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Iris Murdoch

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Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch
Born Jean Iris Murdoch
(1919-07-15)15 July 1919
Dublin, Ireland
Died 8 February 1999(1999-02-08) (aged 79)
Oxfordshire, England
Occupation Novelist
Period 1953–97
Spouse John Bayley, 1956–1999

Dame Iris Murdoch DBE (; 15 July 1919 – 8 February 1999) was an Irish-born British author and philosopher, best known for her novels about good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 1998 as one of Modern Library's 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2008, The Times ranked Murdoch twelfth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".[1]


Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Phibsborough, Dublin, Ireland, on 15 July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down. Hughes Murdoch, a civil servant, enlisted as a soldier in King Edward's Horse in 1915 and served in France during World War I before being promoted to Second lieutenant. Her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as a singer before Iris was born, was from a middle class Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Iris Murdoch's parents first met in Dublin when her father was on leave, and were married in 1918.[2]:14 Iris was the couple's only child. When she was a few weeks old the family moved to London, where her father had joined the Ministry of Health as a second class clerk.[3]:67

She was educated in private progressive schools, entering the Froebel Demonstration School in 1925, and attending Badminton School in Bristol as a boarder from 1932 to 1938. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1938 with the intention of studying English, but switched to Greats. At Oxford she studied philosophy with Donald M. MacKinnon and attended Eduard Fraenkel's seminars on Agamemnon.[2] She was awarded a First Class Honours degree in 1942.[4] After leaving Oxford she went to work in London for HM Treasury. In June 1944 she left the Treasury and went to work for the UNRRA. At first she was stationed in London at the agency's European Regional Office. In 1945 she was transferred first to Brussels, then to Innsbruck, and finally to Graz, Austria, where she worked in a refugee camp. She left the UNRRA in 1946.[2]:245

From 1947 to 1948 Iris Murdoch studied philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. She met Wittgenstein at Cambridge but did not hear him lecture, as he had left his Trinity College professorship before she arrived.[5] In 1948 she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963. In 1956 Murdoch married John Bayley, a literary critic, novelist, and from 1974 to 1992 Warton Professor of English at Oxford University. From 1963 to 1967 she taught one day a week in the General Studies department at the Royal College of Art[2]:469

Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1954. She had previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph about Jean-Paul Sartre published in English. She went on to produce 25 more novels and additional works of philosophy, as well as poetry and drama. In 1975 she was named to the Order of the British Empire and in 1987 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire.[2]:571, 575 She was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Bath (DLitt,1983),[6] University of Cambridge (1993)[7] and Kingston University (1994), among others. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982.[8]

Her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, was published in 1995. Iris Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1997 and died in 1999 in Oxford.[5]


Her philosophical writings were influenced by Simone Weil (from whom she borrows the concept of 'attention'), and by Plato, under whose banner she claimed to fight.[9]:76[10] In re-animating Plato, she gives force to the reality of the Good, and to a sense of the moral life as a pilgrimage from illusion to reality. From this perspective, Murdoch's work offers perceptive criticism of Sartre and Wittgenstein ('early' and 'late'). Her most central parable concerns a mother-in-law 'M' who works to see her daughter-in-law 'D' "justly or lovingly".[11]:317 The parable is partly meant to show (against Oxford contemporaries including R. M. Hare and Stuart Hampshire) the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. Seeing another aright can depend on overcoming jealousy, and discoveries about the world involve inner work.

Her novels, in their attention and generosity to the inner lives of individuals, follow the tradition of novelists like Proust, besides showing an abiding love of Shakespeare. There is however great variety in her achievement, and the richly layered structure and compelling realistic comic imagination of The Black Prince (1973) is very different from the early comic work Under the Net (1954) or The Unicorn (1963). The Unicorn can be read as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince, for which Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is a study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated, suggesting multiple interpretations, when subordinate characters contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords. Though novels differ markedly, and her style developed, themes recur. Her novels often include upper-middle-class male intellectuals caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously "knowing" children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters—a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.[2]:350–352

Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea, a finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, featuring a retired stage director who is overwhelmed by jealousy when he meets his erstwhile lover after several decades apart. An authorised collection of her poetic writings, Poems by Iris Murdoch, appeared in 1997, edited by Paul Hullah and Yozo Muroya. Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. J. B. Priestley's dramatisation of her 1961 novel A Severed Head starred Ian Holm and Richard Attenborough.

