Christopher Isherwood in Exile

Posted on Tue., June 20, 2023 by Ben Robbins
Expand image Black-and-white photo of three young men smiling.

Left to right: W. H. Auden (1907–1973), Stephen Spender (1909–1995), and Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986), photograph album, 1930s, from the Christopher Isherwood archive. | © Don Bachardy, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

During my time as a Christopher Isherwood Foundation Fellow at The Huntington last winter, I had the opportunity to explore the diaries and notebooks that the English novelist kept during the 1930s, a period in which he traveled extensively around Europe, before he settled in Los Angeles in the 1940s. The Huntington Library houses the largest collection of Isherwood’s papers in the world.

Isherwood is usually considered an expatriate writer who left England for Berlin at the end of the 1920s by free choice. I am taking a closer look at Isherwood’s writing to make the case that he was an exiled writer while in Germany because his travels there were the result of British legal and political pressures outside of his control. Previously, critics have predominately used the term “exile” to refer either to Isherwood’s subsequent flight from Nazi Germany or Europe on the brink of war rather than his earlier escape from 1920s England.

Isherwood was part of a group of British and Irish writers who were active in the 1930s and made exciting new contributions to English fiction, poetry, and drama. Many writers from this group were gay or bisexual, including Isherwood and his friends W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender.

At the time Isherwood was living in England, Section 11 of the United Kingdom’s Criminal Law Amendment Act, which dated back to 1885, criminalized sexual relations between men. Until it was repealed in 1967, it forced many queer men from England to move abroad. Isherwood chose to move to Berlin in the autumn of 1929 after first visiting Auden in the city a few months earlier.

He destroyed his Berlin diaries, fearing they could fall into the hands of the German police. Although he experienced relative tolerance in Berlin, he still could not risk a confrontation with the authorities because, by the time he left the city in May 1933, the Nazis had already seized power in Germany. However, The Huntington’s collection contains the diaries he kept immediately after he left the city.

In a 1934 diary entry, Isherwood recalls crossing the border to the European continent at the English Channel. He describes staring at the detectives patrolling the pier at Dover, who would inspect him like a criminal. Isherwood clearly understood himself as an exile in flight from the law. His movements were not wholly voluntary or elective, even though it should also be noted that his privileged background gave him the financial means to relocate.

Expand image Black-and-white photo of five young men sitting against a wall.

Unidentified young German men, photograph album, 1930s, from the Christopher Isherwood archive. | © Don Bachardy, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Isherwood chose Berlin over England because of its vibrant queer scene. Paragraph 175 of German law still criminalized homosexual acts in the city, but there was a relative lack of interference from the authorities. As a result, Berlin’s exciting mixture of gay bars, nightclubs, and cabaret venues grew rapidly during the era of the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933—until Hitler gained political control.

Male prostitution was also widespread in Weimar-era Berlin because of the city’s economic volatility. When Isherwood first arrived, he went with Auden to a gay bar called the Cosy Corner in Berlin’s working-class district of Kreuzberg. The bar was crowded with young German men, many of them prostituting to make ends meet. In one of his albums from the 1930s, Isherwood kept a photo of working-class men from Berlin, showing the kind of crowd that he would have encountered in the city’s bars.

Expand image Black-and-white photo of a young woman standing in a garden. "Jean Ross" is written in the photo margin.

Jean Ross (1911–1973), photograph album, 1925, from the Christopher Isherwood archive. | © Don Bachardy, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Isherwood would adapt some of his experiences as a writer in exile in his novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939). But he was careful to distance himself from the book’s content. The text focuses on international characters at the city’s margins in the early 1930s. Although he gave his own name to the first-person narrator, he insisted in the preface that it was a work of pure fiction.

Nevertheless, the memoir-like nature of the book was clear: In it, Isherwood uses several aliases to conceal the real identities of people he knew. His British friend, the singer and aspiring actress Jean Ross, appears as Sally Bowles, a role later played by Liza Minnelli in the musical film adaptation Cabaret (1972). In the original novel, the narrator helps Bowles get access to an abortion. Isherwood based these events on Ross’ life, but he changed her name to avoid libel.

He also tried to include queer characters in his fiction, but he did so in a way that would keep him from being censored. While in Berlin, he began a relationship with Heinz Neddermeyer, a young German man. In his 1938 diary, Isherwood wondered whether he could write himself into Goodbye to Berlin as “Karin,” a 30-year-old female English teacher having a heterosexual affair with “Erich,” her young German pupil, based on Neddermeyer. These characters never appeared in the book, but Isherwood’s diaries show the inventive disguises that queer writers often used in their writing.

Expand image Black-and-white photo of two young men, one sitting on a bench, the other on the floor.

Christopher Isherwood (right) and Heinz Neddermeyer (ca. 1915), photograph album, 1930s, from the Christopher Isherwood archive. | © Don Bachardy, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

The writer’s movements around Europe would continue. He and Neddermeyer fled Germany in the spring of 1933, a few months after Hitler became chancellor. The couple moved restlessly around Europe as they tried to secure a new passport for Neddermeyer so he wouldn’t be drafted into Nazi Germany’s military. Despite their efforts, Neddermeyer was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937.

The Huntington’s collection of Isherwood materials also includes drafts of his 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind. His feelings toward his native country poured forth. In one draft, Isherwood blames the “British heterosexual dictatorship” for refusing to help him get his male partner out of Germany. Isherwood still believed England should bear part of the responsibility for his exile. Across his diaries, novels, and memoirs, he repeatedly describes how queer people are pushed into exile by oppressive societies. Isherwood’s writing boldly traces the international journeys that minority groups are forced to take in search of liberation.

Ben Robbins is a senior postdoctoral researcher in American literature at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. The research for this piece was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF: Project number P 35199-G) and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation.