May 30, 2024

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He Spied Because He Had To?
From The Washington Times February 11, 2002.
Order this Book through Amazon.com


by Miranda Carter

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 590 pp., $30

0 374 10531 6

Miranda Carter herself might be suffering from the biographer’s version of Stockholm syndrome, but that is no excuse for her quasi- pathography of the British traitor and art historian Anthony Blunt. This is a book that Blunt’s mother might have written, if she had lived through the shame of his exposure as a spy for the Soviet Union and the “Fourth Man” in the Burgess-Maclean-Philby scandal. It is very much, at any rate, a biography à thèse and the thrifty and perspicacious reader ought to be able to save himself a great deal of time plowing through its redundant documentation of the following propositions by having them swiftly outlined for him. They are:

(1) That Blunt, like most other public school boys of the period — at least those who later became writers and intellectuals — was very unhappy as a schoolboy and suffered under the barbaric conditions imposed on its pupils by Marlborough School during the 1920s.

(2) That Blunt was also very unhappy as a homosexual since homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. “Blunt’s consciousness of the illegality of homosexuality, which meant that his very identity broke the law, may well have helped to make acceptance of Burgess’s approach seem less of a big step,” she writes. Moreover, E.M. Forster’s famous aphorism about betraying one’s country rather than one’s friends (quoted by Blunt in his only public statement about his treachery) took on an added resonance “for Blunt’s generation of homosexual men” since “friends in innumerable ways provided a support network in a hostile world, and defended the individual against the state. They kept one’s secrets.”

(3) That, because of these unhappinesses, Blunt was of a cold and reserved temperament and able to “compartmentalize” the things in his life.

(4) That Blunt was of relatively humble social origins but had, nevertheless, “a powerful desire for inclusion” and was remarkably successful at ingratiating himself with the social élites he met at Cambridge. — partly because of his homosexuality and partly because of his intelligence and “perfect manners.”

(5) That Blunt was of a generation which had been taught by the slaughter of the First World War to mistrust the “rigid out-of-date values of their parents” and those who “held to the belief that the Great War had been a righteous one” and to rebel against tradition and received wisdom in all its forms.

(6) That Blunt was even more inclined to such an iconoclastic view of the world because of the “narrow” and strait-laced religious views of his pious parents and that “his spying scratched the old itch of anger against the English bourgeois world.”

(7) That it was, nevertheless, from his upright but bourgeois parents that he had inherited a strong moral sense, a social conscience and the “missionary” urges which were to lead him to Communism.

(8) And, finally, that in the 1930s “even those not in the slightest bit sympathetic to the Left recognized social breakdown on an unprecedented scale” (as the future Tory prime minister, Harold Macmillan, put it, “It had become evident that the structure of capitalist society in its old form had broken down. . .” ) and saw the Communists as “the only people who took the threat of Fascism seriously.”

In addition, Miss Carter spends a lot of time on Blunt’s career as an art historian (too much, perhaps, not only for the general reader but also for the long-term importance of his scholarship), but these parts can be skipped. The real essence of the book lies in her attempts to establish those eight propositions to explain and excuse a man who was so much an insider and part of the Establishment that he became Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures but who nevertheless betrayed his country. She wants us to say, poor lamb! Of course you were a traitor. Who wouldn’t be?

Oops! That’s the problem, isn’t it? Millions and millions wouldn’t be. Millions who owed far less to the advantages of their nurture than Blunt did and had far less happy childhoods. Indeed, Blunt’s unhappiness at Marlborough has to be inferred from the testimony of friends and in spite of the fact that Blunt himself said he was really quite happy there. Even at Trinity College, Cambridge, at least at first, he is said to have been “miserable” (again by inference, again though he is said to have “forgot” the fact himself), even though he was quickly taken up by the social élite of the University and elected to the secret society of aesthetes and philosophers called the Apostles. Moreover, his homosexuality was if anything a social advantage to him there.

Miss Carter implicitly recognizes how well Blunt fit in at Cambridge when she accepts his remarkable claim that, by the mid-1930s, “almost every intelligent undergraduate who came up to Cambridge joined the Communist party some time in his first year.” Perhaps, she thinks, this had something to do with “the sense of intellectual momentum generated by Cambridge science during this remarkable period” which is said to have “encouraged Blunt and others to believe that similar progress and similar certainties were available in other areas of human activity — such as the great social ‘experiment’ in the Soviet Union.” How, we are meant to reflect, was he essentially any different from these intelligent, intellectually curious young idealists who just wanted to make the world a better place?

Oddly, however, when she turns to an account of Blunt’s career in Military Intelligence, she tells us that his Communist past was no bar to his employment there — even during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact when Blunt was already shipping secrets to his country’s enemies — because “before the war, MI5 had been largely made up of a small group of upper-class gentlemen, somewhat past their best, recruited at the bars of Boodle’s and White’s, with First World War opinions to match.” Such people, she means us to understand, were amateurs and duffers and so remarkably insouciant about a youthful infatuation with Communism on the part of those who worked for them during the war, regarding it as “a form of undergraduate measles and not to be taken seriously.” Oh those First World War opinions! But as a harmless and passing phase is precisely how she regards it (in Blunt’s case) herself.

It’s true that she pays lip-service to the evils of “Stalinism,” but her account of Blunt’s romance with it is terribly tendentious. She simply re-states the party line on the Spanish Civil War, for instance, calling it starkly “Democracy versus Fascism” and so accounting for the enthusiastic pro-Communism of “democrats” like Blunt. This is a shame because it dissipates some of the sympathy that we might otherwise have felt for her portrait of Blunt in his old age, when he bore up rather bravely — according to the Stoic precepts of his artistic hero, Nicolas Poussin — under the humiliation, however well-deserved, of being exposed to the world as a traitor, stripped of his knighthood and publicly reviled by those who had been his friends and professional admirers.

Blunt himself never really apologized or appeared to feel any remorse over his actions, but he did write to a friend “who knew what the ‘thirties were like” and so remained sympathetic to him: “How wrong we all were — but much of the essential evidence about Russia didn’t really get through to us until too late.” Appallingly disingenuous as this claim is, it at least contains an acknowledgment of error. Miranda Carter allows herself to become so much Blunt’s apologist that she can hardly bear even to offer that much.

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