Iris Murdoch

Images above: Iris Murdoch, 1969, photograph by Godfrey Argent; The Sea, The Sea book cover

Iris Murdoch, one of Britain’s best writers, lived in Eastbourne Road and used Chiswick as a location in her novels

By Jill Apperley

We can only learn to love by loving

Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999), who lived for much of her childhood in Chiswick, was one of the best and most influential writers of the twentieth century. She wrote twenty-six novels in a period spanning over forty years, winning the prestigious Booker prize with her novel The Sea, the Sea in 1978 and the Costa prize in 1974 for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine.

Iris Murdoch was also a formidable philosopher and academic; her fascination with philosophical ideas, as well as a peerless ability to tell a compelling story, are trademarks of her fiction. Moral ideals and imperfect characters often collide in her novels. Her obituary in The Guardian sums up her appeal:

‘She could describe the ordinary and make it magical’.

Iris was the only child of doting parents who married after a rather whirlwind romance. Wills John Hughes Murdoch (always known as Hughes) met Irene Richardson (always known as Rene) in the last months of the First World War on a tram in Dublin. Rene (rhymes with teeny) is described by Peter J. Conradi, Murdoch’s biographer, as ‘dark, petite, beautiful and spirited’. She also had a lovely singing voice and was, in fact, training to be a singer.

Hughes was captivated, they fell in love and were married in Dublin on 7th December 1918. There was a hint of scandal surrounding their marriage as Iris was born just seven months later in 59 Blessington Street, Dublin on 15 July 1919.

Iris was always proud of her Irish heritage, often referring to herself as an Irish writer. She also reputedly told friends that she lived in Dublin for three or four years as a child. The reality is rather different. Hughes’ work as a second-class clerk in the Ministry of Health necessitated a move to London when Iris was still a baby.

Image above: Froebel Demonstration School in Colet Gardens, Kensington

A progressive and pacifist education in Hammersmith

Initially the family lived in a flat at 12, Caithness Road in Hammersmith. Iris’s childhood in London appears to have been a very happy one. Conradi describes her family life as ‘idyllic’, noting that she was ‘both a happy and a docile child’. Hughes and Rene did not have any more children, but this was not a cause for sadness.

On the contrary, more children might have been an intrusion. Iris herself claimed that:

‘my mother and father and I were always three, and we were always happy’.

Certainly Hughes and Rene were devoted parents, determined to provide everything they could for their daughter.

Hughes’ salary was rather meagre, but when Iris was five they enrolled her into the very good, but quite expensive day school, the Froebel Demonstration School in Colet Gardens, Kensington. Froebel was a very progressive school for its time, placing enormous focus on creativity, independent thinking and learning through play.

During the Great War the school had taken the controversial step of declaring itself pacifist, replacing the standard national anthem with this verse:

God bless our native land
May Heaven’s protective hand
Still guard her shore.
May peace her power extend,
Foe be transformed to friend
And Britain’s might depend
On war no more.

This determination to send Iris to such a school reveals much about the attitudes of Hughes and Rene.

Image above: Family home at 4 Eastbourne Road, W4

A secure and happy childhood in Chiswick

Shortly after this the family moved to Chiswick. In 1926 Hughes took out a mortgage to buy 4 Eastbourne Road: a small, newly built, semi-detached property, ‘tucked away off what was soon to become the Great West Road’.

Proximity to the Froebel school would have been a factor. The school was a walkable distance away in good weather or five stops on the District line. Rene would usually take Iris to school; later Hughes would accompany her on the Tube on his way to work.

John Fletcher, in an article entitled Iris Murdoch, Novelist of London in 1990, takes a rather sniffy view of the house in Eastbourne Road, describing the house as ‘architecturally undistinguished’. Even worse, he claims that the purchase of such a property betrays ‘a lack of taste’. He doesn’t stop there. Number four, Fletcher claims:

‘is typical of the millions of semis which spread like a fungus over the landscape between the two world wars’.

