The fascination of other people’s letters and diaries lies in the fact that what seems most private in us is what we have most in common. This is also one of the discoveries of love: love letters, therefore, are over-determined in their revelatory banality. The intimacies of others may be embarrassing, but they can never be entirely uninteresting. They put us in mind of our own secret memories; we measure our experience against theirs. And if the sentiments ring true, we steal the words.
The fact that such letters have a stated target audience of one ensures a frisson for the reader of the correspondence, published or purloined. We are spies in the house of love, strangers at the feast. But the possibility of other readers is contained in the act of putting pen to paper. Scripta manent. Ghosts haunt the writing-desk. This is writing, after all, not living: rephrased, read over or scrumpled up, it is a reflective business. At the moment of composition the loving self and the writing self divide, interrogating each other, recombining only at the moment of signature. Love letters are, of their essence, about absence, the absence of the loved one: but the author’s selves multiply to fill the page. The contradictory impulse of love, to hoard and broadcast itself, finds its resolution here. Some love letters seem positively to solicit the attention of third parties. Extremity of feeling seeks not only consummation but also witness.
In Which of us two? Colin Spencer is author, editor and commentator, all three, presenting his own thirty-year-old love letters and those of his then lover, recently deceased, with a linking narrative of their affair. The story is one of love destroyed, abandoned, thrown away; the book is a monument to this loss, to a shared life that did not come about, rather than a memorial to the lover (who has, significantly, no credit on the title page). Spencer’s letters to and from John Tasker, an Australian with whom he was involved between 1957 and 1959, when they were both in their mid-twenties, are not, as love letters go, especially interesting. There are routine endearments, doubts, quarrels, expressions of physical desire and gossip about the arts world, where both were trying to make careers. We read on, not to discover what happened (they split up: Tasker went to Australia, became a theatre director; Spencer got married, continued as a painter and writer) but to see where their experience resonates with ours.
‘They are gay love letters,’ writes Spencer in his preface, ‘and should therefore tell us something about gay love.’ (The term, he notes, was just beginning to be current in the 1950s.) ‘Yet ultimately,’ he continues, ‘they seem to me to be simply love letters.’ The interest of these letters lies in the way they walk around the distinction, freely deploying the established language of passion for their special purposes. The more loving lovers get, the less difference lack of gender difference makes. It is during the falling – in and out of love – that the special complications of homosexuality are liable to make themselves felt. These complications are, at one level, to do with other people, and their disapproval of the whole business. Spencer and Tasker, who were carrying on with each other at a time when consenting adults could still be sent to jail for this, seem to have surmounted these complications with some élan. The letters are fearless, untouched by self-pity or remorse, neither mawkish nor camp. This poise did not desert them when they deserted each other (or rather when Spencer deserted Tasker). They had, it may be noted, the advantage of having lived or travelled in European countries where a more realistic view of the broad spectrum of sexual desire and practice prevailed; in Spencer’s case he seems, in addition, to have possessed a full measure of the arrogance of youth and relative good looks with which it is possible to get away with murder or lesser felonies.
A degree of vanity has remained with him: he includes, for instance, a nude photograph of himself taken by a smitten vicar called Billy, one of a number of clerical admirers he collected before he fell in with, and in love with, Tasker. Next to it there is a picture of him in Venice, clothed, riding with the Rev. Billy in a gondola. The caption runs: ‘I see I have my spoilt-brat face on.’ Spencer’s sang-froid is something to behold. He describes flaunting his lovers in front of his staunchly Masonic father (a hypocritical philanderer, he says), the pleasure he took in seducing priests and the alacrity with which he lied to his lover about his infidelities with both men and women. ‘The reader may be bewildered,’ he writes, ‘by the fact that there were girls, lads, men and clergymen mixed up in my life.’ Not really, not this reader: what is striking is that such a youth should not himself have been bewildered by it all, or worse.
This is love without a map. Spencer and Tasker, men of the same age and station acting on erotic impulse, needing to decide whether it can sustain a future. Such love between men may be a step on the road to self-love (as Spencer notes, young lovers of the same sex quite often look like twins); or a step on the road to the love of women; or it can be the road of love itself. For Spencer who, by his own account, has flip-flopped between women and men most of his life, the point of this book is to discover why he walked out on the relationship. Since he was, again by his own account, in love with Tasker and Tasker with him, it has to be something to do with the limitations on love between men: the inherent limitation – no possibility of offspring – and a contingent one: forcible casting as a homosexual in society’s sexual psychodrama. For Tasker, who was sterile due to testicular cancer, the first problem may have loomed less large. For Spencer, getting married seems to have been, ironically, an act of rebellion – against childlessness and artificial sexual categorisation. There are other ways round these constraints on homosexual love, but in the Fifties they were not so easy to find.
Which of us two? is presented as a testament of love, a celebration of sexual freedom, but it seems to have more to say about love’s limitations. Confronted by these letters, their surviving author professes himself bemused. Why, he wonders, did their other author arrange so carefully for them to be returned to him after his death? ‘For all these years,’ he writes, ‘the whisper of John was at my back.’ But was Colin Spencer more, perhaps, than a whisper in John Tasker’s life? Does he now stop to wonder – if he does, he does not say – how many times in the intervening years these letters of his were taken out and reread by their original addressee?
A note for literary historians. In the course of their affair Spencer was commissioned to sketch a number of writers for the TLS: there are drawings and descriptions of meetings with Forster, Auden, L. P. Hartley and a number of other authors. (It seems likely that Spencer, the former vicar-lover, was sent partly to tickle the old gents’ fancies.) While he was drawing L. P. Hartley, the ageing author’s gaze apparently wandered continually between his visitor and a portrait of a Venetian gondolier, the great lost love of Hartley’s life. After this visit, Spencer tells us, he began to receive letters from Hartley three times a week. Can he be exaggerating? Did he reply to them? Letters from and to the lovelorn author of The Go-Between could have added a new level of interest to this book.