concerned with analysing her own feelings she does not notice the suffering of others.’ An earlier letter on re-reading Job remarks on ‘how strongly I feel against Job and pro-God’, which may be the inspiration for the embittered Job character of Leonard in this novel. She does mention some practical research; visits to Lots Road Power Station for Bruno’s Dream and to a Max Beckmann exhibition for Henry and Cato.
The next three sections, ‘Woman of Letters’, ‘Dame Iris’ and ‘Last Letters’, move from 1968 to 1995. The correspondents are now mainly friends rather than lovers and Murdoch’s wide range of friendships may be reflected in the spaciousness of late novels such as The Philosopher’s Pupil, The Book and the Brotherhood and The Message to the Planet, which encompass groups and communities in contrast to the couples, triangles, polygons and nuclear families of the early novels. Her political interests are evident. Of Irish ancestry, she agonised over the troubles of Northern Ireland and, polemically Unionist, came to regret her even-handedness in The Red and the Green, her novel about the Easter Rising. Some of the most sympathetic characters in her novels are gay and she actively supported the reform of the laws on homosexuality. She was very concerned by changes in education in England and in 1988 wrote to Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, on behalf of herself and Oxford colleagues to protest that ‘the new Universities Funding Council virtually gives any government complete control of the area of higher education’, to defend arts subjects against the emphasis on economic requirements and to express her grief at the demotion of Greek and Latin in state schools, which ‘removes a lifelong benefit from many clever children’. In these years she was much in demand as a guest lecturer at conferences and her letters to friends are full of itineraries and vivid vignettes of her travels with John. One can feel breathless at the amount of living, loving, thinking, writing, teaching and travelling that these letters record. In some of the last letters Murdoch complains of tiredness and worries about the progress and purpose of her final novel, Jackson’s Dilemma. She was developing Alzheimer’s disease and the last letter in the book, written to Sister Marian, one of her oldest Somerville friends, in 1995, ends ‘I am tired and desiring another novel, which does not appear to me yet — perhaps it will now never appear. I think of the past, and you and me in the past. So much love, I. Please forgive all this stumbling –’. She died in 1999.
In general, the book is very well edited. The selection of letters is lively and varied. It is preceded by a lucid introduction about Murdoch’s writing career, suggests ways in which her experiences flowed into the novels and deals judiciously with the apparently paradoxical contrasts between the moral idealism of the novels and philosophy and the promiscuity of her personal life. Before each section is an account of the events and achievements of that period, including excellent brief summaries of the novels. The letters are followed by a Directory of Names and Terms, giving biographies of major figures in Murdoch’s life and explications of philosophical and critical movements. There are some errors (‘wracked’ for ‘racked’, ‘Sophis’ for ‘Sophist’) and omissions. The Cloisters are not in the Museum of Modern Art but the Metropolitan. Lucy Klatschko is described as taking Holy Orders (the term for the ordination of a priest) when she makes her vows as Sister Marian. Margaret Hubbard should have been included in the Directory. To modernise ‘quod avertant dei’ as ‘God forbid’ seems to bypass the eager Classics undergraduate. When, in 1945, Murdoch quotes Wordsworth’s exclamation, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’, it would have been helpful to mention the context of the French Revolution as well as giving the reference. ‘Voi che sapete’ means ‘You who know’, though the aria continues as the editors translate it. In 1946 Murdoch writes of abandoning her ‘novel on Carrington’s telepathy theory’. The footnote attributes this to Hereward Carrington, who worked on psychic phenomena, but her source was probably Whateley Carington, whose book Telepathy had come out the year before. Thanking an American friend for a St Patrick’s Day card, Murdoch remarks, ‘Connolly said that all the snakes [banished by Patrick] swam the Atlantic and became Irish Americans.’ The footnote suggests ‘Probably Cyril Connolly’ but it is more probably James Connolly of the Easter Rising, who visited America and was critical of it.
The editors miss some allusions. When Murdoch ends a letter, ‘Trust in God and take short views’, she is quoting Auden’s ‘Under Which Lyre. A Reactionary Tract for the Times’. When she complains that a book lacks pictures and conversation she is quoting Carroll’s Alice. When Murdoch writes, ‘My exile will produce no tristitia’, the editors translate the Latin as ‘sadness, melancholy’ but do not realise that she refers to the Tristia, Ovid’s sad poems written in exile. Murdoch’s reading informed her writing of letters, novels and philosophy.
Priscilla Martin teaches English and Classics at the University of Oxford. She has also taught at the universities of Edinburgh, California and London. Her publications include books on Chaucer, Piers Plowman, Shakespeare and Iris Murdoch, and articles on the Gawain-poet, Tyndale and twentieth-century novelists.