The Lives and Deaths of Iris Murdoch: A Dialogue
This piece was performed at the University of East Anglia on 6 December 2014 as part of an event entitled ‘An Afternoon with Iris: Life, Thought, Writing’. You can find more details about it here: https://afternoonwithiris.weebly.com/
The young Iris Murdoch – Frances White
The dead Iris Murdoch – Pamela Osborn
Scene: 5 Seaforth Place
Philippa Foot describes Seaforth, the 18th-century granary flat which she and Iris Murdoch shared during the war:
‘Life was spartan in Seaforth, whose charming but impractical living space consisted of a roughly converted series of old storage lofts. The black-out for the skylight doubled as a bed-covering, so that I was instructed on my first night there to pull it down over me once the lights were out; and when the weather was really cold we would put our overcoats on over our clothes before we got into bed. In the day time an ancient gas fire which was the only heating gave us a few pale inches of wartime gas. Mercifully there was always enough coming through the equally ancient cooker to allow us to take hot water bottles to bed.’
Iris Murdoch Newsletter 13, 1999, p.2.
It is the 6th December 1944 and the young Iris Murdoch sits alone in Seaforth Place, huddled in a blanket.
IM: I should get on with my new novel, but my spirits are low tonight. The darkness in the blackout is hard to bear. And it’s so bitterly cold. The pond was frozen in St James’s Park today. Poor water birds. What an awful year it’s been. Noel and Frank both dead, so young, so beautiful, so much wasted potential. I miss Frank terribly, miss his letters and miss writing to him. When Pip told me he’d been killed I wept. So many people are weeping for so many dead. This war is never-ending. I wish I was a man and could go and fight. I want to be involved, not an onlooker. I wish I was a man anyway. I think I should have been born as a sadomasochistic homosexual man. I love Philippa more than I love any man.
At least I managed to escape from the Treasury this summer: I hate administration, it’s so boring and I’m not efficient at it. It’s better to be working for UNRRA but I do wish they’d send me across to Europe instead of keeping me kicking my heels here in London. But dear London, beloved city. At least I can live in the heart of it here at Seaforth with darling Pip. There have been good things too. Watching the Bohemians at their pub life, poets like Dylan Thomas in the Wheatsheaf and the Pillars of Hercules. That party we had here in May when Stevie Smith and Tambimuttu came – strange meeting of poets with Pip’s economist chums! The wild cheering of the crowds in June after the Normandy landings. (Frank was already dead, but I did not know it.)
I am getting nowhere with my life. Only three things are really worth anything: being happily married, being a saint and writing a good novel. I long to get married, I’d do anything to get married. So many men propose to me, indeed I believe I have the power to seduce anyone, but not the ones I could imagine marrying. I cannot marry Thomas Balogh, Frank was right to call him an emotional fascist. If Frank hadn’t been killed I might have married him. Will there ever be anyone for me? … And I’m no saint. I’ve behaved appallingly this year. When Tommy swept me off my feet I ran two love affairs for a while and then deserted poor Michael Foot. He was so hurt. And Pip was so shocked. I felt ashamed but still couldn’t stop myself. As for writing … I felt so hopeful when I finished that second novel in July, but it came back from Faber & Faber. Such a nice letter from T.S. Eliot, but still a rejection.
I so much want to make my mark.
Ghost: Don’t worry, Iris, you will make your mark.
IM: Who’s there? Did someone speak? Who are you?
Ghost: I am a voice from the future. I am your afterlife self.
IM: My afterlife self? So there is life after death, is there? I have never believed so.
Ghost: There is life beyond death while anyone still remembers you. You are remembered. Indeed, today, seventy years on, 50 people are gathered together in Norwich to remember you and to talk about your life and work.
IM: My work? Did I ever manage to get a novel published then?
Ghost: Not just one novel. Twenty-six. And many other works, of philosophy, poetry and drama.
IM: Are my novels any good?
Ghost: The jury is still out. You have many devoted readers. Some scholars, such as your dear friend Peter Conradi, have made you their life’s work. But you have detractors too and your merit is hotly debated.
IM: Well, that’s better than being forgotten. What else am I remembered for?
Ghost: I don’t know if you’ll really want to know all of this. There is an Iris Murdoch Society and an Iris Murdoch Review and conferences are held on your work.
IM: That sounds very pleasing.
Ghost: Yes, but a whole archive has grown up on your life and work at Kingston University … they are reading your letters, Iris.
IM: My letters? … you mean the letters I write to Frank and David and Pip?
Ghost: Yes, those, and letters you will write in future to many others too.
IM: Who is reading them? This is outrageous. Letters are private – only to be read by the one to whom they are sent.
