Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War - Book Review

When I was 16 and supposed to be revising for my GCSE's, BBC Radio 4 serialised Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Every Sunday afternoon I would sit down at my desk with a cup of tea, arrange my textbooks in front of me, turn the radio on and sit back entranced. My desk was strategically positioned so that should an unsuspecting member of my family come up the stairs I could quickly bend over my papers and start 'memorising' imporant facts such as how Oxbow lakes are formed (actually I do still remember how they are formed - fascinating, beautiful and I look out for them wherever I go).

This introduction to Iris Murdoch's work came at a time in my life when, like any 16 year old, I was hungry for knowledge, certainty and answers. Suddenly, I wanted to know more - who was this writer? I had never heard of her before so I swiftly demanded that my mother (who has survived two teenage daughters - I don't know how) tell me more. She directed me straight to her bookcase and handed me a copy of The Bell to read. That was it. It started with The Bell and then The Unicorn, then Under the Net, then The Book and the Brotherhood and on it went and on it still goes.

The Bell remains my favourite and is in fact the inspiration for the second part of this blog's name. The first, of course, is a nod to Bloomsbury my favourite area in London and perhaps also to the work of the Bloomsbury Group - particularly Keynes, Forster and Woolf (both Leonard and Virginia) but that is all for another post.

I am the luckiest girl in the world to have been sent a review copy of Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War from Melanie Paget at Short Books. Edited and introduced by Murdoch biographer Peter J Conradi, this collection of letters is absolutely fascinating.

The book opens with extracts from the journal that Murdoch kept when she was part of a travelling dramatic society during the university summer holiday 0f 1939 - when she was 20 years old. This candid yet reflective journal charts the goings on of a group of students during a heady summer with the shadow of a world war casting its uncertainty over them all.

What struck me most about reading this section of the book is how energetic Murdoch was - she threw herself into any challenge, adventure or experience with barely a backward glance which at times made her seem naive in the face of the political situation at the time. The youthful Iris did not share the memories of her elders for whom the first world war took its toll. She is jovial when she recounts the reason why no tickets have been sold for the Northleach show, ".. as we came into the hall we saw one reason - the place was stacked with gas masks. Apparently Northleach is scared stiff & in an appalling state of nerves. [...] they are now in a panic & imagining slaughter and sudden death".

The extracts from her journal show a fun and intelligent young woman who is enjoying herself. Her summer seems idyllic and the reader is swept along with all her boundless joy that she finds in her friendships and experiences.

The middle and last section of the book are the letters that Iris wrote to Frank Thompson between 1940-44 and David Hicks between 1938-46. I couldn't stop reading and re-reading these. Not only do you read a young woman's correspondence to her close male friends during the second world war but you get to dip your toe into her literary mind. She shares with both men her ideas for novels, her ideas about life, about what she is reading and how she is feeling about herself as she questions and ponders upon what to 'do' with her life.

Murdoch exposes in herself that universal uncertainty that people experience in their early to mid-twenties, "Altogether gloom & obscurity prevails about the future. I might try to get some academic job - but that mightn't be too easy & anyway would I make the grade? Heigh ho." At times I want to jump in and tell her not to worry - that all will be well. But, she knows this herself, "Lately various problems have become clear to me - I don't mean the answers - that's too much to expect at 22 (probably at 40 one realises there aren't any answers) - but just the problems themselves."

Her uncertainty and vulnerability are further exposed through her letters to David Hicks - towards the end of their correspondence (once they are engaged) his letters start to dwindle and then cease. Her pleading with him and constant craving for his affection is difficult to read at times - she relinquished power to him and he abused it. Ultimately, he became frightened of her, of her potential, vigour and ambition so he married someone else and Iris flew. He stated as much in his final letter to her "Brain, will and womb, you are formidable".

This book also highlights just how funny Murdoch was - I absolutely love her exclamations and turns of phrase, a favourite was 'Gentle gloom and bloody hell.' Essentially, this book is an interesting read for anyone who wants an enjoyable insight into the workings of the young mind of a brilliant philosopher and author. You don't need to be familiar with her work to appreciate the musings, wit and philosophical ponderings of a budding author in these letters.

I no longer have to memorise facts about Oxbow lakes (which really are fascinating and lovely see here) so I didn't have to read Iris Murdoch: A Writer at War in secret but I did have to re-read it and thumb through the pages like an obsessive. Perhaps I should soothe myself with some light reading on meanders.


