Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cambridge Spies

New Chapter: Anthony Blunt - A Reassessment

As with all good spy and espionage tales, our knowledge of the details and our understanding of the people and events evolve with each new book or article.  A recent biography by Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, reveals a much more complex individual than previous accounts suggest.  It is a book that has the advantage of extensive interviews with many who knew Blunt, as well as the large number of documents (some of which are questionable) that have been released since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby will forever remain inscrutable, unknowable and mysterious.  He was a true spy.  Guy Burgess is easily characterized as a narcissistic, strangely attractive and repulsive man.  Donald Maclean was, in many ways, an insecure, unstable and ambiguous personality.

That leaves Anthony Blunt, who, after the enigmatic Kim Philby, is the most fascinating of the Cambridge Spies.

Blunt has been the least considered of the group, thought of mostly as a recruiter of young Cambridge graduates into the Soviet spy system, something of a background figure.  Carters biography dispels this over-simplification.  Indeed, her subtitle His Lives warns the reader that one will be dealing with a complex personality.

While Blunt did indeed recruit for the KGB, he was certainly involved in transmitting secret documents to the Russians.  He was actively engaged in espionage, and not a fringe member of the enterprise.  However, Carter demonstrates that Blunts work for the KGB was an on-again, off-again participation, sometimes going years between assignments, suggesting a man who was ambivalent about his role as a spy.

In addition to documenting Blunts considerable involvement in spying, Carters biography describes an extremely complex man.  She is so convincing in her drawing of the character that the reader is torn between admiration and pity for Blunt.  Here was a Cambridge graduate who taught himself art history (at the time, a neglected academic field) and became not only the director and guiding genius of the Courtauld Institute, but the Keeper of the Queens Pictures.  While some of his conclusions on certain artists were challenged (and continue to be questioned), the scope of his knowledge, the quantity of his research, and the depth of his scholarship placed him among the most respected art historians in Europe.  His fame as a teacher and lecturer was, from evidence presented by Carter, deserved.

At the same time, Carter shows us a man who is lonely, determinedly gay in a society that was not congenial to homosexuality -- indeed, for most of Blunts life, it was a crime in England.  Despite his tall elegance and his place in elegant post-World War Two British society, he lived a double life, engaging in sex with young men, unable to find a partner who would return his affection, hiding behind his austere and cold public image.  There is no question that Blunt and Burgess, particularly in the 30s, were sexual partners, but, as with most of the men Blunt was involved with, never genuine lovers.

Carters brilliant book goes a long way in refuting the superficial myths of John Costellos Mask of Treachery, and provides the record with a very complex and strange member of the Cambridge Spies.  It is tempting to arrange these four principal actors by their sexuality -- Philby decidedly heterosexual, Maclean ambivalent, Blunt unrequited, and Burgess predatory, but such a taxonomy would shed little light on why they did what they did.  Carter does not try to explain Blunts motives, and avoids the trap of facile psychoanalysis that biographers have undertaken with the other three Cambridge Spies.  The closest we come to understanding Blunt is through a comment he made to a friend after his unmasking in 1979, when he was more or less isolated in disgrace:

How did you live through all that? [Margaret Wittkower, an old friend, asked Blunt.] You had lunch with the Queen, you were the conservator of her paintings, you knew the whole royal family, you accepted invitations for weekends, you traveled with people of a class that you wanted to destroy.  And on the other hand you were an art historian without any interference of your other life.  How did you live through that?  Blunt lifted the glass of whisky in his hand, and said, With this, and more work and more work.

---- Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, page 491

Categories
Advertisement