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Dame Iris Murdoch DBE (15 July 1919 – 8 February 1999) was an English author and philosopher, best known for her novels about sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.


Jean Iris Murdoch was born at 59 Blessington Street, Dublinmarker, Irelandmarker on 15 July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down, and her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as a singer until Iris was born, was from a middle class, Church of Ireland (Anglican) family from Dublinmarker. When Iris was very young, her parents moved to Londonmarker, where her father worked in the Civil Service.

She was educated in progressive schools, first at the Froebel Demonstration School, and then as a boarder at the Badminton Schoolmarker in Bristolmarker in 1932. She went on to read classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxfordmarker, and philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridgemarker, where she attended a number of Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxfordmarker, having earlier (1938) joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.

She wrote her first novel, Under the Net in 1954, having previously published essays on philosophy, including the first study in English of Jean-Paul Sartre. It was at Oxfordmarker in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. She went on to produce 25 more novels and other works of philosophy and drama until 1995, when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms of which she at first attributed to writer's block.


She died, aged 79, in 1999 and her ashes were scattered in the garden at the Oxford Crematorium. She had no children.


She was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film, Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memories of his wife as she developed Alzheimer's disease. Parts of the movie were filmed at Southwoldmarker in Suffolk, one of Murdoch's favourite holiday places.


She was strongly influenced by philosophers like Plato, Freud, Simone Weil and Sartre, and by the 19th century English and Russian novelists, especially Fyodor Dostoevsky, as well as Marcel Proust and Shakespeare. She also met and held discussions with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Her novels often include upper middle class intellectual males caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously "knowing" children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters — a type of man Murdoch is said to have modeled on her lover, the Nobel laureate, Elias Canetti.

Although she wrote primarily in a realistic manner, on occasion Murdoch would introduce ambiguity into her work through a sometimes misleading use of symbolism, and by mixing elements of fantasy within her precisely described scenes. The Unicorn (1963) can be read as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince (1973), for which Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is a study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated, suggesting multiple interpretations, when subordinate characters contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords.

Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea, a finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, featuring a retired stage director who is overwhelmed by jealousy when he meets his erstwhile lover after several decades apart.

Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. J. B. Priestley dramatized her 1961 novel, A Severed Head, which starred Ian Holm and Richard Attenborough.

Controversial biography

A controversial account of Murdoch's life was given by the British writer A.N. Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The work was described by The Guardian as "mischievously revelatory" and "quite spectacularly rude," and labelled by Wilson himself as an "anti-biography". Though he was careful to stress his current and past affection for his subject, Wilson did not flinch from writing of her disloyalty and promiscuity. He observed that she "thrived on acts of betrayal", was cruel, and was "prepared to go to bed with almost anyone" (Wilson 2003).







Further reading

  • Bayley, J. Elegy for Iris, 1999
  • _________. Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, 1998 Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., London 1998 ISBN 0 7156 2848 8

  • _________. Iris and Her Friends, 1999
  • Laverty, Megan. Iris Murdoch's Ethics: A Consideration of Her Romantic Vision, 2007 ISBN 0826485359.


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