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Elegy for Iris
By John Bayley
Picador Copyright © 1999 John Bayley
All rights reserved.
A hot day. Stagnant, humid. By normal English standards, really hot, insufferably hot. Not that England has standards about such things anymore. Global warming, no doubt. But it's a commonplace about growing old that there seem to be no standards anymore. The dog days. With everything gone to the dogs.
Cheerless thoughts to be having on a pleasure jaunt, or what used to be one. For years now, we've usually managed a treat for ourselves on really hot days, at home in the summer. We take the car along the bypass road from Oxford, for a mile or two, and twist abruptly off on to the verge — quite a tricky feat with fast-moving traffic just behind. Sometimes there are hoots and shouts from passing cars which have had to brake at speed, but by that time we have jolted to a stop on the tussocky grass, locked the car, and crept through a gap in the hedge.
I remember the first time we did it, nearly forty-five years ago. We were on bicycles then, and there was little traffic on the unimproved road. Nor did we know where the river was exactly; we just thought it must be somewhere there. And with the ardour of comparative youth, we wormed our way through the rank grass and sedge until we almost fell into it. Crouching in the shelter of the reeds, we tore our clothes off and slipped in like water rats. A kingfisher flashed past our noses as we lay soundlessly in the dark, sluggish current. A moment after we had crawled out and were drying ourselves on Iris's half-slip, a big pleasure boat chugged past within a few feet of the bank. The steersman, wearing a white cap, gazed intently ahead. Tobacco smoke mingled with the watery smell at the roots of the tall reeds.
I still have the half-slip, I rediscovered it the other day, bunched up at the back of a drawer, stiff with powdery traces of dry mud. It is faded to a yellowish colour, with a wrinkled ribbon, once blue, decorating the hem. Could a woman of our own time, who became my wife, have actually worn such a garment? It looks like something preserved from the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette. I never gave it back to Iris after that occasion, and I think she forgot all about it.
In any case, we were having a busy day that day. We had a lunchtime engagement we could not miss. By the time we had cycled back into Oxford and down Woodstock Road, we were as hot as we had been earlier that morning, before we had crawled through the dense green undergrowth and discovered the river. Still dripping with sweat, and making vague efforts to tidy our hair and clothes, we rang the bell of a flat in Belsyre Court. As we waited, we looked at each other expressionlessly, then burst at the same moment into a soundless fit of giggles.
Our host, who had been getting lunch, was quite a time coming to the door. He was a brilliant green-eyed young doctor named Maurice Charlton. When even younger, he had been a classics don at Hertford College, and considered one of the best in the university. So good at it, indeed, that he gave it up after three years and turned to medicine. He now held a research appointment at the Radcliffe Hospital. He was supposedly rather in love with Iris. That was why he had asked her to lunch. She had told him she was spending the morning with me — we were going to cycle out together to see Cassington church — and so asked if I could come, too.
He took it like a man. He had prepared a delicious lunch. The flat was not his own, but belonged to a rich older don at Balliol, with whom he may or may not have had an ambiguous relationship. He seemed to be able to borrow the flat at any time, for his friend lived mostly at the college when he wasn't away in Italy or Greece.
Fifty or so years ago, life in the university seemed more constricted and formal, but at the same time more comfortable and relaxed. For us, in those days, there was no paradox involved. We maintained public standards and conventions almost without being conscious of them, while leading our own private lives. We worked very hard — at least Iris did; I was more naturally indolent.
Maurice Charlton probably worked harder than either of us, or than both of us put together, I should say. But he was totally relaxed, his green eyes sparkling, and had a delightful air — as soon as he saw us — of collusion in something or other what he had been doing, what we had been doing. This intimate feel, as if we could become naughty children together any moment, was enhanced by the sombre dignity of the flat, which was full of rare books, good furniture, glass. I still remember the long-stemmed green and white wineglasses from which we drank a great deal of very cold hock. I think it was the white wine people usually drank in those days.
I feel admiration now for the way Charlton must have apprehended that Iris and I had been up to something together, and how he not only took it in his stride but encouraged us in some way to include him. We had never got to Cassington church, we said. It had been far too hot. We had cycled back in an exhausted state, and it was wonderful to be there in the cool, drinking the wine. We both said something like this without looking at each other. Iris jumped to her feet to go over and kiss Maurice, and it seemed just the right and spontaneous act, making all three of us laugh: we two men laughing both at and with Iris as she gazed delightedly round the dark and, as it seemed, rather mysteriously grand flat, as if she were Alice in Wonderland on the threshold of a new series of adventures.
