Iris Murdoch: Morality and the Novel


Dr Anne Rowe, Associate Professor of English, Kingston University

19 January 2015


Iris Murdoch’s novels do not prove anything; they attend as much to what is intricate and ambivalent in experience, as much as to what is absolute and ambiguous.
- Professor John Haffenden: Introduction to his interview with Iris Murdoch in Novelists in Interview (Methuen, 1985)

All human beings are symbolic animals - one’s always got certain obsessive symbols which seem to represent deep metaphysical ideas or moral ideas.
- Iris Murdoch: Novels Up To Now, BBC Radio Three


The following is an expanded version of Dr Anne Rowe’s talk at the BRLSI. The second part is my own addition, which considers points of view which have been rather less pro-Murdoch than those presented by the speaker. The paragraphs on The Good Apprentice, referred to briefly by Dr Rowe, represent my own views about this novel, and so do the comments on The Black Prince and The Sea, The Sea.

Anne Rowe is Associate Professor of English at Kingston University, and is Director of the Iris Murdoch Archive Project there.  Kingston has become the main basis for research into the life and work of Iris Murdoch as novelist and philosopher, housing a Special Collection of her various private libraries, her published books, various unfinished work (such as her incomplete book on Heidegger), her letters to many individuals, and a range of other materials. The death of Iris Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, on 12 January 2015, aged 89, occurred only a week before this talk at the BRLSI. It was announced by Dr Rowe, and there was a strong feeling that as a consequence of Bayley’s death, there could be many further accessions to the Kingston Special Murdoch Collection.

Dr Rowe is a long-standing admirer and scholar of Iris Murdoch’s work, and has close academic links with Murdoch’s main biographer, Emeritus Professor Peter Conradi, author of The Saint and the Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch (1986, 2/1989) Her talk was based first and foremost on her view of Murdoch as a profound writer whose novels will always form part of the canon of late 20th Century English literature. For there is no doubt that Murdoch is a truly ‘literary’ novelist.  Dr Rowe stressed Iris Murdoch’s practical wisdom, her philosophy of the annihilation of the self, the turning on its head of the ‘pop’ psychology of the time, centred as it was on the importance of the individual and the self before all else. Speaking as a teacher of Murdoch’s work to undergraduates, Dr Rowe has hard students say that ‘studying Iris Murdoch has changed my life. I see things differently’.

In all, Murdoch produced 26 novels between 1954 and 1996, which amounts to a novel every eighteen months, on average.  At the height of her productivity, between 1968 and 1978, she wrote a complete novel each calendar year. Her intellectual brilliance was recognised early on, and after graduating in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, she became a Fellow in Philosophy at St Anne’s College from 1948 to 1963. She also wrote poetry and plays, and collaborated on more than one opera libretto, even though she had no background in music. Always a moral psychologist, Murdoch stressed that ‘moral philosophy must be inhabited’, and she brought philosophy into her novels in a way that is purposely unobtrusive. Dealing with our inner lives, Murdoch stresses that we cannot always tell what is going on in people’s minds by the way they act. Her central topic is ‘how to become good’. Her central perception is that of human frailty. Her novels are a way of translating her philosophical meditations, beginning with Sartre and Existentialism, but increasingly based on readings of Plato and Wittgenstein, into accessible form. Yet for all that, she always insisted that she was not a philosophical novelist.

Referring to the film Iris, based on John Bayley’s indiscreet books about his late wife and her descent into Alzheimer’s Disease during the mid and later 1990s, Dr Rowe called it a travesty, and regretted that for many, Iris Murdoch’s distinguished, very creative life would forever be associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, instead of her actual literary achievement. Bayley, who married their close friend Audi Villers after Iris died, produced three books in rapid succession, Iris: A Memoir (1998, while she was still alive), Iris and Friends: A Year of Memories (1999) and a final one, Widower’s House (2001). Though beautifully written, and quite sincere, they have together probably in the long run harmed her reputation more than they have enhanced it, for all that they attracted great publicity, and an equally large curious and possibly rather prurient readership. In the film, Kate Winslet plays the young Iris, while Judi Dench, a remarkable physical look-alike, plays Iris in her final years, a victim of severe dementia.

