Friday essay: the secret lives of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré – the spymasters shaped by a lack of parental love

John Le Carré in a scene from The Pigeon Tunnel Apple TV+
John Le Carré in a scene from The Pigeon Tunnel Apple TV+

In 2022, writer Suleika Dawson published an intimate, refreshingly candid first-hand account of her passionate extramarital affair with David Cornwell – who worked as an intelligence agent for MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and early 1960s, and wrote spy novels using the pseudonym John le Carré.

Dawson and Cornwell first crossed paths in September 1982. Dawson, who had recently graduated with a degree in English Literature and Language from the University of Oxford, had a job abridging novels for an audiobook firm in London.

Cornwell, whom Dawson correctly describes as “the premier fabulist of the Cold War”, was booked in at her firm’s recording studio to read the abridged version of his ninth novel, Smiley’s People, published in 1979. (An award-winning television adaptation starring Alec Guinness appeared in 1982.)

Cornwell had been an internationally bestselling author since his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was published in 1963. He had stopped working as an intelligence officer to become a full-time writer a year later, after his diplomatic cover in West Germany (where he was stationed when the Berlin Wall was erected) was blown by MI6 double agent Kim Philby – or so he always claimed.

A fictional version of Philby would be hunted by George Smiley, Le Carré’s most iconic fictional spy, in his 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

There was, Dawson remembers, “an extraordinary bond between us, which we both felt from that first lunch – which David, whose life had been a constant search for love, perhaps felt even more forcefully than I did”.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the 1982 adaptation of Smiley’s People. BBC Images
Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the 1982 adaptation of Smiley’s People. BBC Images

‘Messy private life’ off-limits

Cornwell’s “constant search for love” is highly relevant to Adam Sisman’s The Secret Life of John le Carré (2023), a biographical addendum of sorts to his 2015 book, John le Carré: The Biography.

Although Cornwell was initially enthusiastic about Sisman’s biography and agreed to work with him on it, he was wary when it came to inquiries about his “own messy private life”. It was – as Sisman soon came to discover – strictly off-limits.

This is something the famed documentarian Errol Morris would come up against in The Pigeon Tunnel (2023). His recent documentary adaptation of Le Carré’s 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life, concentrates on Cornwell’s relationship with his conman father, and on his career in British intelligence and as a novelist, but is notably thin on details when it comes to certain aspects of his private life.

At one particularly telling juncture late in the film, Morris asks Cornwell about the theme of “betrayal” that runs through his life and career. Cornwell’s response is worth quoting:

Well, I feel you got the last drop out of the sponge on that subject. But I’ll answer any question you wish me to answer as truthfully as I can. […] I’m not going to talk about my sex life - anymore, I trust, than you would. It seems to be an intensely private matter. My love life has been a very difficult passage, as you would imagine, but it has resolved itself wonderfully. And that’s enough on that subject.

It is a fleeting, yet significant moment in the film – reminiscent of the situation in which Sisman found himself while working on his 2015 biography. Relations between biographer and subject became increasingly strained, with Cornwell threatening to scupper the venture altogether.

Sisman turned to Cornwell’s eldest son, Simon, who recommended the biographer should keep a “secret annexe” of material that could be published in some form after David and his wife Jane had passed away.

“Now that [Cornwell] has died,” Sisman writes in his preface to The Secret Life of John Le Carré, “it is important to add this coda to the biography that he encouraged, semi-authorised, and then tried to sabotage.”

He writes:

It is not a substitute for or a condensation of my 2015 biography, but a supplement containing material that I felt obliged to omit then, as well as information that has emerged since.

The new book affords him the opportunity to paint as complete as possible a biographical portrait of Cornwell, who was born in 1931 and died in 2020, while hoping to dispel “some of the myths about David’s past” – certain of which came from Cornwell himself.

Sisman demonstrates, for example, that it is highly unlikely Philby blew Cornwell’s cover when he defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.

Read more: John Le Carré: authentic spy fiction that wrote the wrongs of post-war British intelligence

Ian Fleming and his looming family influence

Nicholas Shakespeare, who writes novels when not penning celebrated biographies, says something similar in the prologue to Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, his 800-page account of the author who created the most world’s famous fictional spy, James Bond.

