Ashenden – Book Review
Ashenden was written by Somerset Maugham and published in 1928. It was loosely based on Somerset Maugham’s experiences as an MI6 agent during World War One.
Ashenden was one of the first ‘realistic’ spy novels, taking a cynical view of espionage and its human consequences. It was hugely influential, with authors like Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Len Deighton and John le Carré all following the example set by Maugham.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
During World War One, British Intelligence recruit a famous writer and send him to run a spy ring in Switzerland. The farcical nature of his missions, and the tragic fate of many of the spies, leave him disillusioned with espionage.
Ashenden: Plot Summary
Note: Ashenden consists of a series of short stories, each one or two chapters long. Only the main character, Ashenden himself, links the stories, although a few minor characters such as ‘R’, the head of British Intelligence, are in several stories.
The novel opens with a brief description of Ashenden’s recruitment to the Secret Service by ‘R’. ‘R’ assigns Ashenden to Switzerland, a hotbed of spying due to its neutrality.
When Ashenden arrives in Geneva the British governess of an Egyptian prince refuses his friendship. When she has a near-fatal stroke she summons him, intent on a deathbed confession… But, due to her stroke, she is unable to convey whatever information she has to Ashenden and dies before morning.
The Hairless Mexican
The Hairless Mexican is prepared to ‘get his hands dirty’ to stop a revolutionary bringing Greece into the war on the side of Germany. ‘R’ dispatches Ashenden and the Mexican to Italy to track down the revolutionary and deal with him… But the Mexican kills the wrong Greek.
‘Gustav’ is one of Britain’s most prolific agents, and one of the highest paid, but the Secret Service has started to suspect his reports of inaccuracy. Ashenden investigates and discovers that Gustav has not been to Germany since the war started and has made up all his reports… Ashenden agrees with ‘Gustav’ that the Secret Service will pay him only for validated results in future.
The British discover that a dangerous Indian revolutionary who is conspiring with the Germans has fallen in love with a woman they have arrested for spying. ‘R’ orders Ashenden to blackmail her into luring the Indian into France so the police can arrest him… He does so. But when the Indian finally arrives, he takes poison rather than fall into British hands.
‘R’ orders Ashenden to befriend a dog-loving, Anglo-German husband and wife who have worked as German spies. He hopes to lure them as double-agents, but the Germans are pressuring the husband to infiltrate England… Realising they will not alter their allegiance, Ashenden facilitates the husband’s entrance to Britain, so ‘R’ can arrest him and have him executed as a traitor.
‘R’ reassigns Ashenden to Russia, where he meets the British ambassador. The ambassador tells Ashenden how, when he was a young man, he fell in love with a woman unsuitable to his class and career… And how he left his true love, married a more appropriate woman, and has regretted it all his life.
Mr. Harrington’s Washing
Ashenden travels to Petrograd, attempting to prevent a communist revolution in Russia. His travelling companion is an American businessman called Harrington, who bores Ashenden with his talkativeness. In Petrograd, Ashenden introduces Harrington to an old flame, Anastasia Alexandrovna, with whom he forms an unlikely friendship. Despite Ashenden’s efforts, the revolution breaks out and all foreigners are in danger. Ashenden urges Harrington to flee, but Harrington refuses to go without his laundry… Anastasia takes him to fetch his clothes from the laundry but Harrington is killed in a skirmish on the way back.
Ashenden is an exaggerated autobiography. It’s based on Somerset Maugham’s activities for MI6 during World War One, although dramatised.
The first ‘realistic’ spy story
Ashenden was the first ‘realistic’ spy novel. So authors like John le Carré, Graham Greene and Len Deighton follow in the pattern suggested by Somerset Maugham.
The stories are not really realistic though, as Somerset Maugham himself explained.
The work of the agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.
Maugham went on to say that events like those in Ashenden did occur, but no one person would see the whole of a case. In fact he spent most of his time during the war doing boring paperwork. This is similar to the later ‘realistic’ author, John le Carré. Le Carré claims that MI6 only allowed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to be published because it was not at all realistic. So what Ashenden actually starts is not the ‘realistic’ school of spying, but the ‘cynical’ school.
