Kathleen and Frank: The Autobiography of a Family

Kathleen and Frank: The Autobiography of a Family

by Christopher Isherwood


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Kathleen and Frank is a love story set in the glory days of the British Empire, the last decades before World War I

It is the story of Christopher Isherwood’s parents, the winsome and lively daughter of a successful wine merchant and the reticent, artistically gifted soldier-son of a country squire. They met in 1895 outside a music rehearsal in an army camp and married in 1903 after Christopher’s father returned from the Boer War. Frank was killed in an assault near Ypres in 1915; Kathleen remained a widow for the rest of her life.

Their story is told through letters and Kathleen’s diary, with connecting commentary by Isherwood. Kathleen and Frank is a family memoir, but it is also a richly detailed social history of a period of striking change— Queen Victoria’s funeral, Blériot’s flight across the English Channel, Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, suffragettes, rising hemlines, the beginning of the Troubles in Ireland—the period that shaped Isherwood himself.

As a young man, Isherwood fled the tragedy that engulfed his parents’ lives and threatened his own; in Kathleen and Frank, he reweaves the tapestry of family and heritage and places himself in the pattern.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374180973
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Series: FSG Classics Series
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.17(h) x 1.36(d)

About the Author

Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was born in Manchester, England, and lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933 and immigrated to the United States in 1939. A major figure in twentieth-century fiction and the gay rights movement, he wrote more than twenty books. FSG Classics presents some of his finest work, including the novels Prater Violet, A Single Man, and A Meeting by the River; the semi-autobiographical Lions and Shadows; and the memoir Christopher and His Kind.

Read an Excerpt

Kathleen and Frank

The Autobiography of a Family

By Christopher Isherwood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1971 Christopher Isherwood
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71352-2


At the beginning of 1883, Kathleen started her first diary, probably because she had just fallen in love. But she didn't persevere with it. By the end of July, some days are being missed each week; December is a total blank. Then, for seven years, she didn't keep a diary at all — which makes it the more astonishing that she began one again when she was twenty-two and kept it regularly for almost seventy years.

From 1891 through 1895 Kathleen used diary volumes which allowed only two pages to a week. In 1896 she changed permanently to a page-a-day diary, with pages that were about three inches by four and a half. Often she would fill the whole page; sometimes she ran over and had to write less for the next day or two, to catch up with the date. "I'm afraid I'm a slave to my diary," she told Richard, her younger son. Kathleen did have a compulsive conscience — she thought in terms of things-which-had-to-be-done before some deadline day — but her diary wasn't merely another duty. She obviously enjoyed writing it, making time for this among her many occupations, and used it to relieve her feelings in moods of sorrow, indignation or bewilderment. Richard remembers how, when she was an elderly woman, she liked to take out her old diaries and read them to herself, saying that they brought back happier days.

For Kathleen the Past was happier, one might almost say, by definition. Even during her admittedly happy marriage she firmly fixed on one period — the years at Wyberslegh Hall — which was henceforth to be recognized as happier than any which could conceivably follow it. She was intensely obstinate in maintaining this attitude. Like every devotee of the Past she could always find reasons why the Present was inferior to it. Frank's death became her final unanswerable argument.

Kathleen was careful to be exact about names, dates and even times of day, but she did much more than record happenings, she tried to evoke places and atmospheres, she wrote with a strong consciousness of personal and national drama, of herself and the England she was living in. She saw her own life as History and its anniversaries as rites to be celebrated. She could invest minor domestic events with an epic quality. She discovered a mystic and sometimes terrible significance in coincidences. One can almost imagine her prefacing some of the more portentous entries in her diary with the Biblical formula "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet ..."

Christopher, her elder son, revolted early and passionately against the cult of the Past. As an adolescent orphan he was subjected to reminders by schoolmasters and other busy bodies of his obligations to the memory of Frank, his Hero-Father. So he learned to hate and fear the Past because it threatened to swallow his future. Later, when this threat had been proved empty and even pathetic, he felt no more than an affectionate exasperation with Kathleen for what seemed to him to be her kind of sulking. He suspected she believed she could actually pressure Fate by it, like a hotel guest who gets better service by refusing ever to admit to the manager that she is satisfied.

Nevertheless, Christopher grew up to become a recorder, too, and so, willy-nilly, a celebrant of the Past; he began to keep a diary and to write autobiographical novels. Today he finds it hard to explain to himself why he never asked Kathleen to let him read her diary while she was alive — perhaps he was still superstitiously afraid of getting entangled in the spider's web of her memories. His failure to express his interest was unkind, in any case, for Kathleen would surely have enjoyed showing it to him, though she never even hinted at this; she had grown so accustomed to hearing Frank's talents praised while hers were disregarded that she now thought little of them herself. The last time they met, she was sincerely surprised that Christopher wanted to take two of her own beautiful water colors back with him, to hang in his house in California. And there, all the while, in the drawers of her desk, lay the rows of little volumes of her masterpiece. It was only after she was dead that Richard told Christopher how she had once said, "Perhaps someone will be glad of it, some day."

