Iris Murdoch on the Fluidity of Gender and Sexuality: Her Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Brigid Brophy
By Maria Popova
“A self that goes on changing goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her defense of letter writing as the humanest art. Hardly any writer has filled this ideal with more ever-changing aliveness than the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — a woman who lived by her own standards and sensibilities, defying convention not for the mere sake of defiance but out of a longing, above all, for a more evolved and expansive conception of love as the guiding force of life.
In her lifetime, Murdoch spent countless hours sitting at a roll-top desk once property of J.R.R. Tolkien, answering every missive she received and writing thousands of letters about literature, love, and life to friends, lovers, colleagues, and students. The finest of them are now collected in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995 (public library).
Perhaps most beautiful, electrifying, and psychologically revealing of all was her correspondence with her longtime lover and lifelong friend Brigid Brophy (June 12, 1929–August 7, 1995) — a remarkable polymath, social reformer, and animal rights activist who wrote novels, librettos, reviews, children’s books, and critical studies of influential artists, including a terrific treatise on Aubrey Beardsley. “You are certainly the best letter-writer I have ever encountered,” Murdoch gushes in one of her letters to Brophy, “your words all coloured and warmed by you.”
The two women were bound by an intense intellectual entanglement, their letters strewn with allusions ranging from Plato to Proust. But there was also an intensity of a different sort and a different order — a love both passionate and deeply affectionate. They had a great deal in common. Both were polymaths and gifted writers, both were in unconventional open marriages, both had minds of enormous intellectual and creative potency. They met under befitting circumstances — in 1954, Murdoch’s novel Under the Net won second prize at the Cheltenham Literature Festival; first prize went to 25-year-old Brophy’s Hackenfeller’s Ape.
Over the next few years, they corresponded regularly and became increasingly close. Murdoch was drawn to Brophy’s talent, beauty, and political idealism, but was at first hesitant about giving shape to the attraction between them, reluctant to meet Brophy’s unambivalent sexual desire in kind and engage in a romantic relationship.
In a 1960 letter, Murdoch writes:
My dear, your letters are so hard to answer… I am grateful in a straight and simple way for your kindness (and generosity). And of course because I admire you (more perhaps than you realise) I am flattered. And I adore the texture of your mind; and you are a writer and a thinker and beautiful. And you are witty. These things, though they remain scattered, are good and enrich me. I loved your flowers and your sending them – I have had much pleasure from them and they still bloom…
I stand between the difficulty of not making even a respectable vix satis [only just acceptable] sort of response … and the fear of “leading you on” in some non-admissible way… I do not want to harm you, though I would perhaps have no objection to hurting you in certain respects. Anyway. You see the difficulties. I cannot prevent myself (‘do not’ is better) from responding to your warmth and your (in every sense) wit. Yet you know I am in some ways no use…
In another letter to Brophy, who was deeply interested in psychoanalysis and influenced by Freud’s work, Murdoch echoes Margaret Mead’s prescient views on the fluidity of gender and sexuality (set down in a letter to Mead’s own soul mate) and channels her ambivalence about the budding romance in a poem both playful and poignant:
Thanks for your poem (Freudian) received.
I must confess I found it quite a tonic,
And hope you will not be unduly peeved
If I reply in spirit more ironic.
I doubt in fact if you will be aggrieved
At being greeted in a style Byronic,
Since mixing of the sexes, which you prize,
Dear Byron certainly exemplifies.
How cleverly you write!
It’s quite confusing.
You want me female, then you want me male,
Or else hermaphrodite, to suit your choosing,
While for yourself you have some other tale
Of corresponding moves. (‘You are amusing!’)
To understand this stuff I simply fail,
Eschewing Freud and all his patter, for I
Don’t make of sex a basic category.
Of course, one has a sex, I can’t deny it.
For purposes of passports, clothes et cetera
I am a woman, and I don’t decry it.
Since man has always done his best to fetter her,
A woman would be man, if she could try it,
In many cases — but this would not better her
In any deep respect, and as a spirit
Woman is man’s superior in merit.
Nature denies us a consummate bliss
But gives us much to rest some happiness on:
Too great exactitude would come amiss.
Half sundered and in darkness we must press on.
For what it darkly is, then take my love,
And in the forest lost we still shall rove.
In March of the same year, Murdoch continues to resist but is already developing a deep attachment to Brophy:
My dear, thank you very much for your letter. I loved seeing you.
Nothing is inevitable, I think. You move me deeply, as you know. But I cannot offer you more than I ever could, and even for that time and space divide us. This is a mouldy frozen-up reply to your charming letter (which I have destroyed: I’m afraid I did destroy the earlier ones too, which I now regret!).
