Iris Murdoch was born on July 15, 1919 in Dublin, Ireland to Anglo-Irish parents. Her familiy moved to London when she was one year old. She was an only child, a status that she enjoyed. Her mother was an opera singer and her father was a civil servant. After winning a scholarship to Oxford College, she studied philosophy and classics, including Greek and Latin. She graduated in 1938, just before World War II, and was drafted into the civil service as a Treasury worker. After the war, she continued working for the government as an administrative officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Belgium and Austria. While on the European continent, she came in contact with both Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, and Raymond Queneau, the French novelist. This period of her life reawakened her love for philosophy. She applied for a visa to study in the United States, but was denied since she had recently registered as a communist. Soon after, she returned to Oxford for an advanced philosophy degree and studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein. After receiving her degree, she took a teaching post at Oxford, which she maintained until she was nearly sixty years old.
Iris Murdoch was an amazingly prolific writer, producing in her lifetime twenty- six novels, eight books of philosophy, and eight plays. Her writing career began in 1952 with Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, a critical assessment of his writings. She published four novels in the 1950s, starting in 1954. Between 1961 and 1971, she published ten novels and one book of philosophy, more than one per year. When asked by an interviewer how much time she took off between novels, she responded "half an hour." In another interview, she noted that she writes fiction in the morning and philosophy in the afternoon, while still maintaining her teaching post. Murdoch's means of writing her novels also were noteworthy since she hated typewriters and usually just wrote two or three drafts of the novel in longhand before delivering it to the publisher in a brown paper bag. Once she finished her book, she would not let anyone edit so much as a word, another rare privilege for an author. Many of Murdoch's novels met with mixed criticism, especially those published rapidly in the sixties. Critics cited the insubstantial nature of her characters, the occasionally pretentious presentation of philosophy, and poorly written narrative that needed editing. Frank Kermode stated in the early 1970s that each of her books contains "somewhere inside, the ghost of a major novel." With the arrival of The Black Prince in 1973, many believed that that novel had come. The Black Prince is widely considered the best of Murdoch's novels. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in its year of publication. It was, like almost all of her novels, a resounding popular success.
Iris Murdoch admired the great nineteenth-century English and Russian novels written by Tolstoy, Doestovesky, James, Dickens, and Eliot. With her books, she longed to replicate the complex characterization and detailed scenery of those authors. In comparison, she believed 20th century novels to be weak and uninteresting. In her effort to recreate a 19th century style of fiction, Murdoch combined a variety of techniques, so that her novels usually contained the intrigue of a thriller, the twists of an adventure story, the dynamics of a romance tale, and the comic patterns of Shakespearean and Greek literature. Some have compared her novels to soap operas because of their romantic intrigues and bizarrely coincidental plot twists that rely upon doorbells bringing trouble and phone calls bringing disaster.
Murdoch's background as a philosopher is obvious in her fiction, as her texts are frequently interspersed with philosophical commentary. Such direct philosophical restatement is particularly prominent in The Black Prince. Its primary themes are the possibility of glimpsing eternal truth through the experience of erotic love, and possibility of presenting truth through the creation of art. As Murdoch was a Platonist, she believed, like Plato, that people go through life with only a limited sense of truth since our "everyday" world is a world of illusion. Behind this world however, Plato believed, is an world full of "ideal forms". It is this world, which contains truth, that Bradley Pearson, the main character of The Black Prince, is able to touch upon as a result of his experience with erotic love. Structurally, Murdoch's tendency to shift into philosophical discourse while telling her stories may be slightly disconcerting and difficult for some to follow. Her use of philosophy often gives her novels a fragmented style. Overall, her ability to merge philosophy and fiction, however, leads to a profound reading experience.
Iris Murdoch was made a Dame of the British Order in 1987 for her scholarly achievements. Her writing stopped in 1994, sometime after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Murdoch died in 1999. Her personal struggle at the end of her life was chronicled in a book by her husband, John Bayley, entitled Elegies for Iris.
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