However, in 1928, even a semi-realistic depiction of spying was revolutionary. At the time, the ‘spymania’ novels of hack authors like William Le Queux shaped the popular understanding of espionage. In those books, foreign spies were physically repulsive, moustachio-twirling villains without any redeeming features whatsoever. Meanwhile British spies were square-jawed patriots of unblemished character. Even the more upmarket authors like John Buchan wrote fantastical tales of daring, disguise and improbable coincidences, with straightforward patriotism the hero’s only motive.
In contrast, Ashenden’s portrayal of the ‘villains’ is humane and sympathetic. For example, the description of the German spy learning that her husband has been executed in The Traitor leaves the reader sympathising with her, not with Ashenden.
The protagonist, Ashenden, engages in morally dubious activities, such as assassination and blackmailing a woman into betraying her lover. The whole business of spying is portrayed as bizarre and cruel, with spies used as pawns and morality a weakness. There is no particular assumption that Britain is right and Germany wrong. Instead, spying is a tough-minded game, played to be won using whichever underhand methods are necessary.
Ashenden’s response to the reality of spying is to become emotionally detached. The story is all told with a great deal of dry humour, but his disillusion and disenchantment are particularly clear in the Russian section of the novel. Ashenden makes it clear that he is not the right man for the job and has been sent purely because no one else is available.
Somerset Maugham was not a spy novelist. He was a literary writer who happened to have the material for a spy novel. The novel is largely a series of vignettes about the various characters that Ashenden comes into contact with. Each one is described brilliantly, and they are often given a tic that makes them memorable.
This contrasts strongly with mainstream spy novels, which are usually plot-led and often feature poorly drawn or clichéd characters. Many spy novelists could learn a lot about writing stronger characters by reading Ashenden.
The missing stories
Somerset Maugham was asked not to include several other stories in the novel as they revealed too much about the methods and activities of Britain’s spies. This might explain why some of the less dramatic incidents, such as Miss King’s stroke and the Ambassador’s love affair (which, in fairness, is beautifully written), are included. It may also explain why the book is, in the end, a little disjointed. There are hints and references in the novel to other events and people, presumably ones who appeared in the censored stories. The remaining stories seem like glimpses at the remains of a longer novel. The final Russian section in particular feels like it is building up to a climax, but then just cuts out as the revolution starts.
The truth behind some of the stories
- During World War One, Germany attempted to support Indian nationalists in the hope of distracting Britain and preventing Indian troops fighting in Europe. The Indian nationalists in Germany were known as the Berlin Committee.
- “Chandra Lal” is loosely based on one of these nationalists, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, known as Chatto. The British tried to assassinate Chatto while he was in Geneva to meet other Indian nationalists, but the story in Ashenden is fanciful. In reality, the assassination attempt did not include betrayal by a lover.
- In Ashenden, ‘R’ is described as the Head of the Secret Service. This is obviously a reference to the real head of the Secret Service, Mansfield Cumming, who signed himself ‘C’.
Ashenden: Alternative Cover
The cover is based on a brief incident in the novel where Ashenden as a private joke, starts romancing a German agent, the Baroness Von Higgins and they go boating together. It also reflects the rather languid air of the novel.
Ashenden: My Verdict
Fascinating. As the prototype of the ‘cynical’ spy novel, it was ahead of its time. Read it and discover where John Le Carré got his ideas from.
Ashenden: The Movie
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film The Secret Agent was an adaptation of two of the stories in Ashenden . It starred John Gielgud as Ashenden, Madeleine Carroll (who was also in Hitchcock’s version of The Thirty-Nine Steps) as a female agent, and Peter Lorre as ‘The General’.
The Secret Agent is a very loose adaptation of The Hairless Mexican and Mr. Harrington’s Washing. Madeleine Carroll’s part is not in the novel. The movie is largely a historical curiosity now. Melodramatic, rather low-budget and produced before Hitchcock’s golden period.
In 1991 the BBC produced a TV adaptation of Ashenden staring Alex Jennings as Ashenden. It doesn’t seem to be available to view.
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