Iris: What words define, what words cannot explain; a film about Iris Murdoch, writing, Alzheimer’s disease and the undying love of a good man. Pt.1

Language lets you down. – Kate Winslet as young Iris Murdoch


Born Jean Iris Murdoch in Dublin, Ireland on 15 July 1919, Dame Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is included in the 1998 Modern Library’s 100 Best English-language novels. Between 1954 and 1995 Murdoch wrote 26 novels. She was a very prolific writer. In addition to her novels she wrote a collection of short-stories, five books on philosophy, six plays and a book of poems. Among her most acclaimed novels are The Bell and The Sea, The Sea, which garnered the 1978 Booker Prize, and The Black Prince, a novel about erotic obsession which received one of Britain’s oldest and most revered literary awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Iris Murdoch is, without doubt, considered to be one of the greatest English-language writers of the 20th century.

Murdoch wrote about unusual characters in unusual circumstances. Her characters were predominantly upper class, although Murdoch herself came from a humble background. They were hell bent on living their lives out loud, warts and all, which gave Iris Murdoch a means by which to tackle some very dicey subjects like incest. Iris’ novels extended her philosophical examinations of moral realism and all its implications.

 In 1938 Murdoch entered Somerville College, Oxford University with the intention of studying English, but instead ended up studying philosophy with renowned Scottish theologian and philosopher, Donald M McKinnon. Iris went on to receive a first class honors degree in 1942.

Iris Murdoch

Words have meant everything to her. – John Bayley, as portrayed by Jim Broadbent in the film IRIS (2001)

After WWII, Iris was granted a scholarship from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York in pursuit of a graduate degree in Philosophy, but her plans were thwarted when she was denied a visa by the U.S. government, because she had been a member of the Communist Party during her early days at Oxford. Undaunted, Iris continued her studies at Cambridge University, returning to Oxford to teach at St. Anne’s College. It was during this time at St. Anne’s that Iris comes to know art critic and author, Professor John Bayley, six years her junior. Little did she know at the time that John Bayley would become the most important and enduring man in her life.

The film IRIS (2001) is based on John Bayley’s book Elegy for Iris, which chronicles his challenges as a caregiver during Iris Murdoch’s painful deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease. Bayley and Murdoch were married in 1956 and their marriage lasted forty-three years until Iris’s death. The film bounces back and forth in time between Iris (Judy Dench) and John (Jim Broadbent) during Iris’ final years and Iris (Kate Winslet), and John (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Bonneville) during their days at Oxford in the mid-1950’s.

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley at home in Oxford (courtesy of The Telegraph)

IRIS, a Brit/American co-production brilliantly adapted for the screen by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, directed by Richard Eyre is, at its core, a profound love story that unflinchingly explores married love, the love of language, and love as a philosophical fulcrum. It is at times difficult to watch, but I found the numerous BBC appearances of Iris Murdoch, the real Iris Murdoch, much more difficult to watch because she was so interior and socially awkward. Despite all that she is fascinating to listen to, which makes the fact that she ultimately lost the ability to speak coherently, in the relative prime of her life, so utterly heart breaking. (Check out YouTube for interviews and talks by Iris Murdoch)