Book Review: Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her

Dame Iris Murdoch, 1919-99
Tom Philips, 1984-6
National Portrait Gallery, London

Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her
A.N. Wilson

I’ve only read one other book by A.N. Wilson (his history of London) and didn’t really know much about him. What little I know now I picked up by reading his personal reflection of Iris Murdoch. Early on I took a dislike for Wilson. I am not sure what it was, but there was something about his attitude that annoyed me enough that I had bit of an anti-Wilson chip on my shoulder for the rest of the book.

Partly I was a little confused by the blurb on the front flap of the book: “Fifteen years ago, Iris Murdoch asked A.N. Wilson to be her biographer.” Ooh, sounds portentous. “This book is a tribute to the novelist he knew for thirty years.” Hmm, does that mean he turned her down, or is this book supposed to be that biography? After reading the whole book I still can’t answer that question.

The second thing that kind of rubbed me the wrong way is that Wilson seems to be, or has been, miffed at the two books Murdoch’s husband John Bayley wrote about her descent into dementia. It made me feel like a bit of chump for having been moved by Bayley’s account about the real life struggle of Alzheimer’s disease portrayed in both his books and in the film “Iris”. Wilson seems annoyed either because the film depicted the filth in which the aging couple lived or because it didn’t explain why they lived that way. But after reading the whole book I still can’t answer that question either.

By the end of the book I do understand some of the reasons Wilson is upset that Murdoch became a figurehead for Alzheimer’s awareness. She probably would not want to have been remembered that way. And perhaps it is a little unfeeling toward Murdoch’s legacy that a chair was endowed at Oxford in her name, but not for philosophy or literature but for Alzheimer’s. I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. But on the other hand I feel like no one has control over their own legacy and there was perhaps an opportunity for good to come out of her terrible situation. And frankly, I think that a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer’s has as much right to the story as the afflicted. Wilson seemed upset by the frankness with which Bayley tells the story. That it somehow took away Murdoch’s dignity. But I don’t buy that at all. I think Bayley’s books, although at times unflinching in their portrayal of the situation, were never gratuitous or inappropriate in their detail.

In this way Wilson gives the impression early on that Murdoch deserves better. One begins to think that his intent is to buff away all of Bayley’s smudges on Murdoch’s image. Yet there is much in Wilson’s book that does the opposite. He spends a lot of time talking about his mentor Bayley and a fair amount talking about himself. And what he says about Murdoch doesn’t add up to a particularly flattering portrayal. But he seems of two minds. He proclaims her genius now and then and talks about what a wonderful person she was, yet the overwhelming feeling I developed about Murdoch is that I don’t really like her much. And maybe I don’t like her books as much as I thought I did. Maybe the real issue is that Wilson is annoyed with Bayley showing Murdoch in an unflattering light because Bayley essentially beat Wilson, the “official” biographer, to the punch? Or maybe because Bayley sold a lot of books, yet I found Wilson’s for $1 on a “please take these books” cart parked outside the bookstore. You know, the kind of sale cart where the shopkeeper doesn’t even care what impact the weather might be having on the merchandise.

I didn’t hate the book but I also didn’t find it all that interesting. There is some insight into Murdoch’s reading likes and dislikes.

The Lord of the Rings she read and reread, enjoying detailed conversations about it with its author, or with Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son. She loved the Hornblower stories and the Patrick O’Brian sea stories, though she deplored the love interest and felt that Stephen Lefanu’s infatuation with Diana Villiers was soppy stuff which spoilt the excitement of the adventures. At mentions of the works of Olivia Manning, Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Rhys, let alone Penelope Lively or Margaret Drabble, she would merely smile or shake her head. She spoke, always, with love and respect of Elizabeth Bowen, her mentor, and A.S. Byatt, her disciple and interpreter, but she spoke of them as ‘beloved beings’. Bowen herself dissected the novels of contemporaries, read them closely, remembered what she admired about them. IM never spoke in this way about the work of female contemporaries.

I am not sure how enlightening this is about Murdoch’s tastes in fiction. It seems to speak more about what Wilson may not have known despite his 30-year friendship with Murdoch. He also tells us that Bayley loved Barbara Pym and read and re-read her frequently, but he didn’t seem to have much interest in, or praise for, Murdoch’s books.

I finished the book rather bored and unimpressed with Wilson. Unfortunately, I also finished it liking both Murdoch and Bayley less than I did when I started. If that was Wilson’s intent, then job well done. Thankfully it won’t keep me from reading the rest of Murdoch’s novels.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her

  1. Mrs. B. November 4, 2009 / 5:10 am

    Interesting post Thomas. I think Murdoch is brilliant but I don't think I'll be reading this bio. It's interesting to know her reading tastes though and see that she likes many of the same authors we seem to cover. I wonder if she liked ICB (Ivy Compton-Burnett)?

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  2. savidgereads November 4, 2009 / 5:48 am

    Very insightful post Thomas. I have to say that I have only ever read The Bel by Murdoch but always wanted to try another. I do have A.N. Wilsons 'Winnie and Wolf' on my TBR so hope the fiction is better than the non fiction!

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  3. JonEAngel November 8, 2009 / 12:19 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. JonEAngel November 8, 2009 / 12:22 am

    Have you seen the movie “Iris,” starring Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch? The movie is told in flashbacks with Kate Winslet playing the young Iris. The movie focuses on her descent into Alzheimer's disease, and her eventual death. It was the first time I had ever heard of her, but it made me want to seek out a few of her books. Unfortunately, the library in town didn't have anything by her. I'm on a limited income and don't want to buy anything “sight unseen.” Are there any particular books of hers you could recommend?

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  5. Thomas November 8, 2009 / 11:33 am

    Jon: Thanks for stoppinng by. I did indeed see the movie and thought it was quite good. I think the first thing of hers I ever read was Under the Net, her first novel. If you do give Murdoch a whirl definitely try something from her early days. I am not sure where you live, but does your library have inter-library loan? There is bound to be some Murdoch available to you.

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