The diary of 1883, scrappy though it is, provides plenty of evidence that Kathleen was already very much Kathleen.

When she began it, she was fourteen years old; she had been born on October the seventh, 1868. She was living at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, with her parents, Frederick and Emily Machell Smith. They often signed themselves "Machell-Smith," with a hyphen — Machell had been the maiden name of Frederick's mother — but they can't have had any legal right to do so, for they had their daughter baptized Kathleen Machell, thus making sure that the too ordinary Smith would never stand alone.

Frederick had a wine business in Bury, which made him a colleague of Emily's brother Walter Greene, who had a brewery. But Walter was far more prosperous and illustrious than Frederick. He went into politics and in due course became Sir Walter Greene, Bart. In 1883 he already owned a large country house with spacious grounds in the neighborhood, called Nether Hall. Nether was the scene of continuous hospitality: dances, shoots, hunt breakfasts, house parties. On January 1 Kathleen writes in her diary, "Back from Paradise to earth, in other words Nether Hall to Bury."

January 11. At six thirty Mum, Puppie and I (in cream dress) start for the Thornhills. Mum wears her velvet. Start home at 12.30 after the most charming time possible. Danced and sat out with A.T. Have turkey and jelly for supper. I wonder if it will be a year before I see A.T. again. I know why I enjoy staying at Nether so much, because of A.T.

(After "I wonder if it will be a year" Kathleen has drawn a line through the rest of the entry, but this isn't really a deletion, since the words are all easily legible; it seems more like a gesture of coyness.)

A few days later, "A. T." (Antony Thornhill) goes back to school at Eton, and Kathleen's life becomes sadly provincial and humdrum. There are few available males and none of any interest; "have Eddie all the afternoon, what a donkey that boy is." She plays cards with a girl cousin and "a new game called religious conversation" with Emily, she trims a hat "for a poor woman," cuts out pictures to paper a wall, looks through back numbers of Punch, buys an apron with sunflowers on it, reads Quentin Durward and finds the ending "not satisfactory," paints a black wood fan and finishes her first chalk drawing, kills 250 snails, goes for long walks to watch the foxhounds meet and short strolls with Emily down the lane, "lovely sunset but awful smells." The only real fun seems to have been taking part in theatricals of various kinds. "A ghost entertainment for the servants. I am dressed as a nun and talk very awfully, the room is quite dark except for one lantern. Lil has a brown sheet and appears. We finish by throwing a sheet over them and run away quick." Another time, Kathleen dresses up as Dolly Varden in Barnaby Rudge. This was good casting. Dolly is described by Pierce in his Dickens Dictionary as "a bright fresh coquettish girl, the very impersonation of good humour and blooming beauty." When they acted The Sleeping Beauty, another girl played the part, however. Kathleen obviously lacked the necessary languor.

And there were lessons. These included German, taught by a Fräulein. Kathleen hated it and went on hating it for the rest of her life. It was so gross and coarse and ugly, she said. She even disagreed with Frank about this. As for Christopher, he hated French with equal enthusiasm, making fun of its vague weak sounds and declaring that German was beautiful. Actually both of them were rebelling against the "in" language of their generation. German was still "in" when Kathleen was a girl, owing to Victoria's cult of the dead Prince Consort and her kinship with the German royal houses. But German was soon to be ousted by French. 1883 was, in fact, the very year in which Germany moved into South-West Africa as a colonial power, thus straining Anglo-German relations and beginning to push English public opinion in the direction of the Entente Cordiale.

Antony Thornhill must have spent his Easter holidays elsewhere, for Kathleen doesn't mention him. In mid-August she reopens her diary after a lapse, to record their next meeting:

August 14. Go to Nether. I wake up to the delightful fact this is the long wished for Tuesday. A thrill of joy runs through me!

August 16. Dull early but clears up nicely before 2 o'clock. Beautiful bright summer's day after 12. Ethel, Antony and I sat together in Thornhills' pew for Freda Jones wedding, 11.30. She appears in a stamped cream coloured velvet dress and worked veil. Bridesmaids rather like toilet tables in spotted muslin over salmon pink. After wedding we three go in boat. Then we walk in garden while E. airs Turk. On Tuesday we go home and I shall be simply miserable.

(Note how Kathleen hastens to prepare to mourn over the soon-to-be-past! Ethel is a cousin, Turk presumably a dog.)

August 17. Spend all afternoon in boat. After tea the dear Turk has to be aired, which Ethel does. As we are standing on the bridge looking in the water, Antony said 'Do you care two pins for me?' I turned hot and cold and sick and giddy, though why I don't know for after all I care two pins for most people, so there was nothing in that. He seemed in earnest then but I daresay we shall both soon change. Papa tries Antony's tricycle and comes to grief but does not hurt himself much.

August 19. Nice day, hot and close. Antony, Ethel and I go to church. After tea we three take a little walk up the harvest fields. After that we walk up to Lodge. Mr Goat the gardener gives us plums and apricots. Somehow we all seem miserable. Grandpapa is much better and walks about. We play Sunday games in evening. Mama to me, 'you will be glad to hear I like Antony immensely, he was so nice about Grandpapa last night, which is a good test'.