As we sat laughing and eating — I remember lobster and the delicious garlic mayonnaise our host had made — I was conscious of my soaking trouser pocket, where Iris's undergarment reposed, rolled up. I hoped the wet wouldn't get on the dining room chair, which was covered in some sort of damask. As lunch went hilariously on, we seemed more and more like a family. Through a bewitching miasma of hock, I was conscious of Iris as a kind sister, fond of both her brothers, equally close to them. Maurice had the air of a brother, but he also looked like a sort of patriarch as he sat grinning benignly at the head of the table.
Maurice Charlton died young, of cancer, I believe, more than twenty years ago. My impression is that he never married, but I may be wrong about that. He certainly looked at Iris with his green eyes as if he liked her very much. It was possible he had borrowed the flat and prepared the lunch with a purpose, and that my presence had thwarted his plans for the afternoon. In that case, I admire his behaviour all the more, at this distance in time. He carried off perfectly what might well have been a frustrating situation for him.
I mention the lunch with Maurice Charlton, and that enchanted Sunday morning when Iris and I had our first swim together, because I remember it all very vividly, not because it had any great importance in itself. Although I had met Charlton a few times, and admired him, that lunch was probably our only social occasion together. He continued to work in Oxford, but we lost touch which is why I don't know what happened to him later, except that he was a distinguished man when he died. It was typical of my relations with Iris at that time that I had very little idea of the other people in her life, or what they might mean to her. That was probably due to the ecstatic egoism of falling in love for the first time. For me, it was the first time, though I was not exactly young. Iris was thirty-four, Maurice Charlton about the same age. I was twenty -eight. Difference in age, which means a good deal at school and not much in later years, was only a part of the atmosphere of that lunch party, because we seemed for the moment like a family. And a family takes such differences in age for granted
But, as I say, I still had very little idea of the other people in Iris's life, or what they meant to her. That was instinctive on her part, I think, rather than deliberate, as privacy pervaded all kinds of relationships. An "open" society is what we aim for now, or say we aim for, as an enhancement of our all being more classless and democratic. We were not consciously undemocratic, I think, in the fifties, but we took private life for granted. That was particularly true in Oxford, still an academic society, in which one could be on good terms with a large number of people, meeting them most days in college, at dinner in hall, or in lecture rooms and laboratories, without having any idea of how they were situated domestically, or socially, or sexually. Other people's lives might have seemed intriguing, which was part of the fun of privacy, but they remained what was on the whole an accepted and comfortable blank.
By some emotional paradox, being in love made me, at least at first, more incurious about this, not less. Iris existed for me as a wonderful and solitary being, first seen about six months before, bicycling slowly and rather laboriously past a window in St. Antony's College, where I was living. Trying to work, and gazing idly out at the passing scene on Woodstock Road, now intolerably full of traffic but a comparatively quiet thoroughfare then, I noted the lady on the bicycle (she seemed at once to me more of a lady than a girl) and wondered who she was and whether I would ever meet her. Perhaps I fell in love. Certainly it was in the innocence of love that I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive. She was not a woman with a past or an unknown present.
For me she was a woman without a past, or a present.
She was looking both absent and displeased. Maybe because of the weather, which was damp and drizzly. Maybe because her bicycle was old and creaky and hard to propel. Maybe because she hadn't yet met me? Her head was down, as if she were driving on thoughtfully towards some goal, whether emotional or intellectual. I remember a friend saying playfully, perhaps a little maliciously, after she first met Iris, "She is like a little bull."
It's true in a way, although I have never seen it, because of course I have never seen her objectively. But if each of us resembles some sort of animal or bird, as our personalised bestiary emblem, then I can see that Iris could indeed be a small bull Not unfriendly, but both resolute and unpredictable, looking reflectively out from under lowered brows as it walks with head down towards you.
In her first published novel, Under the Net, it is remarked of the leading female character that she never lets on to any one of her friends just how closely bound she is to all the rest of them. Few of them even know one another. That was true of Iris. Naturally enough, it made quite a difference to the heroine of the novel, but it has never made any difference to Iris She always used to write back to fans who had written to her Careful, long, intelligent letters, directed to a person, not just to a fan. They were real letters, even though she had never met, or probably would never meet, the person to whom she was writing. I have to try to write letters back to her fans now, and, naturally enough, I can't do it like that; although from their letters, and their attitude towards their adored author, I see why one of them at once replied, after Iris had written to him, that he felt now they had become "pals for life."
