Stephen Spender's journals show that his feelings about sex, fidelity and fellow poets were far from simple
In a famous photograph from 1931 (reproduced in this book), Auden, Spender and Isherwood face the camera, though Spender's eyes are looking off at an angle. Auden looks like an overgrown schoolboy, Spender like a cricket captain, Isherwood like a pocket film star or glamorous jockey. Spender is the central figure, but only as a requirement of photographic composition, thanks to his height. His arms are behind his friends, though it's not clear if he actually has his hands round their shoulders, as he does when the grouping was repeated in front of another camera on Fire Island in 1947. Spender's eyes are closed on the later occasion (he's in mid-smile and the day is sunny), while Auden and Isherwood grin warmly at each other.
All three writers tried to be true to literature without ignoring politics, and also to balance the claims of desire, commitment and public image. In 1935 Isherwood rejected the idea of marrying Erika Mann, to give her citizenship and safety, because he hated the idea of seeming to want a respectable facade. Auden stepped in without hesitation, as if marriage held no sacredness for him, yet he committed himself completely to his partner Chester Kallman in what seemed to his friends an arbitrary martyrdom (the relationship was open, but only at Chester's end). As a young man Spender was relatively frank about his interest in his own sex, but encouraged the idea that this was some sort of phase after he married Natasha Litvin in 1941, by whom he had children, Matthew and Lizzie.
It's a bit of a jolt to read in this new selection from Spender's journals (5 August 1980) that Tony Hyndman, with whom he had a difficult affair, "was the visible manifestation of something which was the deepest thing in my nature – my loyalty to the 'queer' world, the gay". And later in the same entry: "In the long run, I did, of course, ditch Tony – but I never lost my loyalty to a commitment which he represented. I know what Christopher Isherwood means when he writes unforgivingly of his 'queer' friends who get married." This passage was understandably omitted from the 1985 selection of journals, and appears here (along with a number of unambiguous entries) almost literally over Natasha Spender's dead body. Her name is given in the new book as having edited it alongside Lara Feigel and John Sutherland, but Feigel's introduction records that she was "reluctant" to include such entries. If you're reluctant you can be won over in time, but given that the decision to include the material wasn't made while she was alive (she died in 2010) the word "opposed" might be more exact.
No one reading the journals could reasonably think that the marriage was a fiction, but if there was an element of wishful thinking on both sides, Natasha paid most of the price for it. It would be odd for her to want the world to read about Spender's ecstatic involvement in the 1970s with a man 40-plus years younger than himself, and the humiliation it caused her at the time, when her husband made declarations over the phone without realising that an acoustical peculiarity of the building made them perfectly audible to her, two rooms away.
You could make the case that Spender wouldn't have kept those journal entries if he hadn't wanted them published, and that Natasha could have destroyed them herself if that had been her deepest need. It may be that the children have given their blessing – but it's still a decision that needed to be justified by the editors, not smoothed over by describing the passages as essential and fascinating.
It has to be said that Spender's journals aren't as entertaining as Isherwood's diaries. The word "journal" itself has a whiff of pretension, even before it gets a capital letter, as it often does here: "My life is getting absurdly social, and now it is worse because I am stimulated by curiosity about experiences to put in my Journal" (July 1955). Sometimes the style of referring to intimates is oddly stilted, seeming more appropriate to a public speech than any sort of private utterance: "Matthew (aged 9), who was sleeping in the twin bed during my wife's absence…" Referring to "Sundrin Dutta, the great Bengali writer" may be well-meant, but repeating the phrase exactly in a later entry makes it look as if you haven't actually read a word.
Isherwood had the advantage of prose being his primary product, so that a diary could double as a workshop. When Spender reports a conversation about the candidness of his journals he refers to "one or two things in my life I would not write about because I did not understand them myself". This category includes "experiences of falling in love which seemed almost hallucinatory". Isherwood would have been baffled by this impulse to retreat rather than examine, and to ban the richest samples from the laboratory.
Still, keeping a diary is a sort of yoga, a stretching exercise almost guaranteed to promote suppleness of mind, and Spender's sensibility opens up unpredictably. He becomes better company as the book goes on. No one ever accused the later Auden of suppleness, though as Spender puts it with rather desperate gallantry, "if Wystan […] seems a bit fixed, it is in a fixed direction, not that he is stuck."
Right to the end, Auden remains a mystery to him, almost on a par with sex and death. As late as 1979 Spender is troubled by both the character and the working methods: "I did not think of him as having human feelings and I felt about his early poetry a lack of a personal 'I' at the centre of it." This could be rewritten in Auden's favour by saying that he didn't make a fetish of subjectivity in those poems, and this is part of what made them durable – the sense of their being full of electrical activity but not charged in the conventional ways.
Spender returns to the argument a few months later, suggesting that in Auden's case "the poet at once knows his lovers and friends more completely than they know him, because of his very intelligent powers of analysis, and less well because he never lapses into that mutuality which is shared knowledge of each other by the other". The lapse into mutuality as something Auden instinctively opposed is a strong and rewarding idea.
As for Spender's feelings towards someone who simultaneously pushed him forward and hampered him, they could only be a tissue of gratitude and suppressed resentment. In March 1995, only months before his death, he tells a story as if it was discreditable to Cyril Connolly when actually it is Auden who is shown in a bad light (it's to do with the appropriation of a valuable book). He can only express a grievance against Auden with a cover story.
In an earlier pair of entries, he garbles something Auden said on a visit, so that "he surprised me by saying he thinks endlessly about what form would best suit his subjects" (this recorded at the time) soon becomes "Auden said 'What obsesses me is form. So I put poems into them arbitrarily and make them as abstruse as possible'". Passing on both a true copy and a corrupted file, he can be both the faithful disciple and the betrayer.
In 1979 Stephen Spender spent a sleepless night asking himself "did I really like Wystan?" Part of his answer is to discuss Auden's jealousy of his endowment (not the poetic one). "To be totally honest now," he writes, "I should ask whether Auden was not a bit envious of me because I had a large penis. He was certainly affected by this and mentioned it mockingly on many occasions." There's a certain mutuality of abasement here, with one poet's littleness being put on record, while the other is diminished by having needed to mention it.