August 25. We start for Nether Hall and stay till 6. Have the first happy hours I have spent since last Wed. E and A don't seem to have had much fun since I left, I haven't had one atom. Antony said when he was at Clarke's there was a basket of photographs and Clarke said he could have anyone he liked and he chose one of me sitting on a log of wood with hat and mantle on.

August 30. Kept awake from 3 to 4 by a cow. We arrive at Nether Hall at 2 o'clock for lunch. Antony is still staying there and Mr Thornhill too. After lunch we go in the boat till 3.30 when we come in. Ethel runs to put the umbrellas in the hall, and to my utter astonishment Antony puts a little case in my hand. On opening it I found a little gold ring with three emeralds and two diamonds. The worst part was telling Mum. She said when I was older it was not proper to receive presents from young men, etc. So it was all right.

This is the last reference to Antony in the 1883 diary. They must have met each other often during those seven years which Kathleen doesn't record. Did Antony remain "in earnest"? Did he want to marry her as they grew older? If he did, Kathleen or her parents must have turned him down. On March 18, 1891, she was told by Ethel that Antony had become engaged to a Miss Miller; on September 2, they were married. Kathleen minded this or at least felt that it was romantic to think of herself as jilted, for she kept in her diary a leaf from a quotation calendar with the date of the wedding day: "Who seeks and will not take when once 'tis offered, shall never find it more," Antony and Cleopatra, II, 7.

Frederick and Emily certainly loved their only child, and Kathleen was eager to return their love, but her relations with them can't have been easy. They were both of them star personalities, demanding complete cooperation from their supporting cast as they played opposite each other, with tremendous power and style, in a real-life melodrama about martyrdom.

Frederick had run away from home at the age of seventeen because his father remarried only a short while after the death of Frederick's mother. He seems to have been something of a Byronic hero, a handsome athletic brooding youth with an ugly disposition, quick to suffer rejection and take vengeance for betrayal. He shipped out to Australia, where he farmed sheep and served in the mounted police. Perhaps he would have been happier if he had stayed there and lived a rough aggressive outdoor life. But he ungraciously forgave his father and returned to England after a few years, surviving a shipwreck on the way — his last Byronic adventure. Back at home, he changed roles, becoming a tamed and chained but still dangerous Victorian Samson, a martyr-moralist, fettered to his duties as son, husband, father, businessman, citizen and Christian. He was also fettered to a hobby, photography. He pursued it with compulsive zeal, to the discomfort of all around him. Everybody was kept waiting while he fussed with his camera. At the beginning of 1883 he was fifty-one years old, still handsome and full of vigor. He often rode to hounds.

Here are some details of a self-portrait:

I am going to try not to scribble so fearfully fast when I write to you as it will get me into bad habits and tend to deteriorate my handwriting for business purposes, besides producing a scrawl which must sometimes tax your eyes and ingenuity to decipher. You must therefore scold me well if I send you any more dreadful scribbles or I may be tempted to relapse into my old ways.

Last Easter Sunday Walter and I received the Sacrament. Though I had you not with me in presence my darling my thoughts were with you and I felt that though separated in the body we were each endeavouring in the spirit to testify our feelings of thankfulness for the great blessing of our risen Saviour. I cannot on looking over the past year feel that I have done much, if anything, in His service. I would feel more earnestness and love but as yet I grieve to say that I have not realized that love for Him as I ought, and knowing that this is the great proof of His abiding in us it makes me feel very anxious to realize more such love as every professing Christian ought to bear in a greater degree according to his advancement on the path of life.

You are a good old dear about your boots. I thought for some reason (which I think must have been told me by someone) that ornamental boots were a weakness with you and I did not like to ask before. But when you assured me that you were willing to wear what I liked, I thought it was a good opportunity to suggest an alteration and it is really (to my mind) a shame to put such wonderful decorations on to neat feet which do not require such arrangements to set them off.

We did not think H.P. spoilt at present, he does not seem inclined to be either fast or slangy and I trust he may never be tempted to either; he is very fond of fun, i.e. dancing, shooting, boating, etc etc, none of them dangerous tastes, and seems chatty without being boisterous or noisy but he has much to go through yet.

Her husband was on the whole very amiable, he was slightly heady one evening but did not arrive at the quarrelsome stage. I hope his son will not follow in his steps either as a gourmand or a squabbler, this last is the result of the former.

Will is very keen about photography which Agnes does not altogether relish and does not seem to support him in his enthusiasm. I hear they have made a sort of compromise, viz that Will is only to take dry plates on his wedding tour, as Agnes thinks a tent etc will take up too much time. I don't know how she wishes to spend it, but I should say, so far as having his society, she would not lose much of that, even if he had a tent.


Excerpted from Kathleen and Frank by Christopher Isherwood. Copyright © 1971 Christopher Isherwood. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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