Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter27 September 2007
I wrote this review quite a while ago, more than three years ago by now. It definitely needed a good bit of editing before I felt comfortable posting it here, which I suppose shows that I’ve made some improvement in my reviewing style since I first started writing reviews of books I’d recently read.
Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter
The World War II Cambridge spy ring is an intriguing subject for espionage historians, and a subject on which a great deal of variable quality material has been written. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that the whole set-up of the ring is perfect fodder for an espionage buff. A group of middle- and upper-middle class young men with leftist leanings, who had attended Cambridge University, had jobs in British intelligence services during the war, used their positions to send a torrent of intelligence information to the Soviet Union, and were not discovered until after the war’s end — really, they were the Soviets’ proverbial ace in the hole for almost a decade. In fact, they were so good at passing information that at times the KGB thought they were a clever counterintelligence plot to feed false information to the informal Soviet network in Britain. Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean were the first to escape Britain for the USSR, having fled in 1951 just before they could be rounded up. Harold ‘Kim’ Philby worked his way even higher in the intelligence hierarcy than Burgess or MacLean, and by the time he managed to defect he’d been responsible for revealing any number of confidential secrets to the Soviet Union. At the time of Philby’s defection, there were speculations about a ‘fourth man’ in this spy ring, but it wasn’t until 1979 that a name was truly confirmed. The ‘fourth man’ was Sir Anthony Blunt.
Blunt’s exposure came as shock to the Establishment, particularly the art world, because he was not only a respected art critic and historian, but he had been the director of the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art for almost three decades and had even been given a knighthood for his service to the Crown’s collection of artwork. But Blunt had confessed his spying career in the mid-1960s, shortly after Philby’s defection, and it remained an official secret until his secret was revealed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shortly after she took office. When the news came to light, a whole host of inquiries were made into his life and conduct — particularly the open secret of his homosexuality.
That bit of history aside, Miranda Carter’s book about Blunt and his ‘lives’ is positively stunning. It’s incredibly comprehensive, delving all the way down to his childhood and pre-Cambridge school days to find hints of what shaped Blunt’s character in his youth. And she treats Blunt’s art career with as much depth and detail as she does his espionage work; this isn’t a book that tries to turn Blunt and the others into dashing Ian Fleming characters or sinister John le Carré types. It’s not an openly sympathetic portrayal, but it does try to open up possible explanations for his motives and the reasoning behind why he chose to work for the NKVD during wartime. Carter makes much of the fact that Blunt was an emotionally compartmentalised type of person, who not only strove to keep different aspects of his life and his emotions under tight control but who also seemed to take pleasure in doing so — and this might have fuelled his fascination with his secret lives. Espionage relies so heavily on human psychology that understanding Blunt’s character is key to understand why he did what he did…and why he wanted out, at the end.
(One thing that bothered me a little about this book (and perhaps it’s just an odd reaction of mine rather than anything the writer consciously happened to do) was that Carter tended to link espionage and homosexuality in a way that made spying sound rather like a sexually transmitted disease, or the unfortunate consequence of a one-night stand. As if saying that So-and-so slept with Guy Burgess, and soon enough he came down with a nasty case of passing confidential MI5 files to the Soviets. But I digress.)
I really can’t do this book justice in a single review — it’s far too complex and twisting to really summarise here. It’s also about 500 pages long, and not the kind of thing you can sit down and read straight through. But for all its density, it’s extremely filling and satisfying, and Miranda Carter is able to give Blunt a sound biography that neither tries to apologise for his actions nor attempts to paint him as an evil communist mastermind.