Anthony Blunt: His Lives
by Miranda Carter
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
590 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Spy Vs. Spy
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
British journalist Miranda Carter chose a curious subject for her first book: the late, once-great, much maligned art historian and notorious traitor Anthony Blunt ("Sir" Anthony, until the Queen disdainfully plucked his knighthood from him in the late 1970s). The Blunt story is messy and complicated, with layer upon layer of intrigue, paranoia and Orwellian doublethink.
Blunt himself is not an easy man to comprehend or even penetrate. There is something dusty and desiccated about him, as the grim-lipped, disturbingly austere cover photo reveals. How could someone with such an intriguing past, a man who secretly passed sensitive information to the Soviets while simultaneously working for British Intelligence during World War II, turn out to be such a dry old stick?
This is the main problem with Carter's meticulously researched and basically well-written book: Blunt is so emotionally rigid and cerebral that, in spite of his rather wild gay life, he makes an almost dull subject. The more we know about him, the less we like him (more about that later). But the chaotic spy-versus-spy milieu he functions in, replete with characters far more colorful than he is, keeps things moving along.
Carter, to her credit, is not above passing along some truly enjoyable dish, all the nasty little secrets (personal as well as political) that Blunt somehow kept from the world until Margaret Thatcher exposed him in 1979. He seems to have bedded every attractive man who ever crossed his path, not to mention the odd woman, perhaps to round out his experience. (And then there is this tidbit about his cohort, the illustrious poet W. H Auden: he once "made an entirely inappropriate pass at Leo Humphries, a golden-haired, pink-cheeked undergraduate who set elderly dons' hearts beating faster".)
The story of Blunt's early life in pre-World War I England is so frightfully British as to be sometimes inadvertently hilarious. His father, a prim stuffed shirt of a man, was a vicar in Bournemouth (about which Rupert Brooke once famously wrote, "I have been in this quiet place of invalids and gentlemanly sunsets for about 100 years, ever since yesterday week").
His mother Hilda "strove always to do the right thing, especially when it was painful to her." Little Anthony was bright but weedy and bad at games, often teased in the schoolyard and labeled a "pansy". The fact that he did turn out to be gay made for a need to hide certain aspects of himself from the world, a quality which would serve him well in later life.
Carter excels at coming up with anecdotes that capture the atmosphere of Blunt's times. Her story about Lord Bertie of Thame (a British ambassador in Paris) is pure Wodehouse:
Bertie was generally viewed at the Foreign Office as completely ineffectual, though he was much appreciated by the French for his fancy wardrobe. He spent his time in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, among the grander echelons of French society, and his main interests were dirty stories (he owned a huge collection of pornographic prints) and society. His wife, Fedorewna 'a dear old thing, very ugly' was a keen poker player.
No one could make up such details. Another of the book's strengths are the vibrant quotes from Blunt's contemporaries. One schoolmate recalls his cohort's appearance in youth: "He was very tall and very thin and drooping ... with deadly sharp elbows and the ribs of a famished saint; he had cold blue eyes, a cutaway mouth and a wave of soft brown hair falling over his forehead."
There was no shortage of homoerotic connections in Blunt's life, though some were passionately platonic, based on mutual intellectual fervor. At Cambridge he became loosely involved with the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, though his crowd wasn't above sending it all up:
Michael Redgrave and a few others had written a parody of Virginia Woolf's just published Orlando, about a character called Verandah who changed sex so often 'no one was quite certain of what turn his sexual arrangement might take at any minute'. The article was illustrated by a picture of Blunt, dressed as a woman, reclining fragrantly on a couch while wearing a long dress and sporting an elaborate and luxuriant wig.
If only he had stayed this colorful:
Already Blunt was capable of great coldness and self-absorption, and, just as there were those who admired, even glamorized him, there were those who intensely disliked him.
In the early 1930s Marxism became fashionable among the Cambridge set, in part as a reaction against the Fascism which then seethed all over Europe. As a friend of Blunt's exclaimed, "It's all rather fun. I find it very difficult not to be carried away by my feelings and join the Communists all my friends seem to have." It was the thing to do. In particular, Blunt's closest friend and sometime lover, Guy Burgess, (who was colorful to the point of vertigo) seduced him into embracing the Red philosophy.
There was no turning back. Though it is never made clear exactly what compelled Blunt to serve two such disparate masters during the War, he somehow found himself working in Intelligence while regularly meeting with Soviet contacts to pass along thousands of secret documents. If anyone suspected him, nothing was said, but the atmosphere of mistrust was severe enough that the Soviets at one point suspected Blunt of passing them "disinformation."
After the war, Blunt made an effort to break away from his spying connections and focus his formidable energies on a distinguished career as an art historian, writer and curator for the Queen. He was only partially successful, as his spy cohorts Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean kept dragging him back into the fray one way or another. (This is how Blunt became known as the "Fourth Man.") He even helped Burgess and Maclean defect to Russia in the early 1950s.
What seems incredible is how long it took for all this to be made public. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Blunt confessed everything (or almost everything) to British intelligence in 1964, but it was fully 15 years later before his story exploded into lurid tabloid headlines, complete with juicy details about his sexual conquests.
The interim years were fraught with tension for Blunt, not because his conscience bothered him but because he feared being found out. Denial only worked so long as a protective strategy: "The Establishment which had been accused of covering for Blunt turned on him ... leaving him the focus of outrage and largely escaping any opprobrium itself."
Carter's relative sympathy for Blunt, a bloodless, reptilian sort of figure once described as an "ice-cold bastard," seems misplaced. True, he was embedded in a much larger web of corruption, but he made a cool-headed decision to betray his country with no trace of inner conflict, and afterwards never seemed sorry for anything he had done. In spite of Carter's attempts to make us admire or at least tolerate him, Blunt comes across as sociopathic and even, at times, repulsive. One can almost see the forked tongue darting out from that tightlipped cover photo. Whatever he contributed as an art historian can never take away the fact that Anthony Blunt was, in the final analysis, a cold-blooded traitor. | March 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.