Anthony Blunt: His Lives
Miranda Carter
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Anthony Blunt: His Lives* online

Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Miranda Carter
608 pages
March 2003
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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What motivates someone betray their country? An intriguing question, as anyone who followed the case of CIA agent Robert Hansen would agree.

What motivates someone betray their country? An intriguing question, as anyone who followed the case of CIA agent Robert Hansen would agree. A spy from an earlier era, Anthony Blunt, is the subject of a new biography by Miranda Carter. Blunt was part of the spy ring that included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, diplomats and British intelligence officers who passed state secrets to the Russians from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. I must confess that I read few biographies, but when I heard about Miranda Carter’s book I had to read it because I remember the scandal that erupted in Britain in 1979 when Blunt was exposed.

The title of the book – Anthony Blunt: His Lives gives an indication of just how complex a figure this man was. Outwardly a pillar of society and respected academic, Blunt was secretly a traitor to his country and, like his fellow spy Burgess, a homosexual. He passed state secrets to the Russians from the 1930’s until after World War II and yet, despite being under suspicion from the early Fifties when Burgess and Maclean defected to Russia, he was not exposed until 1979. By that time he had worked for MI5, had become a leader in the field of art history and was the director of a prestigious art institute. For years he acted as personal advisor to the Queen on the Royal art collection and had been given a knighthood. The revelation that he was a traitor was exceedingly embarrassing for the British Government.

Anthony Blunt was born in 1907 to parents who were not wealthy but were nevertheless related to aristocracy. He learned early in life to be secretive, concealing his homosexuality and agnosticism from his strictly religious parents. It was not until he attended Cambridge University and met others who shared his sexual preference that Blunt felt a degree of freedom, even though homosexuality was still a crime in Britain.

Cambridge in the 1920’s–1930’s was a hotbed of anti-establishment sentiment and radical thought. In a time of unemployment and hunger marches, Marxism alone seemed to offer a solution. It was also seen by many young intellectuals as the logical way to stop the fascist wave that was sweeping through Spain, Italy and Germany. Although Blunt professed to be a Marxist, he avoided direct involvement in politics, unlike many of his friends who joined the Communist party.

Blunt’s reasons for becoming a Marxist were complicated. He was influenced by friends, especially the flamboyant and manipulative Guy Burgess, by a hatred and fear of fascism and, strangely, by a new materialist (Marxist) theory of art. Philby, Maclean and Burgess, all more committed left-wingers than Blunt, were recruited by the NKVD as “talent spotters,” identifying recruits with potential access to the highest levels of government. Burgess believed, and rightly so, that because of Blunt’s emotional reticence and tendency to compartmentalize his life, he would make a good spy.

The heroic death of a young friend fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War finally convinced Blunt that he had to take action. Burgess introduced him to a Russian recruiter and together they persuaded Blunt that the best way to combat fascism was to spy for Stalinist Russia.

The narrative is roughly chronological as it applies to Blunt; however, the author digresses when necessary to provide background or to tell what happened to other people. The first section of the book covers the tough formative years that Blunt, “a sensitive and weedy boy,” spent at boarding school. Next come the Cambridge University years with details of Blunt’s sexual and intellectual awakening. Up to this point, Miranda Carter does an admirable job of organizing a wealth of information into an interesting narrative. When she talks about Blunt’s career as an art historian, however, I found myself getting bogged down in the squabbles and gossip of the European fine art scene of the 1930’s. The mere number of people to whom she refers is both daunting and confusing. However, it is worth struggling through these pages to read the rest of the book, which at times is riveting, reminiscent almost of one of John LeCarre’s novels.

Anthony Blunt: His Lives is a substantial book: 500 pages plus extensive notes. Miranda Carter draws on numerous interviews plus documents from the Russian intelligence archives to present us with a myriad of tiny details from all Blunt’s "lives", professional and personal. Like dots of color in an impressionist painting, which mean little when viewed close up, seen together at a distance these details reveal the picture of the whole man in the context of the time in which he lived and the class to which he belonged. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys biographies or who, like me, is interested in this particular slice of history.

© 2003 by Julia Ravenscroft for Curled Up With a Good Book

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