At Home in the Huntington
John Sutherland visits the Isherwood archive and considers where best to store the family silver
Writing in the Tablet in 1951, Evelyn Waugh described Christopher Isherwood as the best of those British writers who had ‘captured’ the Thirties. It was not, Waugh being Waugh, high praise. Auden he felt to be a mysterious cove comprehensible only to his pals (among whom Waugh did not number himself). Stephen Spender, Waugh declared, had been granted at birth all the fashionable literary neuroses but his fairy godmother ‘quite forgot the gift of literary skill’. (Once celebrated as the Shelley of the Thirties, he was later described by Geoffrey Grigson as the ‘Rupert Brooke of the Depression’.) Isherwood, he grudgingly conceded, could claim ‘accomplishment’. Isherwood returned the tepid compliment, 12 years later, with a script for the Tony Richardson production of The Loved One. The movie regularly makes the lists of alltime turkeys. Would that my enemy had written a book and I might adapt it for the screen.
The stock of the various members of the Auden Gang has fluctuated over the decades, and Isherwood, who emigrated to the United States with Auden in 1939 (at the first squeak of an air-raid warning, Waugh said), has often seemed eclipsed by his two comrades in writing. In the famous picture of ‘US THREE’ on Insel Ruegen taken by Spender (with what he archly referred to as his ‘masturbatory camera designed for narcissists’) in summer 1931, Christopher looks ‘as if he is standing in a hole’, as he wryly observed.
The headlines accompanying the acquisition of Isherwood’s literary remains by the Huntington Library in San Marino, Greater Los Angeles last month could be taken to suggest that he is now well and truly out of his hole. Secret negotiations had apparently been going on for two years between five institutions: the Harry Ransom Research Center at Austin, Texas, the University of Southern California, UCLA, New York Public Library and the Huntington. Three of the (alleged) competitors were within a thirty-mile radius of Isherwood’s home in Santa Monica. The Ransom Center has dovetailing collections of Spender, Connolly and John Lehmann material. NYPL is a main deposit of Auden’s literary remains. Of the five, only the Huntington is a private institution without a university affiliation. Since its foundation in 1929 it has been distinctly Anglophile, and conservative, in its taste for art, books and botanical display – the Shakespeare Garden is a main attraction. Under its last two directors, it has begun to collect modern British writers.
The price paid by the Huntington for Isherwood has not been divulged. A year ago, the sum floating around in (uninformed) coffee-room gossip was a million dollars. Some newspapers in Britain reported ‘several million dollars’, which seems unlikely: it is not that large a collection. There are some two thousand pieces: letters, journals, manuscripts, typescripts, proofs and ephemera. Most of the interest lies in the long runs of correspondence with Auden, Spender, Edward Upward, John Lehmann and E.M. Forster. Permanently out of town, sedate in his living habits and unhurried in his rate of literary production, Isherwood cultivated the anachronistic arts of correspondence and diary-keeping.