Authors: Iris Murdoch
Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919 of Anglo-Irish parents. She went to
Badminton School, Bristol, and read classics at Somerville College, Oxford.
During the war she was an Assistant Principal at the Treasury, and then worked
with UNRRA in London, Belgium and Austria. She held a studentship in philosophy
at Newnham College, Cambridge, and then in 1948 became a Fellow of St Anne’s
College, Oxford, where she lived with her husband, the teacher and critic John
Bayley. Awarded the CBE in 1976, Iris Murdoch was made a DBE in the 1987 New
Year’s Honours List. In the 1997 PEN Awards she received the Gold Pen for
Distinguished Service to Literature.
Iris Murdoch wrote twenty-six novels, including
Under the Net
, her writing
début of 1954, the Booker Prize-winning
The Sea, the Sea
The Green Knight
(1995). She received a number of other literary awards, among them the James
Tait Black Memorial Prize for
The Black Prince
(1973) and the Whitbread
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
(1974). Her works of
Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, Metaphysics as a Guide to
Existentialists and Mystics
(1997). She also wrote
several plays, including
The Italian Girl
(with James Saunders) and
, an adaptation of her novel. Her volume of poetry,
, which appeared in 1978, was set to music by Malcolm Williamson.
Iris Murdoch died in February 1999. Among the many who paid tribute to her as a
philosopher, novelist and private individual was Peter Conradi, who in his
obituary in the
wrote ‘Iris Murdoch was one of the best and
most influential writers of the twentieth century. Above all, she kept the
traditional novel alive, and in so doing changed what it is capable of … She
connected goodness, against the temper of the times, not with the quest for an
authentic identity so much as with the happiness that can come about when that
quest is relaxed. We are fortunate to have shared our appalling century with
hundred guineas!’ said Mor’s wife. ‘Well I never!’
‘It’s the market price,’ said Mor.
‘You could articulate more distinctly,’ said Nan, ‘if you took that rather
damp-looking cigarette out of your mouth.’
‘I said it’s the
!’ said Mor. He threw his cigarette away.
‘Bledyard would have done it for nothing,’ said Nan.
‘Bledyard is mad,’ said Mor, ‘and thinks portrait painting is wicked.
‘If you ask me, it’s you and the school Governors that are mad,’ said Nan. ‘You
must have money to burn. First all that flood-lighting, and then this.
Flood-lighting! As if it wasn’t bad enough to have to see the school during the
‘Shall we wait lunch for Felicity?’ asked Mor.
‘No, of course not,’ said Nan. She always sulks when she comes home. She
wouldn’t want to eat anyway.‘ Felicity was their daughter. She was expected
home that day from boarding school, where an outbreak of measles had brought
the term to an early conclusion.
They seated themselves at the table at opposite ends. The dining-room was tiny.
The furniture was large and glossy. The casement windows were open as wide as
they could go upon the hot dry afternoon. They revealed a short front garden
and a hedge of golden privet curling limply in the fierce heat. Beyond the
garden lay the road where the neat semi-detached houses faced each other like
mirror images. The housing estate was a recent one, modem in design and very
solidly built. Above the red-tiled roofs, and over the drooping foliage of the
trees there rose high into the soft midsummer haze the neo-Gothic tower of St
Bride’s school where Mor was a housemaster. It was a cold lunch.
‘Water?’ said Nan. She poured it from a blue-and-white porcelain jug. Mor
tilted his chair to select his favourite from the row of sauce bottles on the
sideboard. One advantage of the dining-room was that everything was within
‘Is Donald coming in this evening to see Felicity?’ asked Nan. Donald was their
son, who was now in the Sixth Form at St Bride’s.
‘He’s taking junior prep,’ said Mor.
‘He’s taking junior prep!’ said Nan, imitating. ‘You could have got him off
taking junior prep! I never met such a pair of social cowards. You never want
to do anything that might draw attention to you. You haven’t taken a vow of
obedience to St Bride’s.’