Dr Rowe’ picture of Murdoch’s prolific writing as a novelist, and her various philosophical works from Sartre : Romantic Rationalist (1953) to Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) is that of a non-didactic novelist who was nevertheless a moral educator, one who insisted that we all see the world through a veil of fantasy, seeing it as we want to see it. We are all, Murdoch argues, creatures who live in a world which we are constantly tempted to form by way of private fantasy. In Iris Murdoch’s world, there is no moral voice which says categorically ‘this is the wrong or the right thing to do’. The morality of action has to come from inside the reader’s head. Morality is a matter of vision, and Murdoch’s characters are constantly faced with decisions about the unknown or uncertain future - otherwise known as aporia.  A crucial aspect of this is the effect your actions will have on other people, as witnessed in so many of her novels from the beginning, for instance, The Bell, and A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and well as, later on, The Sea, the sea, and The Good Apprentice. She asks the question ‘Am I seeing the world authentically?’ even though there are many improbabilities in the structure and character of many of her novels.

Michael Meade, the homosexual failed priest and failed schoolmaster in The Bell (1958) was mentioned. He started a lay community, Imber Court in Gloucestershire, situated right next to an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns, Imber Abbey. Meade renounced his homosexuality and private wealth, and becomes an archetypal ‘Good Man’. In one crucial scene, (pp. 157-8) Meade is seen in a bar with a 17 year-old boy, Toby Gashe, very happy and free, having renounced desire. But he is more than a little drunk, and near the Court in his car, gives way to sudden desire by kissing the boy. Toby is very shocked, and unfortunately the scene is witnessed by Nick Fawley, twin brother of another of the novel’s key characters, the young novitiate nun Catherine Fawley. Nick and Michael knew each other at Michael’s school and were mutually attracted to each other then. Nick betrayed Michael and is about to do so again. Dr Rowe quotes the scene between Michael and Toby as an example of Murdoch leading public opinion in 1958, a mere year after the Wolfenden Report had recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. (This did not pass into law until the time of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary in 1967).  The Bell was the first Murdoch novel to be adapted for television (by Reg Gadney in 1982 for the BBC) and featured Ian Holm as Meade and the young Michael Maloney as Toby Gashe.

In The Sea, the Sea (1978), the novel which won Murdoch the Booker Prize that year, the successful and charismatic theatre director Charles Arrowby mourns the past, despite everything. He goes to live in Cornwall, and pursues the girl he loved when he was eighteen, Mary Hartley Fitch, long since married to Ben Fitch, a retired salesman. The setting on the coast is important throughout the novel. In an article ‘Crest of a Wave’ (Daily Mail 23 November 1978) Murdoch said that ‘my imagination lives on the sea and under the sea.’ She always loved water and swimming, well into old age. Anne Rowe said that as a young woman, she believed in Charles Arrowby, and the morality, even the naturalness of what he was doing. In reality, Arrowby was an unwanted stalker, an intruder, pursuing a selfish and irrational obsession. Most readers now would view him as a monster of egotism, a dangerous man on the loose. For myself, I found the whole story thoroughly dispiriting when I first read it in 1979, though it is brilliantly done. Arrowby leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. Yet in the story she tells, leading to predictable and not-so-predictable disasters, Murdoch is not judgmental.  Another example of inappropriate erotic obsession is that of Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince (1973). He finds himself in the grip of passion, at the age of 58, for Julian, the 21 year-old daughter of his friend and rival writer, the successful novelist Arnold Baffin; he, Baffin, is a figure partly modelled on Murdoch herself, by her own admission. The girl is just as much to blame for this tutor-pupil relationship which got hopelessly out of hand, but one blames Bradley more for telling her that his age is 46. When she discovers that he is nearly sixty, she is shocked, but by that time the damage has been done. Murdoch is well aware of what she is describing, the deluded feelings of a man in late middle-age for a naïve, though quite well-meaning and decent young woman, practically young enough to be his granddaughter.

