The amorous intensity of Iris Murdoch’s letters

Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch (1934-1995) shows the author's sexual mutability and witty warmth.

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Letter writing was an important part of Iris Murdoch’s life. Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, admiring and conscientious editors of this large selection of her letters, tell us that “she would spend up to four hours a day on her correspondence”. She took pride in her abilities as a letter writer. “I have in fact only once corresponded with anyone . . . who was as good at writing letters as I am,” she told the philosopher Philippa Foot, who was her correspondent for half a century. Readers who dip into this large volume might be puzzled by the self-estimation. The brilliant thinker, witty conversationalist and powerfully idiosyncratic novelist are hardly here at all.

Murdoch moans about having to write philosophy lectures or prepare academic papers but there is hardly any philosophical rumination. She warmly praises the books she is sent by friends, but otherwise there is very little about what she reads or thinks. The only work of fiction she discusses in any detail is Watership Down (“the bunnies that I love”). The earnest PhD student researching Murdoch will have a tough job extracting anything about her literary intentions or intellectual development. She travels the world but, apart from when she finds herself surprisingly intoxicated by first Australia and then California, she invariably sounds as though she is somewhere near Oxford. She meets interesting and important people but they hardly get into the letters.

What she writes about is love and friendship. Indeed, the main subject matter of each of her correspondences – typically pursued for years – is her relationship with that particular correspondent. All this must have been engrossing to those on the receiving end; the disinterested reader will be less intrigued. Murdoch dispenses much advice to her friends, yet is no wiser about human relationships than any of us. Endearments pour forth. “I embrace and love you”; “Much love, beautiful one”; “You are very much in my heart, always, always”; “Je t’embrasse tendrement”. She tells many people that she loves them. In fact, with the exception of the odd publisher, she tells everyone she writes to that she loves them.

Her readiness with affection led her into bed with many that she called her friends, and she hoped no one would mind. In her twenties she tells her fiancé, the lecturer David Hicks, that she has been to bed with a “beautiful Italianate” French boy whom she has met while working for a UN relief agency. “A fully conscious act, which I do not regret at all, unless it upsets you, and please don’t let it.” The tone is pure Murdoch. She soon found out that Hicks was carrying on with someone else anyway. None of this stopped him being a friend and correspondent for the rest of his life.

Some have responded to the publication of these letters by depicting Murdoch as a rather shocking sexual adventuress, but this is not quite right. Really, she seems more interested in writing letters to people she found attractive than in having sex with them. In his biography of her, Peter Conradi refers to “Iris’s skill at blurring the line between love and friendship”. It is striking how difficult it sometimes is in Conradi’s book to know when – or even if – Murdoch has started having an affair with one or the other of her intimate friends. The uncertainty is telling. When she tells one correspondent that she disapproves of promiscuity, she is not being a hypocrite. Sex was an expression of affection available to many.

She is also very interested in her own feelings, examined with candid self-importance. “In general I notice a tendency to want to be loved, and not to engage myself in return,” she calmly tells one lover. She imparts to the shenanigans of Oxford academics a kind of intellectual complexity that is difficult to credit. From her thirties, her amours came to include women, a fact that helped end her career at Oxford. “Troubles and troubles,” she tells her ex-lover and long-time correspondent Michael Oakeshott in one of the letters here. It seems that her affair with Margaret Hubbard, a fellow in classics at St Anne’s College, where Murdoch was a fellow in philosophy, was seen as risking a scandal. She resigned her fellowship and moved for a few years to the Royal College of Art, until, from her late forties onwards, she was able to live from her novels alone.

Another lover was the novelist Brigid Brophy, and the letters certainly leap into life when Brophy appears. One of the first of them is written in ottava rima stanzas, parodying Byron: “Since mixing of the sexes, which you prize/Dear Byron certainly exemplifies”. She relishes Brophy’s own sexual adventurousness and speaks playfully of her own polymorphousness. “Eschewing Freud and all his patter, for I/Don’t make of sex a basic category”. In the 1960s, Murdoch and Brophy seem to have written to each other almost daily. It is only a pity that we have just one side of the exchanges, especially as you can sense from Murdoch’s responses the acerbic or wrangling qualities of Brophy’s letters to her (“I was very surprised by your original letter”; “Dear girl, don’t write me letters like that, they frighten me”).

The “blurring” of friendship and love allowed her to pursue intimacy as unrestrainedly after her marriage to John Bayley as she had done before it. Bayley is an implicit presence in this book. Just occasionally there is an intimation of resentment from his direction. Brophy seems, in 1966, to have proposed writing to him about her relationship with his wife, but Murdoch warned her off: “He is on the brink of being jealous of you, and if it’s formally stated that you and he compete for my time I think this would just annoy him.”

Only in the mid-1970s, two decades into her marriage, does she allow him to become a character in her letters. Yet there is no sense at all that the affairs she continued to have were either guilt-inducing, or even surreptitious. They were intensifications of friendship. “I can’t divide friendship from love or love from sex – or sex from love etc. If I care for somebody I  want to caress them,” she writes to the philosopher Georg Kreisel, before informing him that she regrets “very much now” that she did not bed him twenty years earlier.

“I am sort of quasi in love with about ten of my friends,” she tells Philippa Foot, whose ex-husband had been one of Murdoch’s lovers. It is no surprise to the reader of this volume when she, too, becomes a lover in the late 1960s, almost 30 years into their relationship. “I am very glad about recent events,” Murdoch writes, as if sex were the confirmation of friendship. Their physical intimacy lasted only a few months, but their warm correspondence continued.

Some of this will not be news to readers of her novels, who have long thought Murdoch the novelist a sage of sexual identity and its mutability. She was occasionally amusing about this. “I have had a letter from an electronics engineer (male) in Walsall who changes his clothes every evening, and becomes Hilda,” she tells Brophy in 1969. “He seems to think I should do something about it. Have written him a relaxed letter.” Sadly, her humour, evident to those who knew her, rarely sparks like this. The warmth and intimacy of her letter writing was also a serious business.

Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch (1934-1995), edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, is published by Chatti & Windus (688pp, £25).

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London

This article appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires