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A Week to Remember: Iris Murdoch

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
English novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch was born on July 15, 1919. Murdoch was an English novelist and philosopher; in both fields, her work centered on the importance of the inner life, and the ability of people to shape their own moral behavior.

Murdoch was educated at a series of private schools, and attended Oxford University beginning in 1938. She had planned to study English but eventually switched to a course of study called “Greats,” which combined ancient history, philosophy, and classics. She graduated with honors in 1942.

During World War II, Murdoch worked in civil service jobs, and for a United Nations relief agency. After the war, she was awarded a scholarship for graduate study at Vassar but was refused entry to the United States because she had been a member of the Communist Party during her undergraduate years. Later in life, she was allowed to visit the United States, but each visit required an official waiver of the Cold War-era immigration laws.

Unable to study at Vassar, Murdoch instead did two years of graduate study at Cambridge University, then continued there as an instructor until the mid-1960s. Her first published book, in 1953, was Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, the first English-language book on the work of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

3 books by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net (e-book | print), was published in 1954. It’s the story of a young author who charms his friends into supporting him as he struggles to make a name for himself. Murdoch would return to this type of character throughout her career. She referred to the type as the “enchanter,” a charismatic man who inspires great devotion and loyalty from his friends, despite having no obvious traits that would justify such devotion. In her last few novels, the enchanter is present in the form of an older mentor whose death drives the action of the story.

Not surprisingly, given the emphasis on morality in Murdoch’s philosophical writing, the characters of her novels are often faced with moral dilemmas, frequently romantic ones. Her writing focuses as much on the inner lives and thoughts of her characters as on the external plot, and her protagonists are frequently outcasts from society in some way. Murdoch’s novels are almost always set in the present day. The Red and the Green (e-book | print) is her only historical novel; it’s set during the 1916 Easter Rebellion, when Irish activists attempted to end British rule.

Murdoch quickly became one of England’s most popular and critically acclaimed novelists. Her career reached a peak in the 1970s when three of her novels received some of England’s most prestigious literary awards. The Black Prince (e-book | print), in which an aging author falls in love with the daughter of his younger rival, received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (e-book | print), about a therapist torn between his wife and his long-time mistress, won the Whitbread Award. The Booker Prize was awarded to The Sea, the Sea (e-book | e-audio | print), in which an aging playwright becomes obsessed with his childhood sweetheart after they meet unexpectedly.

In recognition of her long and distinguished career, Murdoch was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1987. Her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma (e-book | e-audio | print), was published in 1995. In 1997, Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease; she died on February 8, 1999.

Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, wrote about their final years in Elegy for Iris (print); the book was adapted for the screen in 2001 as Iris (streaming | DVD), in which Kate Winslet and Judi Dench play younger and older versions of Murdoch. Peter J. Conradi’s biography is called Iris Murdoch: A Life (print). In addition to the titles listed above, the rest of Murdoch’s 26 novels are available as e-books at OverDrive.

Also This Week

July 19, 1894

Percy Spencer was born. Spencer was a physicist who worked for the defense contractor Raytheon during World War II, helping to build military radar equipment. He noticed one day while standing in front of an active radar device, that his chocolate bar had melted. Spencer’s investigation of that phenomenon led to his development of the microwave oven. The first commercially available microwave, in 1947, was 6 feet tall and cost $5,000. Today, the microwave is so common that there are entire cookbooks devoted to its use. Beth Hensperger offers modern recipes in Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook (e-book | print), and Leslie Bilderback offers 100 desserts in a cup in Mug Cakes (e-book | print).

July 20, 1939

Judy Chicago was born. Chicago is an artist and educator who was part of the first wave of American feminist art in the 1970s. Her work celebrates those forms of art, generally associated with women, which tend to be described as craft rather than art—sewing, embroidery, weaving, china painting. Chicago’s best-known work is The Dinner Party, a large triangular table with 39 place settings, each of which commemorates a famous woman from history. The film Right Out of History documents the five-year process of creating The Dinner Party.

July 18, 1976

Nadia Comăneci became the first gymnast to receive a perfect score of 10 in Olympic competition, at the Montreal Summer Olympics. The 15-year-old Romanian repeated the feat six more times at Montreal, and twice more at Moscow in 1980. A perfect score was considered so unlikely that the official scoreboard could not display it, and Comăneci’s score was shown as “1.00.” In 2006, the International Gymnastics Federation changed its scoring system, and 10 is no longer the perfect score. Comăneci defected to the United States in 1989 and became a citizen in 2001. Her Letters to a Young Gymnast (e-book | print) combines memoir with advice to the aspiring gymnast.

July 15, 1979

Laura Benanti was born. Benanti is an actress and singer best known for her work in musical theater. Benanti is a five-time Tony Award nominee; she can be heard in the Broadway cast recordings of The Wedding Singer, She Loves Me, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Since 2016, she has appeared in occasional comedy sketches on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, playing Melania Trump.