Iris Murdoch

(1919-1999) – Philosopher and Booker Prize-winning writer

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin and educated at progressive schools. She came up to Somerville in 1938 and began studying English, but soon changed to Literae Humaniores (Classics, including the study of ancient philosophy).  

Murdoch took First-class honours, and ten days after she finished her final exams, she was conscripted as an assistant principal at the Treasury. She went on to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). After the War, she studied philosophy as a graduate student at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963.

Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1954. Her 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea won the Booker Prize. She continued to publish philosophical works alongside her fiction, including The Sovereignty of Good (1970), The Fire and The Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1976) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). In 1976 Murdoch was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1987 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE).

Did you know? A set of Murdoch’s novels was reissued in 2019 to mark her centenary. In a Guardian article reflecting on the work, writer Charlotte Mendelson said that Murdoch ‘understood our secret lives: falling in love with exactly the wrong person, maddened with inconvenient lust and sadness and fear. Her books are full of passion and disaster…’

Where Next?