Winsome and boyish (preternaturally and studiously so), Christopher Isherwood always appeared to be the youngest of Britain's young writers of the thirties, those clever, slippery wünderkinder of a "low dishonest decade," as their chieftain, W. H. Auden, put it even better than he knew. In fact Isherwood was older than Auden and Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Last year he reached his posthumous centenary.
What's more, as Peter Parker's elephantine but finally energetic new biography reminds us, Isherwood was the most aristocratic of the bunch, destined from birth to inherit Marple Hall, a huge Elizabethan house on the border of Cheshire and Derbyshire. The place would be near ruin by the time it came his way, in midlife, but he was still glad to turn it over to his addled younger brother—the sort of renunciatory gesture Isherwood had been making toward hierarchical, heterosexual England ever since public school.
His precocity and dandyism were established well before the loss of his father, Frank, in the Battle of Ypres, when Christopher was eleven. It seems unlikely, even without Frank's early death, that his firstborn would have turned out any less willfully feckless than he did, leaving Cambridge with no degree and finding less interest in medical school than in tutoring young boys. The most important psychological fact of Isherwood's early life was the overeager embrace of widowhood by his mother, Kathleen, who became in her son's mind a monster of nostalgia, a ruffled, squawking martyr suspended in an amber of Edwardian pride and prejudices. "Just think of her!" Isherwood cried out from Cambridge. "Sitting in front of a fire in Kensington, warming her cunt!" She would live well into her son's middle age, indulging his rebellions to a degree he couldn't see despite his nasty, persistent fixation on her.