Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995

About a quarter of a century ago I marched into a publisher’s party in the Vauxhall Bridge Road in central London to find the vestibule occupied by a very elderly man and a somewhat younger female sidekick. “David,” exclaimed my host, Carmen Callil, who stood between the pair like a vigilant Sybil, “this is Sir Victor Pritchett and Dame Iris Murdoch.” As I struggled for something to say – dumbstruck by this sudden access of talent and celebrity – the baton was gamely seized by Dame Iris. “Are you very left wing?” she straightaway demanded. I muttered something about being a member of the Labour party, but the author of The Sea, The Sea was proudly astride what subsequent inquiry revealed to be one of her great 1980s hobby-horses. “I used to be,” she declared. “But I’m not now. No. All because of” – and here the phantom italics positively fizzed in the air – “that dreadful man Scargill …”

One wouldn’t normally inflict this kind of retrospective stargazing on readers of a newspaper, were it not that the incident offers some idea of what it felt like to be tumbled into the slipstream of Murdoch’s very considerable personality – a personality which, it turns out, was quite as breathlessly maintained throughout her six‑decade stint as a letter-writer. The woman who, as friends attest, enlivened train carriages on the Oxford to Paddington line with her views on the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the woman who addressed her friends, lovers and professional colleagues went about the business in exactly the same way: at all times impulsive, affectionate, brainy, loyal, free-associative and, at least occasionally, horribly vulnerable. The effect is oddly appealing and – whatever you happen to feel about her novels – deeply impressive.

This bumper selection of her letters, put together by a brace of academics from the Iris Murdoch Archive Centre at Kingston University, is patently something rather more than an attempt to trumpet her qualities as a correspondent. It is also, 16 years after its subject’s minutely documented death from Alzheimer’s disease, and in a world where the canon is apparently in sharp retreat, aimed at furbishing up her status. This much may be inferred from the introduction, in which the editors remark that “since the late 1990s her writing has been internationally celebrated and her reputation revived. Her fiction is now hailed by many as a paradigm for morally responsible art and her philosophy is seen as important matter for debate in the field of virtue ethics.”

No doubt they are. And no doubt Angus Wilson’s novels – to name another writer of the same generation in danger of slipping away on the historical tide – still have their admirers. Murdoch herself, it should be pointed out, had intermittent qualms about her staying power and more than once hazarded that she might end up as the modern age’s Charles Morgan: an immensely fashionable mid-century writer whose éclat was silenced more or less from the moment of his death. In Murdoch’s own case, the difficulty of separating wheat from chaff, of wondering whether the vast and largely unedited doorstoppers of her later career aren’t liable to dull our appreciation of the sharper, earlier work, is complicated by the process, put in train very soon after her death, and propelled yet further by Richard Eyre’s 2001 biopic, that began to detach Iris the writer from Iris the celebrity figure. To put it starkly, literary “reputation” is always going to take a back seat when the subject, together with her husband, John Bayley, has appeared in a colour supplement montage under the heading “Great lovers of their time”.

Presumably, Mesdames Horner and Rowe thought this separation beyond their remit. But Living on Paper, despite its mammoth length, is odd, or perhaps only elusive, in other ways too. Few of the letters discuss particular works in progress, and those that do tend to confine themselves to procedural points (“Much thanks letter and about Moy,” runs a note to Jane Turner at Chatto from 1993 about The Green Knight. “Of course she would be unlikely to be able to run after nearly drowning. But fictionally she can. The runic stone, being near suddenly to its old home, sends out warm rays … ”) Then there are the missing correspondents – nothing here, for example, from her great friend AS Byatt, or from Bayley, to whom she was married for more than 40 years. The preamble talks about certain letters having “been destroyed” or being “unavailable at the time of writing”, but one would have liked to hear a bit more about these omissions or absences and the editorial policy that kept them out.

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