Dame Jean Iris Murdoch DBE, Irish and British novelist and philosopher, dies in Oxford, England, on February 8, 1999. She is best known for her novels about good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. In 2008, The Times ranks her twelfth on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.”
Murdoch is born on July 15, 1919 in Phibsborough, Dublin, the daughter of Irene Alice (née Richardson) and Wills John Hughes Murdoch. Her father, a civil servant, comes from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down. In 1915, he enlists as a soldier in King Edward’s Horse and serves in France during World War I before being commissioned as a second lieutenant. Her mother trains as a singer before Iris is born, and is from a middle-class Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Her parents first meet in Dublin when her father is on leave and are married in 1918. Iris is the couple’s only child. When she is a few weeks old the family moves to London, where her father had joined the Ministry of Health as a second-class clerk. She is a second cousin of the Irish mathematician Brian Murdoch.
Murdoch is brought up in Chiswick and educated in progressive independent schools, entering the Froebel Demonstration School in 1925 and attending Badminton School in Bristol as a boarder from 1932 to 1938. In 1938 she goes up to Somerville College, Oxford, with the intention of studying English, but switches to “Greats“, a course of study combining classics, ancient history, and philosophy. At Oxford she studies philosophy with Donald M. MacKinnon and attends Eduard Fraenkel‘s seminars on Agamemnon. She is awarded a first class honours degree in 1942. After leaving Oxford she goes to work in London for HM Treasury. In June 1944 she leaves the Treasury and goes to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). At first she is stationed in London at the agency’s European Regional Office. In 1945 she is transferred first to Brussels, then to Innsbruck, and finally to Graz, Austria, where she works in a refugee camp. She leaves the UNRRA in 1946.
From 1947 to 1948 Murdoch studies philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. She meets Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge but does not hear him lecture, as he had left his Trinity College professorship before she arrives. In 1948 she becomes a fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she teaches philosophy until 1963. From 1963 to 1967 she teaches one day a week in the General Studies department at the Royal College of Art.
In 1956 Murdoch marries John Bayley, a literary critic, novelist, and from 1974 to 1992 Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, whom she had met in Oxford in 1954. The unusual romantic partnership lasts more than forty years until Murdoch’s death. Bayley thinks that sex is “inescapably ridiculous.” She in contrast has “multiple affairs with both men and women which, on discomposing occasions, Bayley witnesses for himself.”
Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, is published in 1954 and is selected in 1998 as one of Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. She had previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph about Jean-Paul Sartre published in English. She goes on to produce 25 more novels and additional works of philosophy, as well as poetry and drama.
Murdoch’s 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea wins the Booker Prize. Her other books include The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), The Red and the Green (1965), The Nice and the Good (1968), The Black Prince (1973), Henry and Cato (1976), The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Good Apprentice (1985), The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), The Message to the Planet (1989), and The Green Knight (1993).
In 1976 she is named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 1987 is made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for services to literature. She is awarded honorary degrees by the University of Bath (D.Litt, 1983), University of Cambridge (1993) and Kingston University (1994), among others. She is elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982.
Murdoch’s last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, is published in 1995. She is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1997 and dies on February 8, 1999 in Oxford. There is a bench dedicated to her in the grounds of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she enjoyed walking.