How Irish was Iris? The life and times of the first Irish-born Booker Prize-winner

Iris Murdoch: ‘Being a woman is like being Irish’, one of her characters said


The first Irish-born writer to win the Booker Prize was Iris Murdoch, the centenary of whose birth occurs on July 15th, but how Irish she was or considered herself to be has been the subject of some debate.

The only child of a middle-class Protestant couple, she was born in Phibsborough on Dublin’s north side. Her father, John Hughes Murdoch, a civil servant, was of a Co Down Presbyterian background and her mother, Irene Richardson, a trained singer, came from a Dublin Church of Ireland family. There is some dispute about whether the family moved to London when she was one or nine.

After boarding school in Bristol, she attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied “Greats”, a combination of classics, ancient history and philosophy, emerging with a first-class honours degree. She was a member of the Communist Party at Oxford and although she left after about four years, whenever she wished to visit the US, she had to get special permission, even at the height of her success as a writer, something that greatly irked her.

After graduating, she spent two years at the Treasury before joining the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, where she worked for three years with displaced people in camps in Austria.

In 1947, she was awarded a studentship in philosophy at Cambridge and the following year got a fellowship at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963.

Although she became a philosopher, she had seriously considered becoming an art historian and had studied Renaissance painting deeply, so it wasn’t unusual that after Oxford she taught general studies at the Royal College of Art.

Inner lives

But it is as a novelist that she is best known – and what a prolific one she became, writing no fewer than 27 novels over 40 years (as well as plays, poetry and philosophical works). Her fiction is informed very much by her philosophical outlook, and truth, good and evil, sexual relationships, crises of faith and the power of the unconscious are among her major themes. However, the intense inner lives of the characters are in no way diminished by the philosophical issues considered.

It is hardly surprising that the range was wide and diverse in so many novels. The Black Prince (1973) is very different from the much earlier comic novel, Under the Net (1954); it is closely based on Hamlet and won Murdoch the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for its complex narrative structure. The Unicorn (1963) is very different again from either of those novels; the Gothic influence on it is obvious and it could be read as either a paean to the genre or as sending it up. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, which won the 1974 Whitbread Novel Award, is one of four Murdoch novels with male adultery as a major theme; the leading of double lives and the significance and influence of dreams are closely examined.

Passionately Irish

The Sea, The Sea won the 1978 Booker Prize. One of her finest novels, it considers the power of love and loss. In this paper, Julie Parsons wrote that the central character, whose powers are waning with age, is a thinly disguised portrait of Murdoch herself.

“Being a woman is like being Irish; everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time,” says a character in The Red and the Green (1965). Set in Ireland during the Rising and War of Independence, it treated characters on both sides sympathetically but AN Wilson (Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her) recorded that she came to regret her sympathetic portrayal of Irish nationalism. Writing to a close friend in 1978, she said she felt “unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred”.

Nevertheless, her friend and biographer Peter Conradi argued that her Irishness was important to her and another friend, Paul Levy, wrote in the Independent last year that she “always felt passionately Irish but she also felt that it was possible at the same time to be British”.

In 1956, she married John Bayley; he was a literary critic, novelist and Warton Professor of English at Oxford. The marriage lasted until her death in 1999 but seemed an unusual relationship. It has been suggested that she had numerous affairs with both men and women and that he had little interest in sex. AN Wilson remarked that Murdoch “had clearly been one of those delightful young women . . . who was prepared to go to bed with almost anyone”.

They had no children. When she was struck down with senile dementia, Bayley nursed her tenderly during the final four years of her life and published a loving memoir called Elegy for Iris, which was made into a biopic, Iris, in 2001.

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