Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (1919–99), novelist and philosopher, was born 15 July 1919 at 59 Blessington St., Dublin, only child of Wills John Hughes Murdoch (1890–1958) (only son of Wills John Murdoch of Hillhall, Co. Down), second lieutenant, 1st King Edward's Horse (1915–19), and a second-division clerk in the British home civil service, and his wife Irene Cooper Alice (‘Rene’) (1899–1985) (younger daughter of Effingham L. Richardson of Blessington St., Dublin). Her parents had met when her father was stationed at the Curragh. If their marriage (7 December 1918) was in haste (Iris was born seven months later), a happy family life was ‘a perfect trinity of love’ (Murdoch). Iris's novels often featured women who – like her mother, a trained opera singer – had given up promising careers for men. The family lived in Hammersmith and later Chiswick, London. A love of books came from her gentle father. Educated at the Froebel Demonstration School, west London, and as a boarder at Badminton School, Bristol, she claimed to have been a ‘compulsive writer since the age of nine’. Awarded the Harriet Needham exhibition to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1938, she gained a first in Mods and Greats (classics, ancient history, and philosophy) in 1942. When there, she became a communist, but had left the party, disillusioned, by February 1946.
From 1942 to 1944 she was an assistant principal at HM Treasury, and from 1944 to 1946 worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Belgium and Austria. Although she had been contemplating a career in UNRRA, art history, or archaeology, Sartre's L'Être et le néant (Being and nothingness) turned her towards philosophy. Her communist antecedents precluding a commonwealth scholarship at Vassar, USA, in 1946, she took up the Sarah Smithson postgraduate studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1947. A philosophy tutor and later fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford (1948–63), she resigned to avoid the scandal of a liaison with a woman colleague. From 1963 to 1967 she lectured in general studies at the Royal College of Art.
Murdoch was intensely attractive to many men and some women. The lovestruck – to whom she was often ‘remorselessly kind’ (Conradi, IM: a life, 282) – included Frank Thompson (executed in Bulgaria, 1944; brother of E. P. Thompson, historian and peace campaigner); historian M. R. D. Foot; political philosopher Michael Oakeshott; poet Franz Steiner; senior civil servant (Sir) Leo Pliatzky; and Nobel novelist Elias Canetti, possibly the dark inspiration for Mischa Fox (The flight from the enchanter (1956)) and Charles Arrowby (The sea, the sea (1978)).
In 1956 she married John Oliver Bayley (b. 1925, son of Frederick Bayley, of Charing, Kent), writer, teacher, and critic, fellow of St Catherine's College, and Warton professor of English at Oxford. The marriage was childless. They lived a happy, chaotic existence, firstly at Steeple Aston, and then in north Oxford. Bayley attempted the cooking, she the shopping. With a lifestyle as ‘animals in a field’ (Murdoch) solitude was as important to each as togetherness. Devilish dancers and cardplayers, they knew by heart the popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s – and the musicality of her prose is striking. George Lyttelton (who taught Bayley at Eton) captured her character in 1959: ‘... tousled, heelless, ladder-stockinged little lady – crackling with intelligence but nothing at all of a prig...’ (Hart-Davis (ed.), The Lyttelton–Hart-Davis letters, iv (1982)). Approachable, yet formidable in conversation, she ‘disturbed the dynamics of any room she entered’ (Josephine Hart).
Murdoch wrote twenty-six novels. These – a major contribution to late twentieth-century English literature – restore the ‘moral’ story to a central place in the canon. Her later, longer novels allow space to develop moral complexities and a measured, deliberate incoherence. Her first, Under the net, appeared in 1954. The black prince was awarded the 1973 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and The sacred and profane love machine the 1974 Whitbread Prize. The sea, the sea was the 1978 Booker Prize winner (she was short-listed six times). The completion of her last novel, Jackson's dilemma (1995), was hindered by the onset of illness. Her plays were often adapted from the novels, including A severed head (1963; also, with J. B. Priestley, the screenplay for a film version by Dick Clement, Columbia Pictures Corp./Winkast Film Productions, 1971); The Italian girl (1967); and The black prince (1989). Acastos: two Platonic dialogues was staged as a 1980 National Theatre Platform Performance. Malcolm Williamson set A year of birds (1984; with engravings by Reynolds Stone, a friend), a volume of poetry, to music. A radio-opera, The one alone, was broadcast in 1986. There are many other radio pieces and interviews. A comprehensive bibliography is in J. Fletcher and C. Bove, Iris Murdoch: a primary and secondary annotated bibliography (1995). Murdoch's publishers were Chatto & Windus (UK) and Viking Press (USA).
Fastidiously fashioned – ‘I invent the whole thing before I start writing. Even the conversations are in my head’ (AP obit.) – her writings have been described as ‘smart philosophical soap operas with a handful of characters, some of whom are committing adultery, usually including a mystical dimension, often with a charismatic mystery man, often with imagery of drowning’ (www.robotwisdom.com). Comedy, even farce, is not far from the surface. Shakespearean reference abounds: A fairly honourable defeat (1970), The sea, the sea, and The black prince draw their inspiration from, respectively, ‘Much ado about nothing’, ‘The tempest’, and ‘Hamlet’. Her fiction was consciously modelled on those nineteenth-century novelists who wrote, she felt, with intense morality. Dickens, Scott, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and James fulfil the obligation to create characters ‘like real people’, something she had trouble in doing. The novels create ‘bafflement and satisfaction’ in equal measure (P. Duncker, introduction to The flight from the enchanter (2000)), and the reader has to work hard. Personally delivering handwritten manuscripts, in later years she was intolerant of editing. She seemed largely uninterested in critical acclaim and financial success.
