On the question of whether Iris Murdoch was a Soviet spy

When Iris Murdoch was grieving for her lover Franz Steiner, a few weeks after his death in late 1952, she talked for hours on end with fellow writer and eventual Nobel winner Elias Canetti. 

It was a foggy London night and Canetti offered her a bed, telling her that she could lock herself into the room where they were talking and he would sleep somewhere else. ‘She looked at me with surprise and disappointment,’ he wrote, and said she would go back to Oxford. 

Canetti walked her to the Finchley Road tube station and left her waiting for the train with a book he gave her. Set in the 1930s, it was about the friendship between an Australian woman and a lyrebird that had come to dance and sing on her veranda in Sherbrooke Forest, in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. 

‘This magical book,’ Canetti wrote in his memoir Party in the Blitz, ‘she understood the significance of it, it was a sort of baptism, which indicated that she was accepted among the writers.’

Canetti left Iris waiting for her tube train but went back, worried that she was so upset. He found her ‘sitting on the bench, happily leafing through the book I had given her. Her face of sorrow had become a beam of happiness, touched with light amazement at this book.’

The Lore of the Lyrebird, first published in 1933, concludes with a summary of ornithological knowledge about the bird. 

We are imperiously compelled to enter the misty realm where intelligence separates from instinct and merges into a form, however vague, of spiritual consciousness.

Among a dozen virtues, the lyrebird or Menura

willingly submits its life to regulation by a definite code of guiding principles. It respects the territorial rights of its neighbours and defends its own. It possesses the power to impart ideas by a form of speech. 

The bird is monogamous and strictly faithful to its mate even after bereavement.

Iris Murdoch had few of these virtues.

A jolie laide rather than a conventional beauty, Iris nonetheless became a sort of Zuleika Dobson of the prewar Oxford University Communist Party set. Despite having a score of beaux, she told David Hicks—one of her several future fiancés—that he had been the first man she had kissed, at the age of nineteen. She told both Hicks and Frank Thompson that she ‘parted with her virginity’ only after she left Oxford and joined the wartime Treasury in London, in late 1942.

Chronically polyamorous, Iris was also prodigiously promiscuous. In the late 1940s she discovered French existentialism, which helped to license her choices to herself and others. It seemed as if she saw herself as a tyro de Beauvoir looking for her Sartre. 

In 1956, Iris married John Bayley, six years her junior, who was all but a virgin. Now thirty-one, he had been an officer in the Grenadier Guards during the war and served in Special Intelligence. He was starting a well-respected academic career at Oxford where he became Warton Professor of English in 1974. He went on to publish IRIS A Memoir of Iris Murdoch in September 1998, six months before Iris died of Alzheimer’s. 

Bayley stated firmly that when she was a Philosophy Fellow of St Anne’s College in Oxford and later ‘she never went to bed with any of her colleagues, or indeed with any other woman … I had Iris’ word for that, much later on,’ though she ‘soon gave up St Anne’s—the emotional pressures in that community may have had something to do with it …’

However, Bayley was well aware that Iris was conducting an active sex life in London with 

unknown and godlike older men, whom she went humbly to ‘see’ at times when it suited them. Here, I began dimly to perceive, was where her creative imagination lay, and it was to feed it—almost, it seemed, to propitiate it—that she would make what appeared to me to be these masochistic journeys to London; and chiefly to Hampstead, for me the abode and headquarters of the evil gods.

They had become what he termed the ‘alembic’ from which her novels were distilled.

Bayley admitted the ‘storms of fears and emotions’ that these affairs and assignations ‘had once aroused’ in him. But he also saw that they were Iris’s ‘search for wisdom, authority and belief’ and ‘beneficence’ in her lovers, not least Elias Canetti. These liaisons, Bayley acknowledged, offered the ‘hurly-burly of the chaise longue’ in contrast to the ‘deep, deep peace of the double bed.’ He thought Iris was ‘unusually virginal’ in her youth and that some of her lovers found ‘shortcomings’ in her unwillingness to go everywhere they were wanting to take her.