Huge apologies to the current residents of Eastbourne Road!

Image above: Iris with her family outside the house in Eastbourne Rd, in Peter Conradi’s biography of her

In reality, a photograph taken just after the Murdochs moved in shows a pleasant, brick-built house with a newly planted chestnut tree on the pavement outside. A photograph taken in the back garden in 1927 depicts a smiling Hughes, Rene and Iris with the family dog. This house was to remain the family home until it was sold in March 1959.

Family life in Chiswick was undoubtedly a happy time. Iris once told a friend from Somerville College that she had been ‘brought up on love’. She appears to have been treated more like an equal than a child. The whole family enjoyed swimming and Iris took frequent walks with her mother in the grounds of nearby Chiswick House.

Image above: Chiswick House; photograph by Anna Kunst

There were always family pets, at least one beloved dog and cats called Tabby and Danny-Boy. There was a piano in the home and Rene gave her a love of singing; years later Iris would remember fondly the songs her mother had taught her. From her father she gained a love of reading and study.

Hughes read widely, often spending his lunch hour browsing second-hand bookshops. Both parents loved reading to Iris and her favourite childhood stories were Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Kim.

Iris’ first imaginative stories can be traced back to the Chiswick days. She later said that she:

‘began writing stories at nine in order to provide herself with imaginary siblings’.

One thing that Iris does not appear to have learned was how to be a good housekeeper. Her mother seems to have had no interest in cleaning, cooking and laundry, tasks often undertaken by Hughes. One relative described Rene, rather harshly, as ‘having sluttish ways’.

Life changed for Iris in 1932 when she was twelve and she started to attend Badminton School near Bristol as a boarder. Like the Froebel school, Badminton presented itself as a forward thinking and progressive school, certainly likely to appeal to liberal parents such as Hughes and Rene. Iris flourished at Badminton.

She was academically excellent, and, perhaps even more importantly, developed a broad range of cultural and political opinions. In 1935 she wrote an essay on How I Would Govern the Country where she criticised both imperialism and totalitarianism alike. During the Badminton years Iris grew in independence and confidence, but school holidays always meant a return to the family home in Chiswick along with summers in Ireland.

Oxford during the war

In 1938 Iris gained a place at Somerville College, Oxford to study Greats, a course which combined classics, ancient history and philosophy, gaining a first-class degree in 1942. Being at Oxford during the war years must have been an increasingly unsettling experience. Gradually the young men at Oxford were called up and many did not return.

Frank Thompson, one of her most intimate friends, indeed a man who Iris declared she would have married, was killed during the war. Frank was academically gifted, intensely idealistic, dedicated to stopping Hitler. His capture, torture and eventual execution at the hands of the Gestapo was a devastating blow to Iris.

Image above: 55 Barrowgate Rd in 2021

Although effectively she left home when she went to university, Iris came back to the family home off and on until her father died.

She also stayed briefly at another house in Chiswick. Between October 1940 and June 1941, 73 high explosive bombs had landed in Chiswick, one of them within feet of Eastbourne Road, and number four had suffered extensive bomb damage. Luckily Iris’s parents were not living there at the time, as Hughes’ job with the Ministry of Health had taken them temporarily to Blackpool.

When Iris left Oxford for London in July 1942, as Eastbourne Road was uninhabitable, she lived in nearby Barrowgate Road at number 55. Her stay there appears to have been a short one. Iris had found work at His Majesty’s Treasury, a job which she found less than stimulating, writing in a letter to her Oxford friend Philippa Bosanquet:

‘I can’t believe that it’s me writing those peremptory letters and telling people on the phone where they get off … all I do at present feels like play-acting.’

Images above: Iris Murdoch, 1970, photograph by Godfrey Argent; The Black Prince book cover

Death of her father ends connection with Chiswick

Her desire to have more interesting employment and travel beyond England was fulfilled when she gained a position with The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA) in 1944, allowing her to travel extensively in Europe. The thought of spending the post-war years in England had appalled her ‘to the point of suicidal mania’.

