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John Bayley: Bedtime Stories

Friday, 23 March, 2001, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
John Bayley was best known as the husband of acclaimed author Iris Murdoch. Now a widower, he finds himself an unlikely object of scrutiny by the literary world. Caroline Frost of the BBC News Profiles Unit looks the controversy

Rural romps with temptresses in tent dresses - surely these are scenes from a burlesque novel, not the confessions of a 75-year-old Oxford don, renowned for his idyllic marriage and the patience with which he bore his famous wife's decline.

But John Bayley's ribald accounts of the months following the death of his wife Iris Murdoch, have wrought havoc in the literary world and brought fresh hope to septuagenarians everywhere.

After 43 years of marriage to the prize-winning author, the jocular English professor was ill-prepared for the tide of controversy to engulf him in the two years since she died.

A literary partnership: Bayley with Iris

Less than a year after Iris's death, he married her close friend Audi, while working on a trilogy of books about the illness and death of his beloved wife. Bayley was praised for the unfailing care he gave to Iris, as she gradually lost her mind to Alzheimer's Disease.

Their story is soon to be made into a film, starring Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent.

Now the last of Bayley's trilogy is to be published, detailing his life since her death.

In contrast to the tragic, tender scenes of the earlier two, Widower's House includes a bawdy account of attempts by two women of his acquaintance, Margot and Mella, to bring him out of his grief and, more specifically, into their beds.

His lack of order led to his description by a fellow Booker Prize panellist as "the most incompetent chairman ever".

Bayley's vagueness famously extends to his housekeeping, and his memoir suggests this made him an easy target for feminine wiles.

Margot courted him with a casserole dish, and Mella - a "scrawny postgraduate student" half his age - was determined to move him with her mop.

Bayley's first memoir brought him sympathy and understanding

Margot made night visits in her blue flannel nightie when, according to Bayley's words, her bulky form settled in "like a piece of soft cargo bedding down in a ship's hold".

But it was Mella who finally pinned him under the duvet. "It was obvious what I had to do," he writes. "Nor, on the whole, did I mind doing it."

Now two national newspapers are at loggerheads over these torrid tales. The Daily Telegraph has been serialising Widower's House, but the Sunday Times claims an interview with the author, during which he denies all knowledge of the romps.

Instead, he passes off his lyrical accounts as "consolations at a bad time. I had no lovers, just daydreams".

So is Bayley fostering the frolics to sell more books, or is the honour of an old Etonian shocked by the prospect of offending a couple of genuine ladies? With his shambolic Oxfam sweaters, inane giggle and constant stammer, the cherubic professor is proving to some an unlikely Lothario.

Sex at any age is surely not a subject to be taken seriously

Professor Bayley on his belated sex-symbol status

This week he has softened his stance. In an effort to reveal the vulnerability and confusion of fresh widowhood, he explains how the two Ms are a synthesis of various women whom he has combined, "just like an author would".

He says: "It's real on one hand, and somewhat unreal on the other. It's just a question of how you interpret it."

Interpretation of words has long been Bayley's bread and butter. A renowned literary critic, he is a former Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, where his pupils included AN Wilson and Dennis Potter.

A specialist in the ideas of Pushkin and Goethe, Bayley has always been a little more vague regarding his own.

In 1956, two academic letters were published simultaneously discussing the Suez invasion by the British - one for, one against.

The well-meaning professor, it appeared, had signed both. When his aghast tutor asked him how this could have happened, Bayley replied: "I believed both!"

His own wife Audi explains that "he always wants to please people. He finds it almost impossible to say no, and it gets him into all sorts of trouble. He always agrees with you - but I now know that it doesn't always mean anything."

The cloth-capped professor - an unlikely Lothario

It was to Audi's home in Lanzarote that Bayley fled when the administrations of Margot and Mella apparently became too much to take.

Despite the media interest in her husband's love life, Audi remains happy to take all the different versions with a pinch of salt.

And as far as gentle human truths and aged sexuality are concerned, Bayley himself writes: "I am not always a gem of truthfulness." And he reminds us too, that "sex at any age is not a subject to be taken seriously."

As a letter-writer to the Guardian, a fellow 75-year-old, explained: "Women throwing themselves at you? In your dreams, buddy."

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