Unauthorised biography fuels Spender fightback: Marianne Macdonald reports on why the poet has had a change of heart and agreed to an official account of his life

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The Independent Online
SIR Stephen Spender, the poet, is fighting back against unauthorised accounts of his life by finally permitting an official biography.

His wife, Lady Spender, 73, yesterday confirmed from their home in St John's Wood, north-west London: 'Plans are afoot for an authorised biography but we can't talk about it.' She refused to say who the biographer would be.

Until now Sir Stephen, 84, has resisted biographers' approaches, saying he could not face the boredom of retelling his life. Nor would he consider approaching someone himself. 'I'd be faintly afraid of being snubbed,' he said last October.

His change of heart follows the publication of an unauthorised biography last year. Sir Stephen is half-way through compiling a list of more than 100 alleged errors he found in Stephen Spender: A Portrait With Background, written by Hugh David despite opposition from his subject and a prohibition from quoting any of his writings.

Sir Stephen claims many of the errors, which the poet is having checked by scholars of the period, are factual. One can be found in the first sentence which describes him as one-eighth Italian when he is one-eighth Spanish. But Heinemann, the publishers, claim that Sir Stephen saw the manuscript before publication and only asked for one change about a statement relating to Sir John Betjeman.

The list of errors, if confirmed, will probably be placed in the British Library. 'It will be for serious scholars to consult,' Lady Spender said. The 84-year-old Oxford-educated poet gained fame as part of the 'Auden Generation' - which included W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Cecil Day-Lewis, all now dead - and notoriety for his self-confessed early homosexual experiences.

The authorised biography will come more than 30 years after publication of his autobiography, World Within World. Mr David greeted the news with delight. 'I welcome the idea. He wrote his own biography very early. It did cover much of the interesting parts of his life, but it was selective and inevitably quite kind to himself. I'll read it with enormous interest.'

Tom Weldon, who edited A Portrait, added: 'I don't think it will reflect badly on our own biography. It will stimulate more interest.'

During the row last year, Mr David argued that his biography was justifed because the poet had been a very public man for 60 years and, for the last 40, had written about little other than himself.

'(Spender) is in effect trying to maintain his copyright on a life he privatised more than half a century ago,' he said. Sir Stephen disagreed: 'It's really like calling a shoddy load of goods by a branded name.' He was so unhappy with what he described as Britain's spitefulness that he considered emigrating to Provence.

In the event, critics panned Mr David's efforts, which focused on the poet's life up until the Second World War, with emphasis on his left-wing politics and homosexual leanings. 'It is lightweight in substance and malevolent in essence,' the Scotsman said. While the Independent on Sunday found it 'mildly camp and insinuating'.

Sir Stephen is considered the most important surviving poet of the Thirties generation. His contemporaries have been extensively written about by biographers.

(Photograph omitted)