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  • Val Cunningham

John Oliver Bayley (1925–2015), by Ken Towner, 1994

Rex Features / Evening Standard /

Bayley, John Oliver (1925–2015), literary critic and novelist, was born in Lahore, India, on 27 March 1925, the son of Frederic John Bayley (1884–1961), a major in the Grenadier Guards, later a businessman, and his wife, Olivia Violet Beresford Hammersley, née Heenan (1894–1982).

He was a child of the raj who would all his life celebrate the peculiar greatness of the raj’s greatest writer, Rudyard Kipling. Unlike Kipling, he flourished in the English private school system. At Eton, where he became an oppidan scholar, he came on immensely as a young historian and litterateur. He carried off Eton’s Hervey English verse prize twice, and when he left school in 1943 he was armed with both the Rosebery history prize and the Stratford Shakespeare medal. He had won a scholarship to read history at New College, Oxford, but the Second World War then being in full swing he went straight into his father’s regiment, the Grenadier Guards, serving until 1947. His first novel, In Another Country (1955), about British intelligence officers in and around occupied Cologne getting into trouble by general rule-breaking and tomfoolery reflected Bayley’s own wryness about his military self and career. He enjoyed casting himself as the soldierly innocent abroad, the officer with the stutter producing chaos on the parade ground. His liking for the role of the lovably inept one, the holy fool dumped bemusedly amid the dangerous courses of the world, set in early. The stutter remained usefully on call all his life, helping greatly in his dedication to an appearance of agreeable buffoonery. Under that mask a far steelier person could pursue his own way.

When Bayley finally entered New College in Michaelmas 1947 it was to read not history but English, under the tutelage of Lord David Cecil—who was well up Bayley’s gentlemanly street. They became great friends and eventually colleagues. Bayley’s Oxford studies were even more glitteringly successful than his school ones. In 1950 he netted a first in English finals, and also won the chancellor’s essay prize (for an essay on the subject of ‘Ritual’), and the even more coveted Newdigate prize for poetry (for 300 lines on Eldorado). In 1951 he became a graduate demy of Magdalen College, was briefly associated with the new St Antony’s College for graduate students, and in 1954 was elected English fellow at New College. By this time Cecil had risen to be Goldsmith’s professor of English, and the poet (and one-time prisoner of war) John Buxton had arrived as his substitute as tutor. With Bayley in support, they made English studies at New College a formidable thing. The legendary classes in the reading of poetry that Bayley offered for years with Cecil—that stutter well to the fore—became almost a tourist attraction, as well as being an apt allegory of the old Oxford English school’s combination of critical agility with the principle of employing gentlemen-of-letters wherever possible.

Bayley never finished anything so mundane as a thesis—much too Germanic, American, or worse, scientific for Oxford humanities at that time. And, clearly, the prospect of combining a donnish career with the production of fiction had its attractions. On 14 August 1956 this embryonic novelist married (Jean) Iris Murdoch (1919–1999), then a philosophy fellow at the all-women St Anne’s College. Her second novel, Flight from the Enchanter, appeared that same year, setting her well on her way to being England’s most distinguished post-war woman novelist. This pair of young donnish novelists certainly cut a dash in Oxford—enhanced by Murdoch’s notorious and flashy green motorcar. But it was to academic literary criticism that Bayley now turned, and there would be no more novels until after his retirement in 1992. His writing from now on reflected his wife’s influence as great theorist of fiction, rather than as novelist.

