In the 1990s, when literary parties were more fun, or I was more fun, I used occasionally to see Stephen Spender: there he was, the establishment on quivering legs, queer as a chocolate orange but safely married. (When I spoke to him, I discovered he could flirt with his eyes shut.) Frank Kermode, a great friend to this paper but never knowingly unmalicious, remarked that ‘Stephen never knew where he was going but he always knew the quickest way to get there.’ To me, it seems perfectly natural to forego the gay life if you don’t really want it, but Spender protested too much. In 1994 he wrote a letter to the young Alan Hollinghurst after receiving a copy of his second novel,The Folding Star. The letter shows a man in a state of confusion or unhappiness about the choices he has made.
Dear Mr Hollinghurst
Thank you very much for asking your publisher to send me your novel The Folding Star. I have read it with great interest. It is beautifully done and gives very well the atmosphere of Bruges or wherever. I found it very difficult to understand the nature of the emotions involved in the relationships between the characters and how they could all be such sexual athletes – as though they were all football stars on one level of their lives. I think the difficulty in writing about what people do in bed/or in parks/is that I (the reader, most readers?) have such limited standards of comparison with the/sexual/behaviour of othercharacters people. But I may be wrong. Perhaps everyone knows what everyone does in bedsexually nowadays. But if they don’t know – if sex is not a widely illuminated social area in which every person’s or every couple’s activities can be surveyed by everyone else – as with, say, picnicking – the whole thing is in danger of reading like projected private fantasy. I think your novel does escape this – partly because homosexuality among homosexuals is nearly a social activity, in being so widely discussed among them.
Then there is also the difficulty problem in a novel like yours that it is so difficult to balance the interest of, say, the painter and the museum curator etc with against the sex – and/for the reader/not to long to get out of the museum into the park. I was very fascinated – and of course I would have longed to attempt something like this when I was young.
Natasha Spender’s loyalty to her husband extended to an exalted form of collaboration. ‘One’s inner life has not to be talked about,’ she once said. In 2008, 12 years after Spender’s death, she spoke on Desert Island Discs of the abundant happiness they had shared. ‘I had 55 years with that glorious man,’ she told Kirsty Young. ‘Husbands are not possessions.’
‘Were there any times in the marriage when you had to deal with the homosexual side of his nature?’ Young asked.
‘No, not really,’ Lady Spender replied. ‘No, I didn’t.’
Time was when the matter might have rested there. But there are always the children, and the children’s children. It turns out that Matthew Spender, the first of Spender’s two ankle-biters, is something of a psychic archaeologist, picking over the family bones. ‘He didn’t really know our father,’ his sister, Lizzie, is alleged to have said. But that is rather the point, and A House in St John’s Wood is one of the best books I’ve read about not knowing your parents. What if you were just another of their haphazard decisions, subject to regret and contradiction? The drama of Stephen Spender is not that he was sometimes gay – there’s no news there – but that the gayness was just another aspect of someone who couldn’t make up his mind. The book isn’t sneering, but it isn’t sentimental either. Spender had all the cakes and he ate them too, but it appears that there was some Jamesian pact at the centre of his life, an agreement, formed and signed in his own mind, that social prestige would satisfy and honour him in a way that freedom never could. He comforted himself, no doubt, with the idea that a double life is completely natural for a writer, if not essential. Cyril Connolly, writing about World within World, Spender’s autobiography, caught the central Spender enigma with the eye of a dispirited novelist:
Mr Spender has always seemed to me two people. Let us call them S I and S II. S I is the youthful poet as he appears in Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, and to others who knew him in the early 1930s. An inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic – living for friendship and beauty, writing miraculous poems, expecting too much from everybody and from himself on whom he laid charges and responsibilities which he could never carry out. S II was shrewd and ambitious, aggressive and ruthless, a publicity-seeking intellectual full of administrative energy and rentier asperity, a young tiger sharpening its claws on the platform of peace.
‘Administrative energy’ is very good. Spender was not alone of his generation in being a silly goose with a penchant for soft power. If he hadn’t been so much a man of his own making he might have been a character out of Graham Greene, and perhaps the way many weak men came to seem dangerous is a minor theme of 20th-century English letters, and espionage. Spender, the fellow-traveller’s fellow-traveller, was on Hitler’s list of those who should be shot as soon as the Nazis invaded Britain. He was completely unsuited for clandestine activities, except perhaps those involving young male prostitutes in Hamburg, but for many Cold War years Spender was the go-to guy for setting up brainy journals or getting the lowdown on the intelligentsia. He was a clubbable committee-surfer with a hefty address book, and though his thinking was nearly always muddy and his resolve nearly always petrified, he more or less got what he wanted, and people got what they wanted from him. He wanted a knighthood and he wanted a boyfriend and Natasha was happy for him to have both. Or so she said. But her son digs up a whole universe of unhappiness. ‘At a party in Paris,’ he writes,
Natasha saw her husband across a crowded room talking to an elegant young man.
She asked the person next to her who this man was. The reply: ‘Don’t you know? That’s Stephen’s new lover.’ My mother stood up, and promptly fainted.
It was a terrible moment.
She’d misinterpreted the long conversation at Wittersham which had ended: ‘There is only us.’ Stephen had not put the past behind him, nor had fatherhood given him a new, deeper idea of marriage. He loved her – of that, she was confident. But whatever view he held of marriage, it wasn’t hers.
Natasha later tried to throw herself off a train. Her husband consulted with Anna Freud in London and things were miserable for a while. ‘My mother’s feelings were only revealed after her death,’ Matthew Spender writes,
hidden away in a diary written during a particularly stressful moment in her life, when my father fell in love with a young American ornithologist called Bryan Obst. Bitterly, she wondered why she’d accepted this predicament all her married life. Her harshest entries were written late at night, but in the morning she found her angry emotions had vanished. Her waking self was devoted to the image that their marriage was strong. Natasha at three in the morning was an entirely different person from Natasha at breakfast. She asked herself: are the late night entries the faithful ones, or those I write during the day?
From the Manns to the Simpsons, all families enjoy competing narratives. We want our parents to love each other, but not too much (not if it keeps us out) and we want them to be successful, but not too successful, not if it never ends, or makes our own successes look paltry, or kills our native hope of one day triumphing over them. In this book, the parents’ stories preoccupy the whole family, Stephen’s stories especially, which use up all the oxygen in the room. Stephen and Natasha seem to have behaved as if life was nothing but a long and difficult attempt to assert the primacy of their own version of it, while everybody else’s, including their children’s, was seen as an affront. Matthew recounts trying to tell a sad and confusing story from his childhood while out in the car with his mother. ‘She jerked the steering-wheel in fury,’ he writes, ‘and shouted: “We’ve heard this story of your miserable childhood from soup to fish. You were a much loved child, and if you choose to remember differently, it’s no bloody business of anyone but you.”’ And that’s what gives the book its occasion: Matthew was probably an annoying child, and is quite an entitled adult, but for years he must have been shushed by his parents’ obsessive need to control the story. His book is an outpouring from an ill-managed source. How could it be otherwise? Parents who silence their children to save their own pride lay the foundation stone of the revenge narrative, create the appetite they most wish to suppress.