Shakespeare thinks there “ample and legitimate reasons to go right back to the beginning; to turn the soil of [Fleming’s] personal history and revisit his legacy from a contemporary perspective”.

Drawing on published and unpublished materials, Shakespeare aims to correct a few assumptions about Fleming’s life – especially when it comes to his career with the Naval Intelligence Division during the second world war.

A child of extraordinary wealth and privilege, Fleming was born in 1908 and died in 1964. Of Scottish descent, he grew up in England and was educated at Eton - where Cornwell once taught - and Sandhurst Royal Military College.

His merchant banker father, Valentine Fleming, was, in Shakespeare’s account, “a paragon of whom no one spoke ill”.

Ian Fleming barely knew his father, a well-loved war hero who was killed in action during the first world war, and whose obituary was written by none other than Winston Churchill (which Ian framed and kept above his bed as a child).

“Like Churchill’s framed obituary,” Shakespeare contends, “the phantom of his dead father loomed over Ian for the remainder of his life.”

Shakespeare reasons the untimely death of Valentine Fleming played a decisive role in the genesis of James Bond. Specifically, he speculates that one of the reasons why Ian – who never saw front-line combat – created 007 was an unconscious desire to “join his father at the front”.

Ian Fleming’s relationship with his older brother, Peter, is similarly noteworthy. Peter Fleming was an adventurer, journalist and author. Shakespeare asserts that Ian spent his whole life trying to keep up with his much-admired brother.

In 1951, Peter published a bestselling spy novel, The Sixth Column, which he dedicated to his brother. It appeared mere months before the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Ian had long harboured literary ambitions. Upon reading The Sixth Column, Shakespeare says, “Ian knew he could do better.”

Shakespeare quotes Ian Fleming’s American editor – Al Hart – in support. Ian, who worked as a stockbroker and a journalist (with Reuters and The Sunday Times) before finding belated fame as a novelist,

wrote because he got tired of being Peter Fleming’s younger brother. He was determined that Peter Fleming should be known as Ian Fleming’s elder brother. And by God, he is.

For Shakespeare, where Ian’s relationship with his brother can be characterised as competitive, his relationship with his mother – Eve – should be understood in terms of control and domination.

Eve Sainte Croix Fleming comes in for sustained criticism in the new biography. Shakespeare, who has very little positive to say here, describes her as “imperious, melodramatic, entitled, and a narcissist who dealt acidly with dissent”.

In Shakespeare’s retelling, Eve’s parenting left a lot to be desired, and had a detrimental effect on Ian’s development.

He suggests Fleming’s fraught bond with his mother came to shape the character and problematic behavioural patterns of James Bond – especially in relation to women. (Like 007, Fleming was an incorrigible womaniser.)

Infidelities ‘a necessary drug’ for Le Carré

Familial relationships played an equally significant role in Cornwell’s development. He was always upfront about this.

He spoke and wrote extensively about the effect his father Ronnie – a notorious conman and convicted felon – had on his childhood, and how this vexed relationship shaped his behaviour in adult life.

Ronnie’s presence is most clearly felt in Le Carré’s transparently semi-autobiographical 1986 novel A Perfect Spy, whose protagonist, a British intelligence officer and double agent, has a charismatic conman father. Philip Roth thought it the “best English novel since the war”.

Cornwell’s relationship with Ronnie is explored at length in The Pigeon Tunnel: both the memoir and Morris’s documentary adaptation.

“People loved Ronnie to the end of his days, even people he robbed,” Cornwell told Morris. “When he was on stage, beguiling people, he absolutely believed in what he was saying. These spasms of immense charm and persuasiveness were his moments of feeling real.”

His father wanted him to have a “posh education” and sent him to schools where he learned “the manners and attitudes of a class to which I did not belong”. (Set in a fictional private school, Le Carré’s 1962 novel, A Murder of Quality, gives us a sense of Cornwell’s feelings about the British ruling class.) This sense of not belonging, of performing a role, also contributed to him being “a little spy” from “a very early age”.

Cornwell’s relationship with his mother, Olive, was just as complex. Unable to cope with Ronnie’s compulsive swindling and dangerous lifestyle, David’s mother walked out on the family when he was five years old. He met her again when he was 21. “She was impenetrable emotionally,” he told Errol Morris. “I never heard her express a serious feeling.”

