Peter Conradi’s biography is an immensely long book, and it sometimes seems long as one reads it. The trouble is that the biographer has been almost smothered by the abundance of his sources. Iris Murdoch often thought of her own life as a kind of quest, a quest for perfection in her experience and in herself, and in consequence all through the years she kept diaries to record her aspirations and shortcomings. Ninety-five diaries survive. She was a person always greatly liked and loved, and tirelessly wrote long and serious letters to all her friends. Add to this twenty-six novels and some philosophical and reflective essays, and it becomes evident that Peter Conradi had a formidable problem, which he has been partly, but only partly, successful in solving. He admires Murdoch with some reservation, and the generous tone of his writing helps the reader to overlook a certain formlessness in the narrative and some vagueness in the grounds of his admiration.

He has written a good book but it presupposes a sturdy interest in Murdoch. A biographer is often in the embarrassing position of being a secular Saint Peter, expected to pass judgment on a whole life while telling its story, and his reviewer is bound to be in an even more absurd position, passing judgment on the judgment. But in Murdoch’s case there arises an interesting question which can perhaps be answered: What was her real originality and where did it come from? For original in some way she undoubtedly was, in addition to being both a distinguished and popular novelist.

Early in her life she wrote to a friend who was going away, “I feel, even at the lowest moment, such endless vitality within me.” This inner sense of vitality she sometimes called joy, joy in living and writing, a word that she characteristically could use without the embarrassment often attached to it. About Under the Net, an early, light, and gay novel published in 1954, she wrote, “I can see very clearly how bad it is. It is very romantic and sentimental, even what is intellectual in it is intellectual in a romantic way. If anything saves it from complete wreck it is a sort of vitality and joy that lifts it a little.” This is a correct analysis of her own work, though too harsh, and I am sure that the proven appeal of the novels to a very wide range of readers is a natural response to the author’s own particularly vivid and communicated enjoyment in the processes of writing, and joy in the invention of stories.

The achievement is the reverse of the strangled and bitter perfection of, for example, L’Éducation sentimentale and of the revered tradition of Flaubertian authorship. Murdoch was prolific and loved the flow of writing. The “lift” comes into effect when characters are apt to swing on chandeliers and to behave as if they have departed forever on a permanent holiday.

In her storytelling Murdoch conveyed the happiness that she found in all forms of unimpeded forward motion and fluidity and flow, the flow of love and of love affairs, the flow of endless talk, the flow from one friend to another, the flow of changing scenes in travel, and also in the literal flow of streams and of the sea. She impulsively jumped into rivers and lakes whenever there was an opportunity. That an occasion passed off swimmingly means that it passed off in Murdoch style, that is, not stiffly and not stodgily and not grimly, but with a “lift.”

In philosophy nothing ever proceeds swimmingly, and I do not think Murdoch ever fully understood analytical philosophy, or that she was ever able to teach it successfully at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she was for a few years a tutorial fellow. But philosophy and particularly ethical questions had long preoccupied her. At Badminton, the high-minded private school to which she had been sent from Dublin by her Anglo-Irish parents, she would, Conradi writes, sit with the headmistress “and discuss the Good, a discussion that was to continue over many decades.” During those decades she read classics at Oxford, worked for UNRRA in DP camps in Austria at the end of the war, and studied philosophy at Cambridge where she and two close friends, one from Palestine, one from India, “discussed philosophy, talking and asking ‘incessantly’ about Wittgenstein,” with whom both friends had studied. Not long after she wrote an admirable and usefully critical short book on Sartre and his philosophy and two polemical articles about the inadequacies of analytical philosophy. By then she was teaching philosophy at Oxford.

The great excitement in British and American philosophy after the war was the excitement of demystification, of the methodical stripping away of the obscurities of most previous metaphysics and of confident dogmatism. Murdoch deplored the negativity of this demystification and called for more probing of the Good, in search of some positive doctrines of individual salvation and improvement. Unfortunately she had not been persuaded, as she might have been, that the good must be infinitely variegated among different people with different aspirations as if it were a vast dome of many-colored glass. Only the great evils can be distinctly identified, just because at certain definite points on the dome they shut out the light from outside and even shut out life itself. The evils remain constant for different individuals, different cultures, and different lifestyles.


Murdoch would have responded to this Shelleyan metaphor, I believe, but its supporting arguments had been ignored by Plato, who had led her along a hopeless path, looking for unity where only a plurality is to be found. Misguided or not, she was resisting the spirit of the age in Britain, which in philosophy emphasized caution and dryness and the avoidance of commitment, except in politics. She was developing a loose set of philosophical ideas for herself, which are woven into her novels and essays.

It was troubling to Murdoch that many of the analytic philosophers who were her contemporaries at Oxford were dominated by the paradigms of scientific explanation. They insisted that every serious statement should be open to tests for truth in some public context. Historical and astronomical and psychological claims do not ordinarily require laboratories, but they still had to be testable by any competent observer if they were to be taken seriously as representing realities. The conclusion was that the states and activities of the soul in all their variety must be revealed in observed behavior if they were to be revealed at all, because then, and only then, they could be classed as objective realities.

