There is Nothing Like a Dame: Remembering Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

“I think being a woman is like being Irish… Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.” 

―Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (1919–1999) was one of the most influential British writers of the twentieth century. She wrote twenty-six novels over forty years, as well as plays, poetry, and works of philosophy. Heavily influenced by existentialist and moral philosophy, Murdoch’s novels were also notable for their rich characters, intellectual depth, and handling of controversial topics such as adultery and incest.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Murdoch moved to London with her parents as a child. She attended Somerville College in Oxford where she studied classics, ancient history, and philosophy. While at Oxford, she was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (which she later left, disillusioned) and, in the 1940s, worked in Austrian and Belgian relief camps for the United Nations. After completing her postgraduate degree at Newnham College in Cambridge, she became a Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she lectured in philosophy for fifteen years.

In 1954, she published her first novel, Under the Net, about a struggling young writer in London, which the American Modern Library would later select as one of the one hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century and Time magazine would list as among the twenty-five best novels since 1923. Two years after completing Under the Net, Murdoch married John Bayley, an English scholar at the University of Oxford and an author. In a 1994 interview, Murdoch described her relationship with Bayley as “the most important thing in my life.” Bayley’s memoir about their relationship, Elegy for Iris, was made into the major motion picture Iris, starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, in 2001.

For three decades, Murdoch published a new book almost every year, including historical fiction such as The Red and the Green, about the Easter Rebellion in 1916, and the philosophical play Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues. She was awarded the 1978 Booker Prize for The Sea, The Sea, won the Royal Society Literary Award in 1987, and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1987 by Queen Elizabeth.

Her final years were clouded by a long struggle with Alzheimer’s before her passing in 1999.