Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Iris Murdoch: A Renaissance?

An article I wrote a few months ago for a local newspaper: 

Iris Murdoch. A name that for me, conjures up the image of a mysterious, brooding, strong woman; brow furrowed looking straight at the camera. Yet, this is not a description that matches up to the style of her books; elegant, and filled with deliciously raw emotions and simple human mistakes. The cloud of mystery that surrounds Iris Murdoch and the recent revival of interest in her books is what brought me to the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies in Kingston University, to meet Frances White on a surprisingly warm March afternoon.

Frances first stumbled upon Iris’s novels at quite a young age, “When I was about 13 my father gave me The Unicorn and said ‘you might enjoy this’ and I loved it. And then I read the Flight from the Enchanter and loved it and just carried on reading her.” Reading English at University, Frances maintained her interest in Iris Murdoch and even began doing her PhD on her; “I went on reading her and writing things about her for myself really, I suppose". The breakthrough for both Francis's own interest in Iris as well the beginning of a renaissance in Iris Murdoch Studies began in 2004, when the nature of interest in Iris Murdoch “shifted from critics to ordinary readers”, with the opening of the Centre of Iris Murdoch Studies in Kingston University with the acquisition of Iris Murdoch’s Oxford library and was expanded by the addition of Iris's London library in 2006. 

The International Iris Murdoch Conferences held at the university every two years encourage this interest; the first was held in 2004 coinciding with the opening of the archives. "[There have been] conferences in Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, in Turkey... in America and Japan has its own Iris Murdoch Society.” There definitely seems to be a rise in the number of people keen to learn and hear about Iris Murdoch…100 came this year. .. Some come because they are academics.. Some come because they love listening to things about her.” 

The fascination and admiration that Frances has for Iris Murdoch is easy to see after only a few minutes of the interview; it becomes especially distinct when she talks about how Iris connects with her readers. Frances explains the importance Iris gave to her audience by referring to Shakespeare.. “True to Iris Murdoch’s spirit, she wanted to have something for everyone; she thought Shakespeare’s plays had something for everyone." She pauses here to ask me if I've ever been to the Globe (theatre). I nod, silenced by the charm of having as ambitious an aim as 'something for everyone'. "From the people in the top tiers..." Frances continues, "...right down to the pit.” The sentence is allowed to hang in the air for a moment.
I then question Frances on what she thinks of Iris's novels and what people can take from them. “I think they are just very enjoyable. She believed in spinning a good yarn. She loved children’s books that just tell a good, fast story.” Despite the whimsical, fast paced aspect of her novels there is still something  very real about the way Iris writes, "they are also about human nature and the human condition and the kind of joys and sorrows that we all experience.” 

The vulnerability of human nature is something Iris addresses in almost every novel. She attacks serious questions such as what we do if we do something unforgivable, how we go on with our lives. Frances uses the example of Iris' novel The Good Apprentice which constructs the story of a young student who gives a friend a sandwich with drugs in it and then leaves the friend alone for a few hours. Upon returning, he finds that the friend has jumped out of the window. The novel explores how the student copes with his guilt; an emotion all readers can relate to. We get to the heart of the question when Frances enthusiastically lists what you find in the novels: “about falling in love, they're about religion, and about sex, about goodness and how we try to improve ourselves and mostly how we fail!" She pauses here, to smile at the fantastically human accomplishment of failing. "And they're full of jokes and also full of the beauty of the world. She's marvellous at writing about things, she loved the physical world: so you’ve got wonderful nature in them and wonderful sorts of interiors of houses and rooms and clothes and ornaments and books and animals and little details." All these small things that everyone wonders at sometimes.

Frances quotes a line from one of Iris's philosophical papers “up any religion a man may climb.” Iris Murdoch’s having studied philosophy; this is a topic which crops up quite frequently in the novels. “This yearning towards something beyond us, something transcendent, something holy was something Iris took very seriously... Something we are coming back to after the 20th century decline in religion; people are starting to feel a sense of emptiness”. This point hit the nail on the head, and could be a component of the renaissance of Iris Murdoch. In Frances's opinion it’s all down to the “‘turn to theology.’ Science had got the upper hand but it’s now become apparent this can’t solve everything." It’s the theory that people are now turning back to theology, "that there may be more to life than we can see, and I think Iris never lost sight of that at all.” 

