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Anthony Blunt: His Lives
Miranda Carter
London : Pan Books, 2002*.
£9.99, xviii-590 pages, ISBN 0-330-36766-8 (paperback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

The “lives” in question are so rich that the unfortunate reviewer does not know where to begin. As if Blunt’s lives were not enough, the Dramatis Personae in the book – Blunt’s work associates, fellow spies, students, friends and (male) sexual partners (the latter often the same people) would be enough to fill another volume. Here is a typical heavy-going passage:

In 1961 Gordon Lonsdale, a Russian-born Canadian Soviet agent, was arrested and convicted of espionage. Later the same year George Blake, a member of MI6, was found guilty of spying for the Soviets since the early 1950s, and in 1962, John Vassall, who had been blackmailed by the Soviets into handing over Admiralty secrets, was arrested and convicted. Things were not improved when Kim Philby defected in January 1963. Armed with new evidence that he had been a Soviet spy, Dick White had sent Philby’s friend the MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott to Beirut to offer him immunity in return for a confession. [p. 445]

We have in fact three concurrent narratives of Blunt’s lives: as art historian in the centre of the London art milieu, as secret agent at the centre of a Soviet spy ring and as insatiable consumer of homosexual sex. It says something of Carter’s superb skill that she remains in control of the triptych from beginning to end, while the reader gets somewhat lost in all these tragedies and incidents and among all these (mostly) shady characters. In a way, the book has to be “unputdownable”, because if one reads a few pages at a time, one quickly forgets who is who, who did what before, etc.

The plan of the book is as far as possible chronological (not an easy task when so many parallel lives, overt or covert, were lived simultaneously), with the chapter headings named after Blunt’s various functions. Their list gives an excellent resume of the thematic structure of the volume: Son, Schoolboy, Undergraduate, Angry Young Man, Don, Fellow-Traveller, Recruit [of the Soviets], Talent Spotter, Art Historian, Soldier [in British Military Intelligence], Spy, Success [the only chapter to infringe the rule], Accessory, Director, Private Man, Writer, Penitent Impenitent, Traitor.

The author does not resist the understandable temptation to tie the three strands around a central explanatory key – he was a born outsider. Or, as she puts it in a different way, “Blunt seems never to have entirely escaped the Marxist way of seeing the world as a set of permanent contradictions” [p. 415]. His magnum opus of 1953, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700, which received international acclaim and established his reputation, had extensive analyses of the architects Philibert de l’Orme and François Mansart – both rebels in their own way. We are given to understand that Blunt’s hesitations over Picasso, whom he denounced in 1937 as “a pigmy” for Guernica, only to proclaim him in 1953 “the most intense exponent of the tragedy of the twentieth century”, and to see in the picture in 1969 an illustration of “a cosmic tragedy” [pp. 414-415], were characteristic of his mental fluctuations and his insecure nature. Likewise, Carter tells us, in his 1959 book on The Art of William Blake, “he was deeply attracted by Blake’s Dionysian wildness, his public spurning of organized religion and social hypocrisy, his belief that man’s impulses should not be restrained ‘whether by law, religion, or moral code’ ” [pp.410-411].

This of course could justify, not only his homosexual penchants, but his compulsive promiscuity, a constant appetite for fresh flesh in the form of young Irish Guardsmen (Horse Guards were more expensive, we are told) recruited in seedy pubs or in public urinals by his procurers like John Gaskin (“Lady John”, as the tabloid press called him), a lover who willingly doubled up as his “cook and housekeeper – a traditional wife in all but name” as Carter puts it (except that traditional wives do not perhaps roam public conveniences to find cheap prostitutes for their husbands) [pp. 384-389]. Roles were in fact reversed after Gaskin’s attempted suicide in 1980: “When Gaskin came home [from hospital and convalescence]…Blunt became carer, cook, comforter” [p. 488].

Likewise, his “betrayal” is explained by his fundamentally anti-Establishment attitude, even though he was very much a member of the Establishment, “the most powerful and influential figure in British art history” [p. 358], not only as Director of the Courtauld Institute, but as Adviser to the Royal Collection. In fact his whole life story is presented in terms of the dichotomy between appearance (the appearance of respectability) and reality (the sordid reality of desperately trying to hide his “betrayals,” of his country or his partners) – a common enough theme in fictional literature, but less common in biography. But then, of course, Blunt is a character out of a novel – and what author would have dared to pepper it with so many improbable episodes?

