28 November 2022By Miles LeesonBlog

Collecting Iris Murdoch: The Fiction

Growing up in a household that was, at any one time, filled with longcase clocks, postcards and (my personal favourite) taxidermy, it’s probably no surprise that I began collecting myself. The old maxim ‘collect what you enjoy’ is clearly true in the case of Murdoch’s work and, over the past twenty years or so, I’ve built up a substantial collection of her books and ephemera. Serious book collecting isn’t the draw it was for earlier generations, and the biggest prices are still attached to the works of the canonical dead white males (although Dickens can be surprisingly cheap), making Murdoch and some of her contemporaries viable and reasonable to collect. So how do you go about starting a collection of Murdoch’s works? Where do you find them? And, crucially, how much should you pay?

For most book collectors, condition is key and the most sought-after copies are those in as mint condition as possible. This includes the dustjacket, which for antiquarian books accounts for up to 90% of the book’s value, however oddly fetishistic that may sound. A first edition of Under the Net from 1954, for example, can be found for around £50 or less without the dustjacket – with it, and vitally in very good condition, the cost can rise to several thousand pounds in a dealer’s catalogue. However, unless you’ve got very deep pockets, a smart bookshop won’t be the place that you start your collection; and thankfully it doesn’t need to be. You can find most of her novels for £50 or less in reasonable condition: as a rule of thumb the earlier the date of publication for Murdoch’s work, the more you can expect to pay for it. This is due to two factors: one, the scarcity of copies (especially for the earliest novels up to The Bell) and secondly the fewer copies in very good condition on the market as one goes backwards in time. However, you’ll only need to spend a significant amount on the first few novels or if you want a copy of The Sea, The Sea in a bright and undamaged dustjacket.

From The Bell onwards the novels become much more affordable. Certainly you should be able to get most, if not all, in good to very good condition from second-hand bookshops, if you enjoy hunting for them in person. If you want the thrill of the auction, then you can find every Murdoch first edition on Ebay today, although condition and price will vary. Whilst some of my collection has come from hunting in shops, it’s far easier to buy online and a secure way to buy. Collections of Murdoch’s novels also come up regularly on www.the-saleroom.com, if you want a ready-made shelf of texts, although I think it takes out the fun of hunting around. There’s also the excellent website www.bookfinder.com if you’re looking for a particular edition, or if you want a signed copy. Signed copies, especially those with a dedication by Murdoch, are clearly going to be more expensive, and these can run from the low hundreds (although you can get a signed copy of one of the later novels for less than £100) into the low thousands, especially if you want what is known as an ‘Association Copy’, that is one dedicated to a known person, particularly a friend or fellow author. Some collectors prize these above all others, but some are happy just to have the first edition copy in good condition. There are bargains to be had out there, especially online, and she is still very much undervalued. A couple of highlights I’ve picked up for less than £100 include Brigid Brophy’s copy of The Red and the Green, dedicated to her by Iris, with Brophy’s pencil annotations, and a copy of A Severed Head dedicated to Wallace Robson, an early boyfriend.

But how do you know if your copy of the novel is a first edition? To begin, you can check online to see if the dustjacket matches the original – not forgetting that the American covers are very different – and, if they are the same, you can then check the copyright page, which names the publisher, location of publication, and year. In the 1990s a number line was added in the UK, so both The Green Knight and Jackson’s Dilemma will have this. On all the other novels if the book is a ‘true’ first edition it will simply have one date listed, with no subsequent dates or ‘impressions’ listed; if it does, it is a first edition but a later impression, which isn’t worth much at all (although for some sought-after authors like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K Rowling they can be). If in doubt, you can check online, or ask on the Iris Murdoch Facebook group. The UK and US have all 26 in first edition, other countries vary but I don’t believe all are in translation in any one language, although this is an area I’m not well versed in. The best bibliography to consult is Bove and Fletcher’s from the late 1990s which gives an overview and precise detail of everything that was available (roughly) in Murdoch’s lifetime; an invaluable resources for collectors and scholars alike.

Although you may not see books as an investment, they do hold their value and, as the interest in Murdoch’s work increases, they seem likely to increase in price as well. They also have the ability to furnish a room, as Anthony Powell would have it (for more on Powell and Murdoch, see a previous blogpost), and the spines of the books and the covers can be artfully arranged. The difficulty I’ve found is once you start you discover there are limited editions, small press publications, the philosophical works, the dramatic works and so on, all of which can turn you from a collector into a completist. But that may be a topic for another blogpost…

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