When I arrived in England last fall to pursue a master’s at Cambridge University, I found that social life in that turmoil of towers and turrets and Latin litanies consisted in a series of formal functions governed by unspoken rules I did not understand, at least some of which involved sipping port from inexplicably tiny glasses. (I found this maddeningly inefficient.) Everyone was often drunk, but no one was ever visibly excited. The prospect of a British person becoming drunkenly disheveled, or falling desperately in love, or even typing a sentence in all-caps (a typographic measure I often embraced in my port-inspired communications) was inconceivable.
But different, quieter passions are possible, and it soon emerged that there is a uniquely British brand of feeling, a blend of distress and composure marked by a touching compulsion to keep up appearances in the face of interpersonal dissolution. For all its prevalence and subtlety, this mode of engagement is difficult for the uninitiated to decipher or even to discern, and I would have remained oblivious of it if not for the works of Dame Iris Murdoch, a connoisseur of British emotional life in all its baffling permutations.
Murdoch had a busy career. When she died in 1999, she was an established novelist, philosopher, and “public intellectual”—an unusual set of roles for a woman of her era. Born in 1919 in Ireland but raised in London, Murdoch studied at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1948, she was awarded a fellowship in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she would teach for almost 20 years. Her scholarly area was ethics, and her primary preoccupation was love, both romantic and platonic.
This was a topic whose manifest importance she felt was chronically neglected by her peers, most of them analytic philosophers. Her stint as a doctoral candidate at Cambridge coincided with the tail end of Wittgenstein’s tenure there, and the intellectual community he left in his wake had succumbed wholesale to his mania for dry, quasi-mathematical philosophy. Murdoch found this approach probing but deadening, and she preferred the lyrical imprecisions of the Continental tradition. Of particular irritation to her was the notion that morality is a matter of publicly perceptible behaviors, with its attendant disregard for the invisible vagaries of experiential life. This widespread behaviorist tendency jarred Murdoch, who believed that the fundamental currency of ethical philosophy was not action but rather intention or attitude.
Murdoch’s research in this domain was conducted, for the most part, in the first person. Pathologically passionate, she threw herself into a series of exuberances and obsessions, flitting from affair to affair. Her open marriage to the Oxford literary critic John Bayley, who turned a blind eye to her emotional promiscuity, is the stuff of literary legend. She fell in love easily, madly, and often. But if she was nearly as prolific in love as she was on paper—she wrote 26 novels in her 79-year life—she was also staunch in her devotions, corresponding with former lovers for decades after their affairs had ended.