Four years later, in 2003, AN Wilson published Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her. Formerly a close friend of both Bayley and Murdoch, as well as her first chosen—then rejected—biographer, Wilson was less protective of them both. He tells a tale of Bayley insisting on taking him to visit a colleague in his college room, in 1974, where they find two figures dressed but closely entwined on the day bed. The woman stands up. It’s Iris, very red in the face. Wilson wasn’t sure how surprised John Bayley was. But by 2003 ‘it is now clear, thanks to the shockingly candid accounts already in print, just how promiscuous IM was.’

Canetti died in 1994 and it was nearly a decade before his memoirs were published, also in 2003. His was one of the shockingly candid and highly unchivalrous accounts: 

Quickly, very quickly, Iris undressed, without me laying a finger on her … She lay unmoving and unchanged, I barely felt myself enter her, I didn’t sense that she felt anything, perhaps I might have felt something if she had resisted in any form. But that was as much out of the question as any pleasure.

He did notice that ‘her reddish Flemish skin got a little redder.’

Murdoch liked to fantasise aloud that he had ravished her, while for him ‘it would be impossible to imagine anything further from my mind than this ravishing.’ Canetti thought that what Iris really enjoyed was listening to her lovers—‘that desire was a passion’—and he conceded that ‘nothing draws me to a person more than the feeling that they want to listen to me.’ He thought Iris ‘paraded her desire to submit.’ (It was in the early 1950s that Iris was diagnosed as deaf, and learned to lip read—which may have added to the intensity with which she gazed at and listened to Canetti and others.)


Bayley, her husband of forty years, believed that ‘Iris had been briefly a Young Communist while still an undergraduate at Oxford, leaving the Party before the outbreak of the war…’

Peter J Conradi’s Iris Murdoch A Life was published in 2001, thirty months after Iris died. It is dedicated to John Bayley and Iris’ longterm friend and fellow philosopher of ‘virtue ethics’, Philippa Foot. The publisher HarperCollins  describes it  as ‘the authorised biography’. In it, Conradi writes that

CP members were required to feed information about their war work to the Party, which Iris, out of an idealism she would later see as misplaced duly did: presumably, given her junior status, information of little moment about colleagues and Treasury doings. It would be thrilling to imagine Iris-as-Communist-mole imperilling the security of the realm, but at the level that she was employed, this is not likely. On the other hand, if she had had information of greater moment, she would probably have done so.

No sources are given for any of these statements.

Thirty pages later, Conradi discusses Iris’ affair with Michael Foot, who was to make a career as a military historian of intelligence and special operations: 

Michael, an Army Captain on the Intelligence Staff, was working at Combined Operations HQ at Richmond Terrace, opposite Downing Street, with a view over the Thames. He handled a good deal of secret information.

Again, no sources are given for the last statement, although it is to be noted that Philippa Foot was MRD Foot’s first wife.

According to Conradi, Foot 

was scrupulous about wartime decorum and secrecy, never telling her [Iris] about Combined Operations, or enquiring what work she was doing, assuming—quite wrongly—that it was of national importance. Yet when a coded address on a letter from [her close friend] Frank [Thompson] revealed to Michael that he was in Sicily, his gentlemanly willingness to put Iris’ peace of mind’ at rest ‘made him tell Iris.

In his review of Conradi’s biography (‘She loved and sung’ published in the TLS in October 2001) John Jones—one of Iris’ oldest friends who, with his wife, had introduced her to John Bayley, took issue with these statements.  Noting that there are no sources for them, Jones points out that 

With her First from Oxford, she [Iris] was at the youthful end of the top, the so-called Administrative grade of the British Civil Service, ideally placed to form a modest link in any spy chain that existed.

Jones recalled a conversation he had with Iris in 1951 in a London pub: 

‘I want to tell you my mariner’s tale’ she said. ‘Then she plunges into an account of Communist Party organization, in particular the role of an army Captain, her immediate superior, and of how he stole and copied documents, largely at night, and gave them to her either to hand on directly or to hide in a rather spy-story way behind loose bricks and so on.

