Christopher Isherwood is considered by some critics to be one of the most important English writers of the 1930’s. He was born Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood on August 26, 1904, to Kathleen Machell-Smith and Frank Bradshaw-Isherwood, English gentry. His father was killed in France in May, 1915, while serving as a lieutenant-colonel in the British army during World War I. The loss of his father when he was only ten years old had a lasting impact on Isherwood.
Isherwood was educated in the English public school system. In 1923, he enrolled in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, but left in 1925 without completing his degree. He then worked at various jobs in London, including that of a private tutor. In 1928, he published his first novel, All the Conspirators. As with all of his novels, it was to some extent autobiographical.
In March, 1929, Isherwood visited Berlin with W. H. Auden, whom he had met while they were both students at St. Edmund’s School (Isherwood was there from 1914 to 1918). Isherwood and Auden remained lifelong friends, and during the 1930’s, they collaborated on a travel book and three plays. From 1930 to 1933, Isherwood taught English in Berlin, where he met Heinz Neddermayer, a working-class youth. The two traveled together between 1934 and 1937, while Heinz tried to avoid being drafted into the German army.
Isherwood’s experiences in Berlin during the 1930’s provided material for his three most successful works: The Last of Mr. Norris, Sally Bowles, and Goodbye to Berlin, known collectively as the “Berlin stories.” Literary critics and historians alike consider these works, especially Goodbye to Berlin, to be among the most significant political fiction of the twentieth century. The Berlin stories became the basis for John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (pr. 1951) and the award-winning musical and film Cabaret (1972). Although Isherwood was disappointed with Cabaret, its success ensured his lasting reputation.
In 1939, Isherwood settled in Southern California with Auden. Shortly afterward, he cut all ties with his Christian past and embraced Vedantism, one of the numerous forms of Hinduism. He had always felt an inner conflict between the Christian teachings of his youth and his homosexuality. His conversion to Vedantism enabled him to resolve, or at least escape, the conflict, since Vedantism views both heterosexuality and homosexuality as valid choices. The move to California marked the beginning of what critics term Isherwood’s American, or Vedantic, years. During the late 1940’s, he worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood and edited a periodical, Vedanta and the West. His first American novel, Prater Violet, which is actually set in London, explored the two themes that were becoming increasingly dominant in his work–homosexuality and Vedantism.
Isherwood’s reputation as a serious author declined markedly during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Critics judged that his writing became burdened with sentimentalism and religious mysticism. Three novels published during the 1960’s–Down There on a Visit, A Single Man, and A Meeting by the River were rediscovered during the 1970’s and, together with the success of Cabaret, resulted in a rehabilitation of Isherwood’s reputation as a serious writer. Most of Isherwood’s novels are autobiographical, and there is much corroborative information available in his diaries. Leading characters are modeled after individuals Isherwood knew personally, sometimes as lovers. The males are often weak and immature personalities who are seeking a strong father figure. Perhaps this basic element in his fiction can be traced to the absence of a father figure in Isherwood’s own youth. Published in 1964, A Single Man is considered by some critics to be Isherwood’s masterpiece. Set in Los Angeles during the early 1960’s, it is the story of a day in the life of George, a middle-aged homosexual English professor who is mourning the recent death of his lover. After a rather mundane day, George renews his commitment to life. A Single Man has been compared favorably with Isherwood’s earlier portrayal of Berlin during the 1930’s.
During the 1970’s, Isherwood turned his attention to autobiographical works, written to be read like novels. Kathleen and Frank: The Autobiography of a Family is a biography of his parents, though the focus is on himself. Christopher and His Kind, a sexual and political autobiography of his Berlin years, appeared at a time when Isherwood was becoming more openly active in the homosexual rights movement. My Guru and His Disciple recounts his conversion to Vedantism and his relationship with Swami Prabhavananda.
From the late 1960’s until his death in 1986, Isherwood collaborated with Don Bachardy on a number of film and television scripts. Bachardy was an eighteen-year-old college student when Isherwood met him in 1953. They began living together in early 1954 and remained companions until Isherwood’s death. Isherwood has been variously described as one of the most gifted English novelists of the century and as one who showed great promise but ended as an “entertainer.”