Dame Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher, Patron of the Society

Iris Murdoch was one of the six signatories to that letter in the Times of 1 May 1992, organized by Sir Edward Pickering (Vice-Chairman of the Times) from which sprang all the Tyndale Quincentenary celebrations in 1994: leading to our Society, Reformation, the Oxford Conferences, the Hertford and Lambeth Lectures, and so much else.

At her death on 8 February 1999 at the age of seventy-nine she was mourned world-wide by her colossal readership, by uncounted readers of her husband John Bayley's account of her life, by many hundreds of friends, and above all by all those people in Oxford for whom, right up to the end, her presence was an especial sweetness - something all the more remarkable because of her steady, impossible decline into the worst mental effects of Alzheimer's disease. Everyone still wanted to be with her: literary Oxford, until this February, was still full of Iris.

Her first novel (of 22), Under the Net (1954), displayed her characteristic mixture of realism, symbolism and philosophy (she taught philosophy at Oxford). None of her novels, with their strong moral challenges, was particularly easy to grasp, but they were all exceptionally readable: as she herself said, 'I can at least tell a story' -- something not all that common among writers of novels of ideas. (And not for nothing was she of Anglo-Irish parentage). The Bell of 1958, about the decline of a lay religious community, has for a long time been thought to be her best, though her Booker prize-winner in 1978, the Sea, the Sea, has had a strong following. She wrote a number of books on philosophy, and three plays.

My own recollection of her is also of my own pusillanimity. One evening in 1992 my edition of Tyndale's Old Testament was launched in the crypt of St Bride's Church, Fleet Street. I was nervous anyway in the presence of so many distinguished people. Then in walked Iris Murdoch. I was so astounded that I couldn't speak, except to hiss to my wife 'It's Iris Murdoch!', and remain rooted to the spot. She was totally unasssuming, and having looked for a long time at the volume on display, and having had me pointed out, gave me across the room a shy, sweet, unforgettable smile. I hope I returned it.

I was still turned to stone to be in the presence of a lifetime's star.

We have lost our most popular serious novelist. The Tyndale Society has lost a most thoughtful friend.

David Daniell

Valid XHTML 1.0!