Which is to suggest that it wasn’t Iris who was doing the stealing and copying—not necessarily from the Treasury—but a serviceman who was her ‘immediate superior’ not in the Treasury but in the CP structure.

In 2008, Foot published his Memoirs of an SOE Historian. In it, he recalls: 

I fell in love with Iris Murdoch, who, on account of her first in Greats, had been taken on by the Treasury, and turned out to be living not far from me in Westminster. We had a brief, unsuccessful affair … Part of the trouble was that the burden of the Official Secrets Act lay so heavy on me that I couldn’t tell her what I was doing at COHQ, or what I knew from secret and top secret papers about the course of the war … Nor did she feel she could tell me anything she knew or did in the Treasury.

In contradiction to Conradi’s statement that Foot had told Murdoch that Frank Thompson was involved in the invasion of Sicily despite being so ‘scrupulous about wartime secrecy,’ Foot recalled that in July 1943 

Iris let me know that she would at last come and spend the night with me. She could not know, what I could not forget, that she had chosen the night [9-10 July 1943] on which HUSKY the Sicilian invasion was to be mounted. So we got off to a bad start, as lovers; my mind couldn’t be, as it should have been, wholly on her. Elias Canetti, whom she later adored, saw fit after she was dead to explain how unexciting she had been in bed. I took his point, though I had been brought up to believe no gentleman would discuss such a subject in print.

Neither Foot nor Conradi comment on what the COHQ would have made of one of the planning officers for ‘a series of small commando raids, codenamed FORFAR, on the northern French coast. In retrospect it looks as if these were intended by the deception staff to keep the Germans’ interest pinned on the Channel coast while major operations impended in the Mediterranean.’ The real plan was HUSKY.

Nor does Captain Foot comment on how his Intelligence and Special Operations colleagues might have viewed his spending the invasion night with one of the leading lights of the Oxford University Communist Party barely a year after she had graduated and come to London to work at the Treasury.

In 2014, Conradi published ‘The Guises of Love’: The Friendship of Professor Philippa Foot and Dame Iris Murdoch’ in The Iris Murdoch Review. Here he writes that when he showed Philippa Foot the submission manuscript of his biography, in December 2000, 

her greatest anxiety concerned Iris’s Communist connections. In the summer of 1983 Iris’s ex-colleague at St Anne’s, Jennifer Hart, had been hounded by police and journalists after being named in print as a Soviet spy: Iris too had spied during the war for the Communist Party, copying Treasury papers then leaving these copies in a tree that was a deadletter drop in Kensington Gardens.

In the same article, Conradi reports on Jones’ 2001 TLS review of his biography of Iris: 

Jones recalled, with much circumstantial detail, Murdoch telling him in a pub in the late 1940s [sic] of her war-time spying, mentioning a Captain who was her Communist Party ‘minder.’

He repeats this version in his editor’s notes to Iris Murdoch, A Writer at War: Letters & Diaries, 1939-1945, published in 2010. In 1943

Murdoch had resigned her ‘open’ membership [of the Communist Party] while continuing as a clandestine member. She later admitted to friends that she was after 1942 illicitly copying Treasury documents and, for the Party, making dead-letter drops into a tree in Kensington Gardens.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, editors of Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995, published in 2015, give much the same version, though they did insert ‘probably’ before ‘resigned’.

Iris Murdoch went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in London and then in Brussels after the war. AN Wilson says: 

She once showed me the journals she kept in those camps. Subsequently she claimed to have destroyed them because ‘they were making my life into a story …

Canetti writes: 

In the period after the War, when it had been possible to go to the Continent again she had done things of a conspiratorial [his italics] character (I never knew quite what they were).