If Murdoch, through one of her characters, felt that ‘unless one is a genius, philosophy is a mug's game’ she – though not in the first rank – is well regarded as a philosopher. Influenced by Sartre (the subject of her first book, Sartre: romantic rationalist (1953)), Kant, Freud, Schopenhauer, Weil, and Wittgenstein, her philosophy was essentially Platonic – the pursuit of ‘Good’ as a moral end. ‘Good represents the reality of which God is the dream’ (Metaphysics as a guide to morals (1992)). ‘Good’ has no independent existence; it is imaginatively created by people trying to do the right thing. However, as the moral life requires a religious-like commitment of faith and allegiance, the great religions are roads along which one can properly travel towards that end (cf. Bellamy James in The green knight (1993)). In later years Murdoch turned to Buddhism as the best reflection of this viewpoint. Beauty is the outward and visible sign of the ‘Good’ – ‘the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct’ (The sovereignty of good (1970)). One consequence may be that, in the novels, certain women, because of their beauty, cannot but be good, despite the moral havoc they often – unwittingly – wreak (Rain Carter in The sandcastle; Annette and Marcia Cockeyne in The flight from the enchanter; Kiki St Loy in The sacred and profane love machine; Tamar in The book and the brotherhood (1987)). These characters are the mediators of moral arguments, and thus a protected species; Murdoch does not often shoot the messenger.
Murdoch's views on the interplay between philosophy and literature are contained in The sublime and the beautiful revisited (1959), Against dryness (1961), and Existentialists and mystics: writings on philosophy and literature (1997). In the former two essays she proposes a theoretical division of twentieth-century novels into the ‘crystalline’ (‘a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not containing characters in the nineteenth-century sense’) and the ‘journalistic’ (a ‘large shapeless quasi-documentary object’ with little moral purpose). In the latter she contends that if postwar British analytical philosophy was self-constrictive to the point of absurdity, the literary form might do for philosophy what it could not do for itself. Yet while asserting (in Metaphysics as a guide to morals, based on the 1982 Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh) that ‘Art and morals are, with certain provisos... one’, she said in 1978 (B. Magee, Men of ideas) that her novels and philosophical views were not particularly connected. Her fiction's mystical and paranormal events, enchanted characters, and implausible coincidences (for instance, the vision of a flying saucer in The philosopher's pupil (1983) and Peter Mir's penumbra of goodness literally infecting other characters in The green knight) could be described as consoling fantasy rather than as truthful art. In contrast, her philosophy characterised fantasy as bad art (The fire and the sun: why Plato banished the artists (1977, based on the Romanes Lecture, 1976)).
Childhood and university contained much of Ireland. There were holidays, cousins, and the treasurership of the Oxford Irish Club. Murdoch was happy to be described as an Irish writer on early dust jackets. By 1961 that had been softened to ‘of Anglo-Irish parentage’ though by 1993, despite a visceral reaction to the Troubles, she was definite that ‘I absolutely feel Irish’. As with her friend Elizabeth Bowen (qv), Ireland provided the badge of the outsider, amplified by a sense of protestant minority. While Murdoch's fiction is not particularly fuelled by her professed Irishness, references crop up sporadically: the spectral dog ‘Liffey’ in The sandcastle; the character Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A severed head; a Dublin interlude in The book and the brotherhood; and a short story, Something special (1957, pub. 2000). Samuel Beckett's (qv) Murphy, perhaps resonating with her work in displaced persons’ camps, was an inspiration for her first published novel. Two others had predominantly Irish settings. With Murdoch searching for the fantastic, Ireland in the 1950s was ‘... a dream country where everything happens with a difference’ (Conradi, IM: a life, 447) – ideal territory to set The unicorn (1963). This is Ireland as Gormenghast, gothic and surreal. Earthier, The red and the green (1965) was a ‘historical’ novel of the 1916 rising and its aftermath, but really a series of interleaved love stories. Portrayed through the people of Murdoch's own background – the suburban and poorer gentry classes, nationalist and unionist – it is surprisingly sure-footed, the context placing limitations on her usual devices of complex coincidence, bizarre characterisation, and deus ex machina which so often allow a resolution of character and plot.
In 1957 Murdoch spent a one-month fellowship at Yale, and in 1962 time at McMaster University, Canada. In 1976 she was created CBE, and in 1987 DBE. She was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982 and a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and awarded the National Arts Clubs (New York) Medal of Honor for Literature in 1990. She received honorary degrees from, inter alia, QUB (1977), Dublin University (1985), and the University of Ulster (1993). Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1997 (though showing symptoms from 1994), she died 8 February 1999 in Vale House nursing home, Oxford, and was cremated. Bayley married again (Audi Villers) in 2000. A Tom Phillips portrait of Murdoch is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and she sat for photographs by Snowdon and Jane Bown. A film by Richard Eyre, Iris, was released in 2001.