She longed to have a base in London which was more central and by August 1942 she had moved to a flat in Seaforth Place, just a few hundred yards from Buckingham Palace. This was to remain her London base until she moved to Cambridge in 1947 to study philosophy as a postgraduate student at Newnham College.

Iris was never a resident again in Chiswick, but her connection continued, frequently visiting her parents in Eastbourne Road. Visits home became sadder as the years passed. Heavy smoking had taken its toll on Hughes and he was diagnosed with lung cancer just before Christmas in 1956.

‘Sadness hangs over this time’ wrote Iris. Hughes died on the afternoon of Saturday 1 March 1958 and a year later, the house where Iris had spent her childhood, was sold. Iris took an old teak bench from the garden to her home in Oxford as a memento of her Chiswick childhood.

Images above: The Bell book cover; Under the Net book cover

No use for a sewing box

In 1948 Iris became a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford and it was here that she met and married John Bayley, literary critic and novelist, in the mid fifties. In some ways, mirroring Iris’ own parents, they seemed a rather improbable couple.

Iris was determinedly undomesticated. Early in their marriage John reputedly bought her a sewing box, which she kept unopened on her desk as a source of amusement to them both. But also, like Iris’ own parents, their happiness was legendary.

They were married for 43 years until Iris’s death in 1999. For the last two years of her life, he devoted himself to caring for her as Alzheimer’s disease increasingly ravaged her extraordinary intellect. Even those who have not read her novels, may have come to know her through the film Iris, based on her husband, John Bayley’s biography.

It was in the early days of her academic career at Oxford that Iris became established as a serious writer of philosophical works, but also as a novelist. Her first novel Under the Net was published in 1954, soon after her first meeting with John.

She went on to write a further twenty-five novels, as well as drama, poetry and other philosophical works. After the publication of her fourth novel, The Bell in 1958, Iris began to attain wide recognition as a novelist.

It is hard to pin her down to one genre, but, arguably, she dominated 20th century thinking with her complex, hard-to-define literature. Her writing was done in Oxford, but London is often a significant back drop to her novels.

Images above: An Accidental Man; The Nice and the Good; Nuns and Soliders

London as a ‘main character’ in her books

Dr Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre observes that:

‘Iris Murdoch’s childhood in Chiswick formed her as a writer. Her regular walks in and around the area, and more widely around London, helped form the imagination which would go on to produce some of the best works set in London in the 20th century.’

Iris herself described London as a ‘sort of main character’ in her novels. There are numerous references to London throughout her fiction; the following offer a glimpse of some locations which are particularly relevant to Chiswick:

Chiswick House: In An Accidental Man, Gracie Tisbourne and Ludwig Leferrier visit Chiswick House together.
Sutton Court Rd: In The Nice and the Good, Eric Sears made his living from a pottery in Chiswick on the corner of Cedar’s Road and Sutton Court Road.
Gunnersbury Station: In The Nice and the Good, Mary Clothier visits her old home near Gunnersbury Station.
The Old Pack Horse, 434, Chiswick High Road: In Nuns and Soldiers the Pack Horse is a pub frequented by Tim Reede after he leaves Daisy Barrett and Gertrude Openshaw
The Emperor: The next pub in Tim Reede’s ‘pub crawl’ in Nuns and Soldiers
The Barley Mow (now called The Lamb, 9, Barley Mow passage) and The Tabard: In Nuns and Soldiers Tim Reede tries to sell his paintings in these pubs
Chiswick Mall: In Under the Net Chiswick Mall is described as ‘a lazy, hazy collection of houses and greenery that looks dreamily out onto the water’.

Image above: River Thames from Kew Bridge by Joanna Raikes

References to the River Thames in her books

There are also frequent references to the River Thames. As a girl in Chiswick Iris lived within a short walk of the Thames and the river is a significant feature in many of her novels.

