John Middleton Murry, the son of a clerk in the inland revenue, was born in Peckham on 6th August 1889. As Kate Fulbrook has pointed out, his father: "John Murry was a determined man from an impoverished and illiterate background who taught himself to write. Poor but ambitious, he saw education as the sole means to fulfil his aspirations for his son. Subjected to intense pressure to learn from the time he could speak, John Middleton Murry could read by the age of two."
He won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital (1901-08) and then won an exhibition and a scholarship to study classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he took a first in 1910. The following year he founded and edited the modernist periodical Rhythm.
In 1912 he met the short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield. The couple began living together and Murry began publishing her work in Rhythm. The relationship was very difficult. Vanessa Curtishas pointed out: "Katherine felt superior towards them (men), and had been promiscuous since her late teens, frequently using men for her own pleasure and then moving on once the initial thrill had faded. She fell in love quickly, but until Murry entered the picture, seemed not to possess the stamina needed to develop a relationship more lasting and meaningful."
Katherine Mansfield disliked the traditional role played by women at this time. She wrote in her journal about her relationship with Murry: "I hate hate hate doing these things that you accept just as all men accept of their women... I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves.... I loathe myself, today. I detest this woman who superintends you and rushes about, slamming doors and slopping water - all untidy with her blouse out and her nails grimed. I am disgusted and repelled by the creature that shouts at you, You might at least empty the pail and wash out the tea-leaves! Yes, no wonder you come over silent."
Murry and Mansfield became close friends with D. H. Lawrence. They were witnesses for the wedding of Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen in 1914. The two couples established themselves in two cottages near Chesham in Buckinghamshire. According to Claire Tomalin: "Mansfield's reminiscences of New Zealand probably inspired Lawrence with the lesbian episode in The Rainbow (written in winter 1914–15), and she was certainly the model for Gudrun in Women in Love." Later, Mansfield and Murry joined the Lawrences at Higher Tregerthen, near Zennor, in an attempt at communal living. It was a failure and within weeks she and Murry moved on.
Murry became friendly with Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell. In 1915 the Morrells purchased Garsington Manor near Oxford and it became a meeting place for left-wing intellectuals. This included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Bertram Russell, Leonard Woolf, David Garnett, Desmond MacCarthy, Dorothy Brett, Siegfried Sassoon, D.H. Lawrence, Frieda Lawrence, Ethel Smyth, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Herbert Asquith, Harold Nicolson and T.S. Eliot.
In the autumn of 1915 Murry joined forces with D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield to establish a new magazine called The Signature. Claire Tomalin, the author of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (1987) has argued that it was decided "to sell by subscription; it was to be printed in the East End, and the contributors were to have a club room in Bloomsbury for regular meetings and discussions." Sales were poor and the magazine folded after three issues.
Murry also reviewed literature and art for the Westminster Gazette (1912–14) and the Times Literary Supplement (1914–18). In 1916 he published his first significant critical work, Dostoevsky. During the First World War Murry worked in the War Office in the political intelligence department as editor of the confidential Daily Review of the Foreign Press.
Mark Gertler claimed that at one of the parties at Garsington Manor he "made violent love to Katherine Mansfield! She returned it, also being drunk. I ended the evening by weeping bitterly at having kissed another man's woman and everyone was trying to console me. Mansfield told Frieda Lawrence that she was in love with Gertler. Frieda accused Mansfield of leading the younger man on, and threatened never to speak to her again.
Katherine Mansfield became very ill and in December 1917 tuberculosis was diagnosed, and she was told she must go to a warmer climate. She settled in Bandol on the south coast of France. In January 1918, she suffered her first haemorrhage. She now decided to return to London and on 3rd May 1918 she married John Middleton Murry at Kensington Register Office. They rented a house close to Hampstead Heath, and Mansfield persuaded Ida Baker to give up her job and become their housekeeper.
After the war he became editor of The Athenaeum, where he championed modernism in literature and provided a platform for the work of writers such as George Santayana, Paul Valéry, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. In 1922 he published his most important work, The Problems of Style.
Murray helped Mansfield's work to become known to the reading public. Vanessa Curtis, the author of Virginia Woolf's Women (2002): "Ironically, as Katherine began to blossom as a writer and receive serious recognition for her work, her health began to slip away, firstly with a recurrence of gonorrhoea and then with the onset of the tuberculosis that was to kill her. Photographs record her plumpness falling away from her bones, her body becoming gaunt, her eyes looking eerily big and scared in a pale, drawn face. She was forced, by the dangers of wintering in cold England, to go to the south of France, alone and away from Murry."
Murry gave Mansfield work reviewing fiction for The Athenaeum, and he negotiated the publication of her second collection, Bliss and other Stories, with Constable, in December 1920. The publication of her third collection, The Garden Party and other Stories, in February 1922 brought her, according to Claire Tomalin, "great and deserved acclaim." Later that month she went to Paris, where a Russian doctor was offering a new treatment for tuberculosis by irradiating the spleen with X-rays. She told Dorothy Brett: "If I were a proper martyr I should begin to have that awful smile that martyrs in the flames put on when they begin to sizzle". On her return she went to live with Brett in Hampstead.
Mansfield knew she was dying and wrote in her journal: "My spirit is nearly dead. My spring of life is so starved that it's just not dry. Nearly all my improved health is pretence - acting". She added that she hoped she would live long enough to enjoy "a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music and life.
In 1922 Murry began an affair with Dorothy Brett. She thought she was pregnant and wrote to a friend: "I am afraid I have struggled through a terrible time of depression... The worry, the fear exhausts me... I feel, as I suppose every woman feels, that the burden is all left to me. Murry can turn from one woman to another while I have to face the beastliness of an illegal operation - or the long strain of carrying a child and perhaps death - not that I mind the last - it might be the best way out if I am not strong enough to stand alone." Murry arranged an abortion for Brett but she miscarried before she had the operation.
