A House In St John's Wood: In Search Of My Parents by Matthew Spender, book review

Spender throws light on an intense and unconventional upbringing
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The marriage of the poet Stephen Spender to the pianist Natasha Litvin has been the subject of speculation in literary circles since the day of their wedding in 1941. What drew the predominantly homosexual Spender to the naive 21-year-old student? How did their long marriage survive the turbulence of Stephen's infatuations with young men and Natasha's intense relationship with the novelist Raymond Chandler? And what effect did the fallout have on their children, Matthew and Lizzie Spender? (The latter is married to Barry 'Dame Edna' Humphries.)

These are the questions Matthew sets out to answer in this eye-opening memoir. After Natasha's death in 2010 (Stephen died in 1995) he began to sort through the piles of papers destined for the Bodleian Library. Among them he found two packages marked "To be destroyed without opening". Matthew did not follow his mother's instructions and much unpublished material has been mined to produce this book.

In the first half we learn of Stephen's childhood with his feckless father and rich mother, who died on an operating table when Stephen was 12. At Oxford, he befriended WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood to form the triumvirate of gay poets who became the literary stars of the 1930s. Spender quickly developed a projection of himself as "timid, considerate, over-generous and unsure," when really he was "ruthless, selfish and domineering". Isherwood discovered the truth about his friend when he invited him to stay in Berlin, only to find Stephen encroaching on his subject matter.

Spender idealised working-class boys and in 1933 he picked up Tony Hyndman in Piccadilly Circus. They moved in together and had an on-off relationship for six years. It was this tempestuous affair, Matthew concludes, which led Spender to decide that it was impossible for two men to live together and that he should try relationships with women. Following the failure of a brief first marriage, he met Natasha, the illegitimate daughter of an Estonian actress and music critic, and they married nine months later.

Stephen told Natasha about his male lovers but she assumed this would now cease. When somebody pointed out Stephen's latest boyfriend at a party, she fainted. A few days later she tried to throw herself out of a train. It was the start of a life-long pattern. Stephen, unable to see any connection between his behaviour and Natasha's instability, consulted Anna Freud. She told him that Natasha was "held together by such immense effort of will, it might be dangerous to probe too deeply."

The second half of the book contains Matthew's recollections of life at the family home in St John's Wood. Auden features heavily; more compelling is the story of Natasha's tumultuous relationship with Chandler, which began in 1955 and continued until his death in 1959.

A depressive alcoholic, Chandler would call Natasha at 3am from his hotel and threaten that "unless she arrived in half an hour there would be mess like strawberry jam on the pavement". Was there sex between them? asks Matthew, consulting the "to be destroyed" files. "No, there was not."

As a teenager, Matthew introduced his future wife, Maro Gorky, daughter of the painter Arshile Gorky, into the mix. She complained that conversation with the Spenders was "all ping and no pong" and was once reduced to tears by Natasha pinching her under the table to stop her talking.

Matthew and Maro fled to live in Italy, and you can hardly blame them. Stephen continued to fall in love with young men, while Natasha acquired a defensive manner that was so grand, joked Stephen, "that whenever shrubs at the local nursery heard they'd been chosen for Lady Spender's garden, they'd start trembling".

This memoir could be read as tragedy, but Matthew somehow squares his parents' unconventional marriage by concluding that Stephen needed a secure environment in which to work, while Natasha enjoyed basking in reflected glory.

It may be true, but you finish this illuminating book feeling that life lived at such a pitch can only be for great artists, and that we mortals are blessed to be excused.