In 1997, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature".[12]


Iris Murdoch won a scholarship to study at [14]:210

Aside from her Communist Party membership, her Irish heritage is the other sensitive aspect of Murdoch's political life that seems to attract interest. Part of the interest revolves around the fact that, although Irish by both birth and traced descent on both sides, Murdoch does not display the full set of political opinions that are sometimes assumed to go with this origin: "No one ever agrees about who is entitled to lay claim to Irishness. Iris's Belfast cousins today call themselves British, not Irish... [but] with both parents brought up in Ireland, and an ancestry within Ireland both North and South going back three centuries, Iris has as valid a claim to call herself Irish as most North Americans have to call themselves American".[2]:24 Conradi notes A.N. Wilson's record that Murdoch regretted the sympathetic portrayal of the Irish nationalist cause she had given earlier in The Red and the Green, and a competing defence of the book at Caen in 1978.[2]:465 The novel while broad of sympathy is hardly an unambiguous celebration of the 1916 rising, dwelling upon bloodshed, unintended consequences and the evils of romanticism, besides celebrating selfless individuals on both sides. Later, of Ian Paisley, Iris Murdoch stated "[he] sincerely condemns violence and did not intend to incite the Protestant terrorists. That he is emotional and angry is not surprising, after 12–15 years of murderous IRA activity. All this business is deep in my soul, I'm afraid."[2]:465 In private correspondence with her close friend and fellow philosopher Philippa Foot, she remarked in 1978 that she felt "unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred" and, of a Franco-Irish conference she had attended in Caen in 1982, said that "the sounds of all those Irish voices made me feel privately sick".[15]

Biographies and memoirs

Peter J. Conradi's 2001 biography was the fruit of long research and authorised access to journals and other papers. It is also a labour of love, and of a friendship with Murdoch that extended from a meeting at her Gifford Lectures to her death. The book was well received. John Updike commented: "There would be no need to complain of literary biographies [...] if they were all as good". The text addresses many popular questions about Murdoch, such as how Irish she was, what her politics were, etc. Though not a trained philosopher, Conradi's interest in Murdoch's achievement as a thinker is evident in the biography, and yet more so in his earlier work of literary criticism The Saint and the Artist: A Study of Iris Murdoch's Works (Macmillan 1986, HarperCollins 2001). He also recalled his personal encounters with Murdoch in Going Buddhist: Panic and Emptiness, the Buddha and Me. (Short Books, 2005). Conradi's archive of material on Murdoch, together with Iris Murdoch's Oxford library, is held at Kingston University.[16]

An account of Murdoch's life with a different ambition is given by A. N. Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The work was described by Galen Strawson in The Guardian as "mischievously revelatory" and labelled by Wilson himself as an "anti-biography".[17] It eschews Conradi's objectivity, but is careful to stress his current and past affection for his subject. Wilson remarks that Murdoch "had clearly been one of those delightful young women... who was prepared to go to bed with almost anyone".[3]:59 A central difference is that while Murdoch's thought is for Conradi an inspiration to his "Going Buddhist", Wilson treats Murdoch's philosophical work as at best a distraction. In a BBC Radio 4 discussion of Murdoch and her work in 2009, Wilson assented to Bidisha's view that Murdoch's philosophical output consisted of nothing but "GCSE-style" essays on Plato,[18] and even suggested that Murdoch's later philosophical work "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" was a mistake that precipitated Murdoch into Alzheimers. This would be the area of difference between Wilson and Conradi. This dispute between two literary figures about the status of Murdoch's philosophical contribution has some life also among professional philosophers.

David Morgan met Iris Murdoch in 1964, when he was a student at the Royal College of Art.[2] :475 His 2010 memoir With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch, describes their life-long friendship.[19]

Murdoch was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memories of his wife as she developed Alzheimer's disease. Parts of the movie were filmed at Southwold in Suffolk, one of Murdoch's favourite holiday places.



