Iris Murdoch - a short biography

Birth, childhood and education

Jean Iris Murdoch was born at 59, Blessington Street in Dublin, on 15th July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a sheep-farming background in Co. Down; her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who trained as a singer until her daughter was born, was from Dublin. Thus, her background is Irish, which was important to her, but not 'Anglo-Irish', as has often been thought.

While Murdoch was still a baby, her father's job in the Civil Service caused the family to move to London, where Murdoch grew up, living first in Hammersmith and then in Chiswick. Her early education was at the Froebel Demonstration School, before going to board at the equally unusual and progressive Badminton School in Bristol in 1932. Here, Murdoch was homesick for her parents, with whom she always claimed to have lived in a 'perfect trinity of love' (she had no siblings). She was greatly influenced at this time by the Headmistress, Miss Beatrice May Baker.

From school Murdoch went to Oxford University, to read 'Greats' at Somerville College between 1938 and 1942. She was awarded a First Class Honours degree, and also led a rich and full student life, encompassing political activity (she joined the Communist Party), amateur dramatics, and many friendships.

Writings and honours

Under the Net, Murdoch's first published novel of 1954, brought her instant recognition as a major new voice in English fiction. By the time her 26th and last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, was published in 1996, she had become the Grande Dame of English Letters as well as a Dame of the British Empire, steadily accruing honours as well as critical acclaim over a career that lasted over 40 years. Her influence on both moral philosophy and on the novel continues into the 21st century.

Murdoch's achievements brought her world-wide acclaim. In 1973 The Black Prince won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, in 1974 The Sacred and Profane Love-Machine earned her the Whitbread Literary Award, and in 1978 the coveted Booker McConnell Prize was awarded to The Sea, the Sea, (The Good Apprentice and The Book and the Brotherhood were also short-listed for this prize in 1985 and 1987 respectively).

Murdoch was made a Member of the Irish Academy in 1970, and her fame grew in the USA as rapidly as in Europe. She was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy in 1975 and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982, and was given a Medal of Honor by the National Arts Club in 1990. Iris Murdoch was awarded the CBE in 1976 and in 1987 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1987, Oxford University conferred an Honorary Doctorate (D.Litt.) on her and in 1988 she received the Shakespeare Prize in Hamburg. In the 1997 PEN awards, Murdoch received the Gold Pen for distinguished service to Literature.

During her career as a philosopher, Murdoch was invited to give many prestigious lectures, including the Ballard Mathews Lecture in 1962 ('The Idea of Perfection'), the Leslie Stephen Lecture in 1967 ('The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts'), the Romanes Lecture in 1976 ('The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists'), and the Gifford Lectures in 1982 (which formed the basis for Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 1992). Conferences and symposia on her literary and philosophical work, which she often attended, were held in France, Holland, and other countries. Tom Phillips was commissioned to paint her portrait for the National Portrait Gallery; this portrait was unveiled in 1986 and reproduced in postcard form. Iris Murdoch had become an icon in her own lifetime.

Work, personal relationships and interests

The Second World War took Murdoch away from the University world into the world of work, first as Assistant Principal at the Treasury 1942-44, and then as a Relief Worker for UNRRA in Belgium and Austria 1944-46. She resumed academic life in 1947 when she was awarded the Sarah Smithson Studentship in Philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge, following which she returned to Oxford, the city she was never to leave, though she always retained a base in London. From 1948-63 Murdoch was a Fellow at St Anne's College and a University Lecturer. When she retired to write, St Anne's made her Honorary Fellow, as did Somerville College in 1977, and Newnham in 1986. Her first six novels were published whilst she was still teaching full-time.

Murdoch lived a complex emotional life. Two great sorrows were the deaths of Frank Thompson, killed during the war, and of Franz Steiner, one of Hitler's 'indirect victims', both of whom Murdoch had loved. On 14th August 1956 she married John Oliver Bayley, a fellow academic at Oxford, and her life gained a new stability in what was to prove a long and happy childless marriage. Murdoch and her husband lived in Cedar Lodge, in Steeple Aston, until 1986 when they moved to Hamilton Road in North Oxford, moving again only three years later to nearby Charlbury Road, where John Bayley still lives.

Murdoch's life was dedicated to writing and she eschewed children and domesticity to preserve her time and energy for her 26 novels and for the philosophy on which she was permanently working in the background. Visual art was of great importance to Murdoch (had it not been for the war she thought she might have been a painter or an Art Historian), and from 1963-67 she lectured at the Royal College of Art. She also made excursions into the theatre, collaborating with JB Priestley and James Saunders on adaptations of A Severed Head and The Italian Girl in 1964 and 1968, before writing her own plays and adapting The Black Prince in 1989. One play, The Servants in the Snow, was set to music by William Matthias (1980), and music was composed for her Radio Play, The One Alone, by Gary Carpenter (1987). Her slim book of poetry A Year of Birds was set to music by Sir Malcolm Williamson and performed at the BBC Proms.

Alzheimer's, death and myth

It became apparent that Murdoch was suffering from Alzheimer's disease while she was writing her final novel, and her condition was made public in 1996. Language was deserting her and she had already given up working on Heidegger, her last philosophical manuscript. John Bayley cared for her until she died peacefully in The Vale Nursing Home in Oxford on 8th February 1999. At her wish, no funeral or Memorial Service was held.

The books, Iris (1998) and Iris and the Friends (1999), which John Bayley wrote during Murdoch's last years of illness, along with the film Iris, directed by Richard Eyre and based on John Bayley's first memoir, brought Iris Murdoch's life and work to the attention of the general public.

Biographical material

The main source of information on Iris Murdoch's life is, to date, Peter J Conradi's
Iris Murdoch: A Life (HarperCollins 2001).

Entries are also to be found in:

  • Dictionary of Irish Philosophers A-Z, General Ed. Thomas Duddy (Thoemmes Continuum, 2005)
  • Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopaedia, Vol.11 (Mck-N), Ed. Anne Commire (Yorkin Publications, 2001)
  • The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, Ed. Robert Welch (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996)
  • Contemporary Novelists (6th Edition), Ed. Susan Windisch Brown (St James Press, 1996)
  • The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ed. Ted Honderich (OUP, 1995)
  • The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Ed. Ian Ousby (CUP, 1993)
  • The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Eds. Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy (BT Batsford Ltd, London, 1990)
  • The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Ed. Margaret Drabble (OUP, 1985)
  • Longman Companion to English Literature, Ed. Christopher Gillie (Longman, 1978)
  • Webster's New World Companion to English and American Literature, General Ed. Arthur Pollard (Compton Russell Ltd, 1973)
Photograph of Iris Murdoch's parents