Iris Murdoch was the only child of Irish parents, growing up in comfortable, caring family circumstances in what she described  ‘a perfect Trinity of Love’. Her view was that ‘we are alone in the universe’, though she also said that ‘God has gone, but the dream of God is still there.’ Murdoch ceased to believe in the Christian God early in life, and became, if anything, a ‘Christian Buddhist’ (her term).  She continued to like most aspects of Christianity, though her husband John Bayley encouraged her in her unbelief.  She was always totally opposed to any kind of monotheism and intolerance. The great wonder was ‘where does morality come from?’ in the absence of a personal God. Murdoch’s novels are her way of providing antidotes to a depressing view of human selfishness, in the context of an increasingly secular, indeed atheistic world. She became more and more interested in the idea of courage and heroism, which, paradoxically she felt could emerge from selfish behaviour. Introspection in her novels (and there is a great deal of it) is seen as very bad for people, and there are no moments when any of us can think ‘It doesn’t matter’. The Good Man is a humble figure, who looks for whatever is ‘true, beautiful, holy and good’, however these may be defined. When we discover value in art, literature, music, science and philosophy, it enables us to forget the Self, and all its demands.
As Iris Murdoch grew older, so her novels became longer. The Good Apprentice (1985) perhaps the best of the later novels, by general consent, runs to 522 pages, and tells the convoluted story of Edward Baltram, a perfectly decent young man who is responsible, because of an absurdly childish practical joke involving hallucinogenic drugs in a sandwich, for the death of his close friend Mark Wilsden, who falls out of a window in Edward’s temporary absence. The boy’s guilt, pain, and suffering permeate the whole story, and only at the very end does he find some sort of release and resolution. Most of the narrative, which is interspersed with the emotional lives of several other characters, as always in Murdoch’s work, shows Edward passing through purgatory, trying desperately to expiate his action. Dr Rowe quoted Edward, specifically, as one of the best Murdochian examples of a genuinely ‘Good Man’ who has been almost destroyed by a rash, foolish, irresponsible act, the consequences of which are irreversible.

Everything which follows derives from Mark Wilsden’s tragic and unnecessary death, and one of the points of the novel (by no means the only one) is the recovery and salvation of Edward himself. There is a large cast of characters, all pursuing lives and objectives of their own, ranging from Stuart Cuno, the renouncer of the sexual life, to his father Harry, caught up in a passionate affair with the wife of a much older man. That older man, Thomas McCaskerville, turns out to be one of the most interesting figures, a half-Jew, whose Gentile father had married a Jewish girl ‘daughter of a well-known Scottish rabbi.’(p.79) Then there is Edward’s real father, Jesse, a bizarre recluse, living out his days in his large and rambling East Anglian coastal mansion and estate, bedridden, attended only by ‘Mother May’, his second wife, and her two very different daughters. That mansion and estate, Seegard, owes something to Imber Court in The Bell, and comes to dominate the story as a whole. Murdoch was always fascinated by such big strange, remote places. To me, having read The Good Apprentice in 2014, Murdoch is at her best when describing establishments like Seegard in detail. Her strong visual sense, her passion for design and architectural intricacy, gives her prose in these passages a special descriptive power. The same thing occurs when Edward wanders into the strange setting of the small house near Fitzroy Square in London (pp.56-64), where he encounters a medium, Mrs Quaid, who might be able to give him guidance and relieve some of his torment. Later in the story, Edward encounters, quite unexpectedly, another young woman, the attractive and sensitive Brownie, who turns out to be Mark Wilsden’s sister. He quickly thinks that he is falling in love with her, and that union with Brownie might well be fate’s way of cancelling out her brother’s dreadful death.   In the event, though she likes him, and behaves warmly and considerately towards Edward, she does not reciprocate his feelings, and announces that she plans to marry an undisturbed minor character, Giles Bright Walton, who barely features in the narrative at all. The Good Apprentice is a compulsive read, and a tale in which the right things seem to happen, in due course, such as Thomas McCaskerville having his wife Midge return to him after her long affair with Harry Cuno, an affair of which he was wholly unaware. Yet overall, is it hard to engage fully with most of the characters, apart from Edward, in a traditional ‘three-dimensional’ way. There is something mechanistic about it all - Murdoch always planned her novels’ structures in great detail - especially in the long stretches of self-indulgent, often tiresome, over-long dialogue.

