I spoke to Iris Murdoch on the telephone on a couple of occasions, if only to say on each, “Hello. Is John Bayley there?” The paper where I then worked wanted to ascertain when Oxford’s Wharton Professor of English might be submitting his review. When the article then arrived, one would occasionally find a supermarket receipt Bayley had accidentally placed inside the envelope—the sherry and the pilchards listed in these receipts gave some of idea of the fuel that kept the Murdoch-Bayley household going.
Along with Murdoch’s novels and Bayley’s book about his wife, this is all I know about Iris Murdoch—although a paragraph in an article she wrote for the New York Review of Books in 1993 sticks in my mind. “I am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer,” Murdoch said, “but I am a devoted one. On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames a mile or two above Oxford, where the hay in the water meadows is still owned and cut on the medieval strip system. The art is to draw no attention to oneself but to cruise quietly by the reeds like a water rat: seeing and unseen from that angle, one can hear the sedge warblers’ mysterious little melodies, and sometimes a cuckoo flies cuckooing over our heads, or a kingfisher flashes past.”
Now, with the release of Richard Eyre’s movie about the life of Iris Murdoch, everyone seems to have known the novelist and philosopher, though many of them not much better than me. One review after another has a tale about visiting the Murdoch-Bayley house in Oxford or an account of seeing the couple across a crowded room. Anecdote, it seems, is the chief criterion by which the performances of Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent are being judged, although many of these stories serve only to deepen the Murdoch mystery. “Iris Murdoch and John Bayley were familiar figures during my undergraduate years at Oxford in the mid-1950s, cycling around town together”, wrote Philip French in this week’s Observer. “I didn’t meet them until 40 years later when they were introduced to a group I was in at a party. They just stood there, saying little, looking beatific and holding each other in mutual dependency”. According to French, Dench’s portrayal of Murdoch matches his own anecdotal evidence.
That’s true, too, of Mark Bostridge, who says in the Independent that he first saw Murdoch when he was “a sixth-former in the 1970s when she had visited my school and, in a scene reminiscent of the one early in the film, held us all spellbound by the intricacies of her thought wrapped up in language of beauty and clarity”. Murdoch’s language, beautiful and clear as it no doubt was, evidently so mesmerised the young Bostridge that he chooses not to recall what she talked about that day. Kate Kellaway, who met Murdoch in 1995—at about the time Alzheimer’s was beginning to cripple the Murdoch mind—says in the Observer: “I met John Bayley and Iris Murdoch in north Oxford. I did not know then that Iris was unwell. I was charmed by them and incredulous at their house which turned squalor into an art form. … I was impressed by Iris’s indifference to our meeting, and when she got up from the congested table and wandered off into another room, I wasn’t suspicious but amused. I thought her admirably eccentric”.
Kellaway is one of many people to have detected eccentricity in Iris Murdoch, and yes, Murdoch was eccentric. But many of the reviews of Iris describe Murdoch and Bayley as if they were the last of a British breed. Moreover, eccentric looks or behaviour on their own don’t necessarily explain very much. In the penultimate issue of Talk, editor-in-chief Tina Brown says that Iris “gives us Dame Judi Dench as Murdoch, and she is eerily like the woman I had lunch with at a cottage outside Oxford with a bunch of writer friends 20-odd years ago. … Bayley wears an egg-checked tweed jacket and dented fisherman’s hat. Iris a has strong jaw, unwavering masculine gaze, and wears oddly girly ankle-length smock”. Murdoch appears eccentric in this account, but in a sense, so what? We can also infer that Murdoch was just a person who didn’t care about what she wore.
Yet that odd smock, eccentric as it may have appeared, does say something about Murdoch. It’s in keeping with what A.N. Wilson has identified as the writer’s “unique quality of serious playfulness”. Understood as that, Murdoch’s dress sense echoes the Murdoch swimming instructions: It was part of her art of not drawing attention to herself as Iris Murdoch, novelist or philosopher—or intruder on the upper reaches of the Thames. This was an art Murdoch mastered, just as she mastered the art of being like a water rat, seeing but remaining unseen, cruising quietly by.