Together John Bayley and Iris Murdoch came to share a fine interest in the moral purposes of fiction, the idea of the novel as teacher of the ‘otherness of the other person’, an inculcator of goodness and love. This aesthetic-moral vision was at the core of their lifelong devotion to each other—buttressed rather than otherwise by a heady liberalism allowing her a sequence of relationships on the side (never, of course, with anybody less than the most distinguished of European intellectuals). While she poured out her novels full of the sexual complexities she enjoyed, he produced his great series of full-length investigations into the ways of great canonical fictions, beginning with the classic theorizing of The Characters of Love (1961), and going on to exemplary studies of Tolstoy (1966), Pushkin (1971), Hardy (1978), and The Short Story (1988). For Bayley, as for Murdoch, the great exemplum of fiction’s trade in goodness and the morality of persons was Shakespeare. The enthusiasm could lead to some exaggeration—Bayley notoriously alleged, for instance, that Othello was really a novel—but his many encounters with Shakespeare are among the best there have been. His Shakespeare and Tragedy (1981) retained its interest for students.

Bayley’s first critical book, The Romantic Survival (1957), set out nicely his influential take on the nature of poetic reality. It opens with Kipling’s hostility to those equating poetry with golden age nostalgias and aloofness from what happens ‘here and now, in the factory, and the grey atmosphere of modern England’. Poetry would be for Bayley in the best sense banal, as banal as Kipling, as common and vulgar as Keats—as he put it in his extremely influential British Academy Chatterton lecture of 1962. The critical gent from the posh school, posh regiment, and posh college was making clear his distance from the posho-cratic readership he had grown up among. It was a declaration of critical war. And Bayley indeed relished a critical fight. His sturdy interest in common readers and revealed realities in texts led him into direct conflict with the structuralist and post-structuralist fashions of the 1970s and 1980s. Some of his best encounters with the thin-men of post-modern theory were collected in The Order of Battle at Trafalgar (1987; its title taken from a Lionel Trilling essay about ‘facts as facts’).

Casual observers were easily deceived by Bayley’s upper-class tone of voice, the mannerisms and get-up of an eccentric English gentleman (the ruined kit from second-hand shops that only the truly affluent can get away with sporting), into assuming he was on the side of upper-class England and Oxford. On their many British Council trips abroad the professor and his novelist wife performed a literary double act that was often misread as a whimsical throwback to earlier, imperialist times. And in Oxford, Bayley could irritate by his cultivating of dilettantish behaviour as examiner (losing scripts and all that) and lecturer (advertising remote rooms, moving rooms, postponing meetings, changing topic without notice). Nor was his heart in the routines of faculty administration expected of him after his appointment as first occupant of the Warton chair of English literature in 1974. He was a terrible member of committees, like the botched one on syllabus reform. An irritating failure at business acquired full expression in his wayward chairing of the Booker prize panel in 1994—even right down to the wire, when he havered and hesitated stutteringly in divulging the winner over the phone, in the then Booker practice.

Much of this game was forgivable and forgiven. It would indeed have been churlish to hold his peccadilloes and weaknesses against the great critic who could really enthuse the young about literature. Bayley’s enthusiasms were indeed contagious. He made literature matter. He knew what was what, and he made his listeners and readers feel they should know, too. He loved the detail—how aeroplanes worked, what a pocket battleship was, what Kipling meant by a ‘cheap Beheea sugar-crusher’, where to buy a good cloth cap. ‘Thingy’ detail in a novel enthralled him, and he was unrivalled in his appreciation of the way Auden and Larkin and Housman and the great Russians and the tortured modern Russians and the likes of Paul Celan were entangled in ‘the banality of the here and now’.

Bayley’s experience of the intransigence of things was keen and deep. He was in many respects a classic accidental man. One time he broke a leg leaping from a car in Egypt to open the door for an Egyptian lady novelist; another time he broke a leg cranking up a car left in gear which crushed him against the garage wall. It was this accident that convinced the Bayleys they should move from Steeple Aston back into Oxford. The drive into Banbury Hospital, Bayley steering and pressing the gas with his good leg, the by then non-driving Murdoch reaching over to work the clutch, was too awful, for all its rich potential in Bayley’s roster of self-mocking narratives, to think of repeating.