Ghost: First it was just the archivist and scholars of your work, but now they have so many there is a team of transcribers typing them out, and soon some of them are going to be published in a book which Anne Rowe and Avril Horner are editing. It is your own eventual publishers, Chatto & Windus, who are doing this.
IM: Hmm. I don’t think this is ethical. What happened to privacy?
Ghost: You forswore privacy when you chose the life of an artist. The lives, and loves, of artists have always been fair game. The public demands it.
IM: Shakespeare got away with it. We know next to nothing about his life and loves.
Ghost: Shakespeare was a one-off. You insist on that yourself. But critics do find Shakespearean element in your art, you’ll be happy to know.
IM: What I’m not happy about is these letters. How did they get hold of them?
Ghost: Some were donated to the archive by your friends and some were bought for huge sums of money.
IM: My private letters are worth money?
Ghost: Yes, yes, you are very famous, both as a novelist and as a philosopher. You became Dame Iris Murdoch. Your portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Your face became iconic. A film has been made about your life and death. The actress who plays you as a young woman won’t even be born for another thirty years. Indeed the actress who plays you as an old woman is only 10 years old right now. So yes, your private letters are worth money: people will buy a letter from you just to have your signature.
IM: What folly. They would do better to read my work than my letters. Tell me, is that still being read now that you are … er, I am … as it were, dead?
Ghost: Yes, I am happy to say that your novels are still in print and new generations of readers are discovering them – some through the letters, so maybe you should be less annoyed about them. People want to know about you, about your life and what you are like.
IM: What I am like?... but that depends on who I am with... and on the mood of the day. I am many selves. I change like Proteus.
Ghost: Indeed you do, which puzzles many people. Sometimes you seem like a saint or a sage. At other times you appear promiscuous and treacherous.
IM: Oh, no, I’m not a sage – far from it! But I don’t feel I am promiscuous – there are just so many men I love. And women too, for that matter. So I suppose I never find a husband?
Ghost: Oh don’t worry, you do. Though not for quite a few years yet, and not without much heartbreak first.
IM: Frank’s death broke my heart.
Ghost: It will not be the only death to do so. But be comforted, you will have forty years of being happily married and your husband will outlive you.
IM: Who is my husband? An artist? A philosopher? Is he Jewish?
Ghost: No, you marry an Englishman, an Oxford man, a literary critic of distinction.
IM: Oh, so I spend my whole life among those damn spires with all those bleeding intellectuals? I’m not sure I like the prospect.
Ghost: You do spend a year in the fogs and fens of Cambridge and some years teaching philosophy at St Anne’s, but you always keep a London base, another eyrie like this one, to which you can escape.
IM: That’s a relief to know. Do this husband and I have children?
Ghost: No. John Bayley does not like children. But your life is very full. All the time you will be writing. There would not have been time for children as well as your books. You have many friends and you travel a great deal.
IM: I have only ever been abroad once, on a school trip to Geneva. I wish UNRRA would send me somewhere exciting.
Ghost: Never fear, they are just about to. You will soon be in Belgium and then in Austria. And later you will become very familiar with France and Italy. You will see America, China, Japan, Israel, Australia, Russia.
IM: That sounds exciting. Russia! The home of communism.
Ghost: Yes, well, that all changes somewhat … and so do you. You will not stay a communist. You will become a conservative in your old age.
Ghost: Wait and see. I never lie. Truth is important. The first person ever to write a book about your novels says that since she met you she cannot tell a lie.
IM: So I have influence on people? … for good, I hope?
Ghost: Your influence is far-reaching. You will change the face of philosophy, returning it to ethics and metaphysics. You set goodness and holiness centre stage again when they had been kicked off into the wings. You insist on the importance of the individual. You worry about the decline of religion and of prayer.
IM: Even though I do not believe in God?
Ghost: You believe in the Good and that human life must be a pilgrimage towards it.
IM: Oh yes, there has to be Good. If there is no Good we are lost. If there is no difference between good and evil and it does not matter, then … I am afraid of that. It would be terrible to live in the time of the angels. Do people listen to me?
Ghost: Your novels enter readers’ lives and change them.
IM: You make me sound rather priggish though. What makes people want to read me if I am an earnest moralist challenging them to become good?
Ghost: You are first and foremost an artist. You entertain. You are very funny and witty. You spin a good yarn. You wear your philosophy lightly. Even in your philosophical books which are more readable than most philosophers.
IM: Well that’s good news. I think people should always write clearly. But tell me more about these novels. When do I break through the rejections I am currently suffering?
Ghost: Not with the novels you are working on now. But ten years from now you will make your début with astonishing élan.
IM: Not for another ten years!