Many, and perhaps most, judicious British and American philosophers believed all this, at least in the busy years between approximately 1945 and approximately 1970. They were encouraged in these beliefs by the extraordinary bleakness and thinness of British philosophical writing about the passions of the soul between the period of Hume and Adam Smith and the period of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell. In postwar Oxford desires and beliefs were given a limited role in philosophical theories of the mind; but until recently, the whole range of specifically identified emotions was neglected in analytical philosophy and was left for further analysis in poetry and fiction. People were not supposed—as characters in Murdoch’s novels constantly do—to talk to themselves day after day, analyzing their ambivalent affections and their religious doubts and their odd ambitions. It became difficult for philosophers to see how fantasies and feats of imagination could ever be counted among the real states or events in the natural world.

Murdoch from her school days had been concerned with the conditions of happiness and of serenity and with the recognition both of beauty and of the power of Greek tragedy. She needed to think, both analytically and in her imagination, about the metamorphoses of the soul as it passes from one state of inner feeling to another. Her contemporaries among French philosophers were writing books with titles like La Découverte du moi at the time when Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind described the enjoyment of gardening as not essentially involving an inner state of mind but rather as amounting to little more than some kind of effortless activity. Mere feeling had dropped out of philosophical accounts. Ryle’s The Concept of Mind was a typical and famous book of its time and place, and its apparent rejection of inner life helps to explain Murdoch’s impatience with analytical philosophy as it flourished at Oxford after the war.

There is a second reason for Murdoch’s peculiarity among philosophers: both from nature and from reflection, she was a particularist in the sense that Gerard Manley Hopkins was a particularist in his poetry; and her attraction to oddities of character and distinctive persons and scenes was linked to her inspiration as a writer. She wrote a philosophical article with the engaging title “Nostalgia for the Particular” and she always felt this nostalgia; it was as if she longed for a return in her thinking to the ages before the natural sciences took off in pursuit of general laws. When she studied Literae Humaniores, called “Greats,” as an undergraduate at Oxford she met in Plato the classical opposition between universal and particular. She attended the German-style seminar of the great classical scholar Eduard Fraenkel, who came to Oxford after fleeing the Nazis. She was enchanted by this domineering, bullying, prodigious scholar, who was familiar in detail with the whole of classical literature, and whose commentary on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon made a deep impression on her.


Fraenkel was the first of the series of Murdoch’s supermen of intellect who cast a spell over her. Some others were a Hungarian economist, a mathematical logician of Austrian origin, an Italian expatriate who was a historian of the Roman Empire, another Austrian from Prague, an anthropologist; and finally Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian Jew who wrote Auto-da-fé and won the Nobel Prize, and who for a time lived in Hampstead surrounded by a small circle of admirers. Except for Fraenkel, all these magical foreigners, all genuinely gifted men, are counted by Conradi among her many lovers; and they were loved by her for their individuality and eccentricity, each being in different degrees wounded and scarred by history and by circumstance. Canetti was irritated by the English because of their supposed innocence and their ignorance of the cruel ways of the world. In recent centuries, he said, they had never been invaded and in consequence did not recognize the real brutalities of anarchy and uncivilized power, whether in public or in private life.

Murdoch was a perfect example of the English insouciance that Canetti objected to, having been happy and effective when she worked among often miserable refugees for UNRRA at the end of the war. After the war she attracted to herself as friends an unusual number of displaced persons, some of them natural followers of Simone Weil. Conradi writes that she was drawn to the exotic, but I think this misses the point. More powerful in her was the love of human differences and of personal idiosyncrasy, of the rare disablements and lopsidedness and distortions that are to be found particularly in scholars and intellectuals. These rarities of character can be like the striations and dislocations and surface irregularities of a beautiful stone found lying on a beach. Stones were for Murdoch a natural symbol of individuality, conspicuously used in probably her most interesting novel, The Sea, The Sea.

An idea suggested by this and some of her other books is that no two naturally formed stones, when examined closely, will turn out to be exactly alike in every detail of their shape, in their outline, and over the whole of their surface. For the purposes of science and technology we may assimilate the stones on a particular coast to a common type, or we may even decide to treat the stones covering the beach as a single individual, ignoring the uncountable differences to be discerned among the individual stones. But from the standpoint of personal experience, and from the subjective point of view of the curious observer and collector, the reality is that the beach is covered with a multitude of individual stones, each with its own peculiar and differentiating features. According to the particularist’s metaphysics, the scientist and the technologist, perhaps self-consciously and harmlessly, substitute an abstraction from the reality for the reality itself, which is always in the last analysis a collection of individuals.

When the individuals under consideration are persons, not stones, the result of the substitution is unlikely to be harmless. There is loss. Love of friendship and of the talk of friends and talk of love and the mind; the situation of men and women who are isolated by their intellect and who therefore must talk to themselves; love of persons who cannot really settle anywhere—Conradi successfully brings out all these themes in Murdoch’s life, which also become themes in her fiction.

