Iris Murdoch: A writer ahead of her time

Living on Paper Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, co-edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, is a close examination of Murdoch’s life and writing, completely composed of her own personal correspondence. With its rare insights into Murdoch’s emotional and intellectual life, Living on Paper is sparking interest in her work and history from a new generation of readers. Recently Horner and Rowe took the time to speak to the project’s importance.

What was the original inspiration for Living on Paper?

AH & AR: The Iris Murdoch Archive was inaugurated at Kingston University in 2004 and now holds over 3,000 letters written by Iris Murdoch, as well as photographs, notebooks, original manuscripts and two private libraries: these comprise a relatively small library from her London flat and a much larger library from her Oxford study that contains over 1,000 books of which over a hundred are heavily annotated. Over the past 12 years Anne has successfully submitted bids to various funding bodies in order to purchase important letter runs to Murdoch’s close friends, including writers, painters, students and lovers. Other letter runs were kindly donated by individuals who had corresponded with Murdoch and a number of additional runs were gifted by the families or friends of correspondents. The quality and interest of the letters were such that in 2010, we decided to select the most interesting of these for publication. In 2011 we were offered a book contract by Chatto & Windus in the UK and started serious work on the project. Of the 764 letters that comprise Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995, over 500 are from Kingston’s Iris Murdoch Archive. The rest were sourced from other university archives – Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and the LSE in England; the University of Iowa, Washington University, St. Louis, and Stanford University, California in the United States. (Avril was awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust that enabled her to travel to most of these universities; others were kind enough send us photocopies of their holdings.) We thought it would take us two years to put the book together but we actually spent four years working on Living on Paper before it went to press.

Why was Murdoch such a prolific letter writer?

AH & AR: As John Sutherland pointed out in his review of Living on Paper in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books, Murdoch was brought up in a generation used to writing letters almost every day: ‘The habit was instilled at her boarding school, where letters home were an obligatory chore’. The habit never died and, in fact, she loved writing letters: ‘I can live in letters’ she wrote to her life-long friend, Philippa Foot in 1968. She would work on her novels and philosophical writings in the mornings and in the afternoon she would write letters, often spending up to four hours a day on them. Murdoch wrote all of them by hand using her favourite fountain pen. She answered every letter she received, responding even to complete strangers with great courtesy, and she would often reply immediately to friends or lovers who were currently in her thoughts. Like all writers, she was immensely curious about other people, and letters allowed her an intimacy with them and an imaginative entry into their thoughts and lives. It seems likely, despite the fact that she claimed never to use her own life or the lives of her friends in her novels, that she did draw on them for inspiration. She was careful though to transform imaginatively real people and situations so that they become unrecognisable in her art – at least most of the time.

How did you decide from a vast pool of resources which letters to include and which to leave out?

AH & AR: We read over 5,000 letters while working on the book and choosing which to include was a difficult task. We decided to focus on letter runs that, taken together, give what we hope is a full picture of a complicated personality, from Murdoch’s school days to her final years. Our aim was to present Murdoch’s life in her own words and to select interesting letters that shed light on both her emotional and her intellectual development. Our greatest regret is that we were unable to find any letters to John Bayley. When Murdoch and her husband moved from Steeple Aston to a much smaller house in Oxford in 1986, they burnt many letters and documents. We suspect that Murdoch’s letters to her husband were destroyed at this time. We also have only a few notes to Elias Canetti; there are thirty-one letters from Murdoch to Canetti in the Zentralbibliothek Zurich, but these are closed until 2024. There was no ideal solution to the problem of what to include and what to leave out – but we found ourselves remarkably like-minded in our choices, guided always by the desire to tell the truth about a remarkable life.

What do we learn about Iris Murdoch from her letters that we did not know before?

AH & AR: We have been very pleased by the number of reviewers who have remarked that Living on Paper has brought to light a fresh portrait of Murdoch. Many have commented on her ability to sustain long friendships, even with ex-lovers, and have noted her immense warmth and generosity, both emotional and financial. Others have been surprised by her vulnerability and her insecurities about her own abilities. Several have remarked on her obsessiveness (this obviously fed into her novels, many of which offer brilliant portraits of obsessive desire) and on her droll sense of humour – something not evident from previous biographical studies. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her character that emerges from the letters is the way she perceived her own gender as fluid. In a fascinating letter to the mathematician Geroge Kreisel, written in 1967, she says, ‘I think I am sexually rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise. […] I doubt if Freud knew anything about me, though Proust knew about my male equivalent.’ She was not comfortable with any kind of gender labels, either lesbian, or homosexual or heterosexual: she did not feel that she fitted into any preordained category. This aspect of her character has greatly interested reviewers and will fascinate readers.

What letter run is your favorite or the most significant in giving an insight into Murdoch’s character/personality?

