A House in St John’s Wood – In Search of My Parents
By Matthew Spender
William Collins 2015
ISBN 10: 0008132062
RRP – $45 hb
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
It is a massive undertaking for a son or daughter to attempt to paint an objective portrait of his or her parents’ lives, much less their relationship with each other or their children. Yet this is what Matthew Spender has achieved in his recently published A House in St Johns Wood – In Search of My Parents. Even to the extent of revealing much of his own personal history apart from his parents.
The Spender household gravitated around Stephen Spender (1909-1995), a well brought up and educated son of a father who died when he was 17 and for whom he held a life-time anger. Harold Spender was, for his son Stephen, a monumental failure symbolised by having lost as a Liberal candidate in a general election having used his young sons to campaign. Stephen’s mother belonged to a successful Jewish family whose money gave the Spender children a place in upper middle class life, which they took for granted.
The Spenders’ comfortable place in society is caught in snatches in Matthew Spender’s account. At Oxford, with well connected friends like WS Auden, Stephen Spender went from gangly youth to confident poet as part of a “gang” of three made up of himself, Christopher Isherwood and Wysten Auden. Spender’s growing insouciance is apparent when he failed to turn up for his finals. Another such casual reference is to Matthew Spender throwing up at Chatsworth House, as a child, when lunching with his father and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Such cameos offer a world apart from the masses.
As Matthew Spender writes, half way through his book, his project is to write some of the secret history of the British establishment. He has, in this, joined a number of professional historians digging through letters and papers of twentieth century British public figures and artistic heroes to create biographies and TV docudramas to the delight of a voyeuristic public, hungry for the saucy bed linen.
In A House in St Johns Wood, however, the secrets are revealed by a son who came to discover gradually that his father – the famous poet – was not only a high earning and much respected writer with contacts in the publishing world to die for, but also a relatively closet bi-sexual who continued his sexual liaisons across the globe with various men while living as a husband to his wife Natasha, mother of the Spender children.
As the story unfolds, Matthew Spender reveals his belief that, “Somewhere in my father’s persona there was a wild need to create a male partnership apparent to all the world.” To which the son responds, “That’s fine. It’s even noble. But it required the cooperation of Natasha, his wife. And he seems not to have given the slightest thought to how this would make her feel in public, at parties, at dinners, within the world.”
Natasha Litvin married Stephen Spender on 9 April 1941 at St Pancreas Registry. It was Spender’s second marriage and his third serious heterosexual affair. They had been introduced by Stephen’s “working class” lover Tony Hyndman in August 1940.
Natasha was a young pianist at the Royal College of Music. She would go on to make a career as an accomplished pianist giving recitals in the UK and USA, albeit never making the A grade. Her mother Rachel Litvin was an actress of Estonian Jewish ancestry and her father was the well-known music critic Edwin Evans. Natasha was the illegitimate product of their extra-marital affair and, consequently, Natasha hardly knew her father since Rachel refused to allow Evans to divorce his wife in order to marry her.
Aided by well off friends, Rachel was able to foster her daughter out so that Natasha was raised among the Booths – the family of shipping magnate Charles Booth. As part of that growing up, Natasha developed an anxiety over her roots, seeking love and security throughout her life.
In time, Matthew Spender came to realise that his father’s close friend Wysten (WH) Auden had imaged his mother in a line as “the frowning schoolgirl [who] may be dying to be asked to stay”. He writes, “frowning yet longing for affection was a perfect description of her. The will to be loved was part of her conviction that she would surely be rejected.” Natasha’s quest for love paralleled that of her husband Stephen, but in very different ways.
Matthew Spender came to realise that his parents were locked in an unbreakable bond – albeit one that disappointed both of them. Even the pursuit of Natasha by popular fiction and mystery writer Raymond Chandler in his last years, a pursuit that took her away from her husband for long periods to be with Chandler, did not loosen the Spender marital bonds. In time, the Natasha-Chandler relationship would peter out and leave NS in tears when she learnt of Chandler’s death belatedly and – as her son, watching, realised – “rage that she hadn’t been contacted by a lawyer to tell her that she’d inherited everything”.
Stephen Spender had very developed ideas about love but was himself quite confused about his own relationships. SS told Reynolds Price, for whom he had fallen around Christmas 1956, that he loved his wife but that the relationship was frustrated for fairly obvious reasons. He then described this as a case of him being “too ambivalent” and Natasha “too repressed”. In fact, Natasha’s repression had developed from forcibly hiding her natural feelings about her husband’s affairs or, as the psycho-analyst Anna Freud concluded, holding herself together by “an immense effort of will”.
Undoubtedly, the marriage had begun quite happily – two very tall people in love, with Natasha aware of her husband’s “ambiguous” past. Before they had married, during a fortnight together in Wittersham with the comfort of a heritage house complete with warm kitchen and workroom, they had laid out their stories frankly and felt united in their view of the future.
