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Notes by RBJ on

IRIS - The Life of Iris Murdoch

by Peter J. Conradi

Introductory Remarks
Part One. Innocence
Part Two. Innocence Lost
Part Three. Innocence Regained
Concluding Remarks

Introductory Remarks

I begin to write these notes as I am about half way through my second reading of this book. It says something that I am reading it a second time, I can think of only one other biography which I have read twice, that of Bertrand Russell (his autobiography actually). Russell's biography was certainly very interesting to me, because I have similar philosophical interests and a great deal of respect for Russell's intellectual integrity.

As a person rather than an intellectual, Russell was not so impressive. He had a loveless and solitary childhood with inevitable consequences for his emotional depth in maturity.

Iris Murdoch, on the other hand was blessed with a stable, loving family and positive educational environments in which she grew confident and secure both intellectually and emotionally.

Part One - Innocence

What is seems most remarkable to me about the Iris which emerged from this age of innocence is the very solid sense of emotional security which made it possible for her, during the next stage of her life, for Conradi that of "innocence lost", to explore so fearlessly the experience of love and power in personal relationships.

I cannot help but wonder what it was which gave her the self confidence, the sense even of emotional indestructibility, and the will to engage so many of those she met in deep and emotional relationships.

Among the obvious factors are, loving and devoted parents, who nevertheless sent away their child to the best schools, rather than holding her close. The two schools she attended, the special teachers at those schools, and perhaps even the special mix of children whose parents chose to send their children to the schools. Presumably none of this suffices to create an Iris, or we would have seen more of them, presumably the genes play a part, and how are we to know how large this part is? A part in forming her character, and in shaping her contours, mere good looks an essential ingredient.

Tempting though it may be to wonder whether any of these ingredients were more crucial than the other, it is doubtful that we could ever know.

Part Two - Innocence Lost

This period Conradi talks of as a period of innocence lost, but he does not appear to note any sense of purpose or any special role for this phase in the architecture of her life. There are hints elsewhere that others were quicker to draw conclusions (throwaway remarks by her friend "Morris" in the IRIS film come to mind).

The picture of a woman sleeping her way to the top gives us an extreme model of how women can turn sexual exploitation on its head. Iris seems to have used emotional relationships (which might or not also be sexual) as a primary route to the enlightenments which she sought to deploy as novelist and philosopher. There is a suggestion of systematic duplicity here which is harder to dislodge than in the simpler picture of a sexual adventuress. One might honestly trade sexual favours for financial or other advantage, but true love brooks no compromise.

After a first reading the suspicion that the panoply of relationships during this phase of Iris's life were entered into to just that extent which would fuel future writing without risking a creatively lethal entrapment.

Here are some suggestions on how the relationships most prominent in Conradi's biography of this period can be read as systematically ambiguous.

Ch.11 - St. Anne's

§1 -
"Here is a programme for her own fiction: to restore poetry, mystery, nightmare, terror, opacity to modern fiction, and also to criticise Sartre's 'dramatic, solipsistic, romantic and anti-social exaltation of the individual': 'We are not yet resigned to absurdity, and our only hope lies in not becoming resigned.'"

Ch.12 - Franz Baermann Steiner

§9 -
"Though 'in such pain as never before', the urge to record little things, to notate the psychopathology of grief, remained."
"'The horror of feeling indestructible. I can bear all this grief and more without breaking.'"

Part Three - Innocence Regained

Ch.15 - Cedar Lodge

§9 -
"So far from her head being turned, she was 'nauseated by the stream of imbecile praise for The Bell'. Three aspects of this response invite comment. Firstly, the great success of The Bell dispirited her. Secondly, she badly wanted to improve as a writer. Lastly, she wanted to be attacked 'in the right way'. And she cast about for the right person to attack her."

Ch.19 - Discontinuities

§2 -
"A friend noted in 1978 that in Iris 'a highly organised analytical mind [was] at war with her warm irrational Irish heart'."
I was a bit shocked to read this, retaining, more than three quarters through my second reading of this biography, a conception of Iris as a disorderly antithesis of the analytic!

Concluding Remarks

The Life Plan

After my first reading of this book I was left with the feeling that the architecture of the life and work of Iris was a more deliberate whole than appeared to have been suggested by Conradi.

Her entire life, from as early as one can conceive of her having a life plan, seems to have been devoted to her art. She appears already as an undergraduate to have expected to be an author, and to have expected that she would marry at about the age of 35. The wild and emotionally promiscuous period which preceded her marriage certainly looks like a bit of field research for her intended career as a novelist.

I'm going to spin this yarn a bit further and then leave it with you.

The plan comes as two phases, the field research, in which love and power is the primary topic, and which is of necessity highly turbulent (and thus perhaps not so conducive to steady writing, but OK for plenty of practice in writing through journals, correspondence and essays at the novels which would follow), followed by a stable domestic relationship persisting throught a productive career.

The field research phase is tricky, for a woman who want to know what it is to be in love with powerful and dominating men is at risk of finding the experience overwhelming. A woman risks becoming ensnared at the expence of her freedom to be a creative force. Iris appears to have had a strategy to deal with this risk, and it rested substantially on dissimulation. This idea came to me not from the autobiography, but from my subsequent reading of her nove "The Bell", in which a principle female character deals with a dominating partner by simple unreliability. When she parted his presence, she simply shed like an old skin whatever impositions he might have wished her to live with. She might bend to his will in his presence, and yet her acquiescence would prove ineffectual in the sequel.

In the light of her expectation of marriage at 35 and her desire to be a novellist, the sincerity of the relationships which she entered into during the period before her marriage may be doubted. Let me run through some of the relationships which get more space in Conradi's biography, commenting both on their value to the prospective novelist, and also their inappropriateness.

The relationship with Frank Thompson was a puzzle to me on my first reading, because it seemed so insubstantial when they were together, grew more important once they were separated, and on to yet greater apparent importance when that separation had been made permanent by his death. So long as there was nothing in their way, taking that kind of relationship seriously could only interfere with the breadth and character of the experience which she sought for her work.


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