Hundreds of personal letters tell Iris Murdoch’s life story

The acclaimed novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch lived life so much through her writing that editors Avril Horner and Anne Rowe felt it most fitting for her biography to be composed entirely of her letters. For the first time, the collection is being presented as a whole in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch. Here is the story of how this extraordinary project came together.

Presenting Iris Murdoch’s Life in Her Own Words

by Avril Horner & Anne Rowe

MurdochIris Murdoch’s prolific writing life spanned almost the entire second half of the twentieth century, and what makes her unique in British letters is that she was not only one of the country’s most famous and internationally acclaimed novelists, but also a serious moral philosopher, an engaged public intellectual and a working teacher. Her 26 novels and a significant body of philosophy, written between 1954 and 1995, emerged out of a background that only appears to be one of great privilege; her sharp intellect secured scholarships for her school and university education that enabled her to make the most of her many gifts. She both lived and thought unconventionally and was determined to change the path of English fiction and to challenge received ideas about gender, philosophy and religion.

In 2004, the Iris Murdoch Archive was inaugurated at Kingston University, London, where Peter Conradi (Murdoch’s official biographer) had taught and where the Murdoch scholar, Anne Rowe, became his successor. The first acquisition was the novelist’s heavily annotated library of over 1,000 books from her Oxford home. Today the archive comprises another personal library from her London apartment; original manuscripts; notebooks, primary and secondary resources; photographs; and over 3,000 private letters. These letters were acquired in various ways: some were purchased with the aid of various funding bodies; many were donated by individuals who had received letters from Murdoch; others were gifted by the families or friends of correspondents. This world-class archive tells many stories that both record the history of Iris Murdoch’s life and challenge earlier perceptions of it.

Of the 764 letterQueneau 29 October 1949 p1 rescans 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. Murdoch wrote all her letters by hand using her favourite fountain pen. In an age of tweets, emails and texts, these letters from a celebrated writer are not only emotionally compelling, but also of great historical, as well as biographical, interest. Choosing which to include in the book 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 her school days to her final years. Our aim was to present Murdoch’s life in her own words.

Sitting at a roll-top desk that once belonged to J.R.R. Tolkein, Iris Murdoch spent up to four hours a day writing to friends, lovers and her many admirers. These letters have much to offer those researching the literature, philosophy, theology, politics and culture of the mid-late twentieth century. Murdoch’s correspondents were often highly distinguished in their respective fields, for example the French experimental writer Raymond Queneau, the mathematical logician Georg Kreisel, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, the senior Civil Servant, Sir Leo Pliatzky, the political theorist Michael Oakeshott, the novelist and activist Brigid Brophy. She wrote to some of her students as well, for example, Rachel Fenner and David Morgan, whom she taught at Royal College of Art and with whom she had unwise relationships that could have tarnished her reputation had they been made public. Living on Paper also includes Queneau Letters image 2deeply moving notes to her Oxford contemporary Lucy Klatchsko, who relinquished a vivacious private life to become a nun, Sister Marian of Stanbrook Abbey. These letters convey Murdoch’s envy of the solitary contemplative life that was the antithesis of her own. Each of these correspondence runs reveals a different aspect of Murdoch’s character; together they record not only an unusual and remarkable life but also its more ordinary moments. Her letters frequently sketch beautiful epistolary still lives: autumnal colours glimpsed through the window of her study: winter frosts and spring snowdrops, kestrels in flight and blazing sunsets. All pay testament to her deep love for her friends and her legendary kindness and generosity of spirit, confirmed by the fact that her letters were preserved and cherished by their recipients. They are also characterized by a scrupulous integrity: although in all of the 5,000 or more letters that we read, we found irreverence, wit and occasionally just criticism, nowhere did we find a hint of spite or malice. These letters speak too of Murdoch’s own crippling insecurities about the quality of her work and convey the anguish and biting remorse generated by her complex emotional life.

The publication of Peter Conradi’s official biography in 2001 made evident how much closer Murdoch’s life was to her art than had previously been realized and suggested glimpses of many friends in her fictional characters. Living on Paper will enable a more sophisticated appreciation of the creative process that so carefully transformed the identities of friends and lovers into the complicated characters of her novelFoot letter headings spreads while preserving the anonymity of those who had inspired them. It is also clear from the letters that Murdoch’s own character was complex and contradictory. In some ways, she was a woman decades ahead of her time – she had both male and female lovers and refused to be labelled as lesbian or bisexual. Instead, she experienced what we now call “gender fluidity”, expressed in The Bell (1958) as “the sophistication of holding that we all participate in both sexes”. Sexually, emotionally, and even intellectually she was often out of joint with her own time. However, the Iris Murdoch of Living on Paper will be substantially more at home in this century than the one in which she wrote and her letters will open up her novels to a generation of new readers.

Iris Murdoch (1919–99) was a British writer and philosopher. Her twenty-six novels include the Booker Prize–winning The Sea, the Sea and Under the Net, which the Modern Library named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. From the mid-1950s until her death, Murdoch lived in Oxford with her husband, John Bayley, whose memoir Elegy for Iris was the basis for the film Iris.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe are the coeditors of Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts and Iris Murdoch and Morality. 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.