Sisman mentions Olive at the start of The Secret Life, when discussing Cornwell’s many extramarital affairs:

Why did David pursue these women with such intensity and what does it say about him? When compelled to confront this issue, he told me that the restless, self-destructive search for love was part of his nature. In his mind this went back to his childhood, to his unrequited love for his mother, who abandoned her children at an early age.

In the film version of The Pigeon Tunnel, Cornwell reflects on the night his mother disappeared:

Did she come into the room where we slept and take a last look at us? […] I imagine that she did.

Sisman sets out to answer his own questions. He maintains that Cornwell’s infidelities are key to a proper – or complete – appreciation of his writing. Not only do they help us understand what Cornwell wrote, but they help to explain, in Sisman’s words, “how, why and when he wrote”.

Sisman quotes from his private correspondence with Cornwell when making this claim:

My infidelities produced in my life a duality & that became almost a necessary drug for my writing, a dangerous edge of some kind […] They are not therefore a “dark part” of my life, separate from the “high literary calling”, so to speak, but, alas, integral to it, & inseparable.

Dawson would agree with this assessment - appreciating as she does “how entirely fractal David’s life was, how each part was a smaller replica of the whole. The perfect multifaceted reflection of the perfect spy.”

“It’s terribly difficult to recruit for the secret service,” says Cornwell in the film, The Pigeon Tunnel.

You’re looking for somebody who’s a bit bad. But at the same time loyal. There’s a type they were looking for in my day. And I fitted perfectly.

Read more: John le Carré, MI6 and the fact and fiction of British secret intelligence

The ‘truth’ about Ian Fleming’s war work

Nicholas Shakespeare touches on the topic of infidelity at various points in his book on Fleming. He also grants that Fleming’s notoriety as “a prickly, self-centred bounder” with a penchant for sexual sadism is well deserved, and tough to shake.

Shakespeare openly acknowledges he had initial reservations about Fleming’s character and his “undeniable shortcomings”. Selfish, cruel, snobbish – these are a few of terms that tend to get thrown around when talking about Fleming. Some of the others, like the four-letter word Lucien Freud used to describe Fleming, cannot be printed here.

Despite this, Shakespeare thinks Fleming “an unfailingly intriguing character” who is ripe for reappraisal. Working with unpublished letters and diaries, previously uninterviewed witnesses, and a series of declassified files, Shakespeare sets out to cast “Fleming and his life in a new light that leads to new conclusions about the man”.

Shakespeare comes to new conclusions about Fleming’s conduct during the second world war. Fleming’s war record has long been a bone of contention. In part, this is due to the fact he worked in a department that dealt with confidential matters of national security, counterintelligence and espionage.

Some people, as Shakespeare acknowledges, believe Fleming was nothing more than a glorified office worker, “too wedded to his comforts and smart uniform to risk going into action himself”.

These critics tend to “wonder with something of a sneer whether he could have done anything really useful in the war”. Cornwell, for example, had precious little time for Fleming, whom he considered a self-aggrandising fantasist.

Cornwell was also deeply suspicious of James Bond – he considered Fleming’s famous creation “neo-fascistic and totally materialist” and less a spy than “some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill”.

Shakespeare believes otherwise: since Fleming “was never allowed to write the truth about his war work, facts about his life are hard to see clearly through the aura cast by the success of James Bond”.

Accordingly, Shakespeare – who is unwavering in his conviction that “a clear and reliable picture of [Fleming’s] duties and the depth and range of his knowledge and responsibilities does exist” – strives in his biography to set the historical record straight.

Shakespeare finds Fleming “made a noteworthy contribution to the second world war - and not only in organising covert operations in Nazi-occupied North Europe and North Africa that helped to shorten the conflict”. Fleming also worked to bring the United States into the conflict, and worked to set up and coordinate the wartime intelligence organisation that eventually turned into the CIA.

Shakespeare brings his discussion of Fleming’s war record to a close with the assertion: “Ian never lived at such an intense level again. He would spend the rest of his life in peacetime, trying to recapture moments of time like these.” The way he did this was, as Shakespeare puts it, “by writing the books which have become the reason we are still reading about him today”.

