Revealed: Iris Murdoch's secret love affair

Letters between the late novelist and one of her young students tell of their 30-year relationship

James Morrison
Sunday 07 March 2010 01:00 GMT
Murdoch in 1966, when she was teaching general studies at the Royal College of Art
Murdoch in 1966, when she was teaching general studies at the Royal College of Art (getty images)

Intimate details of a tempestuous 30-year relationship between the author Iris Murdoch and a former student are revealed for the first time in today's Independent on Sunday.

A series of alternately sensual and bitter letters from the novelist are published tomorrow in a memoir by David Morgan, who recalls how they fell in love as she supervised his Master's thesis at the Royal College Art.

Morgan, now a lecturer himself at Chelsea College of Art and Design, was a 24-year-old novice from a troubled, itinerant background when he met Murdoch, already a respected author in her forties, in February 1964. But in his book, With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch, he recalls how they "clicked" the moment he entered her office for a supervision – and within weeks were engaged in a passionate clinch at her flat in west London.

Their first kiss, a spontaneous lunge over an art book they were perusing, signalled the start of a two-year phase Morgan now sees as a "love affair". In a letter soon afterwards, Murdoch writes: "I had intended, earlier, that we should part for the vacation on rather more formal terms. But by last Wednesday it had become impossible not to touch you & to draw you a good deal closer."

In the same missive, she describes Morgan's "singularly good-looking head", and hints at less than platonic feelings for him by explaining she has told her husband, the writer and academic John Bayley, about their encounter. In apparent allusions to earlier lovers, such as Nobel prize-winning author Elias Canetti, she writes: "And I want this to be 'clean-cut': I too have had so many muddled & twisted relationships, and I want ours to be steady & clear, & I think it can be. (I have, by the way, mentioned your existence in general terms to John Bayley, who trusts me absolutely & never wants to hear details...)".

Morgan recounts how, following stints in a school for maladjusted boys and an asylum, Murdoch took him under her wing after he managed to blag his way into the RCA with limited artistic ability. And he describes his painful memories of how a series of clumsy indiscretions on his part – keeping her letters, and boasting to a peer that her patronage would guarantee him a good mark for his thesis – eventually tipped her from "love" into "rage".

Though the pair kept up their correspondence for 29 more years, their meetings became shorter and less frequent. Morgan's last memory of Murdoch is of helping a "doddery" old woman on to a train at Paddington station in 1995 – months before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Recalling planting a kiss on her forehead, he adds: "She only half knew who I was at that meeting."

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