John Bayley, retired Warton professor of English and fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford, wrote his first novel in 1952. Two years later, he married Iris Murdoch and thereafter confined his literary output to criticism, including studies of Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Pushkin and Shakespeare. Five years ago, he produced two lively and witty works of fiction. Then Murdoch was struck down, or rather blown away, by Alzheimer's disease.
Bayley's response was electric, in that he began to write a memoir of the changes she underwent during her illness and of the trials they both endured until death parted them. Some critics felt he went too far in his description of her descent into senility, outlined too vividly the sordid details of her diminution. It was thought he had not sufficiently ennobled a dying woman, had dwelt too robustly on the absurdities of a mind disordered. Political correctness, particularly in regard to language, requires that the crippled should be referred to as disabled, the blind as visually impaired and the mentally defective as brain-damaged; the dead, however humble, are apt to be recalled in terms more usually reserved for the saints. In writing so graphically about the woman he loved, Bayley was attempting to rid himself of ghosts.
For a brief time, he struggled with conflicting emotions--guilt, excitement, resentment. At the end Iris did not recognize him: She turned her face to the hospice wall before drifting out of his life. They had been together for more than 40 years. Then grief came.
Left alone, Bayley found the ghosts did not go away. Some of the furniture did, but Iris' things remained in a heap on the floor, and her spectacles lay under dust on the window ledge. Often he climbed the stairs to her study, eager to share some joke, only to find she wasn't there. Well-intentioned friends invited him to dinner or else took him on excursions. Worse still, a number of ladies began to show more than an ordinary interest in his single state. None of this was of comfort to him. He spent his time thinking of the days that used to be. "I sat down wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Would the past eat the present, becoming even more powerful, more unruly and seductive? As I tried to find things to do, would the past just smile at me like a big cat, and creep all the closer?" So he started to write again.
"Widower's House" appeared in Britain under the guise of yet another memoir concerning his celebrated wife and was serialized as such in the broadsheet newspapers. The advance publicity surrounding it, doubtless to encourage sales, centered on its more salacious content, not least the predicament of a man, well past his middle years, engaged in fending off the sexual advances--without success--of predatory women. Some weeks later, to the annoyance of the newspaper that had serialized his book, Bayley announced that the women featured were products of his imagination.
Who cares? Memoir or fiction, the result is both moving and comic and perfectly in accord with Bayley's musings on death, bones and the absence of Iris. The plot concerns the inmate of a widower's house who is astonished--along with the reader--to find his body lusted after by two females, one young and somewhat unstable, the other of a suitable age and size but rather bossy and much given to the inspection of churches. It is a mark of the author's grasp of priorities that he succumbs to the former lady, although not entirely on account of her comparative youth. By his own admission they always enjoyed a chocolate biscuit and a cup of Nescafe before congress began. One can tell he likes her best because he regrets not changing into a clean body stocking before getting into bed.
The Bayleys were never what one might term an ordinary couple. Once married, did not Iris say she could now forget all about love and get on with her work? And when she took her last breath, did not her husband say he was exalted to be there, for if he had been absent or looking the wrong way, he would have felt like a bird-watcher who had missed the brief appearance of a rare and wonderful bird?
I know exactly what he means, for I was once in Israel with them and have never forgotten one late afternoon when Iris, a woman of a certain age, winter white and stocky, waded into the Dead Sea only to emerge in the guise of a goddess, perfectly proportioned, arms spread like wings, limbs touched with gold as the fiery sun sank below the horizon. That same day I heard her address him as "Princess," and why not, and he, despite denying in his book that he would ever secrete a piece of pie about his person, was clearly seen filling the pockets of his suit--one he said had been bought off the peg at Woolworth's in Japan--with hard-boiled eggs.
Iris remains central to the novel, even when he's lying beside the lady who likes churches. As her bulky form nestles against him, he feels "as immobile as a spider trapped in an empty bath and uncertain in which direction to run."
However ungallant, such musings are important to Bayley, indeed to us all. He is in accord with Belial in "Paradise Lost," who held that thoughts are the chief consolation of consciousness, of being alive--
"For who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity"
--and dwells on the horror going on in his wife's poor head when Alzheimer's scrambled the "thoughts hovering like dust motes in the mind's sunlight."
There is humor in everything he writes, be it about death, sex or theft, and it is always appropriate. When the burglars visited the widower's house and took away the furniture--he failed to notice its absence for some days--Bayley remarks that their visit acted like a tonic. He imagines the conversation leading up to the event--"It's high time we paid that call on Mr. Bayley. It must be a year now since his good lady died. More, is it? Well, well. It'll cheer him up. Don't want to leave it too long. You free tonight, George?"
Those who found his earlier memoir offensive and this one no less so in that he has mingled fact with fiction--if indeed he has--are hidebound by literary convention. Those who think he is trading on his wife's name do him an injustice. If that was the case he would have written a different kind of book, one more guarded and bland.
Grief affects people in various ways; some turn to drink, some to religion; others, if of an age, shortly follow into the grave. A very few--Thomas Hardy was one--feel the need to express their feelings on paper. Bayley himself has said he wrote what he did to cheer himself up.
At the end of the book the widower leaves his house besieged by harpies and flees abroad to seek refuge with Audi, a longtime friend and the lady to whom Bayley is now married. Talking endlessly of Iris brought her closer to both of them.
"Grief may have been difficult to live with, but much worse had been the aftermath, and all the new problems and difficulties it had brought. Now all these had vanished and Iris was here, the three of us together, as we had so often been in the past. The Widower's House had been abandoned."