Vol. 21 No. 12 · 10 June 1999

At Home in the Huntington

John Sutherland visits the Isherwood archive and considers where best to store the family silver

2338 words

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.

Despite the fact that the bulk of his work remains unread or out of print, the acquisition of the archive was announced by the Huntington, and accepted by the world’s press, as a momentous cultural event – a tribute to the skill with which the vendor and his agent handled the protracted sale. Their campaign was helped by Isherwood’s having kept his office materials in apple-pie order. The last thirty years of his life in Southern California had been stable – not to say, dull. There was just one executor: his long-time companion, the artist Don Bachardy. A substantial parcel of Bachardy’s art-work and papers are incorporated in the Isherwood package and may well have been a deciding factor. As an art gallery and library, the Huntington is well placed to handle the miscellany.

It seemed that after his move to Southern California Isherwood would recede into comfortable obscurity. Like Huxley, Chandler and Faulkner, he could make easy money in the movies and write on the side. (If a city can be an enemy of promise, Los Angeles would undoubtedly qualify.) Isherwood continued turning out his elegantly autobiographical fiction, but his civilised, increasingly mid-Atlantic, Thirties drawl was hard to hear above the din of the Angry Young Men in London and the Wild Men of New York (novelists who stabbed their wives in the stomach).

As a screenwriter, Isherwood has credits on The Great Sinner (a Dostoevsky biopic), a vehicle for Shirley Temple, and a treatment of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye which John Huston elected not to use. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, he was converted to Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda, a Hollywood holy man. He was a fervent believer (‘How he does go on about God,’ E. M. Forster wearily complained) and in his later years much of his creative energy was devoted to the devout biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples. Those bulging files will probably not be the most visited items in the Huntington’s new acquisition.

Isherwood’s standing received an unexpected boost with John van Druten’s adaptation in 1951 of the Berlin stories (principally ‘Sally Bowles’): I am a Camera was a hit in New York and London (Isherwood, as ‘originator’, was on a 2.5 per cent royalty) and was filmed, starring Laurence Harvey, in 1955. Cabaret, the musical version, opened in New York in 1966 and was filmed in 1972. Isherwood had no direct creative input into these ventures, but they put his name in lights. He, too, was a star. His public image was further brightened by his eventual openness about his homosexuality. In 1976 he swung the closet-door as far as it would go with Christopher and His Kind, a memoir of his prewar life – ‘as frank and factual as I can make it’ – and attained heroic stature among the newly militant gay community, particularly strong on the West Coast of America. In the Huntington’s otherwise extensive press release there was no reference to Isherwood’s being gay, or to the left-wing politics of his early years.

In November 1996, ten years after Isherwood’s death, Don Bachardy let it be known that he would allow the 12 volumes of Isherwood’s diaries to be published and promised that they would be ‘frank’. The world’s press rose to the bait, expecting another instalment of Hollywood-Babylon: ‘Private Lives of Stars Laid Bare in Diaries,’ the Telegraph forecast. Prudently, Isherwood had destroyed the journals that would have interested posterity most: the record of his life before 1939. His revelations about his middle-aged self and others in the studio penumbra were generally shrewd, unsurprising and circumspect. The first volume (1939-60), admirably edited by Kate Bucknell, was published in 1997. The second is imminent and the third is in hand.

Five months after the first volume of the diaries was published, the world was informed of a ‘lost work’, ‘Jacob’s Hands’, a fantasia by Aldous Huxley and Isherwood, co-written in 1944. A novella about faith-healing, it was turned down by the studios for whom it was written. The actress Sharon Stone had acquired the property, which she claimed to have discovered by her own ‘detective work’: in fact, ‘Jacob’s Hands’ had been known about at least since Brian Finney’s 1979 biography. Film rights were sold for $400,000 and book rights for $100,000. Peter Parker, who is writing Isherwood’s authorised biography, was incredulous: ‘They must be bonkers. It is the most extraordinary story – Hollywood gush.’ Memories are short on the West Coast, but everyone dimly remembered that Cabaret had been very big. And the headlines about the scandalous diaries and the rediscovered masterpiece (false though they proved to be) made the moguls think that Isherwood was hot. ‘Big’ and ‘hot’ means seven-figure sums. Herr Issyvoo had, of course, been a millionaire before. But that was during the Weimar inflation.

