Edward Upward: Art and Life

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It is very unusual to be given the opportunity to read about someone’s life from the point of view of the struggle between writing and politics. That is what this book does and I felt myself drawn into Edward Upward’s ever increasing problems with both facets of his life.

He came from a well-off middle class family and went to a private boarding school and Cambridge University. But nonetheless he felt that the working class was crucial to changing the world for the better. In 1932 he joined the Communist Party (CP) almost against his will, but was active along with his wife Hilda.

Sometimes his political activity threatened to interfere with his writing of novels, short stories and poems, but he insisted on continuing with it. And his writing is well worth reading, especially his autobiographical trilogy, The Spiral Ascent.

After some internal disagreements within the CP and when he felt the party had diverted from its Marxist roots, he resigned in 1948.

Upward was a little known member of the group around the poet WH Auden and a very close friend of fellow writer Christopher Isherwood. While at Cambridge University Isherwood and Upward invented a village called Mortmere which they described in very full and often crude terms. It became a major part of their life at the time.

His attitude to Isherwood’s homosexuality was that the personal is political. And he said that his life was what he was and his art was what he did and that is really the message of this book.

Upward worked as a teacher, including a stint at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, but did not really feel in control of the pupils.

The book makes a really good contribution to understanding the social life of writers and activists involved in difficult times during and after the Second World War.

There are excellent descriptions of many of the writers he knew, such as Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis. The book also contains lots of lovely pictures. It is an enjoyable read and I learnt a lot from it. It has also inspired me to read and reread as much of Upward’s work as I can.