Iris Murdoch's Letters: The Friendship Question

July 12, 2022 | Sarah Ng

Iris Murdoch's Letters: The Friendship Question

Iris Murdoch is one of the most prolific Irish and British authors of her time, with her work often asking philosophical questions, confronting the meaning of morality, and tearing at the roots of human intimacy. But perhaps just as compelling as her award-winning novels was her dedication to letter writing...and to whom she bared her soul.

Releasing The Letters

Although Iris Murdoch married writer John Bayley, her romantic journey through life was anything but simple. When Kingston University bought a collection of Murdoch's letters, it exposed the writer's interior life in a shocking way. From the 1940s to the 1990s, Murdoch had written 250 letters to her closest friend, philosopher Philippa Foot. But these were no ordinary letters.

In fact, these letters revealed a very unique kind of friendship, where her words drew the wavering line that separates romantic and platonic love. Murdoch's correspondence with Foot reveals the peaks and valleys of her most enduring friendship, while also shedding light on her own fluidity and bisexuality.

Iris MurdochGetty Images

A Meeting Of The Minds

In 1939, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot met at Oxford. Although they were both young and eager philosophy students, they were also quite different. Murdoch was Irish-born, compact, and brilliantly educated. Foot, on the other hand, hailed from the wealthy upper class. She grew up in luxury, carrying herself with a natural elegance and undeniable coolness. And yet, from there on out, their lives were destined to be entwined.

Four years later—and with their degrees in tow—Murdoch and Foot had shacked up together as roommates, sharing a rather dismal flat in London. However, their relationship was already headed for the deep end. At the time, Murdoch was busy with other correspondents, writing to many admirers, while Philippa pursued her former tutor. But, on both sides, there was jealousy waiting in the wings.

Murdoch and Philippa's friendship fell apart in an unfortunate sequence of events. Murdoch took up with a man named Michael Foot, then dismissed him to take up with Philippa's old lover, the tutor. Then, in another twist, Philippa and Michael got together just as Murdoch's new romance petered out. By the time the war had come to a close, the friendship was over, and Murdoch's life was as bleak as ever.

A Reconciliation

In 1946, not only was Murdoch living with her parents and desperately trying to find an academic post, but she'd also failed to find a steadfast partner. And so, she decided to write to her old confidante, Philippa Foot (now married to Michael) to ask for forgiveness. However, her apology can also be read as a heartfelt confession: "Pippa, you know without my telling you that my love for you remains as deep and tender as ever—and always will remain, it is so deep in me and so much part of me. I cannot imagine that anyone will ever take your place. I think of you very often. My dear heart, I love you".

Luckily, Philippa's response reignited their romantic friendship to its former glory. She wrote, "The fact that you do, after all that, still care for me gives me great hope that the past will fall away and this good thing between us will grow and be stronger than ever. Love can work miracles." However, despite their intense "love" for one another, it would over a decade before these two friends ever explored a physical relationship.

While Foot still remained close to her heart, Murdoch managed to find security in her marriage to John Bayley, as well as her blooming career as a novelist. Then, in 1959, her friendship with Foot transformed again. Michael Foot had fallen for another woman, leaving his wife alone and free once more. This allowed the friends to draw closer than ever before, Murdoch writing in her journal, "a certain sense of relief after the removal of the barrier between P and me..."

Iris MurdochGetty Images

Sleeping With Friends

In the late 1950s, Murdoch's bisexuality and infidelity shook the foundation of her marriage. She entertained a number of affairs, most notably with the lesbian writer Brigid Brophy. Unlike Foot, Murdoch's personal life teemed with drama and intrigue. After all, she often found herself taking her friends to bed, and consistently open with her declarations of affection.

Then, in 1968, Murdoch and Foot crossed the line they'd never before dared to. They fell into a very brief affair—but their decision to finally take the plunge remains as foggy as ever. Perhaps, for two people so strongly connected, this was the last wall that stood between them; physical closeness being the most literal connection of all.

But although their romance ended the next year, the real romance of the friendship never faded. For the next 20 years, Murdoch and Foot continued to nurture their connection, always loving and ever-watchful over the other's well-being. Murdoch only wished the best for her friend, continued to write her letters, and even encouraged her to seek out a new love. She spoke of "the wonder and miracle of love springing up again—the surprises of the world! Good, good...Grab and distribute all the happiness you can".

A Deeper Friendship

Iris Murdoch's strong love, not only for Philippa Foot but for many of her other correspondents, asks an important question about the lines drawn within the definition of love. We are all accustomed to fitting our relationships into tidy boxes and storing them just so, but Murdoch's letters prove that friendship isn't always black and white. Romantic friendship is rarely discussed or encouraged, and yet it might be the most nuanced and complicated relationship of all.

Sources: 1, 2, 3,

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