I cannot think that (unless you throw me out, out that is of whatever and whenever I am in) I shall ever stop wanting to see you, and when I see you, being moved and affected in deep ways by you. I love receiving letters from you (and love writing to you, which is quelque chose as I detest letter-writing in general). I know I am unsatisfactory and that I must just ask you (and earnestly, because this matters to me) to put up with me as I am. (After all I put up with you as you are: or is this a Jesuitical argument?) Dearest girl, just that. I embrace you. Ever,
Over the coming weeks, Murdoch is further pulled asunder by the opposing forces of her desire for Brophy and her paralysis at the sense of lacking the courage to engage in a sexual relationship. She laments the dispiriting disconnect in another letter penned later that month:
My dear, this is the unsatisfactory sequel to my other letter… I don’t know what to say. You know I am deeply attached to you, and that attachment has survived shocks, misadventures and time. I think it is pretty strong and solid, and its continuance means a lot to me. Yet I am not quite constructed as you wish — hence partly conduct which seems from your end erratic… Your letter made me feel sad and ineffectual, desiring yet not finding in myself a strong full-blooded response of some sort to your fierceness.
By late spring, Murdoch’s longing and fearful ambivalence are reaching their respective crescendos:
It’s funny that it’s so plain that it’s love that makes the world go round, although it’s so very difficult to get it right. I mean odd that it’s so plain. I’m very tired and confused as you see.
A week later, the returns to the perplexing plainness of it:
One day you’ll realise that I’m not wise or detached enough to “do anything about you” which would be up to much, given that I can’t produce the essential goods: and then perhaps you will accept me as just a poor bastard who struggles along through life in a muddled way, and your old friend. Do not be obsessed or in pain, darling. How unnecessary it seems. Yet how much time one spends thus. I wasn’t drunk, incidentally, and love (properly understood) does make the world go round.
With much of that world-propelling stuff, Brigid, ever your unsatisfactory old
That fall, a curious factor infiltrates their dynamic — the inevitable boundary-breach that happens as the personal and the professional blur when two people both closely identified with their work find themselves enamored with one another and unable to tell where in the infatuation the person ends and the work begins. If you are vitalized by the world of ideas and turned on by brilliance, do you fall in love with the person or with the person’s brilliance expressed in the work — and can the two be disentwined? And when you are deeply invested in your own work, isn’t it fair to expect a prospective lover to love your work with the same passion that she loves you? How disorienting, then, for Murdoch to suddenly find Brophy critical of her work, having all the while assumed complete adoration.
To Murdoch’s credit, she handles her disappointment with extraordinary self-awareness and grace:
Until now I have taken the view that your odd attitude to my work was unimportant. Lots of my friends don’t like what I write … but mostly they keep quiet about it, and it doesn’t matter. I don’t, by the way, dislike, or don’t think I do, interesting criticism, if devoid of spite. Interesting criticism one practically never gets, of course. My own debate about the merits of my work and how to improve it is one that I think no one else can contribute to. I believe I have a reasonably just estimate of my faults and virtues as a writer and know when and in what respect I am overpraised. I confess I am surprised that you altogether dislike my work, as I should have thought it was complex enough to have some things in it which would touch your heart and mind. I am beginning now to think that your total rejection of it is important, and I am not sure what should be done. It is not a matter of love me love my books. I feel no specially protective attachment to the completed things which recede at a great speed into the past. It is partly that I am, I think, rather like my books, so that it is at least odd (and a little unnerving) to find you detesting them… I wonder if we shouldn’t perhaps discuss the whole matter sometime (an idea which before Sunday would have seemed to me ludicrous).
All my love
But despite the rejection of her work — or perhaps, in some strange sadomasochistic way, because of it — Murdoch’s attraction to Brophy only intensifies over the following year. Meanwhile, she is ever gracious and generous in her own response to Brophy’s work, writing in a 1962 letter:
I have read your novel with great delight. I do think it’s good, a handsome lovely clever book, with excellence on every page, as proper books should have. You must be the first person who has described sexual intercourse beautifully and well in a book.
The novel in question was Brophy’s Flesh, which she dedicated to Murdoch and sent her a beautifully wrapped copy inscribed “Flash, a navel by Brigid Bardot.” Upon receiving the gift, Murdoch writes:
Dearest girl, I have never before received a novel dedicated to me wrapped up in silver paper. I am utterly delighted. The labour of love round the outside is much appreciated too and I hope represents many happy hours. The picture of you on the back rather turns my head. The hunched broad-shouldered appearance is just right. […] I shall treasure it. I also liked the account of you and your Keeper; and the mysterious ‘go there’. (Where?) The dédicace gives me enormous pleasure. I feel very proud and want to go round telling everyone I know you. NB I adore the novel too. Thank you, Brigid. I embrace you, you dazzling creature. With great thanks and love, your much cheered up
In January of 1963, Murdoch is at last ready to consummate the desire between them and a romantic relationship ensues. (How disappointing, yet perhaps understandable given our culture’s long and lamentable history of denying the dignity of LBGT love, that despite their ample and unambiguous love letters, their relationship was repeatedly framed as a “friendship” in Peter Conradi’s 2001 biography of Murdoch.)
