Today is the birthday of Iris Murdoch (books by this author), born in Dublin (1919) and raised in London. Her parents met in Dublin during World War I. Her English father’s cavalry regiment was stationed there, and on his way to church one Sunday, he met a girl who sang in the church choir. They married in 1918. Iris was an only child, with a happy home life. She once described her family as “a perfect trinity of love.” Her mother was always singing, and had a very happy personality. Her father enjoyed discussing books with Iris, and she felt — even as a young girl — that she would be a writer one day. She studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where she met Ludwig Wittgenstein. During World War II, she worked for the United Nations, helping refugees displaced by the war. While she was working in Belgium, she met Jean-Paul Sartre. After the war, she returned to Oxford as a lecturer, and spent some time studying Sartre’s work, especially his fiction. She was interested in the way that a writer could use fiction to express bigger ideas.
She wrote her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954. Reviews were generally positive, and the book was named one of Modern Library’s 100 Best English-language Novels of the 20th Century. Murdoch went on to write 25 more novels, including The Bell (1958), The Black Prince (1973), The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), and The Sea, the Sea (1978), which won a Booker Prize. She also wrote plays, poetry, and philosophical works. Her novels often deal with things like the illusion of free will, the comedy of the sexes, and the complex relationship of good and evil. In particular, she grappled with writing about moral goodness without sounding preachy. She told The Paris Review: “Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. Attractive bad characters in fiction may corrupt people, who think, So that’s OK. Inspiration from good characters may be rarer and harder, yet Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and the grandmother in Proust’s novel exist.”
Oxford literature student John Bayley glimpsed Murdoch riding her bike past his window one day, and fell in love at first sight. They were married in 1956. Even though they were very close, she kept parts of her life separate from him. She had many affairs with men and women, but in her opinion they had nothing to do with Bayley or her commitment to their marriage. In his memoir Elegy for Iris (1999), Bayley wrote, “In early days, I always thought it would be vulgar — as well as not my place — to give any indications of jealousy, but she knew when it was there, and she soothed it just by being the self she always was with me, which I soon knew to be wholly and entirely different from any way that she was with other people.”