Being snagged in such troubling banalities quite often himself no doubt aided Bayley’s empathy with the worldly sorrows of his preferred authors, from Keats to Akhmatova. It might be hoped that literature’s lessons in human endurance helped get him through the highly saddened years when he tenderly looked after his wife as she sank deeper in the self-blankings of Alzheimer’s disease—he, the while, cooking up the schoolboy tuck the pair lived on at home, the baked beans and fishcakes, in their famously chaotic north Oxford kitchen, in which the mouldering tins accumulated and the rotting plastic bag really came into its own as storage device.

Bayley’s old-laggish retirement pieces in the Evening Standard surprised no one, though his speedy marriage on 10 June 2000, a year after after Murdoch’s death, to their old friend Audhild (Audi) Villers, widow of Borys Villers and daughter of Briger Honningstad, certainly did. (And how rapidly she spruced up both him and the house—almost beyond recognition.) What’s more, the trilogy of sexually beans-spilling narratives he then produced—Elegy for Iris (1999), Iris and the Friends (1999), and Widower’s House (2001)—granting himself centre-stage in the Murdoch drama, actually shocked many of their friends as indecorous and ungracious, and a kind of unkind cashing-in—despite the highly Iris-sympathetic movie Iris (2001, starring Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Murdoch) that was made out of those books. Bayley lived down the castigation, though, and lived happily and gratefully with Audi for the last fifteen years or so of his life. He was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1990 and appointed CBE in 1999. He died in Lanzarote (where Audi kept a house which Bayley and Murdoch had visited many times over the previous thirty years) on 12 January 2015, and was survived by Audi.

Considered by many a truly saintly man, Bayley was certainly one of the best-loved and most inspiring of Oxford’s teachers. An astute and influential literary critic, he was also a minor novelist whose fictions, though, never shone under the overwhelming shadow of his wife Iris Murdoch’s great roster of outstanding novels.


  • A. N. Wilson, ‘Introduction’, in J. Bayley, In another country (1986)
  • J. Bayley, Iris: a memoir of Iris Murdoch (1998)
  • J. Bayley, Iris and the friends: a year of memories (1999)
  • J. Bayley, Widower’s house (2001)
  • A. N. Wilson, Iris Murdoch as I knew her (2003)
  • The Times (22 Jan 2015); (29 Jan 2015); (3 Feb 2015); (16 Feb 2015)
  • Daily Telegraph (22 Jan 2015)
  • New York Times (22 Jan 2015)
  • The Guardian (23 Jan 2015); (16 Feb 2015)
  • The Independent (23 Jan 2015); (26 Jan 2015)
  • WW (2015)
  • personal knowledge (2019)
  • private information (2019)



  • documentary and interview recording, BL NSA


  • D. Moore, colour print, with Iris Murdoch, 1992, NPG
  • D. Hogan, two photographs, with Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Getty Images
  • D. Hogan, photograph, group portrait, at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Getty Images
  • T. Smith, two photographs, with Iris Murdoch, 1986, The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
  • K. Towner, two photographs, 1994, Evening Standard/Rex Features [see illus.]
  • R. Gardner, photograph, 1995, Rex Features
  • R. Judges, six photographs, with Iris Murdoch, 1997, Rex Features
  • photograph, with Iris Murdoch, 1999, Heptagon/Rex Features
  • G. Wilkinson, two photographs, with Iris Murdoch, 1999, Rex Features
  • D. Hartley, photograph, 1999, Rex Features
  • R. Judges, photograph, 2000, Rex Features
  • S. Myers, photograph, with Cherie Blair, at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Rex Features
  • S. Myers, photograph, with Dame Judi Dench, at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Rex Features
  • S. Myers, photograph, with Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench, at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Rex Features
  • S. Myers, ten photographs, group portraits, at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Rex Features
  • J. Makey, photograph, at the premiere of Iris, 2002, Rex Features
  • P. Nicholls, photograph, repro. in Sunday Times (4 Oct 2015)
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£4,515,265: Daily Mail (7 March 2016)

marriage certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive