Connection

Anne Rowe

Current location

Chichester, West Sussex, South East, England, United Kingdom

Interest (School teacher)

Iris Murdoch

Research

IP: 
How did you originally get into, um, ‘Murdoching’? 
 
AR:
I read The Sea The Sea in 1978, and was enthralled by it. I got to the end and thought there was something odd: I didn't know much about unreliable narrators and technicalities about how the story is told in those days, and I thought, 'Something's not right here. Is he telling the truth? Do I believe him?' And I went back and read it again. So I got into Iris Murdoch at that point. Then, by a complete fluke I heard - I was a young mum with two small children at the time - I heard that at Kingston University, which was just down the road from where I lived, you could do a degree as a mature student. So I hotfooted to Richmond College and did an A-level in English literature, because I had previously qualified in public administration. After that I applied to Kingston University to do my degree and, another huge coincidence, Peter Conradi was teaching there, so I attended his ‘special study’ on Iris Murdoch. Then from there I went to Reading University and completed an MA in Literature and the Visual Arts. Peter asked me if I was thinking of doing a PhD and I said, ‘well, I have been invited to, at Reading. And he said, ‘you know, there's a big gap in Murdoch scholarship, on the visual arts and Iris Murdoch’. Clearly that suited my area of expertise and I completed my PhD at Reading under the supervision of Patrick Parrinder.
 
So it was an extraordinary set of coincidences that brought me to that point where I was doing my PhD, and then the rest is history. I started publishing and taught Iris Murdoch at Kingston University, along with Peter Conradi first of all, and then I took over his special study on Iris Murdoch which I taught for 25 years. So an awful lot of serendipity and strange coincidences contributed to the outcome. 
 
IP: 
What's the key bit of your interest in Murdoch, the focus of your research? 
 
AR:
Well, my first book was on paintings in the novels, so that's one strand of what I'm interested in. I've also written on her neo-theology. But basically I'm just interested in the breadth of the novels. I'm not trying to 'reclaim' her from philosophers, because there's room for both, but I think one of the reasons why she said she did not want to be thought of as a philosophical novelist was because she did not want critics to merely just make direct equations between the philosophy and the novels. And I think that was what happened for around 10 years and it was what she feared, because there's just so much more there. You miss so much if you think of her as a philosophical novelist, and just make those equations, there's masses about paintings, and about art, and about music, and the emotions. She says if there is no feeling present there is no art present. And philosophy alone doesn't access that aspect of the human soul that she wants the novels to portray and explore. 
 
So the novels act on two levels. There are the dialogues, the philosophical dialogues,  strong philosophical meaning in the novels. But she says language is saturated in meaning, language is saturated in morality. So there's another area, another whole level of writing, of meaning, in the novels, where she communicates through a skin of aesthetics, through colour, through imagery, through symbols; and that kind of meaning is assimilated subliminally as you read the novels. That is all to do with feeling and emotion, and engaging and representing the inner life, and trying to access that element of the human soul which you can't convey just by ordinary language. So the language is enriched and laced with all these layers of meaning. 
 
So I'm interested in the ways, the different ways the novels are communicating, not through philosophical allusion but through aesthetics. And there's a chapter in my new book, by the way, on aesthetics. I mean she has a colour code - 
 
IP: 
uh huh? 
 
AR:
There's a whole colour code buried in there, evil characters tend to be associated with yellow, power-hungry characters are associated with gold, wise characters are green; those characters with courage and strength and fortitude, they're the green army. The blue army is the spiritual army. 
 
IP:
[laughing] 
 
AR:
There's one novel where all this comes more overtly out to play, so to speak: The Green Knight, the penultimate novel where she groups characters together more obviously; I don't know whether this is because she was moving into that latter stage of her artistic creativity, but in that novel her reliance on colour to convey meaning all becomes a bit more obvious. But it's there right from the early novels, the way that colour informs the way we think about character, and how we judge people and think about people. 
 
So that's been a big area of my interest in the novels. Where I will go next I don't know. But that's one area I've been thinking about. 
 
IP:
How has Murdoch influenced you as a thinker, as a reader? 
 
AR:
She's made me more... analytical, in a way. I mean the texts are constructed in such a way, they will support any number of close readings. That plenary Gillian Dooley’s just given about music for example. There are so many areas where analysts, critics, literary critics, can draw from the novels. They will sustain any amount of close reading on a multitude of different topics. So I've learned to look at the novels and look carefully at the detail. To find details, and inevitably those details will make a coherent whole. She picks up threads, she knits, she sews, she stitches things together; and I find that aspect of the reading of the novels so utterly fascinating. I think this is why Murdoch scholarship will continue to grow; because whatever questions or issues someone seems to bring to the novels they find resonances there  - I don't know what her brain must have been like, it was like the most sophisticated computer you can think of. So if someone comes with - oh, an interest in stamp collecting for example! You go to Bruno's dream, there's massive amounts of information about philately or - whatever you call stamp collecting! And if you're interested in animals, if you're interesting in painting and art, if you're interested in colour theory... scholars are coming into Murdoch generally, they're developing their own interests, going back to the novels, and the novels seem to be producing meaning . I mean if you just look at the number of different routes into the novels that have been taken by scholars reading papers [at this conference of the Iris Murdoch Society, Oxford 2019)], it's phenomenal; but they're all sophisticated papers. They're not being made up, they're not drawing Murdoch into something and using her to fit into her into their argument. They're using her to develop arguments. 
 
So that's what I find most interesting as a reader. And as I read other people's work, I'm currently working on a lecture on Ian McEwan’s latest novel Machines Like Me, I can see echoes of Iris Murdoch there.  And I think I've learned and honed my skills as a literary critic by reading Iris Murdoch. 
 
 
IP:
Is there anything else you'd like to have on record? 
 
AR: 
What would I like to say? I think that her great charm as a writer, and I don't think we should ever forget this, is that she tells a riveting story. A gripping good story. We should be aware of all the techniques that she uses, the dramatic techniques, the aesthetics and poetics, to keep her reader hooked. And of course there is the extraordinary skill of her construction of character. Once you get to know these characters, you will keep on reading! Because you need to know what's going to happen to them, and how their problems are going to be played out.
 
So she has great skill as a philosopher, great skill as a storyteller, great skill as a theologian, great skill as an art historian, and the list goes on. It's the breadth; and the fact that the novels--I've said this many times--are shapeshifters. You will read your Iris Murdoch now because you may be interested in freedom and how to become good - 
 
IP: 
[laughing - AR has correctly diagnosed why I read IM]
 
AR:
and as your life moves on, and erotic servitude, erotic desire, moves in and dominates your life - with any luck you won't do this - but most of us fall in love with the wrong person at the wrong time, the novels seem to centre on those issues. Then toward the end of your life you start to think about confronting your own mortality, and you start thinking about friendship. And then you find all these themes are there too. My next study will probably be on friendship, forget the sex, forget the erotic desire. She writes brilliantly about friendship, and how anybody can be friends with anyone. A 58 year old man and a 20 year old woman. You can have friendships that transcend all those conventional boundaries that society imposes on who is appropriate to have as a friend, or as a lover, so that's where I'm going next. 
 
Will that do? 
 
IP:
Yes, thank you very much.
 
AR:
Thank you so much, that's a pleasure. 
 

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