(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Iris and Her Friends is the second of two books published in 1999 by John Bayley, a well-known English author and Oxford don. Both books were prompted by his wife’s gradual descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy for Iris tells the story of Bayley’s intellectual partnership and intimate relationship with his wife, Iris Murdoch, who was suffering from the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The story is painful because she was at the height of her prolific career as one of the greatest English novelists of the twentieth century when she was stricken with the disease. Elegy for Iris provides exactly what the title implies—an emphasis on a celebration of its subject—including the varieties of liveliness, wit, and collegiality possessed by Iris Murdoch. In that book, Bayley tells the story of how the two met. Both seemed to fall into each other’s arms; they spent the night speaking in a kind of private language. Both comprehended instantly each other’s deepest feelings and yearnings. The book also reveals numerous dimensions of Iris’s character—for example, the way she drew men and women to her as if inspiring them with her friendship and love. At the same time, that book functions as an elegy for someone who had metaphorically “died” because of the effects of the severe dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So the author’s words are a farewell to and a loving memoir of their long-standing intimacy.

Whereas Elegy for Iris is filled with Iris’s friends and associates, Iris and Her Friends is a story of solitude and its compensations for the author. In all respects Iris has no friends. There are no references in the book to people who visit or spend time with Iris. Because of her dementia there can be no conversations, no days spent walking in the park, no shopping trips, no lunches at cafés. John Bayley is very much alone with Iris in this book as he cares for her at home. His reference to “friends” is a means of conveying an important dimension of their existential reality now that Iris’s disease has progressed to one of its latter stages. On several occasions he refers to “friends” as a metaphor for the “compensations” that come to the survivor, the caregiver, the spouse—and even to Iris herself. Some of these compensations Iris seems to comprehend and enjoy; for instance, the occasional cuddle, the rare lucid moment, a bout of laughter, a smile. Usually, however, the compensations—or friends—are for Bayley alone. That is, he knows Iris’s condition will worsen and that she will eventually die. Such thoughts are not a comfort to him, and yet he characterizes such a “certainty” as being one of the friends. He begins to view each progressive stage of her decline as being a friend because each stage introduces him to a new version of Iris that he adapts to and learns to tolerate.

Elegy for Iris is an uplifting experience for readers: Bayley luxuriates in the details of his marriage and Iris’s collegial relationships. Iris and Her Friends is far more private and inward-looking because Bayley focuses on the emotional and psychological adaptations he has had to make in the face of his wife’s severe decline. There are occasional references to caregiving problems he faces, but for the most part Bayley is concerned with autobiography in the first section. Readers expecting sustained and detailed observations of his caregiving concerns will be disappointed: This book is not a recitation of the day-to-day burdens and stresses experienced by the caregiver.

In this memoir Bayley divides his life into two stages: life before Iris and life after Iris. He led a solitary, introspective childhood. He was remote from his father but close to his mother. His older brothers seemed to live separate lives. As part of the landed gentry he led a life of privilege and ease. A Danish servant provided a first link to the development of intimate feelings, but when he was sent away to a private school he never saw the girl again. “With her went my childhood,” he confesses. Later, he recalls his service in the British army in World War II. He never saw action, and he was one of hundreds of second lieutenants who were never called upon to lead their companies.

When he continues to recover memories of life after World War II and begins writing about his initial attempts to maintain intimate relationships with women, first with a young woman in Germany, then with another, then with older women back in England, his lengthy reminiscences seem to drag on and become tiresome. Bayley tries to explain this emphasis on his own past through the subtitle he gives the book: A Memoir of Memory and Desire. He titles the first section of the book “Memory.” This...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)