Murdoch's library of inspiration put up for auction

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The Independent Culture

The 1,070 books that inspired the novels of Iris Murdoch were put on sale at an exhibition hall in London yesterday.

The personal library of the novelist, ranging from the works of Plato to a book on the effects of LSD, was the star attraction of the Antiquarian Book Fair - an event carefully designed to tempt the most disciplined bibliophiles into a high-brow spending spree.

Crowded on to the shelves of the 123 book stands at Kensington Olympia, west London, were literary gems ranging from a copy of Grimm's fairytales read to a young Charles Darwin by his father, to a suitably rare volume on the habits of the dodo.

The most expensive collection was of 18th and 19th-century novels collected by an anonymous Englishman during 35 years, which included first editions of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and a copy of Vanity Fair presented by William Makepeace Thackeray to Charlotte Brontë. Price: £1m.

But it was the sizeable working library of Dame Iris, who died from Alzheimer's disease in 1999 at the age of 79, that proved the main attraction after the sale opened shortly after midday. The collection, which is being sold as a single lot with for £150,000, has been put together by John Bayley, the novelist's former husband.

Spanning subjects from philosophy to theology and poetry to travel, the main interest was not the books themselves but the dozens of pages of annotations by Dame Iris.

Rachel Lee, the Bristol-based bookseller approached by Professor Bayley to sell the works, said: "The most significant thing is her notes. They reveal the depth of her thought, her sense of humour and her passion. That is what makes them unusual."

Many of the books contain several pages of dense handwriting, in works by writers who interested Dame Iris - including the philosophers Plato Simone Weil and Heidegger.

In one volume, a theological work called Zen and the Comic Spirit, the novelist wrote: "Zen is comic but not funny or witty. Christ is witty but not funny." Another work, The New Christian Ethics, is dismissed with a pencil scrawl: "Wild casual stuff."

The collection also contains several notebooks kept by Dame Iris, including her notes from a lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre in Brussels in 1945, and the lyrics to a German drinking song "taught to me by Frances and Denys, in the car going to Cirencester, the day Germany invaded Poland".

Professor Bayley will give the proceeds of the sale to fund a scholarship at St Anne's, Oxford University. He wrote in the sale catalogue: "Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her."

But despite suggestions that the British Library might acquire the collection, there were no immediate buyers. Jonathan Potter, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, said: "Like most other businesses, there has been a downturn over the last couple of years."