‘It not only runs through the heart of London, but though the heart of her novels, and the river is celebrated there simply because it is so much loved’. Sacred Space: Beloved City: Iris Murdoch’s London

After her marriage to John Bayley, Iris’ life may have appeared to be rather conventional. She was an academic, living in Oxford, a prolific writer, in an apparently happy and monogamous marriage. But both as a writer, and in her personal life, Iris always courted controversy.

Her writing has earned considerable praise, but also some less than favourable reviews. In 2019 Leo Robson wrote in the New Statesman:

‘parodied or neglected by critics, Iris Murdoch’s work has fallen out of fashion.’

But he went on to state:

‘100 years after her birth, her brilliantly fluid novels still defy convention’.

Politically she ranged from being a member of the Communist Party to a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, apparently saying the miners during the 1981 strike: ‘should be put up against the wall and shot’. Her personal life, while appearing on the surface to be the cloistered life of an academic, was often chaotic.

She had numerous affairs with both men and women. In 1963 she was forced to resign from her fellowship at St Anne’s, ostensibly to devote herself to writing, in reality to free herself from a mutually obsessional attachment to a female colleague that threatened scandal.

Iris’ life and work can sometimes appear contradictory and challenging. Bayley’s biography portrayed her as ‘sweet, saintly and monogamous’; whereas her biographer, Peter J Conradi, chronicled her numerous affairs.

But her novels speak for themselves: brilliant stories, sometimes maddeningly abstruse, always challenging. A retrospective of her work in 2019 to mark the centenary of her birth, posed the question, do Iris Murdoch’s novels still matter to people? The answer:

‘love, sadness, fear, lust, power … Murdoch’s strange, radical novels seethe with emotion. On her centenary, they are inspiring a new generation of authors’.

Image above: Iris Murdoch, A Centenary Celebration, edited by Miles Leeson

Jill Apperley is a former English Lecturer at Petroc College of Further Education

Enormous thanks to Dr Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre for his generosity with his time and invaluable resources, more than I could possibly use here.

For anybody who would like to find out more about Iris Murdoch’s relationship with London, you can retrace the footsteps of all her characters in the wonderfully detailed book, Sacred Space, Beloved City: Iris Murdoch’s London. Or see the interactive map of Iris Murdoch’s London here.

There is also a podcast about Iris and London, which you can listen to here.

Sources for this article:

1. Conradi, P. J. Iris Murdoch Obituary, The Guardian, London, 9 February 1999
2. Conradi, P. J. 2001, Iris Murdoch: A Life, Harper Collins, London
3. Fletcher, J 1990, Iris Murdoch, Novelist of London, The International Fiction Review, 17.1, pages 10 -13
4. www.bombsight.org
5. The Iris Murdoch Society
6. Rowe, A and Browning Bove C. 2008, Sacred Space: Beloved City: Iris Murdoch’s London, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge
7. Adams, T. Marriage made in heaven, The Guardian, 18 March 2001
8. Robson, L. ‘Iris the insoluble, New Statesman 10 July 2019
9. Clark, A. Iris Murdoch at 100, The Guardian, 13 July 2019

Find out more about the cultural history of Chiswick

The house where Iris Murdoch lived is one of 21 sites of literary interest on the Trail of Books & Writers, produced by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival. There is also a Chiswick Timeline Art Trail created by Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz of Abundance London, a trail around the sites of Georgian Chiswick: In Georgian footsteps, produced by the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society and William Hogarth Trust, and a guide to Chiswick House and Gardens, produced by Chiswick House and Gardens Trust.

Download the trail maps here:

Trail of Books & Writers

Trail of Art & Artists

In Georgian Footsteps

Guide to Chiswick House and Gardens

Harold Acton’s biography of Nancy Mitford is published by Gibson Square Books.

The Chiswick Calendar would like to thank the National Portrait Gallery for their permission to republish portraits of Nancy Mitford and people she knew.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Explore Chiswick’s cultural history online and on foot

See also: EM Forster, Edwardian novelist who lived in Arlington Park Mansions, overlooking Turnham Green

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