From her comparatively happy childhood in Dublin and at Badminton onward, Murdoch gave the impression of an inner serenity and of an immense capacity for pleasure. She was completely unwounded. She tried in her novels to depict the ravages of anxiety and of the more destructive passions, but I do not think that she ever suffered from them herself. What emerges generally in her fiction seems to me more a representation of a representation of the passions and one at some distance from the coarse realities described by Dostoevsky, her model in much of her writing about intense feelings and inner conflicts.

But in all her work, including her fiction, she conveyed her unforced reverence for learning in any form and for the transmitted values of civilization preserved in universities and in similar institutions. Here again she was deliberately resisting the dominant spirit of the age. She took it as an outrage that radical students, in the days of student protest, refused to respect scholarship and scholars and demanded that universities provide curriculums of so-called relevant contemporary studies. Surprising her admirers, she associated herself with a group of ultra-conservative educators who deplored the changes in teaching methods and particularly the relaxation of traditional and disciplined methods of language teaching. In a 1972 speech published in these pages she said:

The study of a language or a literature or any study that will increase and refine our ability to be through words is part of a battle for civilization and justice and freedom, for clarity and truth, against vile fake-scientific jargon and spiritless slipshod journalese and tyrannical mystification.*

Her convictions were passionate and had undergone much change during a long journey from the far left of the 1930s and the Communist loyalties that she shared with Frank Thompson, her best-loved undergraduate friend who was executed by the Germans while on his way to work for a supposed resistance movement in Bulgaria. He remained a romantic memory throughout Murdoch’s life, but their shared political beliefs, formed under the shadow of the Communist Party, withered, leaving Murdoch for some years barred from America as a former Communist. Apart from its triumph in the Russian war against Germany, state socialism had failed completely and left behind complete disillusionment. Other British writers, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, for instance, traveled the same path from left to right, but they had narrower visions, being citizens of a very small province, which, except at Waterloo and other battles, had been more or less on a margin of Europe from the time of the Emperor Claudius until 1914. After disillusionment they could subside with obvious relief into their proper and provincial British roles. But Murdoch was half-Irish, and she retained her grander visions of European literature and of European thought, particularly French thought.

To a friend Murdoch wrote, “Did you ever yearn in your more romantic and decadent youth, for a glittering Huxleyan Europe of wit and poetry and talk?… Other times I get a frisson of joy to think that I am of this age, this Europe—saved or damned with it.” She was not in fact damned with the age, because she totally lacked the obvious characteristic that distinguishes the age from all others, namely, vulgarity. She had no interest in any marketplace and she was never competitive. She loathed and feared the rising flood waters of pop culture, which obliterates all gradations and other features of the inherited landscape for the sake of a uniform dreariness, justly distributed. She saw that socialism was being converted into a trivial populism. Her originality arose from the tension on the one hand between her indifference to bourgeois restraints and conventions—a disdain of good housekeeping, for example—and, on the other, a philosophy that was repelled by the common touch in all forms of expression. She greatly enjoyed sexual adventure and she was curious about sexual possibilities, but at the same time, following Fraenkel, she was very old-fashioned in her attitude to errors in prosody and to bad grammar.

In The Bell, a much-admired novel, a young and impulsive wife, a painter, who has just run away to London from her grim and disciplined husband, suddenly thinks of the pictures hanging in the National Gallery, reliably waiting there, not directed toward her benefit particularly, but always available and open to her, with most of the pictures in the gallery well known to her and forming a kind of friendly whole in her mind: the Bellinis and a Dutch seascape and a small Seurat (the author does not actually mention these pictures in the novel, but any reader is free to think of them, or to think of others).

The runaway wife knows herself to be inconstant and light, and she knows her own painting to be rather flimsy, and that her work certainly would not be at home with the paintings in the museum. But at least she has something enduring and solid to hold on to and to return to, and something that consoles her in her unhappiness, just because it is altogether independent of her and of her ups and downs. It is another family. This incident in the novel is moving and convincing in itself, partly because it suggests that serious art does not answer to the tastes and preferences of one person or another but stands ready for anyone, absolutely anyone who can single out for common enjoyment the peculiar genius in the work that entered into the painting (and that is why entry to the gallery is free and must always remain so). There is a similar pattern, in which intuitive intelligence emerges, and prevails, in Murdoch’s many defenses of the inner life. About her personality Conradi quotes the novelist Hilary Mantel, who saw her at parties but never spoke to her:

Her presence was so powerful that it was the opposite of threatening, it was almost overwhelming…. She radiated a powerful benignity, a goodness that seemed to have little to do with “saintliness,” but much to do with strength and vertu; there was a heartbreaking simplicity about her…. Her face… had assumed lines of power and grace.

“Benignity” is exactly the right word, and Mantel’s entire description is strikingly accurate and evocative.

Conradi ends by providing additional details about a story that has become well known—John Bayley’s courtship, the ensuing marriage and their life in Oxford, and her continuing to write novels until her final illness, all described in Bayley’s Elegy for Iris. By then Conradi has presented much of the material, at least, for understanding the true originality of Iris Murdoch.

This Issue

November 15, 2001