Monday, May 15, 2017

Of Working-Class Spies

H.B. Lyle recently penned an interesting article on the scarcity of working-class protagonists in spy fiction--about which he is, of course, entirely right, even more right than he may fully clarify in the article.

From Carruthers in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) on, the heroes of the genre--the Richard Hannays, the Bulldog Drummonds--tended to be residents of "clubland" (collectively referred to as "clubland heroes"). This wore thin by mid-century, but Ian Fleming gave the type an update that, while in its turn wearing thin, through continuation, imitation and reaction has kept them predominant up to the present (when 2012's Skyfall made the initially rougher-around-the-edges-seeming Daniel Craig take on the character appear even more thoroughly aristocratic than ever as heir to a vast Scottish estate).

Lyle is also quite right about the diversity and dramatic potential overlooked in the process.

Still, considering this two things occurred to me. One is that this simply reflects the reality of espionage. The sort of upbringing, education, social networks that bring one to the attention of intelligence services are decidedly not of the working-class type. The biographies of our most famous spy/novelists tell the story. John le Carre's story preceding his rise to literary fame was public school (Sherborne), Oxford (where domestic counterintel had him spying on leftist students), teaching at Eton, the Foreign Service (where he wound up in intelligence again). The Etonian Ian Fleming didn't make it to Oxbridge, unlike his big bro Peter, but after Pete went into intelligence pre-World War II Fleming followed after him quickly enough--his mom arranging the matter over dinner with Montagu Norman (Governor of the Bank of England, the Alan Greenspan of his times).

Yes, just like that--and one can find parallel tales in the trajectories of other spy/novelists, from W. Somerset Maugham to William F. Buckley--while the life of those spies who never write novels is essentially more of the same. (It is worth recalling that for le Carre writing spy fiction was a way of approaching not so much espionage as the social class of which he is such a student, and his books are striking for how cloistered and out of touch with the rest of the world they seem--but still seem mild in their portrayal of them next to nonfiction like David Leigh's The Wilson Plot.)

The other thing that occurs to me is that this simply reflects fiction in general, which has never had much time for working-class types--in part because it has so rarely been written by working-class types. As is typical for our postmodernist, class-averse era, much is said of sexism and racism in publishing--but no one dares speak of classism. However, the truth is that the matter of the education and leisure required to produce a publishable manuscript, and the question of who is likely to have the connections to get something into print (rather than make the cold-queries to the slush pile that turn their authors into collectors of form rejection letters), definitely have implications for who writes, and gets their writing published.

And of course, what we are accustomed to reinforces the matter in itself, in fiction generally and spy fiction especially. Since at least E. Philips Oppenheim the idea of the spy not only as an elite figure, but as leading a glamorous life, has been part of the appeal of such fiction, an idea that has endured even as our notions of just what makes for glamour have changed.

Review: The Power House , by William Haggard
The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
The Macropolitics and Micropolitics of Spy Fiction
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John Le Carrè
My Posts on Spy Fiction
Reading Bulldog Drummond
A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre
Thoughts on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden

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