Peter J. Conradi
Iris Murdoch – A Writer at War: Letters & Diaries: 1939-45
Short Books Ltd, 2010
“Human affairs are not serious, but they have to be taken seriously”—so said Iris Murdoch, discussing Plato’s analysis of art in her celebrated 1977 essay The Fire and the Sun. Her life’s work, an extraordinary body of literature and philosophy, both explored and exemplified this idea. Novels, such as the Man Booker Prize-winning The Sea, the Sea (1978), for instance, demonstrate a deft and sensitive engagement with moral and psychological themes. In Murdoch’s hands, the ridiculousness, the futility of human existence is addressed with patient insight and sincere respect. Unfortunately, A Writer at War: Letters and Diaries 1939-45, edited and introduced by Peter J. Conradi, does not display similar virtues in its presentation of the young Iris.
Conradi begins his introduction by disparaging Richard Eyre’s 2001 film Iris (on which Conradi admits he acted as a consultant) for failing to portray Iris as what she primarily was—a writer—instead perpetuating the tired stereotype of her as simply “bonking (younger Iris) or bonkers (elderly Iris)”. That Conradi, even as he attributes the vulgarity of the sentiment to others and not to himself, cannot resist such tactless wordplay on the second page offers an ominous foretaste of the collection’s overall tone.
Conradi’s own portrait of Iris “the writer” is fleshed out in clichés. “To the good writer”, he announces solemnly, “even the uses of adversity are famously sweet: and everything is grist to the creative mill”. According to Conradi, we are meant to find in Iris’s letters and diary the raw material—painful experiences, interactions, love affairs, and betrayals—that will eventually make its way into her novels and philosophical thought.
This claim turns out to be a little hard to swallow. For example, the collection begins with a fascinatingly dull diary (“Then we went down to the Hall & cleared up & packed the cars & trailers. We didn’t start till pretty late, owing to late rising […]”). The diary was written by a 20-year-old Iris as she toured the English countryside with a theatre group on the eve of war, and Conradi attempts to justify its inclusion with reference to the descriptions of the theatre in The Sea, the Sea. It is not impossible that Murdoch’s experiences travelling with a rag-tag band of student actors were relevant to her portrayal of the London theatre scene. However, it is left quite unclear how the diary is supposed to aid our understanding of a fictional work written over 30 years later.
The troupe visits Oxfordshire villages, stays in country houses, bickers, sings, and mends costumes. Throughout, Iris herself remains blithely indifferent to the developing international crisis. In spite of this, Murdoch’s observations about her friends and their sheltered world are not without charm. Nevertheless, the most engaging aspects of the diary are excisions she made several years later: at various points in the text, the reader is treated to such tantalising lacunae as “[2 lines missing]” or “[end of text; a page torn out]”, usually after a reference to a conversation or an evening spent with Hugh Vaughan James, one of her fellow actors and clearly a romantic interest. These absences, however, provide the only real points of interest in the first third of the book.
The second third of A Writer at War, containing some of Iris’s correspondence with Frank Thompson, a fellow classicist and communist posted during the war to the Middle East, is perhaps the most appealing part of the collection. At the age of 18 or so, Frank had been infatuated with Iris. By the time of their wartime letters, the relationship between the two had matured. Their correspondence—containing thoughts on poetry, language, love, and sex, as well as portraits of their drastically different surroundings—offers an insight into a tender and profound friendship.
Conradi’s presence at this part of the book is reasonably restrained. His footnotes helpfully explain certain abbreviations, Latin and Greek words and phrases, and allusions to classical or mythical figures. He also provides brief biographies of various mutual friends referred to in passing in the letters (although, bizarrely, several of these break off in mid-sentence—just one example of lax proof-reading from an irritatingly long list of errata). In the introductions to the two sets of letters, however, Conradi seems determined to play up the pathos of the relationships. For instance, he makes much of Iris’s and Frank’s discussion of tragedies (Shakespeare and Aeschylus, among others), observing “an unconscious aptness” in the presence of these tragedies in their writings. Conradi insists on pushing a narrative centering on Iris’s realisation that she has fallen in love with Frank just before he is killed in action in 1944. The actual content of the correspondence is overshadowed by this melodramatic storytelling; the letters are prevented from simply speaking for themselves and for the reality of Iris’s and Frank’s relationship.
The book’s final section charts Iris’s correspondence with David Hicks, the man who was to jilt her in 1946. Her calm and wryly indulgent response to David’s letter explaining that he will not marry her—”Thank you for having the guts to write so frankly (even lyrically, if I may say so.)”—is possibly the highpoint of the collection. However, the flaws present in the previous section reappear in this final section. The selection of letters published, along with Conradi’s increasingly intrusive voice, combine to sketch a relationship laden with portents and headed inexorably to its dramatic conclusion. In one footnote, Conradi explains that a line quoted in Iris’s letter is a lyric from Greensleeves. Not content to leave the annotation as it stands, he goes on to state that it is “[h]ard not to read this phrase […] prophetically”, quoting further lines from the song in order to import a sense of impending doom into what is actually quite a cheerful and innocent letter.
Indeed, the entire collection seems assembled so as to extract the most sensationalistic elements of Murdoch’s biography—namely, her many volatile love affairs and break-ups—from the most mundane of sources: a childish, unexciting diary and repetitive stream-of-consciousness letters to friends. In doing so, the book does a disservice to both, managing somehow to be intrusively intimate yet strangely unrevealing. Conradi is insistent in imposing his narrative of passionate failed romances and dramatically charged literary raw material onto a collection of rather unremarkable juvenilia, affectionately chronicling the friendships and loves of Iris’s youth. In choosing such an approach, Conradi ignores Murdoch’s own maxim: he fails to “take seriously” the very human affairs that could have formed the real content of the book.
Claire Kirwin is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford.