By Frank Thompson, Iris Murdoch’s first love
In 1939 Iris Murdoch, the 20-year-old future novelist, met fellow student and poet, Frank Thompson, in Oxford. It was first love for both, albeit chaste; they were both virgins when he was called up later the same year. They corresponded frequently, but Iris soon embarked on a series of affairs, and in January 1943 she wrote:
“I should tell you that I’ve parted company with my virginity. This I regard as in every way a good thing. I feel calmer and freer – relieved from something that was obsessing me, […] There have been two men. I don’t think I love either of them – but I like them & I know that no damage has been done. I wonder how you react to this. Don’t be angry – deep down in your heart. (I know you are far too emancipated to be angry on the surface.) I am not going wild. In spite of a certain amount of wild talk I still live my life with deliberation.”
By then there had already been more than two men. Later in the same letter she encouraged Frank to tell her about his sexual adventures.
“As a matter of interest how have you fared with women in the East? I don’t mean from the grand passion point of view, but just from the sex experience point of view”.
High-minded Frank was still in love. He wrote a long letter back:
“I could have no cause for anger. Nor can I, since I am not conventional after the modern fashion, be unreservedly glad without due reflection.”
He warned her:
“I know of course that your men are not ordinary men but parfit gentle knights. But it will take years of sorrow to realise how violently misogynistic most men are au fond. […] I am coming to the conclusion that it is better to abstain altogether until one falls head over heels in love” [… but] I remember thinking often that a good love affair would do you the devil of a lot of good.”
And worried that he might have offended her:
“On balance, it is obviously a subject for joy. If I’ve said anything here that is clumsy or stupid forgive me. I’m afraid there is no finesse about me Irushka. […] Do write me more long letters like your last. I talk a lot of baloney when I answer, but maybe I understand more than I let on.”
Around this time, winter 1943, one of Iris’s Treasury bosses found her crying on a London bus during the blackout and asked if he could help. “No thank you. I’m quite all right. It’s just this love business.”
Iris went on to have dozens more affairs, but never saw Frank again. He was parachuted into the Balkans, captured, and somewhere between 7 and 10 June 1944, aged 24, executed by firing squad. Here’s a poem he wrote for Iris that year in Oxford.
To Irushka at the Coming of War
If you should hear my name among those killed
Say you have lost a friend, half man, half boy
Who, if the years had spared him, might have built within
Courage, strength and harmony.
Uncouth and garrulous, with tangled mind
Seething with warm ideas of truth and light,
His help was worthless. Yet had fate been kind,
He might have learned to steel himself and fight.
He thought he loved you. By what right could he
Claim such high praise, who only felt his frame
Riddled with burning lead, and failed to see
His own false pride behind the barrel’s flame?
Say you have lost a friend, and then forget.
Stronger and truer ones are with you yet.
Source – Iris Murdoch; A Life by Peter Conradi. Harper Collins. London. 2001.