There is of course the precedent of Spycatcher [1987]1, but Carter dismisses Peter Wright with a pitiless sentence: “Wright, an inveterate conspiracy-theorist, believed that Hugh Gaitskell2 had been poisoned by the KGB [and] that Harold Wilson3 had been a KGB plant” [p. 454]. In point of fact, Carter devotes some eight pages [pp. 454-462] to demolishing what Wright had to say on Blunt in his best-selling volume, correctly reminding the reader that just because the Government tried to prevent publication does not mean that it was a gospel of truth:

This gave the book a notoriety that guaranteed huge sales, as well as a rather spurious credibility. In fact, while much of it was broadly true, plenty of details and dates were not, and its interpretations were wide open to dispute. [p. 453]

That Blunt became a red herring in the hands of a manipulative Thatcher Government is in no doubt for Carter. When Blunt’s betrayal was finally revealed (he had been interrogated eleven times between 1951 and 1964 [p. 399], when “MI5 finally got hold of real evidence that Blunt had been a Soviet spy” [p. 443]) by Margaret Thatcher on 15 November 1979 in Parliament (in answer to a question from a friendly backbencher which she had engineered), it “completely eclipsed the other big story of the day: that the bank rate was to rise to 17 per cent – a record high, and one more in a series of bad economic news stories that were damaging the government.” This is because, Carter continues, “It had everything: spies, class, homosexuality, off-the-peg outrage, and a villain who had not only betrayed his country, but had embarrassed the Queen” [p. 473]. With this episode, Margaret Thatcher killed two birds with one stone: she drew attention away from her Government’s difficulties – but she also took her revenge on the Establishment, which she profoundly disliked, and which had covered Blunt since the early 1950s, when the first doubts about him appeared, notably after the defection to the USSR of his close friends Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, which MI5 believed had probably been planned by Blunt (though, according to Carter, “Whether Blunt knew that Burgess was going for good is not clear” [p. 344]). Carter magnificently captures the mood of disillusion which seized the average Briton at the time (and for which Margaret Thatcher made Blunt pay dearly in 1979):

In the public mind the Burgess and Maclean case came to have an almost totemic significance. It seemed to draw a line between the pre-war world – its naivety, its social attitudes, its assumptions about the pre-ordained worthiness of the upper classes – and post-war Britain, with its democratic optimism combined with a new pursed-lipped morality and Cold War chilliness. What better illustrated the decadence and complacency of the pre-war upper-class Establishment than its promotion of Burgess, the chaotic drunken queer, and Maclean, the emotionally unstable red, to positions of thrust? [p. 354]

The irony of Blunt somehow having to pay for Burgess’s flight over 25 years later is that “without Burgess, Blunt would never have become a spy.” And, Carter continues, “Why Burgess approached Blunt (in 1935-36) is another question. He was far from an obvious case. He was not a committed Communist; he had no plans to join the BBC or the Foreign Office; nor did he have any contacts of particular interest to the NKVD” [pp. 163-164]. She largely attributes Burgess’s approach once again to his realisation that Blunt was “well adapted for living a double life,” and she believes that “it was the Spanish Civil War, which began in mid-July 1936, that was the catalyst for his decision to accept Burgess’s offer in January 1937,” quoting Blunt himself in an interview with The Times published on 21 November 1979:

In his only public interview after his exposure in 1979, Blunt said, “I was persuaded by Guy Burgess that I could best serve the cause of anti-fascism by joining in his work for the Russians,” because “the Communist Party and Russia constituted the only firm bulwark against fascism, since the Western democracies were taking an uncertain and compromising attitude towards Germany.” [p. 165]

That he was profoundly marked by the Spanish Civil War is also shown, Carter argues, by the annual lecture on Guernica discussed in that context which he gave from the 1950s, “a polished and public statement, argued along the line of the opposition of Good and Evil – a classical theme in painting,” according to a student who remembers the period [p. 166]. Most consciencious biographers would rest content with this explanation, but Miranda Carter goes one better in that she replaces this in the general context of intellectual life in Britain at the time, with allusions to the “beautiful but irredeemably heterosexual” Louis MacNeice and a long and percipient development on W.H. Auden.

But the Spanish Civil War remains an epiphenomenon for Carter, who asks a fundamental question for which she has no single answer: “What, beyond the lure of politics and action, which appealed to so many of his contemporaries, made Blunt take the decision to go with Burgess – a decision that would blight his life?” [p. 176]. This allows her to explore all the strands which concur to her central hypothesis about the outsider in three very rich and very convincing pages [pp. 176-179], the gist of which being that a homosexual who felt persecuted and prosecuted by the State4 had no reason to feel any loyalty to it. She takes this from Blunt, who himself said in 1979 that he took it from E.M. Forster (“What I believe” [1939] in Two Cheers for Democracy5): “Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State. When they do – down with the State, say I” [p. 178]. Interestingly, Forster was among those who tried to justify Burgess’s defection in 1951 – in the name of that homosexual militant anti-patriotism, we are given to understand: “There were a few public displays of sympathy, notably from homosexual Englishmen. E.M. Forster said that such actions were necessary ‘as the only way finally to insult England’ ” [p. 354].