  1. ^ (5 January 2008). The 50 greatest British writers since 1945 at the Wayback Machine (archived 25 April 2011). The Times. Archived on 25 April 2011. Retrieved on 18 June 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Conradi, Peter J. (2001). Iris Murdoch : A Life. New York: Norton.  
  3. ^ a b Wilson, A.N. (2003). Iris Murdoch as I knew her. London: Hutchinson.  
  4. ^ Somerville College. "Iris Murdoch". Somerville Stories. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  5. ^ a b  
  6. ^ "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present | University of Bath". Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter M". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  9. ^ Murdoch, Iris (2001). The Sovereignty of Good. London New York: Routledge.  
  10. ^ In Philosophy Now magazine, Maria Antonaccioa – a prolific writer on Murdoch – is cited as suggesting Murdoch gives equal weight to Plato and Liberalism. the article is accessible here (link), accessed March 2014.
  11. ^ Murdoch, Iris (1997). "The Idea of Perfection". In Peter Conradi (Ed). Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London: Chatto & Windus.  
  12. ^ "Golden Pen Award, official website".  
  13. ^ Todd, Richard (1984). Iris Murdoch. London: Methuen.  
  14. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey (Summer 1990). "Iris Murdoch: The Art of Fiction No. 117". Paris Review (115): 206–224. Retrieved 20 June 2012. But it was just as well, in a way, to have seen the inside of Marxism because then one realizes how strong and how awful it is, certainly in its organized form. 
  15. ^ Brown, Mark (31 August 2012). "Iris Murdoch Letters Reveal Love for Close Friend Philippa Foot". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 September 2012. 
  16. ^ Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Kingston University, Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  17. ^ Strawson, Galen (6 September 2003). "Telling Tales". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2012. 
  18. ^ "BBC Radio 4 Archive discussion on Murdoch: ''An Unofficial Iris'': 28/06/09". 29 June 2009. Retrieved 29 August 2013. 
  19. ^ "With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch". Kingston University London. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 


  • Antonaccio, Maria (2000) Picturing the human: the moral thought of Iris Murdoch OUP. ISBN 0-19-516660-4
  • Bayley, John (1999) Elegy for Iris. Picador. ISBN 0-312-25382-6
  • Bayley, John (1998 ) Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. ISBN 0-7156-2848-8
  • Bayley, John (1999) Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire. W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 0-393-32079-0
  • Bove, Cheryl (1993) Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 087249876X.
  • Byatt. A.S. (1965) Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch. Chatto & Windus
  • Conradi, P.J. (2001) Iris Murdoch: A Life. W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 0-393-04875-6
  • Conradi, P.J. (forward by John Bayley) The Saint and the Artist. Macmillan 1986, HarperCollins 2001 ISBN 0-00-712019-2
  • Dooley, Gillian (ed.) (2003) From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations With Iris Murdoch. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press ISBN 1-57003-499-0
  • Laverty, Megan (2007) Iris Murdoch's Ethics: A Consideration of Her Romantic Vision. Continuum Press ISBN 0-8264-8535-9
  • Martens, Paul. (2012) "Iris Murdoch: Kierkegaard as Existentialist, Romantic, Hegelian, and Problematically Religious" in Kierkegaard's Influence on Philosophy. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-140-944055-0.
  • Monteleone, Ester (2012) Il Bene, l'individuo, la virtù. La filosofia morale di Iris Murdoch. Rome, Armando Editore. ISBN 978866770879
  • Morgan, David (2010) With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch. Kingston University Press. ISBN 9781899999422
  • Widdows, Heather (2005) The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch. Ashgate Press ISBN 0-7546-3625-9
  • Wilson, A.N. (2003) Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. London, Hutchinson. ISBN 9780091742461
  • Zuba, Sonja (2009) Iris Murdoch's Contemporary Retrieval of Plato: The Influence of an Ancient Philosopher on a Modern Novelist. New York, Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 9780773438248

External links

  • The Iris Murdoch Building at the Dementia Services Development Centre, University of Stirling accessed 2010-02-24
  • The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies, Kingston University, London accessed 2010-02-24
  • 8 September 2001GuardianReview of Conradi's Murdoch biography, accessed 2010-02-24
  • Collated reviews of Conradi biography accessed 2010-02-24
  • Collated reviews of AN Wilson biography accessed 2010-02-24
  • A series of Iris Murdoch walks in London accessed 2010-02-24
  • , 6 September 2003The GuardianReview of A. N. Wilson's Murdoch biography; accessed 2010-02-24
  • , 3 September 2003The GuardianReview of A. N. Wilson's Murdoch biography; accessed 2010-02-24
  • Joyce Carol Oates on Iris Murdoch
  • Archival material relating to Iris Murdoch listed at the UK National Archives
  • Search results for "Iris Murdoch" at PhilPapers
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