Iris Murdoch’s Oxford Life

Benn Sheridan reflects on Iris Murdoch's life and work in the final instalment of Through the Looking Glass

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LMH gardens (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” This line appears towards the close of A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Iris Murdoch’s thirteenth novel, from 1970. As far as literary years go, 1970 does not stand up well. That year, the Booker Prize switched its requirements: whereas up until 1970, it judged books published in the preceding year, thereafter, from 1971, the prize was awarded to books published the same year as the award. This meant that all books published in 1970 were ineligible. Forty years on, her novel was amongst those selected for the ‘Lost Booker’, a testament to Murdoch’s enduring presence as a voice for the silenced.

I say this because in her novels and her philosophy, the subject she tutored at St Anne’s between 1948 and 1963, she sought to emphasise the inherent virtuosity of the inner life, a life untrammelled by notions of gender, sexuality or faith. In Oxford, her mark can be found not just in Anne’s, but in Somerville, where she was a first class Classicist, and Lady Margaret Hall, in whose gardens she was accustomed to go wandering. It must have grated that this avowed believer of ungendered morality should be compelled to remain within the academic confines of three then-female colleges, for Murdoch her womanhood an irrelevance compared to the cogency of her intellectual life. She would undoubtedly be proud to see that in 2016, women can be found in every College and PPH, from Hilda’s to St Benet’s Hall.

In 1996, her final novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, was criticised for its lack of cogency and reliance on tropes and clichés. A reviewer from the New York Times commented, “The story is a psychologically rich tale of romances thwarted and revived. The writing is a mess”. Few knew at that time that Murdoch was in the early stages of Alzheimers Disease. Within three years she was dead. But her mark on Oxford, where she demasculinised the profession of philosophy, and gave aspiring female authors a consummate intellectual to emulate, is indelible. And as for the flowers she loved so much? In those same gardens of LMH is a bench, dedicated to her memory, and ensconced by flowers. Visit, and be “mad with joy” in turn.