John had both hands on the wheel as he drove uphill around a curve. Iris was sitting beside him and, as was her wont, had managed to release her seat belt some miles back. Without warning she opened her car door and plunged out into the dark night. John was frantic. He stopped the car and ran out looking for his wife of over 40 years.
Alzheimer’s had been gradually stealing Iris away, and for several minutes on that dark roadside, John thought it may have made its final grab. Calling for his wife, he slipped and fell down a steep grassy slope, only to find Iris at the bottom, lying on her back and laughing. Neither was injured.
A Unconventional Marriage
That story comes from the second of two books that John Bayley wrote about Iris Murdoch, their lives together and Iris’s battle with Alzheimer’s.
He once described their married life as like “two animals in a field.” They gave one another wide space to develop independent careers. John became a literature professor and noted critic at Oxford, and Iris became a successful novelist (26 novels) and respected philosopher. John’s job provided stability which gave Iris the opportunity to stretch into her novels, essays and lectures.
They grew to depend on each other. They shared many hours in conversation, though not so much about each other’s work. They entertained friends, traveled together, and frequented treasured places like a favorite swimming hole in a small river near Oxford. Once when John broke a leg and was hospitalized some distance from home, Iris rented a nearby room and stayed with him until he was ready to return.
John was more of a cook and took charge of most of their meals when they did not eat out. He also probably managed the finances, as Iris didn’t enjoy or manage the business aspects of her writing career.
John and Iris had no children. They married in 1956 when she was 37 and he was 31. They spent their time working and playing. Their lunches were often quiet times in which each read something of interest. Neither was interested in housekeeping, and their residence gradually went natural with piles of books and papers, unclean bathrooms, dust and drab, stones brought home from hikes, and old clothes. For some time they had a nest of rats living with them between the walls and floors in their old house. John finally exterminated them.
They were nonconformists in other ways as well. Iris was promiscuous and bisexual before and during marriage. She had a long-term relationship with Philippa Foot, another philosopher, which turned sexual for a brief time in the late 1960s, and she had other sexual relationships during their marriage. John didn’t like her outside adventures, but he apparently didn’t or couldn’t stop her.
Iris’s cognitive decline began in the 1990s. She had unusual difficulty writing her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, which was completed in 1993 or 1994 and published in the fall of 1995. The novel showed signs of confusion, and by the time it was publish, she couldn’t understand the reviews that John read to her.
John decided he would care for her at home rather than place her in a facility. That decision took him through five or so years up to the last few weeks of her life when she refused to eat and was placed in an Alzheimer’s home.
Conversations were still possible in the early stages, and Iris could be prompted to remember many experiences. John helped her dress, prepared all the food and watched over her when out and about. But as her disease progressed, she refused to get undressed for bed, became agitated at random intervals, banged at the locked doors yelling for help, roamed through the house in search of things unknown, nuzzled John for continual companionship, needed constant help eating ever more pasty foods, lost control of her bowel habits, occasionally escaped into the wild of their Oxford neighborhood, and once, as described above, opened her car door and leaped into the darkness.
Iris’s successful writing made her a public person. Her accomplishments led to prizes, honors, and many appearances. But she was also a private person, destroying parts of her journal and her letters. She was allegedly dishonest and secretive with her first biographer, A.N. Wilson, who quit the job, only to write a stinging, abusive personal biography after her death.
John feels confident that Iris would approve his books about their marriage and her descent, but we may wonder. Is he declaring independence through his writing maybe in a way similar to what Iris did through her sexuality? Or is he salvaging his own mind by bringing truth, reason and language back into a relationship from which they had vanished? Rationality tended to define essential parts of their joint life, and it is a defining human characteristic. Yet Alzheimer’s removed it day-by-day, and inserted randomness in its place.
His books described his own episodes of temporary madness when he thought of her as a water buffalo, lumbering around, getting in the way, or shouted at her, telling her how much he hated her. Once she put her hands over her head and whimpered, “Don’t hit me,” as the nearness of violence briefly cleared her fog.
In their particular experience with old love, we see something profoundly human: a woman and man weaving their love into a successful marriage for over 40 years, producing a fabric of their own design yet so strong that it withstood the gradual but total loss of language and rationality, and John’s emergence out the other side only by practicing his own life-long custom of writing.
So it goes with old love.
Elegy for Iris, John Bayley (NY: St Martin’s Press, 1999).
Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire, John Bayley (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).