Like so much to do with our emotions, the egoism of love has something absurd about it, though something touching, as well. It was certainly absurd that I should have taken for granted in those days that Iris was pure spirit, so to speak, devoted to philosophy and to her job, leading a nunlike existence in her little room in college, devoid of all the dissimulations and wonderings and plottings and plannings that I took for granted in myself. She was a superior being, and I knew that superior beings just did not have the kind of mind that I had.
Besides, there had been something almost supernatural about the way I had actually met her, after I had seen her riding past the window on her bicycle. The following day, I had encountered Miss Griffiths in the street, outside the Examination School, where university lectures were given. A diminutive figure, she was just taking off her billowing black gown, preparatory to mounting her own bicycle and cycling home to St. Anne's College. She had been lecturing on Beowulf. Miss Griffiths had had a soft spot for me ever since my viva — the face-to-face-oral exam — when she had congratulated me on my essay on Chaucer's Knight's Tale, even though she caught me out on a minor question of Anglo-Saxon syntax. After I had obtained my degree, she had followed my career, such as it was, with benevolent interest, and now she seized me by the arm as I walked past, enquiring how things were going. In fact, things were barely going at all, as I had no proper job and was staying on sufferance in the newly founded St. Antony's College, where I was supposed to act as a tutor and guide to a few ebullient Frenchmen and Americans who had come to study science or politics there.
St. Antony's at that time was a study in itself, but its principal interest for me now, and in memory, was its proximity to St. Anne's College, an institution designed at the time solely for women students, although, like most other colleges, it has since become co-educational. Out of the deference I felt for an older and senior member of the English faculty, I walked a few yards that morning beside Miss Griffiths, who showed no immediate disposition to mount her bicycle and be off I think she wanted to enjoy reminiscing for a moment about the exam and the viva — like most dons, she was vain about her examination exploits and technique — and to recall with the pleasure of generosity her discernment about the good points of my Chaucer essay, as well as to remind me, with the pleasure of superior knowledge, about my errors in Old English grammar. Having done those things, she suddenly asked me if I would care to come to her college room for a drink that evening. I was happy to accept.
Although it was just across the road from St. Antony's, I had never been into St. Anne's, which I regarded as an all-female province, likely to be virtually out of bounds to males and male students I wasn't wholly wrong about this. Incredible as it may seem today, there were then fairly strict rules governing the conduct of men who had the nerve and temerity to go visiting in these female strongholds. They had to remain in the public parts of the college, and the girls were not allowed to receive them in their rooms. The matter was, in any case, of little or no interest to me. Students like myself, who had been in the army at the end of the war, were older than the new generation of undergraduates, whom they were sometimes employed temporarily to instruct, owing to the post-war shortage of teachers. Oxford at the time seemed to me like a school; apart from having to teach a few of its younger denizens, I took no account of them. The cinema was my resort for relaxation and refuge, and cinemas were cinemas in those days. In the afternoon, they were churchlike spaces dense with tobacco smoke, inhabited by couples, or by solitary worshippers motionless in the darkness, illuminated from time to time by the glowing tip of a cigarette.
The idea of a drink with funny, wizened little Miss Griffiths — I imagine she was only a year or two over forty, but if I thought of it at all, I thought of her past the boundaries of age — was a decidedly agreeable one. Drinks were drinks in those days, just as cinemas were cinemas, and I had heard that Miss Griffiths — Elaine, as I afterwards came to know her — liked a good strong drop of gin. Besides, it could only be a good thing to be on social terms with a senior member of the English faculty, to which I aspired in time to belong.
All such prudential considerations vanished when I presented myself at six o'clock that evening. Miss Griffiths was just finishing a tutorial, and as I knocked on the door, a young girl in a scholar's gown came out, dropping her eyes demurely at the sight of a man standing there. I barely glanced at her, for through the open doorway I had caught sight of the bicycle person — the woman? the girl? the lady? — standing and talking to some unseen character, with a well-filled glass in her hand.
She looked different from the bicycle lady, naturally enough. This was a social scene and she was not wearing an old macintosh. Her short fairish hair, unkempt and roughly fringed on the forehead, looked both healthy and greasy, as it still does. Later on, I was to cut and shampoo it for her now and then, but at that distant time, she hardly bothered. Indeed, I have the feeling that women then — certainly academic women — were nothing like so attentive to appearances as they are today, when girls may look like scarecrows, but only of set purpose. Slovenliness in those days was next to seriousness, at least in university circles. It was rare, however, for women in those circles to wear trousers. Iris had on a worn and grubby tweed skirt, rather overlong and ungainly. I noticed her legs were short and robust, clad in brown cotton stockings. Nylons were still uncommon in the early fifties.
Excerpted from Elegy for Iris by John Bayley. Copyright © 1999 John Bayley. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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