Ghost: No, you hone your writing skills before Under the Net announces your distinctive voice to the world. It remains Pip’s favourite of your novels.
IM: Pip stays in my life, then? She is so angry with me about Michael, I fear I may lose her.
Ghost: No, fear not, your friendship weathers the storms and separations. She will be there for you when you sicken and die.
IM: Let us not speak of death … tell me more about my life. Writing a good novel is the only thing that really matters. Does my work never improve then?
Ghost: Improvement is perhaps not a helpful concept. Your novels are each so different. Every time you try again to capture your vision and every time you feel you have failed to do so. But you try again and again. Each novel is flawed, but Lorna Sage (who is currently still a toddler) will say of your work that ‘it has a unique quality of (in the best sense) stubborn imperfection’. Philosophers hold similar views of your philosophical works.
IM: I don’t know how I came to write philosophy. It’s Pip that’s good at that, she is so clever. I’m not. I find philosophy so difficult it hurts my brain. It’s like turning a billiard ball in one’s hands & trying to tear it open.
Ghost: True. But you always stay conscious that a difficulty is a light, an insuperable difficulty is a sun. You wrestle on with Plato and Kant who become your mentors …
IM [interrupting]: Plato?
Ghost: Yes, you get very fond of him and write an excellent account of why he banished the artists. You love Schopenhauer, worry at Wittgenstein like a terrier with a rat, and to the end of your life you will obsess about the problem posed by Heidegger, though your book on him won’t be published for a long time. However, you do publish the first book in English on Jean Paul Sartre (aside: whom, little do you know, you are about to meet in Belgium) which breaks you onto the philosophy stage with something of a flourish.
IM: I’m reading his novels right now, most exciting. But I don’t think one should be a philosophical novelist. Philosophy is philosophy and art is art.
Ghost: So you will say repeatedly … though people will argue with you.
IM: What do people say about me now? I mean now that I’m you, as it were? How am I remembered?
Ghost: It’s complex. There are myriad negative representations of you, I’m afraid. The ‘Saint Iris’ image which grew during your lifetime was rocked by your husband’s memoirs of your decline …
IM: [interrupting]: He wrote about me?
Ghost: Yes. He said you wouldn’t mind.
Ghost: It made you into a sort of ‘Alzheimer’s Poster Girl’, as I’m afraid that’s what you will die of.
IM: Oh. Well, I can’t worry about that now – I’ve got all of my life to live first. But it seems a pity to remember someone for what they died of not what they lived for.
Ghost: Quite. The other image of you that attracted public attention was as a femme fatale thanks to all your affairs.
IM: But how do the public know about them? I keep all my affairs very private. Hardly any of my friends know about each other, let alone my lovers.
Ghost: I’m afraid your official biographer, Peter Conradi, had to tell them. It bothered him very much. Pip told him to go ahead though, even about your affair with her.
IM: So you’re telling me I’m to be reduced to sex and senility? That’s very dispiriting.
Ghost: Possibly in the public imagination. It wasn’t helped by the fact that those are the chief features in the film Richard Eyres made about your life. Scenes of the bedroom and of battiness are far easier to shoot than scenes of hard intellectual toil or the joy of creative imagination. Hours of film of you writing steadily with your Mont Blanc pen at your desk under Harry Weinberger’s paintings in your richly cluttered study full of books and stones would not, I fear, keep cinema audiences entertained.
IM: No, writing is a very solitary undramatic business.
Ghost: But do not despair, that is only the superficial version of your being. Those who know you, that is to say, those who read you, think otherwise. Your true legacy is your crafted art not your somewhat colourful life. And those who mourn for you are perhaps transforming you into a work of art yourself.
IM: That can’t be right. Human lives are essentially not to be summed up, but to be known, as they are lived, in many curious partial and inarticulate ways, as I told my friend David Hicks. Who is doing this to me, and why?
Ghost: All the life-writers who give us their versions of you. Your husband John, started the ball rolling even before you died, Peter wrote your official biography as you had agreed with him, another friend wrote about you as he had known you, an old student published his memoir of you, literary critics seek links between your life and your work, Frances White has even written about how you became yourself!
IM [interrupting]: How impertinent! As if anyone could know that.
Ghost: As for why?... They feel compelled. Each additional work of life writing about you contributes to a fuller and more realised picture of you, which enables a community of survivors, which includes your readers, to be sustained.
IM: Ah, survivors. Yes, I am already beginning to know about that. How the dead do haunt the living. Poor darling Frank.
