Giants of Twentieth Century English Literature: Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson

The University of Iowa is honored to serve as the repository for the papers of two of 20th-century Britain’s most significant writers of fiction: Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), and Angus Wilson (1913-1991).

Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919. Her intellectual background was intense – she attended Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lectures at Cambridge and herself lectured in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford from 1948-1963. Murdoch’s interest in philosophical questions helped shape her development as a novelist.

Murdoch studied classics, ancient history and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford. She graduated with honors in 1942 and immediately took a job with the Treasury. In 1944 she began working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which aided the millions of Europeans displaced by World War II. The somber experiences of the war had a profound impact on Murdoch’s thinking.

She wrote and published her first novel, Under The Net, in 1954, two years before she met at Oxford and married literature professor John Bayley. Under The Net would later be selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the 20th Century.

She went on to produce twenty-five more novels, in addition to a number of philosophical works, plays and books of poetry). Her last novel was Jackson’s Dilemma, published in 1995. She was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea, which told the story of a playwright haunted by jealous obsession after meeting his former lover after a separation of decades. In 1987 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to literature.

Iris Murdoch’s novels are by turns intense and bizarre, filled with dark humor and unpredictable plot twists, undercutting the civilized surface of the usually upper-class milieu in which her characters are observed. She often included non-stereotypical homosexual characters in her fiction, most notably in The Bell (1958) and A Fairly Honorable Defeat (1970). Murdoch also made frequent use of a powerful and almost demonic male “enchanter” who imposes his will on the other characters — a type which Murdoch is said to have modeled after her lover, the Nobel laureate, Elias Canetti.

Although a realistic novelist, Murdoch was known to make heavy use of symbolism in her work, and to adapt elements from different genres. The Unicorn (1963) can be read and enjoyed as a Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic style. The Black Prince (1973) is a remarkable study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated when subordinate characters are allowed to contradict the narrator and the mysterious “editor” of the book in a series of afterwords.

In 1995 Murdoch began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and she stopped writing. She died of the disease on February 8, 1999, and was survived by her husband John Bayley.

The University of Iowa’s Iris Murdoch Papers consist almost entirely of her literary manuscripts, mostly handwritten drafts of her novels, together with assorted typescripts, galley proofs, working notes, and some correspondence.

Sir Angus Wilson (full name Angus Frank Johnstone-Wilson) was one of the most renowned English novelists of the postwar 20th century, and one of England’s first openly homosexual writers. Born in Bexhill, Sussex on August 11, 1913, Wilson was the sixth child of improverished upper-middle class parents William and Maud Wilson. He attended public school from 1927-1931 at Westminster School, and went on to read history at Merton College, Oxford. In 1937 he went to work as a librarian in the British Museum’s Department of Printed Books. When World War II broke out, he left the Museum and worked for the Foreign Office as a codebreaker in the Naval Section at the famous Bletchley Park intelligence center in Buckinghamshire.

During the war years, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and bouts of depression. It was at this point in his life that he bgan writing, as a form of therapy. (He would later recall this period in his 1963 critical/autobiographical work The Wild Garden.) After a period of recuperation, he returned to Bletchley where he remained until the end of the war. In 1946 Wilson returned to the British Museum, where he became Assistant Keeper, and where he met Anthony (Tony) Garrett, who was to become Wilson’s secretary, companion and partner for the remainder of his life.

Wilson’s first short stories and sketches were published in 1949 in The Wrong Set and Other Stories. In 1952, Hemlock and After, Wilson’s first novel, appeared, offering a candid description of homosexual life in post-war Britain. Ernest Jones, reviewing it in the Nation, called the book a brilliant analysis of homosexual society. Soon after the publication of this novel, Wilson left the British Museum and in 1955 took up writing fiction and criticism full time.

A spate of criticially acclaimed novels followed. His most famous, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, was published in 1956. Considered by many to be Wilson’s finest work, the book is a biting satire of English academic society. The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958) traces the psychological dislocations undergone by conventional wife Meg Eliot in the senseless killing of her husband at a Middle East airport. Wilson received the 1959 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this novel.

His last novel was published in 1980: Set The World On Fire, which was generally poorly received by critics.

Wilson had a successful and notable career as an academic. From 1966-1978 he was a professor of English literature at the University of East Anglia, where with Malcolm Bradbury he founded the school’s creative writing program. He was a visiting professor twice at the University of Iowa, in 1978 and 1986. As a literary critic, Wilson published several important works of non-fiction, including Émile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels (1952), The World of Charles Dickens (1970), and The Strange Ride Of Rudyard Kipling (1977). He also wrote critical introductions for a number of published literary classics, including works by Austen, Dickens, Kipling, and Maugham. Wilson was knighted in 1980.

Wilson, a lifelong member of the British Labour Party, was a social liberal who spoke out for a number of important social causes, including the advocacy of homosexual rights. In part due to a growing disgust with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, he and Tony Garrett left their country in 1985 and moved to France. Illness and Wilson’s growing infirmities obliged the two to return home a few years later. Wilson’s finances were increasingly straightened by this time, and he had to be supported by friends and a pension from the Royal Literary Fund. He was placed in a nursing home in Bury St. Edmunds because of accelerating mental and physical infirmities. Angus Wilson died there of a stroke on May 31, 1991.

The Wilson Papers at the University of Iowa are comprised of manuscripts (including notebooks, typescripts, and drafts) for all of his novels as well as many of his short stories, non-fiction works, dramatic works, articles, and reviews. His correspondence from 1937-1992, as well as that of his companion Tony Garrett, is also preserved in the collection. Also included are scrapbooks of news clippings, diaries, Wilson’s lecture notes, and other personal and professional papers. An associated series consists of the research files of Margaret Drabble, used for her comprehensive 1995 work Angus Wilson: A Biography.