AH: I particularly like Murdoch’s letters to Raymond Queneau and to Brigid Brophy. Her correspondence with the French writer Raymond Queneau began shortly after she met him in Innsbruck in 1946 and lasted for thirty years. Through it we can track both her excitement about French literature and philosophy and the enormous intellectual influence Queneau had on her mind and work (Under the Net is dedicated to him and owes much to his novel Pierrot Mon Ami) as well as the sad tale of her unrequited love for him. Queneau, living in Paris and married with a son, was clearly fond of Murdoch and knew she had talent but resisted her overtures for him to become her lover. Over the years, Murdoch’s obsessive desire for Queneau transmuted into a dignified settling for his friendship but it is clear that she felt, for many years, that he was her true intellectual soul-mate.

Murdoch’s letters to Brigid Brophy, whom she met in 1954 are altogether different. Like Queneau, Brophy was an immensely gifted polymath but she was also a political activist (she frequently expressed her deep antipathy to the war in Vietnam), an outspoken advocate of bisexuality and a vegan when few people had heard of the word. Beautiful, provocative, witty, erratic and irreverent she greatly appealed to Murdoch and in some ways functioned as her alter ego. They quickly became close, enriching each other intellectually and exchanging ideas, often daily, on paper. (The Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston holds over a 1,000 letters from Murdoch to Brophy.) Murdoch’s letters to Brophy are distinguished by their intensity of feeling, their intellectual acrobatics and their humour. The relationship was a stormy one, however, and Murdoch came to feel that she could never quite meet Brophy’s demands; nor did she wish to jeopardize her marriage to John Bayley. The intense liaison came to an end in 1967, when Brophy fell in love with Maureen Duffy, but Murdoch and Brophy kept in touch, on and off, until Brophy’s death from muscular sclerosis in 1995.

AR: For me, the letters to two students whom Murdoch befriended at the Royal College of Art between 1963 and 1967 are my favourite. David Morgan had a troubled adolescence that resulted in a spell in a home for maladjusted boys. Murdoch was fascinated by his unconventional background and stimulated by his views on art and obvious talent. She was attracted too by his good looks, and intrigued by his complicated love-life. Her sexually-charged and unwise relationship with him brought her perilously close to scandal. Yet she could not relinquish their friendship. Morgan was both enchanting and thrilling and she relished the danger he posed to himself and also to her. Morgan finds his way into the portrayal of dark, brooding ‘outsider’ characters and her fascination with him gives brilliance to the psychological realism that underpins them. These letters are electric in their intensity and have a compelling narrative – Murdoch is furious and fond in equal measure. Morgan came close to destroying Murdoch’s integrity as a wife, writer and public intellectual. Her letters to him, for me, provide the most compulsive reading in the book.

Rachel Fenner was assigned Murdoch as her supervisor and fell in love with her. Although making it clear that she could not reciprocate Rachel’s desire for intimacy, the two women became close. After seeking Murdoch’s advice, Rachel subsequently married but experiencing troubling emotional turmoil turned to Murdoch for support. Murdoch’s letters to her are among the most moving in the book and, unusually, Murdoch dispenses practical advice akin to her own moral philosophy: ‘Of course we are rather mechanical [. . .] but everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us that is not mechanical’. Murdoch condones their love here, despite the impossibility of fulfillment. But the relationship created turmoil in Fenner’s life and Murdoch’s letters illustrate that living by high moral standards was as difficult for her as the characters in her novels. With significant help and encouragement from Murdoch both Morgan and Fenner went on to highly successful careers, Morgan as a teacher and Fenner as a sculptor. Their love for their former teacher still endures.

How will Living on Paper change our reading of Murdoch’s novels and why might they attract a new generation of readers?

AH & AR: Even older readers who know Murdoch’s novels well might see them rather differently having read Living on Paper. For example, the sense of humour evident in many of her letters will alert the reader to the comical nature of many relationships and situations in her fiction. Murdoch’s interest in Mozart – previously undocumented and inspired by Brophy’s passion for the composer – we can now see reflected in the Mozartian dance of couples who interchange partners in such a way as to lend many of her novels a slightly comic and operatic air.

New and younger readers will undoubtedly be fascinated by Murdoch’s portrayal of sexuality. Recent research into sexual identities suggests that almost half of young people today are redefining sexuality in a surge of carefree “gender fluidity”. Murdoch’s views on sexual orientation and gender proclivity will not be in the least shocking to this younger generation, who will share them. This like-mindedness may mean that they will make very different interpretations of the tragedies at the heart of Murdoch’s novels as they are now able to consider them openly in terms of sexual repression and the social construction of gender. Whereas those who read Murdoch’s novels as they were published between the 1950s and the 1990s might have found her picture of humanity eccentric and far-fetched, many contemporary readers will find kindred spirits in her fiction. The propensity of Murdoch’s characters to have casual sexual liaisons with friends, the great speed with which they move in and out of sexual liaisons and the ambivalence about gender that mark her novels will no longer alienate twenty-first century readers who, instead, will see Iris Murdoch as a writer decades ahead of her time.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe are the coeditors of Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts and Iris Murdoch and Morality. They most recently edited together Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch. Horner is professor emeritus of English literature at Kingston University in London, and has published widely on women’s writing and gothic fiction. Rowe is associate professor of English literature and director of the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University. She is the lead editor of the Iris Murdoch Review, the author of The Visual Arts and Iris Murdoch, and the coauthor of Iris Murdoch: A Literary Life.