The Isherwood sale has coincided with a panic in the UK about the family silver. The BBC’s News Online reported the Huntington’s purchase of its neighbour’s property as an act of cultural mugging: ‘Another British collection, another foreign buyer. The private papers of British author Christopher Isherwood have been sold to a Los Angeles library for a vast sum, the latest in an apparently never-ending stream of treasures sold abroad.’ According to the reporter, Jane Harbidge, ‘in one year, to June 1998, prized works of art totalling £18.9 million went to foreign buyers. Sometimes, it seems the leeching outwards of national works of art and valuables is unstoppable.’ Again, the mysterious figure of ‘several million dollars’ was cited. The British Library had been asked, and had said ‘it would not have been able to compete on price.’ The fact that Isherwood had been a US citizen was, I suppose, neither here nor there.

For the last couple of years the Royal Society of Literature under its chairman Michael Holroyd has been lobbying the Heritage Lottery Fund to release money for the acquisition of the papers of living British authors. On 9 April, Ferdinand Mount used his pulpit in the TLS to add reasoned support for a long-term policy of preserving the national literary heritage in the copyright libraries – specifically by the acquisition of the materials of currently active writers.

Clearly Mount and Holroyd are right. If you are going to buy these things it makes sense to buy them while the author is still alive and able to use the money and before the asking price reaches ‘several million dollars’. On the other hand, one should not complain too much when prime cuts of British literary heritage fetch up in American institutions. And in the case of Isherwood there are good reasons for rejoicing that the archive has found its home in San Marino rather than St Pancras.

In the first place, the Huntington arrangement represents a good deal for scholars such as Bucknell and Parker. Not only will the materials be accessioned very soon – the Library is already inviting scholars to apply to work on them – but the Huntington, like other American research libraries, has a generous grant-in-aid programme. You will receive a basic $2000 a month to come and work on their Isherwood archive. If you want to work in the BL on the matching collection of Edward Upward, you must pay your own way.

Try the following experiment. Go to the British Library in St Pancras. Order a manuscript, order a book by the same author from the general collection and another from Rare Books, order a tape-recording of the author speaking on the radio and a sketch of him done by his long-time companion. Then try to use all these materials at once. Doubtless it can be done but it would be very difficult and you would probably need a special dispensation from Chris Smith and the patience of Job. Since its acquisition of the Jack London archive (which contained all sorts of non-literary material) the Huntington has specialised in holistic curatorship. All parts of the Isherwood-Bachardy archive will be simultaneously accessible. You can listen to him, look at his photo-album, search for marginalia in copies of his books, and scrutinise his manuscript drafts all at the same time. And they’ll pay you to do it.

The point I am making is not just that American institutions make it easy for British scholars to work on British literary material: they make it easier. This is not, however, to argue that we should just lie back and enjoy it. Something ought to be done. But that something involves more than acquisition. Ideally, if a large investment of public money is to be made, three goals should be aimed at. First, the programme should think big. The value of the Isherwood archive for scholarship is its comprehensiveness and its intactness. If the collection had been offered to a British buyer, my guess is that – given Isherwood’s less than canonical status – they would have wanted to cherry-pick, taking only the important manuscripts and interesting letters, when scholars typically need circumstantial materials. Any money which the HLF releases should cover the cost of the scholarly infrastructure.

Secondly, British writers should get any money that comes along when they (not their heirs) can use it. It was interesting to see that Iris Murdoch left £2 million. The novelist’s literary papers were acquired, mid-career, by the University of Iowa. Of course, I have no idea how much of Murdoch’s substantial estate derived from that sale, but anyone can see how helpful such a cash subvention might be to a practising writer.

There are advantages to scholarship in pre-emptive acquisition. You can interrogate the creator. In the early Sixties, Stephen Spender – temporarily hard-up – sold a heap of his manuscripts to the Ransom Center. Twenty years later, a British scholar working there (on a Ransom fellowship) came across what looked like the typescript of an unpublished novel. He asked Spender about it: Spender, it turned out, had forgotten all about the thing, an apprentice work dating from his Berlin years, but he was interested enough to ask for a xerox from the library. He read it and rewrote it and published it as The Temple in 1987.

Simply storing the materials as so many trophies on the national wall is not enough, however. Ideally, young impecunious scholars should be encouraged – bribed, if necessary – to work on the materials. The British Library and the five other copyright institutions would administer such funds at least as conscientiously as the Ransom Center and the Huntington – if they had them. Will they get them? If not quite a dead cert it is one of the safer gambles the HLF could take with the nation’s winnings.

The fuss about the ‘leeching’ of our national treasures by ugly Americans diverts attention from a much more insidious threat from our European allies. The British auction industry, whose services to scholarship are immense, is currently under mortal threat from EU ‘harmonisation’. I will return to this subject shortly. In the meantime, you want to lobby? Lobby about losing Sotheby’s.

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