At the moment when Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1938-1995 was being published by Chatto and Windus, Anne Rowe outlined the work of the Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston, following an exhibition of her letters to the painter Harry Weinberger, with a selection of his paintings, at Kingston Museum in September 2014, and a simultaneous conference at Kingston University celebrating a decade of the Murdoch Archives. Murdoch’s correspondence with Weinberger runs to between 300 and 400 letters. The later phase of Murdoch’s life, before she became seriously ill, saw her increasingly preoccupied with ethics, and in particular the relationship between ethics and literature. A Community Project was run in 2012-13, partly funded by a substantial National Heritage Lottery grant, on the 250 letters written by Iris Murdoch to her close friend and lover Philippa Foot.

Iris Murdoch was one of the most prolific ‘literary’ correspondents of modern times. The number of recipients of her letters is in itself astonishing; the actual quantity of her surviving letters, well over 3200, even more so. There is an unknown number to Elias Canetti, the central European sage (1905-1994), born in Bulgaria but writing in German, who was her lover from 1953 to 1956.  Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. 164 letters were written between 1946 and 1975 to the French writer Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), a strong influence on her very early novels. Other correspondences now in the Kingston Archive include the American writer, Roly Cochrane (150 letters), her Oxford contemporary Denis Paul (180), another Oxford friend Hal Widderdale (on permanent loan to Kingston) and the painter Barbara Dorf (100), her friend the sculptor Rachel Fenner (300) and smaller collections of letters to the Treasury senior civil servant Sir Leo Pliatzsky, the architect Stephen Gardiner, and Julian Chryostomides, a former Oxford student of Murdoch’s. A team of volunteer transcribers works on these letters in the Archive at Kingston.  Finally, Kingston University houses the Iris Murdoch Society, and published the Iris Murdoch Review.

There is of course, another view of the novels of Iris Murdoch.  Having summarised Dr Rowe’s admirable talk, I need to say a little about this.   In Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction (1985), edited by the late Martin Seymour- Smith, the author observes: ‘She has (since 1968) published a book a year, each compromised by faults which only lurked in her earlier fiction: an unreal, febrile, over-charged brilliance; concentration on plot at the expense of developing characters (and) a faiblesse (weakness) for arch donnish gags.’ These are serious criticisms, and each of them has been levelled at Murdoch by many commentators other than Seymour-Smith, a man who (with quite a few others) regarded Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence as the greatest English post-1945 achievement in fiction.  A.N. Wilson, who knew Iris and John Bayley well in Oxford as personal friends for over thirty years, has commented on the mistakes in her novels, errors of chronology and geography, carelessness over plotting, dialogue which is very uneven in quality, and on her refusal, remarked on earlier, to accept any kind of editorial control on her manuscripts once they were finished. In this view, she could and should have written less, accepted the need for at least some revision, and perhaps produced the ‘great’ novel which it was well within her capacity to achieve. In fact she never quite managed to do so, despite what Harold Bloom has justly called her ‘intellectual drive and storytelling exuberance’ and despite possessing what he called ‘the style of the age.’

In conclusion, here are two quotations from her prizewinning novel The Sea, the Sea, both of them the words of the first person narrator from start to finish, the deluded Charles Arrowby. Here he is, in the flat in which his old friend General James has died, alone:
‘Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgments on people are never final, they emerge from summings-up which at once suggest the need for a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.’ (p.477) Right at the novel’s end (p.501), this man, who much earlier had declared ‘I am in favour of illusion, not alienation’, reflects:
‘Can one change oneself? I doubt it. Or if there is any change it must be measured as the millionth part of a millimetre. When the poor ghosts have gone, what remains are ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. One can live quietly and try to do tiny good things and harm no one. I cannot think of any tiny good thing to do at the moment, but perhaps I shall think of one tomorrow.’

Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University

A short Iris Murdoch Bibliography
Conradi, Peter J.: The Saint and the Artist: A study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch - 1986, 2/1989
Conradi, Peter J.: Iris Murdoch: A Life - Harper Collins 2001
Wilson, A.N.: Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her - Hutchinson 2003 / Arrow Books 2004
Iris Murdoch in Interview with Jeffrey Meyers - The Art of Fiction, No. 117 Paris Review 1990
Sage, Lorna: Iris Murdoch 1919-1999: In Praise of Mess (obituary article) Times Literary Supplement February 19th 1999, p.12
Hensher, Philip: Review of Peter Conradi’s Iris Murdoch: A Life - The Spectator, 15 September 2001 
Horner, Avril and Rowe, Anne (eds.): Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1938-1995 - Chatto and Windus 2015