Elegy for Iris

Bayley, John Oliver

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Taylor, Nancy
  • Date of entry: Aug-26-2005


This memoir of Bayley's life with novelist Iris Murdoch who, in 1994, began exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's disease, is divided into "Then" and "Now," with emphasis on the "Then." Bayley admits that their independent lifestyles, which had both bound them and allowed them freedom, kept him from knowing the "real" Murdoch; sadly, the novelist is almost as much an unknown to him as to us. He speaks of Murdoch's lack of any sense of superiority and her disinterest in social or artistic success; she simply did her work.

In the brief section titled "Now," Bayley presents seven episodes of their life together between January and December 1997. These pictures of Murdoch lost and at sea, following him around, uttering "mouse cries," collecting pebbles, moss, sticks, dead worms, and asking over and over "When are we going?"--these will be familiar to Alzheimer's families, as will his sometimes rage and his constant sense of frustration and loss.


Bayley's digressions, literary references, and allusions often act as referents to his life with Murdoch; when he speaks, for example, of the Danaïds, "those sad daughters in Greek mythology, condemned forever to fill their sieves with water" (251), we see them and also Murdoch.

He makes of their house at Steeple Aston a metaphor of sustenance for Murdoch and her work: in it, upstairs, she writes; when they leave it for another house, he sets her a chair in the garden, and she sits in it, pen suspended, staring into space. Like the great elegies, this memoir emphasizes natural settings and--unhappily--tells more about the one who grieves than about the subject. Unlike them, in the end there is no sense of solace.


Bayley was born in Lahore, India, to British parents.


St. Martin's

Place Published

New York



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