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Iris Murdoch: how the enigmatic author's legacy is burning bright in China

The Chinese scholar leading a new generation of students capivated by the author's seductive novels and influential legacy

Chinese scholar Jennifer Yue

Just one novel by Iris Murdoch was all it took for Chinese scholar Jennifer Yue to decide to journey thousands of miles from home and dedicate her career to the work of the enigmatic novelist. “Murdoch crosses the boundaries of literature, art, and philosophy but, more importantly, she traverses cultures unlike any other author,” says the visiting academic who is undertaking a six-month scholarship at the University of Chichester.

The 24-year-old, born in the province of Jiangsu, is part of a new generation of Chinese academics captivated by the Irish-born writer. Jennifer’s research has taken her across the world from Shanghai to Chichester: the home of the renowned Iris Murdoch Research Centre.

“Much has been written on Murdoch in Europe for half a century but China has been isolated from her work,” adds Jennifer, who hopes to ignite global interest in the writer. “There is a growing interest in Asia because her books are highly detailed.

“The ethics and moralities of her stories resonate across many languages and cultures, and this is particularly true in China. The rich plotlines of her novels reach readers in different ways and are the inspiration of my own research.”

 

Iris Murdoch writing at her Oxford home in 1958

 

‘Murdoch embodies Chinese philosophy’

A deeply-original and exploratory writer, Murdoch’s 26 novels, published between 1954 and 1995, revel in the ideals of adoration and desire. “Her works explore love and death, ideas that we rarely and so openly approach in my culture,” says Jennifer, whose Chichester scholarship is funded by the Chinese government to broaden its understanding of worldwide contemporary research.

Among the most celebrated novels are the 1978 Man Booker Prize-winner The Sea, The Sea, which focuses on the twin neuroses of vanity and jealousy, which Jennifer says embodies the principles of Yin and Yang, a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy. Murdoch’s profound work is also the focus of the research centre at the University which intends to bolster the intellectual strength and impact of her award-winning work.

It was the newly-formed Iris Murdoch Research Centre at Chichester which first attracted the academic, visiting from Shanghai Jaio Tong University, to the south of England. “There are so few Chinese academics of Iris Murdoch despite her popularity in the country,” Jennifer adds.

“My scholarship at Chichester is integral to my work because it gives me access to the world’s leading academics and the Iris Murdoch collection. I have found that academia in the UK has no barriers, scholars talk openly and freely without the restrictions students face in China.”

Iris Murdoch speaks to everyone on earth, says Jennifer

 

Revealing the little-known history of the Irish novelist

The Iris Murdoch Research Centre at Chichester, which follows on from the Iris Murdoch Research Project at Kingston University, studies the history behind the writer’s most successful work in fiction, many of which confront the moralities of life through good and evil, sexual relationships, and the power of the unconscious mind.

The Centre emphasises national and international collaboration between scholars by hosting regular events at Chichester focusing on the writer’s milieu and academic areas. In September this year researchers and readers of Murdoch's fiction and philosophy gathered at Chichester to discuss issues of gender and trauma in her work.

“It is often forgotten that she was also a rather adventurous philosopher even if she denied that her novels explored her philosophical observations,” says Dr Miles Leeson, director of the Research Centre at the University, below, who was responsible for organising the recent conference. “Murdoch’s philosophical works broke new ground in reintroducing ethics as a topic for discussion within the British philosophical tradition.”

Iris Murdoch research conference - Dr Miles Leeson

 

Murdoch’s influences from contemporary cinema

Iris Murdoch’s intimate and unfamiliar thoughts of cinema are the subject of the Centre’s next conference in November. The visual metaphors in her philosophical thinking are relevant to the experience of film and thinking about it as a morally-transformative art form, says senior lecturer Dr Lucy Bolton who has organised the event.

“Murdoch’s thoughts about the cinema are not well known,” adds Dr Bolton, from Queen Mary University of London, whose forthcoming book focuses on Iris Murdoch and film philosophy. “Apart from a couple of mentions in her non-fiction writing, she does not talk about film as an art form in the way she talks about painting, sculpture, or theatre.”

At the illustrated talk Dr Bolton will explore Murdoch’s observations on cinema as art and demonstrate how her conceptual thinking relates to the moral philosophy of the films Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and Margaret (2011). The free event, on Tuesday 28 November, opens from 6pm at Bishop Otter campus in Chichester.

 

Find out more

“Iris Murdoch speaks to everyone on earth,” adds Jennifer, “she is a fascinating writer who reaches all readers with the beauty and depth in her books. Since starting my research, I have met many young readers, like myself, who are captivated by the excitement of her stories. Her life is one I hope to share with the world.”

To find out more about the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester visit www.chi.ac.uk/iris. Alternatively, for more on the upcoming conference hosted by Dr Lucy Bolton, including how to reserve a seat, go to www.chi.ac.uk.store.

Dame Iris Murdoch