Codename Edith

Edith Suschitzky merits only one mention in Ben MacIntyre’s masterful biography of double agent Kim Philby. ‘Philby’s introduction to Deutsch appears to have been arranged by Edith Tudor-Hart … Edith married an English doctor and fellow communist called Alexander Tudor-Hart, and moved to England in 1930, where she worked as a photographer and part-time talent-scout for the NKVD, under the remarkably unimaginative codename ‘Edith’. She had been under MI5 surveillance since 1931 but not, fatefully, on the day she led Philby to meet Deutsch in Regent’s Park.’

Philby learned communism at university. Just before he left Cambridge, he asked his supervisor, economist Maurice Dobb, ‘how best to devote my life to the Communist cause’ and Dobb put him in touch with a Paris agent of the Comintern named Louis Gibarti. Gibarti sent Philby to Vienna, where he fell in love with a Viennese communist named Litzi. Edith was one of her best friends, the daughter of a social democratic publisher. Then came the purge. ‘Prisoners march through silent streets as they are led towards the camps that will become their graves, Europe dithering in the months following Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’s disbanding of parliament. Across the city of Vienna, a fire takes hold.’

Litzi’s name was on one of Dollfuss’s hit lists, so she married Philby and fled to London, and a little while later Edith Suschitzky led him to the meeting in the park that would make him a spy. We see little of Philby in this novel, and no great loss. He pops up now and again: at Cambridge (‘Trinity College appeared to bask beneath its own golden halo, those first weeks flying past, the clinking of champagne flutes along the banks of the River Cam’) in Spain (‘Taking a step on to the pavement, the dust scattering around his polished brogues and linen suit – the perfect attire for a bright young Times journalist poised to report the Civil War from Franco’s side’) and outwitting the local cops by throwing his wallet on the floor during interrogation. Oh, he’s such a card. Letters from Russia intersperse the narrative. In them he talks about the weather, his dacha in the countryside, his attempts at cultivating vegetables. Charlotte Philby, who is his grand daughter, wrote the letters based on Philby’s own correspondence: ‘Some sections are lifted verbatim; additional paragraphs I have invented based on his interviews, his autobiography, anecdotes, family folklore, and my imagination.’

Edith was the greater mystery. Growing up, she saw her father’s bookshop regularly trashed and raided by the nationalist right, yet he never fought back: ‘Edith’s father had felt himself stand taller. A self-proclaimed pacifist, he hadn’t lashed out.’ As a young woman she shouts at the old man: ‘You have dedicated your life to ideas and theories that you claim will change the world. But you’re a hypocrite! Just out there, beyond the bookshop, Europe is imploding, and you do nothing.’ As an activist she’ll do anything the Party asks of her, and defend its most shocking crimes. ‘So, my daughter doesn’t condemn it,’ says Edith’s mother in 1939, ‘a pact between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. And so you must condone it, this agreement between your leader and the same man who forced us from our homes, who stole our country – the men who are responsible for Papa’s death?’ 

To betray you must first belong, Philby tells her. Philby was a son of privilege whose life was a succession of exclusive clubs. Edith was an immigrant artist under constant state suspicion. Edith is interesting because she didn’t belong – her personal life was nowhere as linear as her doctrinaire views. After letting go of the dullard doctor she married, Edith had a succession of affairs with various dynamic Soviet agents. The real focus in life was her son – she loves Tommy more than anything in the world, but his condition and stalled development (likely PTSD from the Blitz) makes him a threat to himself and others. Edith takes the boy to a child psychiatrist who starts an affair with her, while the kid is packed off to a succession of remote residential homes. The dullard doctor signs off on a transfer to a brutal asylum without Edith’s knowledge or consent. The child psychiatrist drops her a line to say ‘I think you would like to know from me that I have remarried.’

The last third or so of the novel is a heartbreaking read as, twitchy and ageing, Edith deteriorates fast. At this stage the typewritten police reports that were always an occasional presence in the text begin to take it over – officialdom overwhelming humanity, like the Soviet years. She burns her negatives, suffers a nervous breakdown and is herself institutionalised. It’s at this point that Philby’s letters, always the most interesting aspect of his presence here, take on a poignancy. Under the careful insouciance of Philby’s style you could always make out self-doubt and isolation that crept in. (Macintyre writes ‘At times he sounded like a retired civil servant put out to grass (which, in a way, he was) harrumphing at the vulgarity of modern life… he grumbled about ‘the ghastly din of modern music’ and ‘hooligans inflamed by bourgeois rock music.’) ‘Is it wrong to say that I envied you your freedom?’ he writes to Edith. ‘You got to live your life exactly as you ought; you never had to play a part.’ 

Edith and Kim becomes a sad song, and a meditation on the psychology of betrayal. There is always doubt, and memory, even in the club of one or a mind dedicated to the cause. In his biography of Guy Burgess, Andrew Lownie writes about the house on Bentinck Street where Burgess used to crash sometimes – ‘it had a bomb shelter in the basement, there were always plenty of overnight visitors stranded by air raids or late night duties.’ In August 1940 Burgess wrote to a friend: ‘the bed problem when I sleep there in the basement is complex. Varied also are the names people murmur in their sleep.’

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