‘You know Don hates privileges,’ said Mor briefly. This was one of the points
from which arguments began. He jabbed unenthusiastically at his meat. ‘I wish
Felicity would come.’
‘I’ve got a bone to pick with Don,’ said Nan.
‘Don’t nag him about the climbing,’ said Mor. Donald wanted to go on a climbing
holiday. His parents were opposed to this.
‘Don’t use that word at me!’ said Nan. ‘Someone’s got to take some responsibility
for what the children do.’
‘Well, leave it till after his exam,’ said Mor. ‘He’s worried enough.’ Donald
was shortly to sit for a Cambridge College entrance examination in chemistry.
‘If we leave it,’ said Nan, ‘we 11 find it’s been fixed. Don told me it was all
off. But Mrs Prewett said yesterday they were still discussing it. Your
children seem to make it a general rule to lie to their parents for all your
talk about truth.’
Although he now held no religious views, Mor had been brought up as a
Methodist. He believed profoundly in complete truthfulness as the basis and
condition of all virtue. It grieved him to find that his children were almost
totally indifferent to this requirement. He pushed his plate aside.
‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’ said Nan. Do you mind if I do?‘ She reached
across a predatory fork and took the meat from Mor’s plate.
‘It’s too hot to eat,’ said Mor. He looked out of the window. The tower of the
school was idling in the heat, swaying a little in the cracked air. From the
arterial road near by came the dull murmur, never stilled by day, of the stream
of traffic now half-way between London and the coast. In the heat of the
afternoon it sounded like insects buzzing in a wood. Time was longer, longer,
longer in the summer.
‘You remember how poor Liffey used to hate this hot weather,’ said Mor.
Liffey had been their dog, a golden retriever, who was killed two years ago on
the main road. This animal had formed the bond between Mor and Nan which their
children had been unable to form. Half unconsciously, whenever Mor wanted to
placate his wife he said something about Liffey.
Nan’s face at once grew gentler. ‘Poor thing!’ she said. ‘She used to stagger
about the lawn following a little piece of shadow. And her long tongue hanging
‘I wonder how much longer the heat wave will last,’ said Mor.
‘In other countries,’ said Nan, ‘they just have the summertime. We have to talk
about heat waves. It’s dreary.’
Mor was silent while Nan finished her plate. He began to have a soporific
feeling of conjugal boredom. He stretched and yawned and fell to examining a
stain upon the tablecloth. ‘You haven’t forgotten we’re dining with Demoyte
Demoyte was the former headmaster of St Bride’s, now retired, but still living in
his large house near to the school. The Mors had continued their custom of
dining with him regularly. The sum of five hundred guineas, which had so much
scandalized Nan, was to be paid for a portrait of him which the school
Governors had recently commissioned.
‘Oh, damn, I had forgotten,’ said Nan. ‘Oh, what a blasted bore! I’ll ring up
and say I’m ill.’
‘You won’t,’ said Mor. ‘You’ll enjoy it when you’re there.’
‘You always make that futile remark,’ said Nan, ‘and I never do. Will there be
company?’ Nan hated company. Mor liked it.
‘There’ll be the portrait painter,’ said Mor. ‘I gather she arrived yesterday.’
‘I read about her in the local rag,’ said Nan. ‘She has some pathetically comic
‘Rain Carter,’ said Mor.
‘Rain Carter!’ said Nan. ‘Cor Lumme! The daughter of Sidney Carter. At least
he’s a good painter. Anyway, he’s famous. If you wanted to waste money, why
didn’t you ask him?’
‘He’s dead,’ said Mor. ‘He died early this year. His daughter’s supposed to be
‘She’d better be, at that price,’ said Nan. ‘I suppose I’ll have to dress.
She’s sure to be all flossied up. She lives in France. Oh dear! Where is she
staying, by the way? The Saracen’s Head?’
