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Iris Murdoch’s Holy Fool

In response to:

Cracks in the House of Rove from the April 12, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In his recent fine review of Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back [NYR, April 12] Jonathan Raban identifies the character of Hugo in Iris Murdoch’s first published novel, Under the Net (1954), a holy fool, with Sullivan’s mentor Michael Oakeshott. Murdoch herself thought she based Hugo on Wittgenstein’s pupil Yorick Smythies (as I showed in Iris Murdoch: A Life, 2001). Her journals assert this; and when Smythies died in 1982 she even wrote this death into the novel she was then composing, The Philosopher’s Pupil. Of course the character of Hugo could have composite origins, and the Oakeshott possibility is a novel one that would surely interest Murdoch admirers. Is Raban’s source for this identification Sullivan himself?

Peter Conradi

London

Jonathan Raban replies:

I defer to Peter Conradi on this. My only source for suggesting that Hugo was based on Oakeshott is the Michael Oakeshott Association, on whose Web site an extract from Under the Net is published, along with the cautious speculation, “Some of Oakeshott’s friends and students believed the character of Hugo in this novel was based on Oakeshott.” Alerted by another reader, I checked the relevant pages of Conradi’s biography of Murdoch, which convincingly show that Yorick Smythies is much the more likely candidate, although, as Conradi says, Hugo might be a “composite,” and firmly identifying fictional characters with real people is always a slippery business.

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