Author Dame Iris Murdoch was born on this day in 1919, we delved back into the Rare Book Review archives and retrieved this article, originally published in July 2003.
Hugo Worthy finds Iris Murdoch’s greatest stories in the margins of her library – those of her own life
Iris Murdoch’s library is currently filling up the bulk of the space in Rachel Lee’s office. The library consists of just under 1,000 volumes that were housed in Murdoch’s notoriously untidy study, where they seem to have formed the backbone of her research. The books seem slightly scruffy amid the pristine 18th and 19th century editions of Hume, Kant and Mill that line the shelves here. Murdoch’s books were her tools, and they have been well-used as such. The books date from the 1930s, when she was at Badminton School in Bristol, all the way through to the mid-1990s when her Alzheimer’s finally incapacitated her.
The books came to Rachel with the recommendation of an Oxford colleague of John Bayley’s. Rachel and John hit it off and some eight months ago she began the process of bringing the library back to her offices. Subsequently, Rachel has been engaged in the intimidating task of cataloguing all the books. She found them to cover an extraordinary breadth of material from theology and poetry through to art, and forming the bulk of the collection, philosophy.
Murdoch’s tastes in these areas were catholic, to put it mildly – Buddhist texts jostle with histories of the saints, Gilbert Ryle’s hard-nosed rationalism sits beside Jacques Derrida’s linguistic gymnastics. As the books have been catalogued, Rachel has discovered the extent of Murdoch’s annotation, as well as the odd fragments of her life that have been captured in this library. Rachel realised how important it was to keep the collection together and Bayley agreed to this course of action. The annotations of the individual books are fascinating, but the story that the collection as a whole tells is more than the sum of its parts.
Murdoch’s youthful exuberance and the now much publicised early affairs are given a tangible presence through the early books, many of which were given as gifts by her lovers. These early books are the gateway into the collection. They show earnest intellectual enthusiasms inextricably intertwined with her audacious love life. The notes become progressively more illegible as the books become more recent. No doubt in future doctorate dissertations there will be furious discussion of the interpretation of some of the squiggles that mark the pages.
Pretty much all of the major philosophical texts here, such as Plato’s Dialogues, Descartes, Hume and Kant, are all copiously annotated. Here is a rich source indeed for the scholar of Iris Murdoch, but also a fascinating insight into the way an academic superstar learns. These books represent the best part of 50 years of learning and her struggles with the books of others are visible. Her annotations show a mind of alarming intellectual agility that engages as comfortably with Freud and Wittgenstein as with Walter Gropius and Richard Rorty. The notations capture her passion for the subjects; the texts are punctuated with outbursts such as: ‘Yes!’, ‘Messy!’, ‘Mucky!’ and after a particularly obtuse passage of French philosophy: ‘Oh God!!’
Her observations on the books are often subtly brilliant – in one of Freud’s minor essays she has a note ‘What Confidence!’ cheekily suggesting Freud to be more mountebank than scientist. It is also clear where her ideas have come from, specific passages seeming to sum up years of future thought. In Soren Kiekergard’s Fear and Trembling she has violently underlined ‘to express perfectly the sublime in terms of the pedestrian’, a motif which she revisits over and over again in her novels. It is ordinary things that are the source of the magic in her books, and, she tells us, ordinary things that are the source of our happiness.
Her library seems like intellectual amber, capturing for posterity the development of a vivacious mind into one of the great philosophers and novelists of our time. But as well as capturing Iris at the peak of her powers it charts the progress of her Alzheimer’s during the mid 1990s. There is a proof copy of a work on Heidegger that she had begun marking up, but over the pages the underlinings fall away, a visual proof
of progressively diminishing engagement. One of the latest books, a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths carries the most heart-breaking of the late annotations. The book is empty of inscription apart from within the story Averroes’ Search. In a faltering hand, she has underlined the words ‘amorous doves’, ‘fountain’, ‘Cordova’, ‘eternal’, ‘tragedy and comedy’, ‘muezzin’ and ‘sin (China)’. There is the palpable sense of a mind struggling to make connections.
On the bookmark she has written in childish handwriting: ‘Poor little birdies… Hester… ed… Despair.’ The annotations show the frustrations and horror of a mind losing its coherence.
All personal libraries tell the story of a life, but few tell it as eloquently as Murdoch’s. Bayley is quoted as describing the collection as ‘ordinary’. And indeed it is. This is the prosaic and intimate working of an academic struggling with the weight of the world’s learning. But it is also exceptional, both as a resource for academics and as a tale of books and love. It is magical because it is ordinary, in just the way Murdoch herself cherished – because all the pedestrian details add up to something sublime. One can imagine a library, not dissimilar to this one, forming the central device of one of her novels.
A collection of books that on the surface is rather tatty, but as we look closer, brings a wonderful universe into focus.