Murdoch writes to Brophy:
Dear girl, you made for once quite a sensible suggestion … that we should make each other happy. Let us do that. It may need a little care at first (like holding together two bits of cracked china…)
By the spring, she has fully surrendered to her romantic attachment and writes:
I count on your love (increasingly: alarming thought) — and the threat of its withdrawal causes much alarm.
But as the romance unfolded, Brophy began to demand increasingly more of Murdoch’s time and attention, which only reawakened the sense of deficiency that had held Murdoch back during her initial reluctance to engage in the relationship. At the end of September, she beseeches Brophy:
Dearest girl, forgive my falling short, and just take me along as I am. I can’t put it more eloquently, but I do love you. (You asked earlier: how did I know? Partly by introspection and partly by a study of my conduct.)
But this “falling short” — or the deliberate withdrawal punctuating their attraction — seems to be precisely what fuels the relationship. That spring, Murdoch writes:
I am a blunderer, but I don’t intentionally cause you real pain. If I ever deliberately twist your arm it is only to occasion so much pain as will be indistinguishable from pleasure. You on the other hand when you decide to punish me (vide the letter I received this morning) emulate Modesty [Blaise] with her kongo [Japanese martial arts weapon] and nerve-centres technique. Don’t do it. I am fonder of you every day and your power to hurt me grows alarmingly.
A week later, Murdoch pens a letter that captures the psychology of how frustration fuels satisfaction in love with extraordinary insight and metaphorical acuity:
My dearest creature, please forgive any hurt from my letter. I do love you, and that is the main point. And if I am alarmed at what seemed your vicious aspect you must appreciate that I have had cause for the alarm. Time cures these things and time is bringing us closer together. It seems absurd in a way how difficult it all is — maybe difficulty is of the essence. It is like a relationship between two railway engines. It would be nice to be together in one shed. But we seem to spend the time rushing about on various tracks trying to meet. Sometimes it looks as if we are going to have a head-on collision. Then one of us goes roaring away down a side track wildly whistling. Then when it seems we might come together the tracks suddenly divide…
Yes, I do love you, do believe it.
A few weeks later, she writes again:
The only thing I am “afraid” of where you are concerned is that you may suddenly put me in a position where I have to break off relations with you. This, as a hedonist who loves you, I should dislike.
How much I wish you would keep a true woman’s eye and love me still and know not why…
The allusion is to a verse from an anonymous 17th century poem set to music as a madrigal, titled “Love Not Me for Comely Grace”: “Keep, therefore, a true woman’s eye, / And love me still but know not why — / So hast thou the same reason still / To doat upon me ever!” But by year’s end, Murdoch arrives at the inevitable “why” of love:
Darling, you know that affection and good will are no use. Only love is any use. […] Why can we not be in love with a love which is simply sui, nostri, generis [of our own kind]?
I can’t write more now, I am so tired. If you were here I would just touch you and feel better. I have no eloquence at the moment with which to try to persuade you not to recede from me — but do not.
In December of 1964, Murdoch returns to the intersection of the personal and the professional, inevitable in the synthesis of a love this intellectually charged:
I am amused that you feel it wrong to ask for the heart of any (woman presumably) who is not a great writer. (This would limit your choice to…?)
I am not a great writer. Neither are you. (I have never of course really told you what I think of your work, though what I have said is truthful. In fact I don’t think critically in detail about what you write. I love it as an emanation of you, and admire what is patently admirable in it.) I certainly don’t feel any inhibition about asking for your heart. I ask for it shamelessly and need it… Honestly I feel now I couldn’t possibly do without you. I don’t scream this only because I don’t really feel in danger of losing you.
Much much much love
Their relationship continued for the next few years, animated both by an intimate intensity and a wonderful sweetness — the kind captured in this disarming line from one of Murdoch’s letters from 1966, now a full twelve years after their first meeting:
It’s snowing (big flakes) and I love you.
Living on Paper is a revelatory and exquisitely insightful read in its totality, brimming with Murdoch’s uncommon sincerity and shrewdness. Complement this particular aspect of the tome with the love letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokov, Albert Einstein to Mileva Marić, Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer, Mozart to his wife, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.
Published January 26, 2016