Read more: 'The wilderness of mirrors': 70 years since the first James Bond book, spy stories are still blurring fact and fiction

Bond: ‘a post-war British fantasy’

Contrary to received wisdom, the 12 action-packed spy novels Fleming wrote after the war were, in Shakespeare’s reckoning,

grounded in reality and a truth that Ian could not reveal but had intensely experienced. He wrote what he knew. By converting his lived experience into fiction, and updating it, he released the burden of that knowledge.

The Bond books also served specific ideological purposes. Historical context is important here. As Shakespeare puts it, Fleming’s fictions were intended “as a post-war British fantasy, as a balm for a demoralised imperial power on its uppers”.

The writer and columnist Ben Macintyre makes a similar point in his official history of 007. “To the readers of the 1950s,” Macintyre writes, “Bond was a promise of glamour and plenty amid postwar austerity, the thrill of sexual licence in a buttoned-up society.”

We see evidence of this in Casino Royale (1953), the first Bond book. Here’s a description of Bond’s breakfast (his favourite meal of the day):

Bond liked to make a good breakfast. After a cold shower, he sat at the writing-table in front of the window. He looked out at the beautiful day and consumed half a pint of iced orange juice, three scrambled eggs and bacon and a double portion of coffee without sugar. He lit his first cigarette, a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street, and watched the small waves lick the long seashore and the fishing fleet from Dieppe string out towards the June heat-haze followed by a paper-chase of herring-gulls.

Fleming’s novels, which tend to be set in suitably sun-drenched locations, are full of descriptions like this. Self-consciously excessive and extravagant (the line about Bond’s custom-made cigarettes is a particularly nice touch here), they gesture in the direction of a lifestyle that would have been out of reach to all bar the extremely wealthy.

Read more: Is James Bond a misogynist? He doesn't have to be Connery, Moore or even Craig's vision forever

Smiley: deliberately ‘breathtakingly ordinary’

I want now to take that description and contrast it with two passages from Le Carré. The first comes from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold:

His flat was small and squalid, done in brown paint with photographs of Clovelly. It looked directly on to the grey backs of three stone warehouses, the windows of which were drawn, for aesthetic reasons, in creosote.

Where Fleming is expansive and sun-dappled, Le Carré is claustrophobic and drab.

The second passage is taken from Le Carré’s first novel, 1961’s Call for the Dead:

Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.

This is the first physical description of Le Carré’s famous spymaster, the aforementioned George Smiley. The polar opposite of Bond in almost every conceivable way, Smiley is – as Le Carré insists on the very first page of Call for the Dead – “breathtakingly ordinary.” There is certainly nothing glamorous about him - and that is Le Carré’s point.

Similarly, while Bond’s MI6 is constantly saving the world from the outlandish machinations of egotistic supervillains, Smiley’s British intelligence service is vulnerable to leaks – and the threats it battles are deeply embedded in political systems and real-world conflicts. It is also – and this is something Le Carré says time and time again in his Smiley novels – an outdated relic of Britain’s imperial era.

‘Childhood is the credit balance of the writer’

Shakespeare acknowledges that readers

tend to think of John Le Carré before George Smiley. With Fleming, it is the reverse, as if Bond’s unstoppable waves of popularity have lapped back over the author, submerging him.

By examining the lives of Fleming and Cornwell, and touching on some of the stark differences between their iconic literary creations, Shakespeare and Sisman provide us with a compelling framework to reevaluate the profound impact of these two authors – on the realm of spy fiction, literary history and their enduring influence on Western popular culture.

As we have seen, both works also speak to the role childhood experience and trauma can have on the development of character.

Talking to Errol Morris, Cornwell quotes Graham Greene: “Childhood is the credit balance of the writer.” He says, “It’s not a lament, it’s just a self-examination.” Later, he describes his writing process as a journey of self-discovery, “every time”. He reflects:

I have never submitted to analysis. I feel if I knew any secrets about myself I’d deprive myself of writing.

Reading these excellent new biographies, it strikes me that Cornwell’s personal and professional secrets are safe with Sisman, as are Fleming’s with Shakespeare.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Alexander Howard, University of Sydney.

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Alexander Howard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.