A writer in the true sense of the word, Iris Murdoch not only penned books in both fiction and philosophy, she also wrote literary criticism, poetry, plays and dramatic adaptations of her novels. Born in Ireland in 1919, Murdoch moved to Britain at a young age, attending progressive, independent schools as a child before attaining her undergraduate degree at Oxford, where she studied Greats. During the Second World War she was conscripted to work at Her Majesty’s Treasury, and after the war she went on to work across Europe helping refugees with international relief agency UNRRA. Later she made a return to academia, gaining a postgraduate degree in philosophy at Cambridge, before going on to teach at both Oxford and the Royal College of Art.
Though not as prolific as her novel writing, her writing on philosophy centred on notions of the ‘inner self’ and its importance to outward morality and action. She moved away from dominant theories of will and choice, and explored ideas of attention and phenomenal experience, that is, how people learn to see each other and how sensory experience of life shapes moral sensibility. In terms of her novels, Murdoch’s work was often witty, comic and romantic, and allowed her philosophical ideas to shine through. Utilising unwieldy plots, with numerous, intricate characters, Murdoch’s novels examine her characters’ inner selves in detail, and how this influences the events in their lives – often leading to the personal philosophies and viewpoints of her characters undergoing radical change throughout the story.
The complex interpersonal and sexual relationships her characters experienced, echoed her own happy marriage to writer John Bayley. The traditional roles of wife and husband were somewhat subverted in their marriage - when others recounted their relationship, Murdoch was generally described as the intelligent and serious one, who discussed philosophy and learnt languages in her spare time, whereas Bayley would spend time reading tabloid magazines and gossiping to dinner guests. In terms of their sex life, Bayley could be described as essentially asexual, whereas Murdoch enjoyed numerous affairs with both men and women throughout their marriage, illustrating how their enduring relationship diverged further from the norm while remaining strong.
When looking at Murdoch’s life and work in tandem with contemporary mental health discourse, it takes on new significance as it underlines the importance of one’s inner self to one’s relationships and experience, aligning with the idea that one’s mental health is integral to healthy relationships and physical experience. Further, Murdoch’s marriage reminds us that being a woman in a relationship does not have to mean conforming to gender norms, while highlighting sexuality as being as integral to women as it is to men. It is a testament to Murdoch that her life’s work endures and remains this relevant today.
Buy the book Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995 here.
Story by Francesca Butler.
Francesca is a London based writer.