Illustration by Alex Williamson
Early in the 1930s, when he was managing the Hogarth Press for Leonard and Virginia Woolf and preparing the anthology—New Signatures—that would be received as a species of generational manifesto, John Lehmann wrote that he had
heard with the tremor of excitement that an entomologist feels at the news of an unknown butterfly sighted in the depths of the forest, that behind Auden and Spender and Isherwood stood the even more legendary figure of … Edward Upward.
In that reference to the literary-political celebrities of the ’30s, Upward received his due. In a once-famous attempt to get the whole set into one portmanteau term, which was Roy Campbell’s coinage of MacSpaunday to comprehend the names of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and Cecil Day-Lewis, Upward was omitted altogether (as was his friend and closest collaborator, Christopher Isherwood). On the eve of Valentine’s Day this year, at the age of 105, the last British author to have been born in the Edwardian epoch died. If Upward is not better known than perhaps he ought to be, it is probably because he helped instill the Communist faith in his more notorious friends, and then not only outlived them and their various apostasies but continued to practice a version of that faith himself. (For purposes of comparison, MacNeice died in 1963, Day-Lewis in 1972, Auden in 1973, Isherwood in 1986, and Spender in 1995, so with Upward’s death, the last link to that era is truly snapped.)
His traces and spoor and fingerprints are to be found all over the work of those whom he so strongly mentored. Auden dedicated “The Exiles”—one of the Odes in The Orators—to Upward, and made him an executor of his will when he set off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. Upward also makes an appearance as a character in Auden’s charade, Paid on Both Sides, published in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion in 1930. In the same year, Auden sent Upward a copy of his Poems and wrote, “I shall never know how much in these poems is filched from you via Christopher.” With Isherwood, who fictionalized him in Lions and Shadows under the name of Allen Chalmers, Upward co-invented the weird dystopia of Mortmere, and co-authored the fantastic gothic tales—surreal medievalism was Upward’s term for the genre—that became grouped under that name. Isherwood dedicated All the Conspirators to him. Spender, in his 1935 study, The Destructive Element, presented Upward as an English Kafka. In 1938, the Hogarth Press published Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written. And then … silence. There was some rumor of a “nervous breakdown.” Nothing was heard from Upward until the early 1960s, when he abruptly produced a trilogy of didactic and autobiographical novels, each illustrating in different ways what a commitment to a Communist life could do to an aspiring author. (When I read them, I was put in mind of something Doris Lessing once said to me about the Communist Party’s “Writers’ Group,” of which she had once been a member: everybody liked to talk about the “problems” of being a writer, and most of the “problems” came from being in the Communist Party in the first place.)
A decade or so ago, becoming aware that Upward was still alive and still writing—and bethinking myself that if I wanted to interview this soon-to-be centenarian and last survivor of his generation, I had better hurry up—I made a voyage to the Isle of Wight, that little diamond-shaped island off the southern coast of England that helps form the natural harbors of Portsmouth and Southampton. In this almost parodic picture-postcard miniature of deep England, Upward had chosen to literally “isolate” himself. The Isle of Wight is where Tennyson came to write Crossing the Bar. It is where Queen Victoria kept her favorite home, Osborne House, and it is where she died in 1901, two years before Upward was born.
In a vicarage-style house not far from the railway station in the small town of Sandown, Upward received me and led me to a side room. He explained without loss of time that the main rooms of the little home were out of bounds because his wife, Hilda, was in the process of dying there. “I shall miss Hilda,” he said with the brisk matter-of-factness of the materialist, “but I have promised her that I shall go on writing.” Attired in gray flannel trousers, a corduroy jacket, and a V-neck jersey, he reminded me of something so obvious that I didn’t immediately recognize it. On a table lay the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the Stalinist rump organization that survived the British Communist Party’s decision to dissolve itself after the implosion of the Soviet Union. It is entirely possible that Upward was the paper’s sole subscriber on this islet of thatched cottages and stained glass and theme-park rural Englishness. Seeing me notice the old rag, he said, rather defensively, “Yes I still take it, though there doesn’t seem much hope these days.” When I asked him if there was anyone on the left he still admired, he cited Arthur Scargill, the coal miners’ thuggish leader, who was known to connoisseurs as the most ouvriériste and sectarian and demagogic of the anti-Blair forces in the Labour movement. Yet to this alarming opinion he appended the shy and disarming news that the last review he had had in the Morning Star had been a good one, precisely because it stressed that not all his work was strictly political. “It particularly mentioned my story ‘The White-Pinafored Black Cat.’” I inquired if he was working on a story at that moment. “Yes I am.” “And may one know the title?” “It’s to be called ‘The World Revolution.’” At this point and in this context, I began to find the word surreal recurring to my mind.
As so often, this feeling was prompted by a banal detail. Upward, in his flannels and corduroy and jersey, looked exactly like what he was: a retired schoolteacher. And yet, of all the figures detested by his set in the ’30s, the schoolmaster was perhaps the most reviled. Auden in particular wrote that he understood fascism because he had experienced an English public school, and in his letters home from Hitler’s Germany he described the place as being run “by a mixture of gangsters and the sort of school prefect who is good at [Cadet] Corps.” But Upward had volunteered for a lifetime of schoolmastering, and of activism in the teachers union. It was as if he had determined to turn away from the magic realism of Mortmere, and concentrate on the quotidian. Confirming this, and sounding very much the schoolteacher, he said to me, “Writing is not a pleasure. It’s a discipline.”