Researching Iris Murdoch in a Time of Pandemic
As I write this in late April 2021, England is beginning tentatively to emerge from a three-month lockdown. After a horrible year, although restrictions remain in place, there is a sense of liberation and relief. People are now meeting up, going shopping and getting together in small groups for meals and drinks outdoors, as we edge towards the prospect of lifting all the social limitations in June. Now libraries and archive collections are re-opening, and I am delighted that restrictions on travel have been lifted, so that I can make an appointment at the Iris Murdoch Special Collections at Kingston University, to continue my work on the archive material there.
I am based at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester and writing a PhD thesis on Displacement and Uprootedness in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. In March 2020, as lockdown started, I had set myself a programme using three Archive resources. Spending time at Kingston you feel you are close to Iris Murdoch’s mind, reading her handwriting and feeling her energy in her journals and letters, and in the books from her libraries in her London and Oxford homes which she generously annotated with her thoughts and responses. Before the pandemic I used to travel there from my home in Oxford for a visit nearly every month. It was always such a pleasure to arrive, welcomed by Dayna, the wonderful archivist, and find my pile of books and documents waiting for me. I would happily immerse myself for the day, enjoying the company of the volunteer transcribers, meeting other Murdoch researchers and quietly spending the day immersed in the documents. I would come away with notes and new thoughts on her texts.
Remotely, I was exploring some of the Murdoch Papers held at the University of Iowa. The collection is held there because Murdoch made a present of the manuscript of Under the Net to Brigid Brophy, who, with Murdoch’s permission, sold it in 1967 for £500 to Iowa when they were building up their Special Collections. Subsequently Iowa bought more of her manuscripts, and they now have an enviable collection of boxes containing notebooks, drafts and typescripts relating to most of the novels, the Gifford Lectures, some of the philosophical essays, the plays, as well as some correspondence. However, none of this material has been digitise, and the only way I could access it studying in Oxford was to commission a researcher at the University to scan and scan and download the individual documents which he sends to me electronically.
I was working on A Fairly Honourable Defeat at the beginning of 2020. This novel was published in 1970 and the Iowa Archive collection holds eleven quarto lined notebooks relating to this novel, together with a 507-page draft which is largely a copy of the notebooks, all in longhand manuscript. The speed with which Murdoch wrote her novels is evidenced by the date shown on the first notebook, June 1968, and the final draft copy is dated October 1968. The notebooks are most exciting; the first draft of the novel is written on the recto side while the verso side contains notes, jottings, drawings and diagrams. The text on the recto pages is almost identical to the final published version, but it is the verso pages which give a fascinating insight into the author’s thought process as the scenes in the novel are created. As there are so many pages, and my resources were limited, I had to focus on key sections in the work. In March last year it was becoming clear that Iowa, like all universities, was likely to be closed as the coronavirus pandemic spread and lockdown was imminent. Richard, the researcher I employed, was in the middle of downloading chapter 21 of A Fairly Honourable Defeat on 19 March, when he had to abandon the work.
At that time, I also found access to another source of material in the Special Collections of the University of Reading, which hold the archive of Iris Murdoch’s publisher, Chatto and Windus. As well as the letters between Iris Murdoch and her publisher, there are various other documents and correspondence about the publication and presentation of the books. They also hold folders of reviews from a wide range of publications on each of the novels which give fresh and contemporary responses to the work. John Banville writing in Hibernia considers the subject of A Fairly Honourable Defeat to be ‘truth and hypocrisy’; in contrast the reviewer for the Eastern Province Herald disapproves of the work, and considers that it is lacking morality. In their view ‘her pawns are compulsive nymphomaniacs, helpless pansies, placid housewives, old paupers, slack-spined Cantabrians, opinionated Oxonians,’ although it is admitted that ‘her London vignettes are superb’. These papers not only offer another angle on Iris Murdoch’s writing and the practicalities of publishing her fiction, but they also give a glimpse into the social and cultural environment into which her work was received. Sadly, my visit on 16 March 2020 was to be the last outing for several months.
Although this was disheartening and frustrating, the literary research student does not have the difficulties experienced by other postgraduate researchers, who may need physical access to the subject of their research, or the use of equipment or laboratories. The written word is available in journal articles and research papers are accessible digitally, although availability depends on subscription. It has been difficult to obtain printed material while there was limited access to libraries, but it has never been easier to buy books online, and so my bookshelves are overflowing! Throughout the period, I have been grateful for the resourcefulness and help offered by librarians and archivists, who have provided images of documents and were at hand to help hunt down obscure journal articles and provide scans of chapters and papers, although the copyright laws restricted the amount that could be supplied, and inter-library loans were curtailed.
While conferences and study days have been postponed, new ways have been found to continue the ongoing research and conversation about Murdoch’s work. Miles Leeson’s superb programme of podcasts has given us a chance to listen to a glittering array of Iris Murdoch readers speak on her philosophy, her literary writing and her life, and kept us up to date on some of the latest research. Topics range from in-depth discussion of Murdoch’s philosophy essays and novels, wild swimming, the Archives, art, music, Ireland and much more. This is such a valuable resource for the future, and it has also helped sustain the Iris Murdoch community during the year. Online Zoom and Microsoft Teams philosophy and fiction reading groups grew up in the dark early days of lockdown, and helped to relieve the social isolation. They continue to flourish throughout the period, bringing together academic and ordinary readers from many countries to ‘talk Murdoch’. The Iris Murdoch Book Group has so far read eleven of her novels in weekly instalments, and each time I come away with fresh insights into the writing and I am nourished by the lively discussion and enjoyment of the evening.
So, although original research plans were put on hold, I am planning to resume my archive research with a visit to Kingston Archive arranged next week, and I intend to return to the Chatto and Windus Archive next month and, although any visit to the University of Iowa is just a dream for the future, I am hoping to resume work with the archive researcher. I am looking forward to losing myself for an afternoon in an academic library alongside other people who are also absorbed in their study. Most of all I am looking forward to spending time with Murdoch’s lined notebooks or a pile of letters, as I struggle to decipher her handwriting and to come across notes and drawings which give delight and illuminate her writing and thought.
Maria Peacock is a PhD student at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre, University of Chichester