Natasha wrote later: “I look back on that brief holiday as a time of exceptional elan in the feeling that we had dropped our childhood like unwanted baggage”. For Natasha, it seemed SS had left his ambiguity behind. For SS, there was no such understanding and Natasha would later, and very abruptly, realise that there would always be “a dark area of their shared life that she would never reach”.
Natasha first discovered the truth in 1947, at a party in Paris. Asking who was the “elegant young man” Stephen was talking to across the room, the reply was, “Don’t you know? That’s Stephen’s new lover.” Natasha stood up and fainted – a day or so later she tried to jump out of a train as she and Stephen travelled to Italy.
In his reasoning about marriage, SS argued that he could never live with a man. Two males would know each other completely and leave no room for mystery. The only mystery possible with a male would be for SS to live with a “working class” man – for SS, class divided people into separate species. And his feeling about class was part of his instincts as if it were a gene. He could never understand that his son had no bias about class, on one occasion remarking how odd it was that MS could talk to a working class person in a pub as an equal – “Fancy that! Matthew can’t understand the meaning of Class War!”
But the working class theory had not proved sufficient with Tony Hyndman. So Natasha, and before her Inez Pearn, became Spender’s wives. Inez walked out soon enough but Natasha clung on. Children and a home made all the difference in her life. In time, as her son records, “she enjoyed being Lady Spender”. And she would defend till her death her husband’s loyalty to her – plastering over the cracks in a keeping-up-appearances crusade.
Living with a woman, then, was Stephen Spender’s answer to domesticity. Love affairs, on the other hand, were something else – a necessary part of the artistic experience. Or, as Matthew Spender sees it, the way to another poem. The idea of being in love was for SS an essential.
Ahead of his time, in the late 1920s Stephen Spender worked on various drafts of a coming of age novel (The Temple) that charted in fictional form his time with Auden and Isherwood enjoying the delights of young men in Germany. The novel would lie unpublished until discovered by a researcher in Spender’s papers in the 1980s. His adventures later with “various boys” in Hamburg added further inspiration. Soon after, he was dining out on stories of exploits with Isherwood in Berlin. He planned to locate himself part of the year in Berlin and part in London. Nazi Germany would change all such plans. By December 1936, Stephen Spender had married Inez Pearn in London.
At this point, Spender senior had become a confirmed anti-fascist and a great believer in communism as savior of the world. Sent to Spain by the UK Communist Party leader Henry Pollit, to trace the whereabouts of a Russian ship carrying munitions, SS showed how little he knew of espionage.
However, SS then joined the UK Communist Party only to return to Spain and be bitterly disappointed after discovering the party had little time for individual dilemmas and was as dictatorial as the fascists. In time, he would trace what Matthew Spender writes of intellectuals like his father and US author Mary McCarthy “a similar trajectory of well meaning idealists led astray”. Spender contributed an essay in The God That Failed – published in 1949 as a collection by intellectuals who had been disillusioned by the communist lie.
In his work as a founder and editor of Encounter magazine, Stephen Spender would also be caught between supporting the Cold War campaign against communism and feeling at the same time that the US had usurped that campaign. It had long been Stephen Spender’s ambition to found or be part of the establishment of a quality liberal arts magazine. He had been part of the group that founded Horizon in the late 1940s. After the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was set up in 1949-50, SS helped found and became co-editor of the CCF magazine Encounter.
Backed by clandestine American money, SS chose not to delve too deeply into Encounter’s finances and positioned himself with its literary rather than political material. Years later, he would pay a price for his efforts when it became public that CIA money funded the CCF. Matthew Spender writes that the publicity “nearly destroyed” his father. He resigned as an editor there in 1966.
Stephen Spender was no Cold War warrior. He saw through the left-liberal charade but could only confront it in literary efforts. As with many of his artistic themes, his notions were sprung from an elite altruism and belief – the leanings of well educated, middle class liberals. His son sees through this early and recounts a time one summer when his parents left him holidaying with a rustic local family in Torri del Bonaco on the shores of Lake Garda. The family’s usual holiday digs was “an entire wing of the Albergo Gardesana” complete with a piano transported from Verona.
After some time with the peasant family, SS came to visit his son, for which the host family made every effort. Stephen told Matthew afterwards that, with such marvellous food, the family could only be money poor while culturally very rich. He was soon brought back to reality as his son pointed out that the day’s lunch was not the usual fare – mostly it was “polenta with mince–and-tomato sauce” and often just polenta.
Matthew Spender’s account of his parents and their world is that of a part player. He knew many of the characters in the story, albeit as a child and young man. He has his own reactions to events, and is a witness for much of their lives. Irving Kristol, who had moved from far left to anti-communist right and co-founded Encounter with SS was sacked in 1957; it suited him, as Matthew Spender writes, since he was “fed up with the pusillanimous Brits and wanted to get back to New York”. Mel Lasky, who took his place, referred to Stephen Spender’s “wishy washy liberalism” and there were tensions.
Matthew Spender, as a youth had no ideological hangups and soon rejected the left view of life as dictatorial and misguided. But from his closeness to his father and Auden, he witnessed their insecurities about public attention.
