Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt, by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 616 pp. Illustrated. $22.95. ELEGANT, aloof, snobbish, brilliant, cold, supercilious, dictatorial, kind, courteous, civilized, and even just plain nice are among the terms in which those who knew him have described Anthony Blunt. Born in 1907, the youngest son of a vicar in the seaside resort of Bournemouth, Blunt spent some nine years (1912-21) of his early childhood in Paris, where his father served as chaplain to the British Embassy church and where Anthony conceived his lifelong interest in art.
Following an impressive scholastic career at Marlborough and Cambridge, Mr. Blunt went on to win great distinction as an art historian. He was director of the prestigious Courtauld Institute from 1947 to 1974, a respected teacher and author of many books, articles, and catalogs. Appointed surveyor of the king's pictures in 1945, following a wartime stint in British intelligence, he continued to serve as surveyor to Queen Elizabeth II (who knighted him in 1956) until his retirement in 1972.
In 1979, responding to a question in Parliament from a Labour member, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly revealed that Blunt was the so-called ``fourth man'' in the notorious Cambridge spy ring (the first three being Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby). The Secret Service branches MI5 and MI6 - and successive British governments, which were duly informed - had known about Blunt's espionage as early as 1964, when, in return for immunity, he admitted his role as a Soviet spy under questioning by MI5. But, in the interest of national security, as it was claimed, this was not made public.
``Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt'' is not, in the usual sense, a biography of the man, the art historian, or even of the spy. To read its pages is to enter a web of revelations and concealments, a labyrinth of secret passageways and blind alleys, and a welter of opinions and testimony, some wild, some sober, some sincere, some self-serving. Far from encountering a ``Conspiracy of Silence,'' Messrs. Penrose and Freeman (both senior writers at the Sunday Times (London) found countless people willing to talk to them: former officials of British intelligence, high-ranking civil servants, Blunt's family, friends, lovers, enemies, colleagues, and acquaintances.
What emerges is less a portrait of a man than a survey of a milieu - several milieus, from the sedate world of the Courtauld gallery to the raffish world of Blunt's homosexual contacts; from the exclusive world of Cambridge and the Apostles - the prestigious secret society at Cambridge - to the complex, looking-glass world of espionage and counterespionage.
Blunt became a Communist in the 1930s as a young Cambridge don. Many bright young people, dismayed by the economic depression and by the indifference of their leaders to the fascist threat, were attracted by Marxism and the ``great experiment'' in the Soviet Union. Yet some who knew Blunt thought his political sense was almost nil and they could only attribute his communism to the facts that many of his fellow Apostles (including Guy Burgess) were Communists and communism was then ``fashionable.'' Indeed, it is possible that Blunt's very lack of political intelligence may have contributed to his involvement in politics.
By all accounts, he was arrogant. The more he knew himself to be part of the establishment - not to mention the elite sets within it - the more complacent he could be. In the 1930s, many of the Apostles were Marxist, homosexual, or both.
Some have sought a key to Blunt's behavior in his homosexuality. In a society where their actions are forbidden, some homosexuals, like spies, lead double lives and enjoy the excitement of pursuing a second life beneath the fa,cade of respectability. Yet countless homosexuals - including ones who shared Blunt's background and left-wing sympathies - did not become Soviet agents. Blunt's attraction to the Communist Party was in some measure linked to his fascination with the flamboyant Guy Burgess, who thrived on intrigue and on playing the enfant terrible, but the other two Cambridge spies - the tiresome ideologue Maclean and the coolly efficient Philby - were heterosexual.
Thus, although Blunt's actions are rendered more comprehensible by the background painted in this book, no single factor or set of factors seems sufficient to explain him completely. Sometimes, indeed, Blunt seems but a small figure on the much larger canvas of spies, journalists, spy-catchers, and politicians. Blunt's spying, as far as Penrose and Freeman have been able to determine, consisted chiefly of serving as a ``talent spotter'' for the KGB's recruitment program and of passing messages, including the one that tipped off Burgess and Maclean, precipitating their flight to Moscow in 1951. During the war, working for British intelligence, Blunt passed on classified information to the Russians. How damaging this was - or might have been (had the material, for instance, fallen into German hands) - is difficult to assess. And, in a strange twist, the authors cite an interview with a former intelligence officer who recalls that at the end of the war, Blunt told him of having taken great pleasure in passing on the names of every MI5 agent to the Russians!
In some sense, Blunt may have wanted to be caught - to have the responsibility lifted from his shoulders. The second part of this book deals with his exposure - and the many factors, from sheer complacency to possible conspiracy, which delayed it for so long. In many ways, the cover-up is more puzzling than Blunt's becoming a Soviet agent in the first place. Judging by the speculations and scenarios of the people interviewed in this book, we can see there is no dearth of theories. They range from criticism of the complacency of the old-boy network and explanations of the need for secrecy to Peter Wright's accusations of a Soviet-directed conspiracy within British intelligence. Penrose and Freeman do not commit to any of these, but stress the importance of the difference between the British penchant for secrecy and American openness. ``If there had been a similar immunity deal in the United States,'' they say, ``then it would ... have been leaked; and that ... would have led to a high-powered Senate inquiry under the glare of television lights.... But in Britain there was silence.'' And silence, they imply, may cover a multitude of sins. Their book may not provide any final answers to the many questions it raises, but it is certainly an engrossing read and a good place to start.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer who writes frequently for the Monitor.