After studying Iris Murdoch in depth, lecturing on her in Kingston University, working with the archives, acting as editorial assistant to the Iris Murdoch Review, and even writing a book about her, I asked Frances a question that seemed inevitable; "Do you feel you know Iris now?". Her answer fitted perfectly with the original picture of Iris that I had at the start: "I do but it's an illusion of course... you're aware that what you’re capturing is your version of Iris Murdoch.” Frances tells me that she found Iris's husband, John Bayley's biography of Iris "fascinating" as even he says “the Iris I’m writing about isn’t the Iris that actually exists”. It seems that no matter how close you were to her, you could never know Iris Murdoch entirely. 
This matter of "knowing" is perhaps one which none of us can ever grasp. Iris loved the myth of Proteus, and said she was a Protean character because she was “different with different people” Bayley knew her well but “that was the person she was with him”. There was one person however, with whom Iris seemed to let her guard down. This was Philippa Foot, a friend who Iris first met in her Somerville college days, and stayed in touch with for the rest of her life. “Iris didn’t put on much of a mask to Philippa and she was neither looking up to Philippa as a mentor of her own nor down to Philippa as someone who she was looking after. They were very much on a level”. Their long-lasting friendship and importance to British Heritage is explored in more detail through Iris's letters to Philippa which were acquired by the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The letters and the project based around them called ‘Iris Murdoch & Philippa Foot: An arc of friendship’, is being run by the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston university, London, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Exhibition will be displayed in Kingston Museum gallery, 3rd-25th May 2013.

I ask Frances to tell me a little bit more about the Iris Murdoch Review, and she reaches up to get a copy from above her desk. The first issue of the newsletter was published in 1987 which Frances describes as a “cyclostyled... little, flimsy thing.” This then grew from a small newsletter to a larger, more sophisticated review with 6 people on the editorial board including Anne Rowe, the Director of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies and Editor of the Iris Murdoch Review.

As Frances won both an award for Contemporary Women’s Writing in 2008 and the KUP Short Biography Competition in 2012 for her book Becoming Iris Murdoch, I felt it was necessary to ask her, what advice she would give to aspiring writers. “I have twice won something and each time I have written entirely what I wanted to write and what I wanted to say. I've never thought about that question... But I think if you try to write to please other people you'll miss the mark. It’s got to be something you want to say, that you feel passionately about. It’s got to be well researched and well backed up with proofs of what you’re saying so it stands really solidly, so people can’t pick holes in your arguments… It’s got to be written in a very lively manner which is partly why  probably that essay and book won those prizes, they were not written to impress, they were written to tell people how strongly I felt about Iris Murdoch’s work.” The essay Frances is referring to here, was on the subject of refugees in Iris Murdoch's novels. The final piece of advice that Frances gives is simple but entirely true: “I think you need your individual voice because there are a lot of people writing... Really wanting to share something with somebody, I think that’s the secret to really good writing”. 

Our conversation meanders back to the matter at hand, is there a renaissance in Iris Murdoch Studies? “She is being included increasingly in books from many disciplines.” Frances thinks that times are changing and that there is a “complete change in the way literature is viewed... the idea that western literature should be seen as better is absolutely shot to pieces now ....or people are saying there isn’t a canon at all”. She also makes the valid point that there “tends to be a pattern that after writers die they fall away a bit and then they come back”; this could be true for Iris just the same as for any writer.

Evidence of the growing interest in Iris Murdoch can be seen through the social media: “people are reading about her” and she has more than 2 thousand followers online on Twitter, and a lively appreciation page on Facebook. Frances becomes suddenly animated at the talk of the growing interest. “People chatting away [on Twitter] saying ‘oh my favorite character is Charles I really really love him’ and someone else saying ‘no I can’t stand him he is so full of himself!’ it’s very very nice the way people are just talking about the books." 
So what’s the future for Iris Murdoch? 

“We won’t be able to tell if Iris Murdoch will survive until after I’m dead but I firmly believe she will, I’m working towards it,” Frances tells me seriously, “I think she will live and I’m sticking my neck out here… as the greatest British writer in the second half of the 20th century. I really do. I can’t think of anybody of her sheer originality and brilliance”.

A project called 'Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot: an Arc of Friendship', is being run by the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston university, London, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Exhibition will be displayed in Kingston Museum gallery, 3rd-25th May 2013.

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