Woman at the heart of the Cambridge Spy Ring

By Anne Sebba, Jewish Renaissance, Summer 2022

Woman at the heart of the Cambridge Spy Ring Interview with Charlotte Philby for Jewish Renaissance about Edith and Kim

John Updike famously and scathingly wrote that biographies were simply novels with indexes. Charlotte Philby has now written the reverse: a brilliantly imagined novel that could pass as a biography with no index.

In Edith and Kim she has found an elegant way to write about her notorious grandfather, Kim Philby, a Communist spy who died in Moscow in 1988 when she was just five and a half. She has a strong memory of going to visit him in his flat there, remembering guns on the wall. But she did not really know him as a grandfather.

‘I have wanted to write about him for a long time but in a way that shifted the focus, that tallied with the way my family spoke of him, not how I read about him in other people’s accounts,’ she told me on a zoom interview from her garden writing shed in Bristol. ‘After my father died in 2009, I felt compelled to understand what my grandfather’s legacy, which had so overshadowed his life, meant for us all as a family.’

The moment when she realised how to do it came very suddenly after reading an article in which Anthony Blunt described Edith Tudor-Hart as ‘The grandmother to us all’ – a reference to the ‘Cambridge Five’ spies – Blunt and Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and John Cairncross, men who betrayed their country during the Cold War.

‘I saw a photograph of her, a 1936 self-portrait, eyes down holding a cigarette and felt immediately drawn. I then watched a documentary about her by her nephew Peter Jungk and I fell for her. She was mesmerising and unknowable.’ Philby started digging, baffled that this woman, who played such a key part in her grandfather’s life, was not better known.

In spite of the vast array of books about the Cambridge Five, men who got away with their spying for decades, there has been almost nothing written about the communist photographer Edith (née Suschitzky) born in Vienna in 1908, daughter of a left wing, Jewish antiquarian bookseller who had studied to be a Montessori teacher in England when she was just 16.

Yet in 2015, when her papers were released at the National Archives, it became clear that the SIS had kept files on Edith, documents which Philby cleverly weaves into the narrative of her novel, whom they suspected, and watched but never arrested.

Philby believes this could be because the British authorities failed to see a slightly down at heel single mother, who did not frequent gentleman’s clubs where information might be available, as a threat because she was a woman. They wrote disparagingly describing her as ‘that foreign woman’ and as ‘a rather typical emotional introspective Viennese Jewess’ Women, especially at that time, were the missing dimension within the missing dimension, as espionage historian Christopher Andrew has observed. 

Yet by the time she arrived in England in 1934 she was already a NKVD agent. Among her contributions to the Soviet cause were passing on information she gathered from key spies in the years prior to World War 2 at a time when the Rezidentura in the London embassy was closed, as well as secrets about the atomic bomb which she learned through her then lover, nuclear physicist Engelbert Broda.

Edith was a talent spotter and the big fish that she handed over in London in 1934 was Kim Philby, the young British student she had met the year before in Vienna, recommending him to her Soviet handler and former lover, Arnold Deutsch.

Philby believes that Deutsch, another Viennese Jew, was the real love of her life who had awakened Edith’s idealism, her belief that communism offered a chance to create a better world. It was he who gave her a Rollieflex camera and urged her to study how to use it at the Bauhaus enabling her to become a talented photojournalist documenting shocking living conditions, hunger and disease among the working class.   

Quite possibly Edith and Kim never met again after this introduction as Kim’s first assignment was to eradicate any trace of his communist past.

Woman at the heart of the Cambridge Spy Ring

‘But what fascinated me’, explains Philby, ‘is seeing how Edith continued to represent a different world for the Cambridge-educated Kim. ‘She was almost a figure of conscience for him, representing what must have been an ongoing battle (or one hopes it might have been) for him, someone from his past who he truly admired and trusted. There were so few people who he trusted.’

How important was Edith’s Jewishness to this idealism? Probably not a lot, thinks Philby, mostly because leading a Jewish life was incompatible with being a communist. Nonetheless she moved in Jewish circles during her Hampstead years and helped arrange for Arnold Deutsch to have a flat in the Isokon, the modernist building in Belsize Park which housed several Soviet agents and emigres in the 1930’s. More significant perhaps is that both were outsiders. Edith, a foreign Jew and a woman, was in every way an outsider while Philby refers to the family quote, something her father often said of Kim: ‘to betray first you must belong.’

Intriguingly when Charlotte Philby went back to her grandfather’s Moscow flat after his death she noticed a photo of Edith on his bookshelves and so she weaves into her narrative an invented letter from her grandfather to Edith: ‘I hope you felt proud at the end. Is it wrong to say that I envied you your freedom? You got to live your life exactly as you ought; you never had to play a part. You were always wholly you.’

That is of course only one side of the story, as Philby clearly recognises. While she admires Edith for the way she managed to lead an extraordinary life holding the different parts of her life in balance – single mother, committed revolutionary and talented photographer – it came at a price. Her grandfather, who had five children, often said that his life was made up of two parts, the political and the private but, if forced, the political would win out. Edith was both; she could never make the choice. Tommy, the severely ill son she adored, was in an asylum for much of his life.

When Kim Philby died in Moscow in 1988 he was treated as a hero with a state funeral. Edith’s final years were a struggle. In the early 1950’s, once Kim came under serious suspicion from British Intelligence services and escaped to Moscow, Edith too was under surveillance. Although no link was ever proved, she could no longer earn a living as a photographer. Facing severe financial pressure, had to move out of London to Brighton and ran an antique shop.

Woman at the heart of the Cambridge Spy Ring

She died in a pauper’s hospice, her ashes scattered on the South Downs. It’s an immensely sad story but Philby refuses to see it as a tragedy.

‘She led the life she wanted but the world wasn’t as good as she felt it should be.’

Philby insists that, in spite of the subject matter of this novel, her fourth, she does not want to be defined as someone who writes spy thrillers, or as a granddaughter. Her next book she promises is going to be something completely different.

‘What interests me is the humanity, the effect of what they did, trying to understand how they stuck to their beliefs even in the face of all that followed, especially purges. That’s the challenge. Perhaps Edith was able to separate the ideology from the regime?’ she offers.

And because that struggle to stay true to the cause, more than facts, is at the heart of this novel, I wonder if looking at Edith and Kim’s lives and sympathy for communism has given her any insight into Russia’s behaviour now in Ukraine? Not surprisingly, all she will say is that it’s unfathomable.

We talk a lot about the burden of her name although she has never seen it as a burden. When she first started working as a print journalist she was 25, unmarried. Philby was her surname.

But it is a weighty name to carry and she feels the responsibility, not wanting to be seen as the family mouthpiece since there is never only one version of a family story.

Just before we finish, I tell her about my connection to this story. During World War two my mother was engaged to the son of Oscar Deutsch, the cinema magnate and cousin of Arnold who guaranteed the safe passage to England of the Soviet agent. This is part of my family’s secret history which partly explains why the ‘what ifs’ of history have always intrigued me and now the thought that I (although of course it would not be me) might have been a Deutsch descendant interviewing a Philby descendant is irresistible to imagine.    

What does seem clear to me though is that Edith and Kim is the novel Charlotte Philby was born to write.

Anne Sebba is the author of Ethel Rosenberg, The short life and long betrayal of an American wife and mother.