I have a fascination with spies, the real ones, especially the double agents, true events being as startling as anything fiction can come up with (John LeCarre notwithstanding). Take, for instance, the infamous World War II quartet—Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt.
Recently I came across “Cambridge Spies,” a 2003 dramatized BBC series about the foursome that stretches and embellishes the truth. They were Apostles during the 1930s with Julian Bell, who is depicted as in thrall to Communism like themselves, especially in its opposition to Fascism at a time when England’s response was benign.
Guy Burgess claims to be in love with Julian, but it’s Anthony Blunt who shares his bed. Keeping his socks on, Julian explains that Virginia gave them to him and told him not to take them off. Blunt expresses amazement that he’s in bed with Virginia Woolf’s socks.
I suspect this scene of being added for color, but it piqued my curiosity. I recalled Blunt in collusion with Harold Nicolson and Maynard Keynes in The White Garden, the Stephanie Barron novel about Woolf’s death that I reviewed Oct. 16, 2009. Although a generation removed, some connection seemed plausible among Cambridge-educated men moving in avant garde London political and cultural circles.
I turned to my own bookshelf and zeroed in on Quentin Bell’s memoir, Elders and Betters (published in the U.S. as Bloomsbury Recalled). The last chapter is about Anthony Blunt, whom Quentin met through Julian at Cambridge. Quentin believed their friendship was founded on art, not politics, and said further: “I don’t think that Julian attempted to convert Anthony to socialism. Anthony did attempt to convert Julian to homosexuality but failed utterly.”
Quentin also became acquainted with Guy Burgess and attested to his heavy drinking and outrageous behavior. After Burgess defected to Moscow and his activities were made public, Quentin expressed surprise that he could ever have been entrusted with secrets. In fact, he may not have been; Rebecca West’s The New Meaning of Treason suggests that he may have been left in place to sow discord between the English and the Americans.
Blunt spent many years as art consultant and historian for the royal family and in the higher echelons of the British art world, and Quentin had occasional contact with him over the years. When Blunt’s treasonous activities were exposed in the 1960s, Quentin expressed sympathy for the difficult double lives they lived, believing the damage they did to be negligible.
An interesting postscript and sighting: This weekend I watched “Enigma,” a 2001 movie about WWII codebreakers and internal spies. Overheard in the cafeteria at Bletchley Park, the secret intelligence headquarters: “Drowning herself was Virginia Woolf’s greatest contribution to English literature.”
I don’t know if that’s from the Robert Harris novel or Tom Stoppard’s screenplay, but someone seems to have had an axe to grind.