(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

Peter Parker's highly readable biography of Christopher Isherwood provides the most intimate portrait to date of the author's life, from his birth in a privileged English family to his death in California more than eighty years later. With unprecedented access to Isherwood's diaries from 1939 through 1983, as well as the diaries kept by Isherwood's mother throughout her long life, an incredible number of unpublished letters both to and from the author, abandoned manuscripts, and personal notes, Parker has created what is likely to remain the authoritative biography of Isherwood for many years to come.

Twelve years in the making, Isherwood: A Life Revealed is a book that, in many ways, Parker was preparing for his entire life. Two of his earlier books, The Old Lie: The Great War and the Public-School Ethos (1987) and Ackerley: A Life of J. R. Ackerley (1991), detailed the social milieu from which Isherwood would emerge and explored the life of an urbane, homosexual author who, like Isherwood, never quite freed himself from the attitudes formed during the critical years in which he grew up and never quite made it into the first rank of English authors.

Parker's biography devotes a great deal of attention to the many colorful figures who surrounded Isherwood throughout his life, affected the author's outlook, and often provided the inspiration for the characters who populate his novels. Isherwood's father, Frank, died at Ypres during World War I and gradually came to symbolize for the author an increasingly unattainable set of standards for his own life and conduct.

Isherwood's mother, Kathleen, was the focus of an even more challenging relationship. Unsympathetic to her son's choice of careers and romantic partners, Kathleen became the figure from whom Isherwood seemed to be fleeing most of his life. Many of Isherwood's decisions—to sell the furnishings of his family's estate, to take up residence in the capital of the nation against which his father had died fighting, to leave England for America—were made, at least in part, because of the pain he knew these choices would cause his mother. His early novels All the Conspirators(1928) and The Memorial (1932) contained characters who were recognizable, and highly unflattering, versions of Kathleen. Although mother and son would reconcile in the years following World War II, Isherwood always seemed to feel the greatest affection for his mother when she was safely at a distance.

With equal care, Parker examines the many friends, lovers, and colleagues who passed through Isherwood's life. While these figures are numerous—Isherwood would frequently develop suddenly intense passions, only to find them fading as quickly as they arose—they are also important because they so frequently introduced Isherwood to points of view that would consume his attention, shape his literary style, or cause him to abandon a work that was already well under way.

As early as when he was a student at the Repton School, Isherwood became close friends with Edward Upward, who would go on to author numerous stories and literary reminiscences of his own. Together, Isherwood and Upward created stories about an imaginary village that they called Mortmere (ostensibly derived from the French word for “death” and an archaic English word for “lake” but, more tellingly, perhaps also a play upon the French words for “dead mother”). Like many of Isherwood's friends, Upward later found Isherwood growing distant from him, as when the author could never find time to meet with Upward, despite numerous invitations, during his trips to England in 1970 and 1973. Nevertheless, as was the case with many of Isherwood's friends and lovers, the impact these two figures had on each other was immediate and lifelong.

After leaving Repton and enrolling unsuccessfully at both Cambridge University and briefly, as a medical student, at King's College, London, Isherwood aligned himself with a group of rising young literary stars that included the poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. United by their homosexuality, unconventional lifestyles, liberal (at times even radical) politics, and dedication to creating a new literary voice for the twentieth century, Isherwood and his companions proved to be one another's most candid, supportive, and perceptive...

(The entire section is 1775 words.)