Whatever Blunt’s motives, they were never seriously discussed in the British media in November 1979 and after. Carter has an excellent exposé of the scurrilous, prurient attitude of the press – not only the tabloid “gutter press”, since the Sunday Telegraph (18 November 1979), that paragon of Conservative respectability, printed “an extraordinary story claiming that Blunt had been head of the Dutch section of the Special Operations Executive and accusing him of having sent forty-nine Dutch secret agents to their deaths after the Germans were tipped off.” The only trouble was that the paper confused him with another Blunt – and refused to print a retractation. As Carter puts it, “It was now possible to say and publish almost anything about him. […] He was a villain who had done the indefensible” [p.477]; “He had in effect so defamed himself that no further defamation was possible” [p. xiv].

Even though, she explains, “he made a point of never complaining about his predicament. It was almost as if the exposure had given him a last opportunity to live according to those Stoic ideals he had failed to live up to” [p. 488], it was not only the press that hounded him, and Carter reminds us that, besides losing his knighthood, “within days of Margaret Thatcher’s announcement, Blunt’s academic titles, honorary doctorates, fellowships, memberships, editorships began to disappear, hastily and often embarrassingly withdrawn” [p. 486]. The widely-publicised row in the British Academy, with the anti-Blunt, pro-expulsion faction led by J.H. Plumb6 and the opposite camp led by A.J.P. Taylor7– two prominent members of the British History Establishment in different ways – gives Carter the opportunity to castigate the pusillanimous attitude of the British academic world in the Thatcher years:

There was a peculiar element of self-flagellation in some of the academics’ responses to Blunt. Some British academics set about accusing themselves and their kind of various sins: of elitism and arrogance, of “moral cowardice” and lax, relativistic, overliberal morals; of poisoning themselves in the labyrinth of esoteric study. […] Such self-criticism would become almost a frequent pastime for a certain type of academic and intellectual during the next ten years, bespeaking a kind of unease, almost an embarrassment, at their status in the chilly world of Thatcherism. At the same time, academics would become less and less publicly valued, more and more financially squeezed. Ten years later, it would be hard to imagine any academic dispute making front-page news, except as a joke. [p. 493]

Blunt died on 26 March 1983, of a heart attack, at the age of 75. Gaskin, to whom he left a large part of his considerable wealth, threw himself under a train in July 1988. Writing from the perspective of the early 2000s, Miranda Carter set herself a comprehensive agenda, which she explains in the Prologue:

Twenty-two years after Blunt’s exposure, much has changed. Perhaps the most important of all these changes has been the end of the Cold War. The ideological polarizations which divided almost all political and intellectual life, in Britain as elsewhere, have eased. Blunt’s history can be seen in its particularity, rather than as an exemplary (to many, exemplarily hateful) general case. From this new perspective, his life vividly illustrates certain key moments and themes of twentieth-century Britain: intellectual, political, sexual and social. Blunt was a public-school rebel of a near-textbook type; in the 1920s he became a follower of Bloomsbury; in the 1930s a left-wing intellectual; in the 1950s and ’60s an impeccably camouflaged man of the Establishment. […] He was a homosexual in a world where homosexuality was against the law, and a traitor at a time when the penalty for the crime was death. […]
I did not want to write a spy book, and hope that I have not done so, but a calmer synopsis of the primary material has become possible, and it is that which I have set out to provide, in the belief that the facts about Blunt are as interesting as any of the fantasies. [pp. xvii-xviii]

She has magnificently succeeded in her task – her book is indeed far more than “a spy book”: it is far more in fact than a mere biography, as it is steeped in the old-fashioned tradition of “the man and his times”. Anybody interested in twentieth-century British history – especially social and cultural history – will be riveted by her narrative: she has obviously “read everything” on her subject – which is as it should be – but she has the uncanny talent of tying everything together in an unobtrusive way. And if the tome is not technically “unputdownable”, it is only because no ordinary mortal could absorb the wealth of information contained in its 600 pages at one go.

Academic readers will be irritated by the system adopted to give sources: there are no notes as such, but a final References section which gives the sources for each page. On the other hand, the volume offers a comprehensive Index, in the best academic tradition. It also has an excellent selection of good-quality photographs.

Unreservedly recommended for all University and History Libraries.



* First published London : Macmillan, 2001. back

1: Wright, Peter. Spycatcher. Victoria, Australia: William Heinemann, 1987. back
2: Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963) was Labour Leader (and therefore Leader of the Opposition), 1955-1963, when he died of a rare sudden disease. back
3: Harold Wilson (1916-1995) was Labour Prime Minister, 1964-1970 and 1974-1976. back
4: Carter has revealing statistics of convictions for sodomy and bestiality, 1938-1952 [p. 355]. back
5: Forster, E.M. Two cheers for democracy. London: Edward Arnold, 1951. back
6: Plumb was famous among generations of undergraduates for his Pelican on the 18c.: England in the eighteenth Century (1714-1815). The Pelican History of England; 7. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950 (numerous reissues). One of his collections of essays has just be reissued : The Death of the Past. With a preface by Simon Schama and an introduction by Niall Ferguson. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 (Previous ed.: 1969). back
7: The episode is discussed from Taylor’s point of view in Kathleen Burk’s biography of Taylor, pp. 339-343. See review on: back



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