Bayley says that he and Iris were in Hamley’s toyshop in London when Hergé, the Belgian creator of the comic character Tintin, was signing copies of his latest book:

Iris had a long chat with the great man, telling him about her time in Brussels with the relief organisation UNRAA, just after the war ended. She never spoke of this to anyone else.

In 1953, Iris Murdoch published Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. Now thirty-four years old, she concluded that 

[t]he Marxists who claim to have achieved a society where doing and believing form a concrete unity have done it at what seems to us too high a cost to the integrity of the individual.

John Bayley was reluctantly complaisant about much of his wife’s distillation of her novels from the frenetic alembic around Oxford and London in the name of her art, but—like his denial of her lesbianism—being a spy courier may have been a step further than even Iris was prepared to push him. The journals of her war years and time at UNRRA were not deposited with the fifteen companion volumes to the Iris Murdoch Archive of Kingston University in the UK. 


Sue Rabbitt Roff

Sue Rabbitt Roff’s articles on twentieth century settler-colonial-imperial cultural transmissions have been published in Meanjin, Overland, The Independent, The Conversation, Pearls & Irritations and CNN. They are collated at www.rabbittreview.com where Part I of her revisionist history The Making of the British H bomb in Australia: from the Monte Bellos to the 1956 Olympics was published last month.

More by Sue Rabbitt Roff ›

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  1. Following WW2 anyone who questioned the ultra conservative, capitalist, status quo was either frowned upon, ostracised or labelled a spy and kept under surveillance.
    The capitalist oligarchs at that time were paranoid about Communism/ Socialism, because they were a threat to their right to rule.
    Iris Murdoch was an independent thinker who stood her ground.
    We need more people like her now.

  2. Former communists make the best anti-communists. In the sense of most observant and most trenchant, because remorseful. This is certainly true of her published political philosophy from 1953 onwards, although certainly MGM/ Giffords in the 80s/90s is clearer about this than SRR in53. Most of her generation were sympathetic to the party and did not awake from their slumbers until 1956 (Hungary) or 1968 (Prague). Certainly Murdoch was not eyes open about this as early as Orwell.

    The article implies that she treated MRD Foot as an intelligence target.

    This is perhaps not impossible, because her “captain” may well have sought proofs of preparedness. However the interpenetration of the UK services by KGB during this time is so vast, that it seems implausible a treasury junior had any very significant part in it.

    The suppressed story of the period, I think, is that prior to Barbarossa Stalin wasn’t just co-operating with Hitler from delaying motives. Policy of the Kremlin was to use the Nazis to destroy liberal democracies, as a step towards world revolution. They even trained the Nazis in tank tactics with this purpose in mind. Then realised they did it too well. Stalin, in the later soviet histories accepted by the allies for reasons of convenience, and then turned into the state religion under Brezhnev, is often presented as having concluded the molotov-ribbentrop pact for reasons of tactical delay in his wise patriotic struggle against fascism. This is very much NOT the case. Nor was it appeasement. They were allies, simply. (Ask the poles) Which is why the french communists did not join the resistance until operation barbarossa.

    How long Murdoch’s idealism persisted I can’t say. I assume it came face to face with reality in the refugee camps of Austria. But it is notable that earlier diary evidence is also contrary to the party line in certain periods because anti Hitler. Communists or atleast those in the party in that moment 39-41 were actually supposed to be Pro Hitler- you were supposed to see him as precipitating the downfall of capitalism by engaging the western powers in a war of attrition, into which wasteland Stalin would march victorious. This is forgotten. And it is important.

    Think on this concerning EG the Oxford by-election.

  3. Probably never get to the bottom of the Soviet Spy allegation, considering the main charge stems from a lover, Elias Canetti, who first lays the claim in Party in the Blitz, as I remember, considering too, as with Rags today, it was her multi-faceted love life and failed affairs, along with the Alzheimer’s, which sold, and so obsessed the media of the time, ergo, cutting to that chase, and ignoring the novels and philosophy etc. Got to admit too I have not read any of the latter stuff for years, for reasons which totally escape me. (A zeitgeist thing, perhaps?)

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