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Dame Iris Murdoch - Under the net
By Jane Curran
BBC Oxford contributor

Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch (1919 1999) spent most of her life in Oxfordshire

Dame Iris Murdoch was a tutor of philosophy at Oxford.

She began her distinguished career as a novelist in the mid-1950s.

She became best known to the wider world as a victim of Alzheimer's disease when a film, Iris, starring Kate Winslet and Judi Dench was released in 2001.

This was based on her life story and leaned heavily on the memoirs of her husband, the Oxford don and literary critic, John Bayley.

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919, the only child of a serious minded civil servant and a mother who had hoped to become an opera singer, but who married very young and then devoted herself to her husband and child.

When Iris was a year old, the family moved to London, where she grew up, but despite leaving Ireland at such a young age, she felt herself to be "profoundly Irish".

After attending a day school in London until she was 12, she was sent as a boarder to Badminton School, where she was very homesick at first. Another homesick young girl at the same school was Indira Gandhi, whom she would later meet again at Somerville College in Oxford.

Eventually however, she settled down at school and did well, especially in classics, languages, and English. She had always enjoyed reading; her father had encouraged her to read widely, and as a child she particularly enjoyed books by Lewis Carroll, Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson - imaginative writers whose influence may be detected in her own writing.

In 1938, she came up to Oxford to read Greats (classics, philosophy and ancient history).

Somerville in the 30s was of course a college for women only, and she said that there was a lot of fun and frivolity, although she also took part in gatherings and demonstrations and joined the Communist Party, which was not at all unusual at that time. (It did mean however that she was later refused a visa to the USA, and was unable to take up a scholarship there.)

Despite her extracurricular activities and love affairs, she was awarded a First, and then went to London to work for the Treasury until the end of the war. Subsequently she helped with rehabilitation for displaced persons, travelling abroad with the United Nations.

She returned to Oxford in 1948 and took up a fellowship at St. Anne's College where she taught philosophy, published papers and books in her field and began to write novels, the first of which, Under the Net, appeared in 1954.

She would write 26 others, as well as a few plays and some poetry, and won the Booker prize for her 1978 novel, The Sea, The Sea. Her novels are complicated, dealing with the tangled relationships of middleclass intellectuals, and with questions of good and evil.

In many of them, characters are in some way exiles or outsiders, and there are strong elements of fantasy running through her highly structured plots. She won many accolades and honours for her literary work, and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1987.

As a young woman, Iris Murdoch was considered very beautiful, and was attractive to both men and women. While at Oxford she fell in love with a student who was killed during the war - he was shot as a spy in Bulgaria.

A few years later she had an affair with an anthropologist, a Jewish Czech refugee, who sadly died in 1952 of heart trouble.

In 1956 she married John Bayley, who famously fell in love with her when he glimpsed her cycling down the Woodstock Road, and they went to live in a house called Cedar Lodge in Steeple Aston, where they entertained many friends and colleagues, with Bayley usually doing the cooking.

Many years later they moved to a small house in Summertown, which Iris Murdoch apparently hated, and three years after that, in 1989, to another house closer to town in North Oxford. They had no children, and so their lives revolved around their academic work and writing, and around each other and their circle of close friends.

It was in 1994, at a conference in Israel, that the first clear signs of Alzheimer's showed themselves. Iris Murdoch was not giving a paper but had agreed to take part in a discussion about her novels and philosophical works; the session was an embarrassing failure as she had trouble formulating sentences and finding her words.

She was at that time working on what was to be her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, and the writing of it was fraught with difficulty for her. By the time of publication in 1995, she was already "sailing into darkness" as she described her mental decline to a friend, and her past life was being lost to her.

Her husband was determined to care for her himself at their house in Charlbury Road, and it was only shortly before her death that she went into a nursing home, where she died on February 8th 1999. She bequeathed her brain to medical research, and after cremation her ashes were scattered in the garden of the crematorium in Oxford.




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