Spellbound by her intricacy of thought

The writer and critic Mark Bostridge on the Iris Murdoch he knew
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The Independent Culture

One day, during the filming of Iris, the actress Judi Dench was on location in Oxford when she was approached by a woman who turned out to have been an intimate of the novelist. "Oh no," she exclaimed, gesticulating at Dench's costume. "Iris would never have worn clothes like that. Would you like to come and try on some of her cast-offs that I have at home?"

Sometimes it must have seemed to Dench that everyone apart from her knew Murdoch, who died in 1999, a victim of Alzheimer's disease. As her biographer Peter Conradi has written, she possessed that rare gift of making each friend feel uniquely befriended.

People's belief that they had some special claim to her was brought home to John Bayley, Murdoch's husband, when in 1998 he published Iris, his memoir of his wife, on which Richard Eyre's new film is based.

The book was hailed as a masterpiece, but there were mutterings in some quarters, among certain of Iris's "friends" who criticised Bayley for making Iris the subject of so confessional a memoir. Robin Baird Smith, the book's publisher, received poison-pen letters viciously pressing this message home, and I remember John Bayley himself commenting that those who attacked the memoir in this way were the kind of people who had been wanting to "possess" Iris all their married life.

I was not a friend of Iris Murdoch's, but I did meet her on several occasions during the last phase of her illness. I had first seen her as a sixth-former in the 1970s when she had visited my school and, in a scene reminiscent of the one early in the film, held us all spellbound by the intricacies of her thought wrapped up in language of beauty and clarity. Twenty years later, at her home in North Oxford, I was introduced to a woman smelling sweetly of talcum powder, with striking blue eyes and a wonderfully open smile, who repeatedly asked "when are we going?" and who could be heard that afternoon moving restlessly around the hallway, and sobbing at one point to John, "I feel dead".

The film's absurd advertising slogan, though, makes one pause. "Her greatest talent was for life." So not for writing novels or philosophy then? Isn't there a danger that the memory of the literary genius will be damaged by this over-concentration on the tragic decline of her final years? John Bayley doesn't believe that this will happen. "It can't do any harm to Iris's reputation," he told me, "and can only assist those who are caring for Alzheimer's sufferers."

He is pleased with the end result, but reports of Professor Bayley weeping buckets at screenings of the film are greatly exaggerated. "In one sense," he says, "I wasn't moved at all. I found that I could create an aesthetic distance between myself and the film, so that while I could admire it as a work of art, my own private emotions weren't involved."

'Iris' opens on Friday. 'Iris Murdoch: Strange Love', is on BBC2 on 23 January

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