  1. I love Iris Murdoch though I haven't read all her books. I went through a Murdoch phase and I read maybe 5 or 6 of them. Haven't read one for years. My favourite so far was the first I read from her, the Black Prince. I haven't read The Bell yet. I would definitely love to read A Writer at War as I love reading journals and this one sounds fascinating because it's Murdoch's. Thanks for highlighting it and writing this wonderful post.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful book! Journals provide such interesting insight. The only Murdoch I've read is The Sea, The Sea (and loved it), but The Bell is waiting on my shelf.

  3. "The Bell" was the first Iris Murdoch book I read. I read it at University when I was meant to be revising for some French exams! Such a wonderful book and a wonderful writer. I'm looking forward to reading "A Writer at war" now...
    (I"m a huge Bloomsbury fan too!)

  4. Hungry for knowledge, certainty and answers at 16? Nothing has changed there then!

    Abs x

    PS by the way, i wasnt fooled by the strategic desk routine - i used to lie on the bed 'revising' i had to hope that when mum opened my door the noise would startle me awake in time and she wouldnt notice the dribble!

    PPS i had better borrow "The Bell"

  5. thanks for this post - it is extremely interesting to me as I have always found the fragility and vulnerability in Iris Murdoch's narrative voice rather fascinating. i started with The Net which I picked up in an airport in desperation once and I have never looked back really. I also love letters - it is a shame that people don't write them so much now, I wonder if in years to come we will be buying collections of the emails of authors?!

  6. This sounds great! I love books of letters, especially from this time period, and actually, I think this would be a good introduction to Iris Murdoch for me. I've heard so many amazing things about her and somehow have just never got round to picking up one of her books.

  7. I liked the Bell a lot, but I my favorite Murdoch is Under the Net. I like the image of you secretly listening to The Bell on the radio. Most 16 year olds are trying to conceal far worse from their parents.

    I too remember quite vividly how oxbow lakes are formed. Everytime I go by a particularly winding river I wonder how long it will take to before the bend becomes separated.

  8. What a lovely scene you set at the beginning of your review and this collection does sound rewarding indeed. I think the first Murdoch I read was The Unofficial Rose, if that's the one considered by Sodre and Byatt in their Imagining Characters; it certainly caught my interest, although I've found, since, that I do need to pace her novels, rather than read them in a burst.

  9. I've not ever read any Murdoch - I have been tempted by the one about the Sea though, given my love of the Coast!

    The exam I did best in in my A Levels was when I didn't spend the morning beforehand revising but finished reading a Jilly Cooper book that I just couldn't put down!!!

  10. umm sounds familiar - my daughter was reading reading reading when she should have been revising revising revising !!!

  11. Thank you for pointing out this book! I am right in the midst of reading letters of that period! Can't wait!


  12. Iris Murdoch is one of those authors I keep meaning to read and then never do. However, I have a copy of The Bell, and this has convinced me to pull it off the shelf and actually READ it.

  13. I've been looking forward to this review and was not disappointed - a wonderful piece of writing, your admiration of this piece of work and for Iris herself absolutely shines through.
    I love journals made up of letters; always so insightful and of the moment. This book looks utterly fascinating and is now on my ever expanding wish list of books to read this year.

    The only novel I have read of hers is The Sea, The Sea and found it incredible. Must read some others.

    (I'm a huge Bloomsbury Group fan too!)

  14. This was wonderful. You really captured the book. I read IM when young, as it seems most women do, but I'm not sure I'd like her so much now. I should try and see, shouldn't I? I do love the movie about her. I found it to be simply perfect. As was Bayley's book, Elegy for Iris.

  15. I first became aware of Iris Murdoch in 2001 when the film Iris was released. To date (as you know) I have yet to read any of her novels but this is the year that will change. Did you finish reading The Black Prince?

  16. A fascinating book about a great writer. I was first introduced to her life and work through the film biopic with Judy Dench (almost typed Julie Dench!)

    I found some of the footnotes in this book to quite uncalled-for and there were of a lot of typos but otherwise a brilliant book throwing light on the wonderful life of Iris Murdoch. A great writer whose work makes us more human.

  17. A lovely review. I'm just starting the David Hicks section, but I've been so upset by the mangled nature of the footnotes - in fact I just found your blog when doing a search to see if anyone else noticed. It's really spoiling the reading experience for me - I see others have had the same issue and I think I'm going to write to the publisher.

    The Bell is one of my second tier, but Philosopher's Pupil remains my favourite...