Ghost: You are just as problematically mourned. But you knew this would be the case. In novels you write in your maturity, The Black Prince, The Sea, The Sea, which will win you the Booker Prize, and your last sad brave novel Jackson’s Dilemma you show how aware you are of the tendency of biographers or memoirists to ‘feed upon’ the dead for egotistical gain, and in these novels you challenge attempts of life-writers to capture and exploit you after your death. So you contend with your own death and afterlife in your fiction before anyone else has the opportunity to do so.
IM: Ah well, I’ll have done the best I can with it then. I’ll be powerless to prevent people saying what they want to once I’m dead. Though I still think they should all have burnt my letters. I burnt theirs.
Ghost: I have to go now. I’m having dinner with Jean Paul Sartre – yes, he lives on too – but I’ll tell you something cheering before I leave you.
IM: I’d like to be cheered. Happiness is important too.
Ghost: The thousands of letters you wrote to many different friends are the only place where you can survive on your own terms – as a kind of accidental woman, a form of autobiography. And your letters are doing good.
IM: How so?
Ghost: Last year there was a special project in your archive (supported by something called the Heritage Lottery Fund) which invited lots of people who would never usually enter a university or use an archive to come and read some of your letters to Pip and to see a beautiful exhibition of them in Kingston museum.
IM: What sort of people?
Ghost: Just ordinary folk in the local community including old people, people whose lives are spent caring for others, people with mental health problems and people with learning difficulties.
IM: Oh! So individuals go on mattering? That is something cheering. But what did they make of my letters?
Ghost: They were fascinated. They felt they came to know you. One young man with Down’s Syndrome kissed your photograph and hugged your books.
IM: How moving.
Ghost: It was. They learned a lot about memory, about the war you are enduring now and the terrible century you lived through, and about friendship. And many of the people who came to the archive read some of your novels and enjoyed them.
IM: Cheering indeed.
Ghost: Some schoolgirls came too, bright lively young women fascinated by history and philosophy and, increasingly by you. Two of them wrote letters to me – to you, that is, but to you in this afterlife form I now take – telling you about their lives and what they learned from you. Shall I tell you what they said?
IM: Yes, please.
Ghost: Sukaina Kadhum, an Iranian-Welsh young Muslim girl, describes you as ‘a mysterious, brooding, strong woman; brow furrowed looking straight at the camera’, and she wants you to know that what makes your novels so special is that you are able to describe meticulous details of human nature with a manner of great importance and that you manage to capture the heart of so many issues such as goodness, moral improvement and the concept of the self while always maintaining a non-judgemental and objective tone.
IM: That is high praise from someone so young and so far in the future.
Ghost: And Susannah Rees, whom you influenced to go to Oxford where she is now reading theology at Keble College, wrote to you, ‘we’ve been visiting all your old haunts: St James’s Park, Seaforth Place and Somerville College to name a few …. After I learnt all about you through the project, I pored over the thirty-three portraits of you on the National Portrait Gallery website and I sat and stared at you and imagined what I’d tell you about the twenty-first century.’ She is sensitive to the issue of privacy about your letters which concerns you and says, ‘You must feel as though I’m a terrible peeping-tom; peering through the chink in the curtains of your public persona, at your letters to Philippa.’
IM: Well, yes, it is still a bit of a shock, hearing this. But they sound nice girls, good girls, clever girls. It matters that they still mind about these things and are getting a good education. I am humbled to hear that my influence extends thus beyond the grave.
Ghost: Susy said she would never have thought of applying to Oxford and never thought about studying theology if she had not had the experience of reading your work and learning about your life.
IM: Oh. Well that puts it all in a different light. And they do read my work, these young women?
Ghost: Yes. Sukaina loves The Sandcastle, the third novel you will publish – she was reading it on a train when all the pages blew down the carriage in a draught and all the passengers collected them for her and smiled at her.
IM: What a lovely thing to happen.
Ghost: And Susy read your study of Plato, The Fire and the Sun. And they both thought Seaforth a magical mystical place to live in and loved feeding the ducks in St James’s Park!
IM: Ah, dear water birds!
Ghost: So, you see, young Iris, you are surviving. That is how I can be here. So I wouldn’t worry too much about people reading your letters, or about what they say in biographies or how they represent you in films. You will live on for as long as new readers find, read, and love your novels.
IM: That’s all that matters, really. I’d better find my pen and get on with writing my new novel again. Perhaps I’ll call it The Ghost and the Artist!
Important note to readers
As this piece was originally written for performance, not for publication, this document contains sections of work by Frances White and Pamela Osborn published elsewhere, quotations from essays by Sukaina Kadhum and Susannah Rees also published elsewhere, and phrases lifted from Iris Murdoch’s letters © Kingston University Archive, none of which have quotation marks or footnotes to acknowledge them.