Auden, propped up on the bedhead behind a young Matthew on one occasion, was “just sitting there doing absolutely nothing” and quite despondent. The rain outside reflected his mood. The phone rang. It was a call for Auden from the Evening Standard. “He was radiant over the telephone. ‘But I like the rain.’ He said. ‘I love British weather.’” From which MS concludes, “Wystan, I knew, was one of the ‘truly great’. Did he really need a phone call from the Evening Standard to cheer him up?
On another occasion, MS records how his father had written Engaged in Writing, lampooning the hypocrisies of the liberal left. Yet he can also see through his father in this – too weak to hurt he says at one point – and recognises the limitations of his father’s own commitments: “He wanted the working classes to be treated better than they had been, but beyond that, it would be hard to say what political aims he had in mind.” With the Suez crisis in 1956, Matthew Spender writes of his own concern and how it left him sticking pins on maps, but his father “looked instead mildly worried and anything but military.”
Matthew Spender, however, was also shut out. Like the children of so many talented or self-absorbed parents, he can recall many occasions as if being on the other side of a locked door.
In his chapter “Too Ambivalent”, Matthew Spender opens up about how it felt to grow in a family so divided by personal and public ambitions and emotions. He reveals how much his father had ached to “belong to the category of ‘truly great’” and how he neglected his wife in this pursuit. Equally, his mother was ambitious in her contest to be recognised for her recitals:
I saw that that they were equally ambitious people, and that their differences were merely that of style. However, when it came to emotions, it was clear that my mother was neglected. Dad’s attention lay elsewhere. He was an absent husband. If it came to that, he was an absent father. Behind his good manners there lay a detachment indistinguishable from boredom.
The Spender detachment from the emotional responses of others is a consistent theme in this story. In early 1946, playing go-between over a dispute between Stephen Spender and Cyril Curtius over Spender’s use of Curtius’ reflections on Nazi Germany, T S Eliot referred to Stephen Spender as “a really good and affectionate young man – though very callow for his years … He is a Liberal, and therefore tends to intolerance and judging others; and he tends to take an unconsciously superior tone on the basis of very imperfect understanding.”
This “detachment” might also have been responsible for Spender senior’s casual attitude to one of Britain’s most notorious double agents, Guy Burgess, especially after Burgess fled the UK for Moscow and lived there in exile unable to return to his comfortable and familiar London establishment. On a visit to Moscow in 1960, SS was hoping (naively) to set up a meeting with the Union of Soviet Writers at a time of Iron Curtain repression. He was met with the usual blocks.
While waiting for answers from authorities, the lonely Burgess phoned Stephen Spender. They had been known to each other back in London and one of Burgess’ last phone calls on leaving the UK was made to Stephen Spender’s home. Spender agreed to meet Burgess and took notes of the meeting. SS recalled that his predominant feeling was one of compassion and his notes are very revealing of Guy Burgess. But the act of agreeing to meet Burgess indicates that Spender had little understanding of the significance of what meeting Burgess could mean. He listened while Burgess glossed over his actions, argued that he had been a victim of the Americans, and even called SS an “American agent” a couple of times.
Novelist John Le Carre had a similar opportunity to meet another notorious exiled double agent – Kim Philby – in Moscow. Le Carre declined – in spite of the opportunity it might have given him as a writer of espionage novels. He declined out of recognition that such a meeting would boost Philby and help him justify his actions in sending so many to their deaths as a double agent while spying for the Soviets. Stephen Spender had no such sophistication.
Matthew Spender is remarkably honest about the complications he faced on this “search” for his parents. As a younger man and already partnered with Maro Gorky, daughter of the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, Matthew joked about one of his father’s friends David Plante. This led to a confrontation where MS considered that his father might have over-reacted. His final conclusion is more revealing:
To make a joke of Plante’s name was corny, perhaps even in bad taste, but surely no more than that. However, thinking it over, I decided that Dad’s anger was justified. My casual remark was a form of rejection, not so much of David Plante himself as of this whole arcane world that my father valued, which I felt I couldn’t enter.
And the solution – future silence – would make the divide between father and son even greater:
Over time, however, I discovered that keeping this vow was in itself a form of rejection. My silence was accusatory. The Creeping Plante episode, slight though it was, became a key moment when I began to cut myself off from my father.
A House in St Johns Wood – In Search of My Parents is a magnificent achievement. It takes the skins off the parent-child relationship layer by layer, in a succession of moments, all the while circling about the entanglements of personal relationships at a time of moral guardianship by the state against homosexuality.
Matthew Spender takes his mother’s side often but never reduces his father’s spirit. He records how, for his mother, “a great weight lifted from her mind” when in 1967 the laws against homosexuality were at last repealed. She had feared the scandal of her husband being accused in public. All the while, he had thrown caution to the wind.
At the same time, Natasha kept control. Whatever boys’ adventure her husband played at, she was the keeper at the gate. But she could not prevent her son from his own account – and his readers are the beneficiaries of that.
Anne Henderson is deputy director of The Sydney Institute. Her most recent book, Menzies at War, was short listed for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for History.