Alfred Richard Orage, the editor of The New Age, told Katherine Mansfield about the ideas of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian guru with a new establishment, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, at Fontainebleau. In October 1922 Ida Baker accompanied Mansfield to the clinic but was then sent away. John Middleton Murry visited her on 9th January 1923. That evening as she went up the stairs she began to cough, a haemorrhage started, she said "I believe… I'm going to die" and according to Murry she was dead within minutes. On 12th January Mansfield was buried in the nearby cemetery at Avon. Only Murry, Baker, Dorothy Brett, and two of her sisters went to the funeral.
After her death two further collections of short stories were published: The Dove's Nest (1923) and Something Childish (1924). John Middleton Murry edited and arranged for the publication of her Journals (1927) and The Letters of Katherine Mansfield (1928). According to Claire Tomalin: "Murry inherited her manuscripts and over the next two decades he edited and published almost all her remaining stories and fragments, her journals, her poems, her reviews, and her letters. In doing so he presented to the world an image of a saintly young woman and suppressed the darker aspects of her character and experience, perhaps understandably, given the conventions of the time. He also made a good income out of her considerable royalties. Not a penny went to Ida Baker."
After the death of Katherine Mansfield he founded and edited The Adelphi. In 1927 Murry appointed Richard Rees as editor of the journal. Rees later recalled: "He possessed the most original and brilliant and in some ways the most penetrating mind I have ever known at close quarters; and it is a remarkable fact that, while I have had a number of friends who have been widely admired and lavishly and deservedly praised, Murry has been consistently and often venomously denigrated, misrepresented, or when possible - though this was not so easy - ignored."
In 1929 Middleton Murry met Max Plowman. Both men were socialist pacifists. According to Richard A. Storey: "Plowman first met the writer and critic John Middleton Murry early in 1929 and the remaining years of his life were marked by a growing friendship and debate with Murry and an active, though still highly critical, involvement in pacifist affairs as the world situation deteriorated."
Murry became a Marxist and in 1931 he published The Necessity of Communism. In the he argued: "All the energy that I can afford is spent in trying (i) to help the workers to struggle intelligently, and (ii) to convert as many bourgeois as I can to an understanding of the necessity and validity of that struggle.... I know by experience that the English worker is a fundamentally decent man: and that nothing sickens him (or me) more than the knowledge that his decency has been exploited. If I can help to give him, or the natural leaders he can really trust, a brand of Marxism worthy of him, and one that will help to safeguard him from this deception, I conceive I am doing what I am best fitted to do in the cause."
In 1931 he joined the Independent Labour Party. His editor, Richard Rees reluctantly joined him in the ILP: "With my political experience from the 1920s I was well aware that, from any practical point of view, Murry was making an error when he joined the I.L.P. at the end of 1931. But since I was at that time playing Engels to his Marx I was obliged to follow suit."
On 16th October 1934, Richard Sheppard, a canon of St. Paul's Cathedral, had a letter published in the Manchester Guardian inviting people to send him a postcard giving their undertaking to "renounce war and never again to support another." Within two days 2,500 men responded and over the next few weeks around 30,000 pledged their support for Sheppard's campaign. The following year he formed the Peace Pledge Union. Middleton Murry became a strong supporter of the PPU. Other members included George Lansbury, Vera Brittain, Max Plowman, Arthur Ponsonby, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Siegfried Sassoon, Donald Soper, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Housman and Bertrand Russell.
In 1934 Middleton Murry purchased a farm in Langham, Essex. Murry and Max Plowman established a pacifist community centre they called Adelphi Centre on the land. Murry argued he was attempting to create "a community for the study and practice of the new socialism". Plowman organised summer schools where people such as George Orwell, John Strachey, Jack Common, Herbert Read and Reinhold Niebuhr lectured on politics, philosophy and literature. During the Spanish Civil War the farm was handed over to the Peace Pledge Union. They used it to house some 60 Basque refugee children. Middleton Murry now became an outspoken pacifist, writing The Necessity of Pacifism (1937).
Max Plowman continued to work for The Adelphi. When Richard Rees resigned as editor Middleton Murry resumed editorship until 1938, when Plowman took on the role. Richard A. Storey has argued: "Although he lacked the benefit of a university education, Plowman's passionate commitment to literature, which achieved scholarly status in his work on Blake and with which his pacifist philosophy was closely connected, provided both his raison d'être and the livelihood for himself and his family."
On the outbreak of the Second World War the Adelphi Centre became home for some twenty elderly evacuees from from Bermondsey, Bow and Bethnal Green. It was also a co-operative farm of 70 acres with a group of young conscientious objectors. However, as Andrew Rigby pointed out: "As in the case of so many community projects, factions developed between the dozen or so individualists who made up the membership. Murry was subjected to a lot of criticism as he insisted on retaining financial control of the farm, having invested all his capital in the project."
Middleton Murry, with the help of Wilfred Wellock, edited the weekly newspaper, Peace News, from 1940 to 1946. He wrote on 22nd June, 1945, that he was having doubts about his pacifism: "I misjudged two things. First I misjudged the nature of the average decent man, for whom non-violent resistance is infinitely more difficult and less natural than violent. The second mistake was even more serious. I gravely underestimated the terrible power of scientific terrorism as developed by the totalitarian police-states... I am therefore constrained in honesty to admit that under neither the Nazi nor the Soviet system of systematic and applied brutality does non-violent resistance stand a dog's chance... In a word, it seems to me that the scientific terrorism of the totalitarian police state - the wholesale reversion to medieval torture, with all the diabolical ingenuity of applied modern science - has changed the whole frame of reference within which modern pacifism was conceived."