Elitism, Empire and Espionage: what exactly is ‘the British spy novel’?

By Sophia Massam

The espionage novel is a staple of 20th century British literature – look no further than Ian Fleming’s James Bond. But the 20th-century British espionage novel was shaped by the changing times. In 1928 Somerset Maugham began a trend in espionage novels of rejecting the Victorian patriotic spy novel with his antiheroic, eponymous spy Ashenden. Graham Greene continued this trend in Our Man in Havana (1958), a satirical novel that depicts the fabrication of information. Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is a far darker novel of a Soviet defector inside the British establishment and the betrayal and paranoia ingrained in espionage. Comparing these works to the Bond novels, which began with Casino Royale (1953) and hark back to the patriotic novels of the past, shows how perceptions of espionage have changed as British society has evolved. There is a common thread amongst all these writers – they were, by one way or another, involved in some form of espionage. David Cornwell was still part of the British Secret Service when he wrote The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – hence his pseudonym John Le Carre. Our Man in Havana is inspired by Greene’s own espionage work in Portugal under infamous defector Kim Philby. Fleming was part of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division and Maugham was part of the British Secret Service before and during WW1. 

Comparing Le Carre to the Bond series shows how perceptions of espionage have changed as British society has evolved

Ashenden (1928) by Maugham consists of a series of short stories only linked by Ashenden himself, the protagonist. Ashenden describes his “official existence” as “orderly and monotonous as a city clerk” and indeed throughout the novel, Ashenden achieves little. The stories reflect this, for the most part having no dramatic climax. For Ashenden, the stereotypical epitome of the English gentleman, espionage allows him to “gather material” for his work as a writer. Despite his scepticism of espionage, Ashenden never considers refusing to take the job. Ashenden was realistic to the point that Winston Churchill complained that it broke the Official Secrets Act – and Le Carre described him as “the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality”.

Ashenden was realistic to the point that Winston Churchill complained that it broke the Official Secrets Act

Le Carre maintained an air of realism in all his novels through his use of contemporary topics and controversial issues at the time – the division of Berlin in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963), drugs and arms racketeering in The Night Manager (1993), for instance. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is inspired by the Cambridge group of spies uncovered in 1963 that included Kim Philby, whom Le Carre described in his autobiographical The Pigeon Tunnel (2017) as an “entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power”. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy focuses on the themes of diminishment, and dissolution, with a Soviet spy at the heart of the Secret Service. Philby famously said that because he was “born into the British governing class” he knew “they would never get too tough with me.” Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy documents the decline of power, as the disintegration of the British Empire meant the loss of both international influence and military might. The protagonist, Smiley, seeks to understand the motivation of the traitor “trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves…” the patriotic propaganda taught to ‘children of the empire’ that filled them with importance then deflated by the empire’s decline. Smiley’s admission that he understands the traitors’ motivations with “painful clarity” implies he too has been imbued with such propaganda and suffers from the decline of influence. 

While Le Carre speculates through the melancholic atmosphere in the novels and the sordidness of several of the characters and their environments, and the paranoia engrained in the life of a spy “whole vistas of deceit opened before him” about the value of espionage itself, Le Carre does see ‘the service’ as a necessary evil when calculating the value of human life. Whereas Greene is far more disenfranchised, mocking the British Government as a whole. In later life, Greene supported Castro’s regime and in 1957, Greene played a small role in helping the revolutionaries. Greene’s portrayal of the British espionage service is equally dismissive of patriotic mythos but more satirical. ‘Our Man In Havana’ depicts overly confident men, used to the prestige of Empire, who are fooled by the antihero protagonist Wormold – a vacuum cleaner salesman. Despite Greene’s Oxford background, he mocks the stereotype of Oxford and Cambridge men as professionals – Wormold “wasn’t at a university” yet he successfully fools the entirety of the British establishment “the War Office, the Admiralty, the Air Ministry” in which lies the great humour and dramatic irony of the novel – the audience are aware of what Wormold is doing, but the government are not. Greene himself said “the object was to… make fun of the secret service” and even the name of Greene’s Our Man in Havana is laced with dramatic irony as Wormold is clearly not the British Government’s man. Greene was responsible for monitoring German agents, and became aware of a German agent who “gave detailed reports on British defence without ever leaving Lisbon – with the help of a map, a Blue Guide to England, some military books, and a good imagination.”

The decline of the British Empire increased the demand for idealised spy fiction

The decline of the British Empire increased the demand for idealised spy fiction – such as James Bond – that mitigated anxieties over the emergent Cold War and compensated for the decline of international prestige and influence. James Bond implied that despite the lack of military might, British intelligence still excelled. Greene, disillusioned with the British establishment, sought to puncture this image. Fleming had written six Bond novels before Greene published Our Man in Havana, and they had proved hugely successful especially in Britain.

Bond’s character is the ultimate male, courageous, heroic, and suave. Green’s male protagonist James Wormold is a parodic mockery of Bond. Bond is famously a drinker who experiences few side effects – Wormold rapidly becomes completely inebriated. Bond “flirted with the idea of becoming a racing driver” (Live and Let Die) making Wormold’s admission that if anything goes wrong with his car his “daughter sees to it” more embarrassing and amusing. While it could be said that Wormold is emasculated by the character of Bond, Greene shows Wormold is a realistic character – he has motivations and fears that allow the reader to sympathise with him. Wormold is an antihero, but his complex and contradictory character makes him more likeable than the two-dimensional statically perfect – and therefore utterly unrelatable – Bond. 

The British spy novel, in all its iterations, provides a window into the political and popular feeling of the time

The British spy novel, in all its iterations, provides a window into the political and popular feeling of the time, whether it be pro-Government or in reaction against it. But it must be considered that there is a spectrum of realism present in espionage novels that place the works of Ian Fleming, such as ‘Casino Royale’ firmly in ‘least realistic’. 


Cover Image: Jordan Nix via Unsplash

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