From the mid-forties through 1994, Iris Murdoch wrote more than two dozen novels, at least three important philosophical works, plus literary criticism, poetry, reviews, and essays. A trained classicist who taught philosophy at Oxford, she spent much of her working life creating fictions that examined the intricacies of human relationships with the eye of the moral philosopher-not through strident judgment but through loving observation and attention. The past tense is appropriate, though an obituary is not yet in order. Murdoch has lost her memory and with it the power she once possessed to write masterly fictions and lucid philosophical works. A woman with the intellectual and creative energy to generate such an outpouring, she now writes nothing. She remembers nothing but the most simple phrase, and that for no more than a moment. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
As poignant as her condition is, Elegy for Iris tells a story even more touching than the loss of her prodigous creative powers. Iris Murdoch is also John Bayley’s wife. More than a story of her-or of him-more than the story of her novels or his own literary works, or of her disease and his steadfastness in caring for her, this memoir is Bayley’s story of his forty-year marriage to Murdoch.
Whatever the nineteenth-century source for Tolstoy’s sentence opening Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," it can no longer be true. Today, unhappy marriages all look very much alike. It is happy families and happy marriages that strike us as singular achievements-and often distinctively so.
What is distinctive about the Bayley-Murdoch ménage? It has none of the trappings of what might pass these day for a happy or successful marriage, though it appears to be that. Nor is there a sense of cozy domesticity cosseting their retirement (housekeeping and household accoutrements and comforts were not their strong suit, as Bayley amply illustrates). Neither do they seem to have gathered a salon of intellectuals and literary types à la Bloomsbury full of gossip and affairs. And though a life without children, it is nonetheless a family life.
As a graduate student at Oxford, Bayley looked out his window one day to see a "lady on the bicycle...and wondered who she was and whether I would ever meet her. Perhaps I fell in love." Bayley casts himself as the suitor in a tale of courtly love: she elusive and private; he persistent and, in ardent pursuit, a bit jealous. Perhaps he is being gallant when he suggests that Murdoch may have married him out of compassion. In 1956 when they finally married, it seems to have been a brief event at the local registry office.
Still, what strikes the reader is how well suited they are. Is this how their marriage started out? Or did it, by fits and starts, angry words and explanations, accommodate to their mutual need for quiet and concentration? For what they have shared, until Murdoch began in 1994 to succumb to the fog of Alzheimer’s, was a life of solitude given to reading, thinking, and writing. On their honeymoon in Italy, as they sipped coffee in the square of Volterra, Bayley finally realized, "We were together because we were comforted and reassured by the solitariness each saw and was aware of in the other." For him, it is "one of the truest pleasures of marriage....Also the most reassuring."
Two Oxford dons, two writers, perhaps there is no great surprise that Bayley and Murdoch seem so compatible. Common interests of an intellectual and literary kind, a shared sense of humor and decorum of the British kind, all of these go a long way in smoothing over the irritations of the everyday and the inevitable difficulties of the writing life. And then neither had great expectations. "We expected neither sex nor marriage to get anywhere: We were happy for them to jog on just as they were." Was it a marriage of convenience then? Not very.
Of course, Bayley is not writing of his complaints, and his tribute to Murdoch is not likely to raise the inconveniences of a marriage in which no one ever cleaned the house, or seems to have cared much for cooking. He puts it neatly: "One of the pleasures of living with Iris was her serenely benevolent unawareness of one’s daily welfare. So restful." Taking that to be an honest and not an ironic sentiment, I conclude that Murdoch did not suffer a common female complaint, the need to take care of people, nor did Bayley suffer the complementary male complaint, the need to be taken care of. So restful.
Bayley was determined, he writes, that "she not be distracted from [working]." So there was no housekeeping. Not much cooking. No gardening. He wrote in bed; she wrote steadily at her desk. They ate lunch reading their books and listening to an inane BBC soap opera, "The Archers." And no throwing things out either, as confirmed by Sarah Lyall, in a recent New York Times profile (December 30, 1998), that pronounced their home "shockingly untidy."
It is the ordinary tasks of everyday life that are often the crucible of marriage. But apparently not this one. Bayley’s instinct for tidiness, suggested in the course of the book, may have been almost extinguished by this marriage of true minds. That makes his one confession of rage at Murdoch all the more touching. As she has slipped into a state of forgetfulness and certain forms of obsessive behavior characteristic of Alzheimer’s, she persistently waters the house plants that seem to be Bayley’s one island of domestic pride and cultivation. He describes shamefacedly how he screamed one day "finding her with a jug in her hand, and the windowsill and the floor below it slopping over with stagnant water....I went suddenly berserk....The rage was instant and total, seeming to come out of nowhere." This anger, he judges, "seems now to be a way of still refusing to admit that there is anything wrong." But of course everything is wrong. Is this the woman he married?
"Iris is...the most genuinely modest person I have ever met....The normal anxieties and preoccupations of a successful writer about status and the future...were completely absent with her. Now that she has forgotten all about it anyway, I am struck by the almost eerie resemblance between the amnesia of the present and tranquil indifference of the past." She is, as he observes in loving detail, the same person, the woman he married, but existing in a different realm, as she said to a friend in a moment of stark lucidity, "sailing into the darkness," but content, as he reports, to sit and watch the inane British TV program "Teletubbies."
Nonetheless, Bayley writes, echoing an earlier observation, "purposefully, persistently, involuntarily, our marriage is now getting somewhere. It is giving us no choice-and I am glad of that." Iris "is not sailing into the dark: The voyage is over, and under the dark escort of Alzheimer’s, she has arrived somewhere. So have I."
That is at least part of the story told in this volume. No doubt much has been left out and a good deal transformed for the purpose of telling a coherent story-and told from Bayley’s perspective. Should we be suspicious? For good reason, we have all come to realize that memoirs are often better read as a form of fiction than a representation of reality. I am not sure that Murdoch or Bayley would find the distinction useful, or the implied criticism that he has exposed her to ridicule by describing her illness. Indeed, Elegy for Iris can be read as the story of a good life and a loving marriage that Murdoch helped to create. Bayley is as immersed in that world as she, as shaped by it as she. Does he violate that world as husband and narrator? I don’t think so.
In her luminescent philosophical essay, The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch examines the role of the will in moral agency, "The ideal situation...is ...to be represented as a kind of ’necessity.’ This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ’obedience.’" Bayley has been "obedient." And in a turn of the plot familiar to Murdoch readers, we might conclude that she has produced her best novel yet, both as co-author and subject.