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Iris Murdoch

Dame Jean Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919 - February 8, 1999) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher, famed for her series of novels that combine rich characterization and compelling plotlines usually involving ethical or sexual themes.



Murdoch was born in 1919 in Dublin and studied at Somerville College, Oxford. In 1948 she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.

She wrote her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, having previously published works on philosophy, including the first English study of Jean-Paul Sartre. It was at Oxford in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. She went on to produce twenty-five more novels (plus other works of philosophy and drama) until 1995, around the time when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease.

Iris Murdoch's novels are by turns intense and bizarre, filled with dark humor and unpredictable plot twists, undercutting the civilized surface of the usually upper-class milieu in which her characters are observed. She often included non-stereotypical homosexual characters in her fiction, most notably in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970). Murdoch also made frequent use of a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters -- a type which Murdoch is said to have modeled after her lover, the Nobel laureate, Elias Canetti.

Although she wrote primarily in a realistic manner, on occasion Murdoch would introduce ambiguity into her work through symbolism, by mixing elements from different genres, and by subtly manipulating the narrative structure. The Black Prince (1973) is a remarkable study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated when subordinate characters are allowed to contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords.

Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea. A finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, its retired actor/narrator is overwhelmed by jealousy as he meets again, after several decades, his one-time lover.

Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including British television series of her novels A Severed Head.

Murdoch was herself the focus of Richard Eyre's biopic, Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memoir of his wife following her death in 1999. The film starred Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet respectively as the old and young Murdoch.

In 1987 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2001 her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the editorial board of the American Modern Library