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Anthony Blunt: His Lives
By Miranda Carter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
590 pgs. US$30/C$47

The mysterious spy

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 28, 2002

Anthony Blunt: His LivesIt's a testament to Miranda Carter's skill that a figure so publicly restrained and insular as Anthony Blunt, equally best known for his work in art history and his spying on England on behalf of the Soviet union, that she was able to complete as detailed an investigation into the man that she has managed. Despite the close proximity, however, it may be impossible for anyone to know why Blunt betrayed his nation especially since Blunt himself may not have known.

Until November 1979, Blunt was known to world as one its finest art historians, specializing in his beloved 16th century French painter Nicolas Poussin. To his friends, Blunt was a mysterious figure with a murky past. Known was his friendship with Guy Burgess, the British spy who along with Don Maclean defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, his homosexuality and his Communist past. Many other rumors swirled around the man throughout his life, including secret missions on behalf of the English Crown at end of the Second World War.

"The factor which most persistently kept Blunt a mystery ... was his own fundamental mysteriousness, the fact that even to his friends he was an enigma. They were well aware that there were many things they didn't know about them," Carter writes early on. "'I worked with him for thirty years, but I never felt I really knew him,' his deputy director at the Courtauld Institute of Art, George Zarnecki, said later."

Carter's account of Blunt's life begins in his early years, including his time at truly brutal public school, one that Carter writes spurred "a questioning and subversive attitude and a profound distrust of authority" and traces a life that included being a member of the Bloomsbury group, a leftist collection of intellectuals that included John Maynard Keynes, and a secret Cambridge debating group known as the Apostles. Out of school, Blunt served with MI5 during the Second World War and it was in 1941 he began passing documents to the Soviet Union.

As history relates, Blunt was a member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, one that included Burgess, Maclean, Kim Philby and John Cairncross. Along with passing along sensitive information to the Soviets, Blunt also served as a spotter of new recruits for Moscow. While hysterical claims that Blunt's work was responsible for the deaths of several western spies in the Soviet Union were ultimately disproved, the extent of the damage he inflicted upon the West may never be completely known until the Soviet archives are completely investigated.

Of course, MI5 knew of all of this in the 1960s. After a break thanks to, of all things, a Kennedy Administration appointment to the National Endowment for the Arts, British Intelligence finally turned their suspicions of Blunt into an active investigation. Blunt's treachery, however, was hidden because of the embarrassment it would have caused both the British establishment and the intelligence community.

Throughout her account of Blunt, it's fairly clear that Carter is sympathetic to the man who betrayed her nation, though the biography's one weakness is that she doesn't make it very clear why she believes he deserves this sympathy. True, the last years of his life were filled by manic efforts by the press to find out more about him, efforts frustrated by his careful work to insulate the private man from the public one. Though his hatred of fascism was laudable, his actions were no less reprehensible because his spying for the fascist world's greatest enemy. Blunt was born the lower middle class son of a clergyman and was educated by the best the British Empire had to offer. He managed to rise to a position of trust in the British Establishment and the world and did much good academic work. He also betrayed his nation without much of an explanation. The two fail to balance each other out.

Carter even states at one point that Blunt would never have become a spy had not been for Burgess, a claim that may be true but also irrelevant. Blunt was a spy by his own choice whether or not Burgess manipulated him. By portraying him as a man easily led by his friends, Carter's defense of him turns Blunt into a more pathetic figure than sad. Blunt was a complicated man who managed to compartmentalize his life to an amazing degree and lapsing into simple answers to explain his motivations is a regrettable error for Carter to have made.

Despite that, Carter's work is exceptional in its painstakingness and thoroughness. Even Blunt's many friends were never quite sure what demons drove him but her work gets as close to the man behind the news accounts as is probably possible. Though we may never know the Blunt that the man thought or hoped he was, Carter has given us a marvelous view into his world and the circumstances he lived in and allowed us to form our own judgments.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives at Amazon.com for only $21 (30% off)

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