Iris Murdoch and an enduring love affair

In The Black Prince, her great novel about the perils of love, Iris Murdoch has her main character say: "What dangerous machines letters are: perhaps it is as well that they are going out of fashion. A letter can be endlessly reread and reinterpreted, it stirs imagination and fantasy, it persists, it is red-hot evidence." She was herself a recklessly prolific correspondent who destroyed quantities of letters she received but left many of her own behind; and over the last 10 days the truth of those lines has been well demonstrated, with the news that some 250 of her letters to her lifelong friend, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, have been made public by Kingston University. With depressing predictability, and ignoring a careful press release, newspaper headlines announced "Iris Murdoch's 60-year lesbian relationship with her best friend and lover revealed".

As it happens, I have been studying that friendship between two brilliant and remarkable women and have had access to the whole correspondence. I never met Foot, but knew of her work as a leading moral philosopher; Murdoch I knew slightly, but her novels have absorbed, entertained and educated me since I first read them in the 1960s. To me she remains a great writer, whose reputation has been overshadowed by details of her private life and decline into Alzheimer's.

I have been planning to write a book about friendship, and after Peter Conradi's biography of Murdoch came out in 1991 I knew that her relationship with Philippa Foot would form part of it. Friendship, to my mind, is an undervalued and under-explored subject, often treated as a less important, tepid version of romantic or erotic love. Iris and Philippa did not have a 60-year affair, although there was a brief period around 1968 when their friendship became physical. Soon, as Philippa explained to Conradi, they realised that their feeling for each other was "not best expressed" in that way. The affair quietly ended; they remained close and loving friends for another 30 years. "Essential you" was how Iris described her friend. Philippa called Iris, after her death, "the light of my life".

They met in Oxford in the autumn of 1939, as the war was starting. Iris was 20 and had been at Somerville for a year; Philippa Bosanquet was a year younger. They were both studying philosophy, and one of their tutors was the eccentric moral and religious philosopher Donald Mackinnon, a fervent Catholic who believed that philosophy was meaningless if it did not concern itself with how to live a good life. This became an increasingly unfashionable view in Oxford, where the focus was firmly on language and facts, not values, and where metaphysics, Iris's natural habitat, had no place in serious thinking.

They had eager, brilliant minds but were otherwise very different. Philippa was cooler, taller, more elegant and upper class; she grew up in a grand house in Yorkshire with governesses, ponies and plenty of money. Iris's parents were Irish; born in Dublin, she was smaller, rounder, fairer, more intense and better educated. By late 1943, both with first-class degrees, they were happily sharing a cavernous, cold, mouse-ridden flat in Seaforth Place in London and working as civil servants. Iris was writing long letters to (among others) her platonic love, Frank Thompson, while experimenting with several admirers, including Michael Foot (the future historian, not the Labour politician). Philippa was precariously involved with a former tutor, the clever, predatory economist Tommy Balogh. Within a few months, in an emotional dance her readers might now call Murdochian, Iris had dismissed Foot, who was distraught, and taken up with Balogh, thus badly wounding her friend. But, as in many of her novels, Eros had struck and they were all his victims. Before long the unreliable Balogh was gone, Philippa and Michael Foot had fallen in love and Iris found herself excluded, unloved and unwanted.

The pain and guilt Iris had brought on herself marked her writing and her thinking for the rest of her life. One of Mackinnon's precepts had been "do no harm", and she knew she had harmed all three of them. She would never stop exploring two great questions: how to love without ego, and how to be unsmugly good.

By the time the war ended, Philippa and Michael – who had survived being wounded and captured on an SOE mission to France – were married, Frank Thompson was dead, murdered by fascists in Bulgaria, and Iris had failed to find a lasting love. In the bleak winter of 1946 she wrote a handful of letters that show how deep the damage had been. The Foots were living happily in Oxford, teaching and studying; she was with her parents in Chiswick, trying and failing to find an academic post. "It seems perhaps a foolish useless gesture after so long," she wrote, "to say – I'm so sorry I caused you both to suffer - but I do say it, most humbly, and believe me I do feel it." As well as a plea for forgiveness, her letter read like a declaration. "Pippa, you know without my telling you that my love for you remains as deep and tender as ever – and always will remain, it is so deep in me and so much part of me. I cannot imagine that anyone will ever take your place. I think of you very often. My dear heart, I love you."

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