‘No,’ said Mor, ‘Miss Carter is staying at Demoyte’s house. She wants to study
his character and background before she starts the picture. She’s very academic
‘Demoyte will be delighted, the old goat!’ said Nan. ‘But what a line! I like
Mor hated Nan’s mockery, even when it was not directed against him. He had once
imagined that she mocked others merely in order to protect herself. But as time
went on he found it harder to believe that Nan was vulnerable. He decided that
it was he who needed the consolation of thinking her so.
‘As you haven’t met the girl,’ he said, ‘why are you being so spiteful?’
‘What sort of question is that?’ said Nan. ‘Do you expect me to answer it?’
They looked at each other. Mor turned away his eyes. He suffered deeply from
the discovery that his wife was the stronger. He told himself that her strength
sprang only from obstinate and merciless unreason; but to think this did not
save him either from suffering coercion or from feeling resentment. He could
not now make his knowledge of her into love, he could not even make it into indifference.
In the heart of him he was deeply compelled. He was forced. And he was
continually offended. The early years of their marriage had been happy enough.
At that time he and Nan had talked about nothing but themselves. When this
subject failed, however, they had been unable to find another - and one day Mor
made the discovery that he was tied for life to a being who could change, who
could withdraw herself from him and become independent. On that day Mor had
renewed his marriage vows.
‘Sorry,’ said Mor. He had made it a rule to apologize, whether or not he
thought himself in the wrong. Nan was prepared to sulk for days. He was always
the one who crawled back. Her strength was endless.
‘In fact,’ he said, ‘according to Mr Everard she’s a very shy, naive girl. She
led quite a cloistered life with her father.’ The Reverend Giles Everard was
the present headmaster of St Bride’s, generally known as the Revvy Evvy.
‘Quite cloistered!’ said Nan. ‘In France! As for Evvy’s judgement, he casts
down his eyes like a milkmaid if he meets a member of the other sex. Still, if
we have this girl at dinner we shall at least escape Miss Handforth, on whom
you dote so!’ Miss Handforth was Mr Demoyte’s housekeeper, an old enemy of Nan.
‘I don’t dote on Handy,’ said Mor, ‘but at least she’s cheerful, and she’s good
‘She isn’t cheerful,’ said Nan. ‘She just has a loud voice - and she expects to
be in the conversation even when she’s waiting at table. I can’t stand that.
There’s no point in having servants if you abandon the conventions. There’s
ice-cream to follow. Will you have some? No?’
‘She keeps Demoyte’s spirits up,’ said Mor. ‘He says it’s impossible to think
about oneself when there’s so much noise going on.’
‘He’s a morbid old man,’ said Nan. ‘It’s pathetic.’
Mor loved Demoyte. ‘I wish Felicity would come,’ he said.
‘Don’t keep saying that, darling,’ said Nan. ‘Can I have your ice-cream spoon?
I’ve used mine to take the gravy off the cloth.’
‘I think I ought to go into school,’ said Mor, looking at his watch.
‘Lunch isn’t over,’ said Nan, ‘just because
’ve finished eating. And
the two-fifteen bell hasn’t rung yet. Don’t forget we must talk to Felicity
about her future.’
‘Must we?’ said Mor. This was the sort of provocative reply which he found it
very hard to check, and by which Nan was unfailingly provoked. A recurring
pattern. He was to blame.
‘Why do you say “must we?” in that peculiar tone of voice?’ said Nan. She had a
knack of uttering such a question in a way which forced Mor to answer her.
‘Because I don’t know what I think about it,’ said Mor. He felt a cold
sensation which generally preluded his becoming angry.
‘Well, I know what I think about it,’ said Nan. ‘Our finances and her talents
don’t leave us much choice, do they?’ She looked directly at Mor. Again it was
impossible not to reply.
‘I suggest we wait a while,’ said Mor. ‘Felicity doesn’t know her own mind
yet.’ He knew that Nan could go on in this tone for hours and keep quite calm.
