Iris Murdoch, A Writer at War:
Letters & Diaries, 1939-1945
edited by Peter J. Conradi
Oxford University Press, 2011
$35.00, cloth, ISBN 978-0199756032
reviewed by Laura Albritton
A Writer at War collects correspondence and diary entries by Irish-born author and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch, perhaps the most criminally under-read writer in America at this time. Why Murdoch should be under-read in the States is a mystery. Author of twenty-five novels plus significant works on philosophy, Murdoch wrote narratives of great psychological intensity that grapple with mythic forces: the search for meaning, morality, the loss of faith, and manifestations of love. Often featuring charismatic male protagonists, many of her books, including Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea, are fearless tours de force. In the U.K., Murdoch has not been so neglected, witness the three biographies of her within the last decade, but the fascination with her personal affairs has at times threatened to overshadow her literary achievements.
If Iris Murdoch exists in the American popular consciousness, it is largely due to her widower John Bayley’s three successful memoirs written after her death, and the subsequent film based on them. Iris, starring Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, portrayed a young Murdoch having affairs and an elderly Murdoch losing her faculties to Alzheimer’s. As A. N. Wilson, author of the controversial Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her, observed, “All that was left of Iris was a young woman cycling around Oxford and a very old woman going demented.” Rival biographer and editor Peter Conradi would agree: “It was as if a film about Nietzsche told us that he lost his wits from tertiary syphilis, had a big moustache, was rude to Wagner, and was looked after by his sister, but never that he wrote The Birth of Tragedy.” In other words, what had been omitted was the tremendous intellect, the brilliant novelist, the magnetic personality. A Writer at War is part of Conradi’s campaign to rectify this state of affairs.
Conradi has crafted helpful, well-written introductions to each of the book’s three parts. Part one, Murdoch’s diary entries, begins in 1939 as war is imminent. She and fellow students at Oxford have embarked on a tour through English towns and villages as “The Magpie Players,” a troupe featuring ballads, songs, and dramatic pieces. The proceeds of their performances will benefit various relief groups, including one for Jewish refugees from Germany. Although Murdoch is only twenty, already her prose is winning and fluid, introspective one moment and judgmental the next: “I have revised my ideas of Cecil [Quentin],” she notes. “Strange how quickly one can change estimations of character. He is not the lofty conceited & utterly snobbish young swine I thought he was at all. He is very keen on the drama, & he is humble enough to want to be liked.” They caravan from place to place, half-starving at times and later feasting in manor houses; Murdoch mentions the looming war only peripherally. Conradi points out that this experience later led her to include theaters and actors in her novels Under the Net, The Green Knight, and The Sea, The Sea. The diary entries are surprisingly absorbing, with a strong narrative (probably due in part to Murdoch’s having edited them in 1988). War becomes a reality only in the final pages when she is about to travel to London and her friend Hugh scolds her, “Do you realize there’s a pretty good chance of London being bombed to-night? Don’t be a little fool!”
In part two, Murdoch’s correspondent is Frank Thompson, who read classics at New College, Oxford, and came from a “well-connected Bohemian family.” (His younger brother was E. P. Thomas, the famous historian.) After being posted to the Middle East, Thompson eventually served as a liaison officer for anti-fascist Bulgarian partisans and was tragically captured and executed in 1944. He is still remembered as a hero in Bulgaria. Conradi writes, “It may not be an over-simplification to say that Iris Murdoch loved Frank because he was nicer than she was and David [Hicks, her next correspondent] because he was nastier.” Included are many of Thompson’s replies to Murdoch; it is impossible not to like this thoughtful, original young poet.
In writing to Frank Thompson, Murdoch shows off at times (still only in her early twenties) but on the whole her formidable intellectual and emotional defenses seem to fall away. Her writing is often warm, open, and direct. She confides, “I have just so damn many very tiring and quite unavoidable activities that I have just no time to live my own life—at a time when my own life feels of intense value & interest to me. Jesus God how I want to write. I want to write a long long & exceedingly obscure novel objectifying the queer conflicts I find within myself & observe in the characters of others.” Later in the same letter she confesses, “I should tell you that I have parted company with my virginity,” and hopes that he isn’t angry with her. Conradi convincingly suggests that Murdoch’s sympathetic portrayal of military men in certain novels is owed to her affection for Thompson. Whether or not they might have found happiness together had he lived cannot be known, but he had a lasting effect on her life and art. Thompson did warn her against falling for “emotional fascists.” In part three in her letters to David Hicks, we become aware that Murdoch has failed to heed Thompson’s advice.
The war itself is most emphasized in part three. Murdoch does war work for the Treasury and then for the UN agency for displaced persons. Her ambition solidifies, as she writes a series of failed novels and falls in love with new writers including Sartre and de Beauvoir. If Murdoch’s correspondence to Thompson is warm and open, her letters to David Hicks, who worked for the British Council, start off as virtuosic, talky performances and end as obsessive entreaties.
We never read Hicks’s replies, but a portrait nevertheless emerges: “Your vanity is so outrageous that it is positively sublime and almost charming.” And later, “I was amused by your letter too. It had that tinge of churlishness which I always associate with you.” The more churlish Hicks is, apparently, the more Murdoch ties herself in knots to perform on the page for him. While it is fascinating to see her ideas on Henry James and Proust coalesce, it is uncomfortable to observe this confident young writer becoming increasingly anxious for his approval. When they finally meet again in person in 1945, for two weeks, they become engaged. Murdoch writes him, “After the years of my own timidity & partly living—after the people sober & withdrawn from life—after the various visions of marriage as equals security & Settling Down and a large income and a house in Bucks & no more madness—you are the great wide sea & peril & a high wind.” Murdoch was romanticizing the emotional peril, but it was there. Finally, when we learn Hicks has broken it off, we can’t help but feel relieved. Yet Hicks (and his successor Elias Canetti) represented a type that became quite important, as did the specter of obsessive love, in novels such as The Severed Head and The Sea, The Sea.
The diary and letters demonstrate how deeply Murdoch mined her own life for the dilemmas, milieu, and emotion that emerge in her novels. The title Iris Murdoch, A Writer at War, is either slightly misleading—in that much of the volume does not concern World War II, but rather, her own coming into being as a writer—or metaphorical. Regardless, Conradi has done an excellent job of editing and introducing these pages; what one ultimately takes away from them is a portrait of a complex young woman in the process of becoming a formidable artist.