In life Stephen Spender, who died in 1995, occasionally provoked extreme reactions. "At his christening," Evelyn Waugh declared in a famously slighting review of his 1951 autobiography World Within World, "the fairy godparents showered on Mr Spender all the fashionable neuroses but they quite forgot the gift of literary skill." To see him "fumbling with our rich and delicate language", Waugh continued, "is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee".
For some reason there is no mention of this criticism, or of Waugh, in John Sutherland's otherwise exhaustive biography. (For comparison, Spend- er rates a dozen mentions in the second volume of Martin Stannard's life of Waugh.) On reflection this oversight is understandable. Stephen Spend-er: the authorized biography is a notably defensive work. Hugh David, who published an uncountenanced "portrait" in 1992; David Leavitt, who produced a "plagiarised" novel about him a year later; even poor Philip Hensher, who dropped an incautious remark or two in a 1995 magazine article: all are righteously drubbed. But amid these smaller fry are some prosecution witnesses whose presence in court might see the defence altogether breached.
Two points should be made about the authorised Spender. The first is that, notwithstanding the odd ropey end-note, it is a model of its kind: thoughtful, knowledgeable and thoroughly engaged, both with Spender and the landscapes through which he moved. The second is that it wears its authorisation like a regimental tie, to the point where that traditional three-way compact between biographer, reader and subject is often in danger of being interrupted by a very loud noise: the sound of Lady Spender, the poet's widow, breathing down the biographer's neck.
Lady Spender is entitled to want the world to think well of her late husband. Sutherland has a similar agenda. In the face of countless objections, he wants to establish his subject as, on the one hand, one of the finest English poets of the 20th century and, on the other, as one of that century's abiding literary presences. Whether he altogether succeeds is another matter, but it is not for the want of trying, the excellence of the materials or the skill he brings to their arrangement.
The journey that carried Spender (born 1909) from the ramshackle household of his journalist father in Edwardian Hampstead to balmy, end-of-century Grand Old Man was, as Sutherland demonstrates, a long one, yet not without its ironies. The young Spender's revolt against the moneyed, Liberal certainties of his background took in not only homosexuality but also a spirited flirtation with Liberalism's nemesis. By the mid-1930s, with the much-acclaimed Poems (1933) behind him, he was living with another man (the ex-guardsman Tony Hyndman) and had briefly joined the Communist Party while continuing to operate at the centre of the leftist literary group - Auden, Isherwood, Day- Lewis, MacNeice - who, to Waugh's regret, had "ganged up and captured the decade".
"We were the Thirties" Spender later claimed, a remark that would look better at the time than in retrospect. Like practically every other literary man of the era, however, Spender soon found the subordination of his personality demanded by orthodoxy beyond him. Having produced the ambiguous Forward from Liberalism (1937) for Gollancz's Left Book Club, he retreated to a liberal belief in the powers of individual endeavour that his father would have instantly recognised.
Postwar, after a stint co-editing Horizon and embarked on his second marriage, he reinvented himself as a different kind of public man: the peripatetic literary eminence-cum-academic, proponent of good causes, scrupulous in his attachments, rightfully aggrieved (as with the magazine Encounter's CIA funding) when he was hoodwinked.
Authorised biographer though he is (much quotation from some not terribly exciting poems), Sutherland is not without his feline side. He quotes Spender's idea that "sex with the working classes of course had political connotations. It was a way in which people with left-wing sympathies could really feel they were getting in contact" with a gloss about "mitigating idealism". There are also some neat juxtapositions of the gang's professional travails with world events. In 1936, "Christo- pher's novel was going badly, Tony had made no progress with his army memoirs", and Stephen was considering abandoning his "book on Communism". On 8 March, Hitler marched into the Rhineland.
Spender's death-bed wish was characteristically modest: "I want a few poems to survive and some memoir of myself as distinct from any group." In this he succeeded. I ended up imagining him as a superior Edmund Gosse, finger in countless pies, but a much nicer man. Whatever else may be said of him, as Sutherland shows, in profuse and sympathetic detail, no one in recent English literary life tried harder or meant better.
D J Taylor's 'Orwell the life' is published by VintageReuse content