Arguments would not help him. His only ultimate defence was anger.
‘You always pretend people don’t know what they want when they don’t want what
you want,’ said Nan. ‘You are funny, Bill. Felicity certainly wants to leave
school. And if she’s to start on that typing course next year we ought to put
her name down now.’
‘I don’t want Felicity to be a typist,’ said Mor.
‘Why not?’ said Nan. ‘She could have a good career. She could be secretary to
some interesting man.’
‘I don’t want her to be secretary to some interesting man,’ said Mor, ‘I want her
to be an interesting woman and have someone else be her secretary.’
‘You live in a dream world, Bill,’ said Nan. ‘Neither of your children are
clever, and you’ve already caused them both enough unhappiness by pretending
that they are. You’ve bullied Don into taking the College exam and you ought to
be satisfied with that. If you’d take our marriage more seriously you’d try to
be a bit more of a realist. You must take some responsibility for the children.
I know you have all sorts of fantasies about yourself. But at least try to be
Mor winced. If there was one thing he hated to hear about, it was ‘our
marriage’. This entity was always mentioned in connexion with some particularly
dreary project which Nan was trying to persuade him to be unavoidably
necessary. He made an effort. ‘You may be right,’ he said, ‘but I still think
we ought to wait.’
‘I know I’m right,’ said Nan.
The phrase found an echo in Mor’s mind. He was perpetually aware of the danger
of becoming too dogmatic himself in opposition to Nan’s dogmatism. He tried to
change the subject. ‘I wonder if Felicity will mind your having changed her
Nan liked moving the furniture about. She kept the rooms in a continual state
of upheaval in which nothing was respected, neither one’s belongings nor the
way one chose to arrange them, and thereby satisfied, or so it seemed to Mor,
her desire to feel that all the things in the house were her things. He had
become accustomed, after many years, to the perpetual flux, but he hated the
way in which it hurt the children.
Nan refused to leave her point. ‘You’re so simple-minded, Bill. You think that
reactionaries consider all women to be stupid, and so progressives must
consider all women to be clever! I’ve got no time for that sort of sentimental
feminism. Your dear Mr Everard has got it too. Did I tell you that he wants me
to make an after-dinner speech at that idiotic dinner?’ There was to be a
ceremonial dinner, at a date not yet arranged, to honour the presentation to the
school of the portrait of Mr Demoyte.
‘Yes, he told me,’ said Mor. ‘I hope you will. You’d make a good speech.’
No, I wouldn’t,‘ said Nan. ’I’d just make myself and you look ridiculous. I
told Evvy so. He really is an ass. Men of his generation have such romantic
ideas about female emancipation. But if his idea of the free society is women
making after-dinner speeches, he’d better find someone else to cooperate with.
He told me to “think it over”. I just laughed at him. He’s pathetic.‘
‘You ought to try,’ said Mor. ‘You complain about the narrowness of your life,
and yet you never take the chance to do anything new or different.’
‘If you think my life would be made any less, as you charmingly put it,
“narrow” by my making a fool of myself at that stupid dinner,’ said Nan, ‘I
really cannot imagine what conception you have of me at all.’ The two-fifteen
bell for the first afternoon lesson could be heard ringing beyond the trees.
‘I wish you hadn’t stopped your German,’ said Mor. ‘You haven’t done any for
months, have you?’
Mor had hoped to be able to educate his wife. He had always known that she was
intelligent. He had imagined that she would turn out to be talented. The house
was littered with the discarded paraphernalia of subjects in which he had hoped
to interest her: French grammars, German grammars, books of history and
biography, paints, even a guitar on which she had strummed a while but never
learnt to play. It irritated Mor that his wife should combine a grievance about
her frustrated gifts with a lack of any attempt to concentrate. She
deliberately related herself to the world through him only and then disliked
him for it. She had few friends, and no occupations other than housework.