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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Books to flee by

In 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Soviet spies burrowed deep into the British Foreign Office, realized they were on the brink of detection and arrest. According to Andrew Lownie’s new biography of Burgess, excerpted last week in the Daily Mail, they made hurried plans to flee by boat to France.

“Burgess went out and hired a car, bought a suitcase and raincoat and went home to pack,” Lownie writes. “Into the case went a tweed suit, a dinner jacket and the collected novels of Jane Austen.”

Guy Burgess was a liar and a traitor, but apparently he had good taste in literature: Lownie notes that Burgess had once neutralized a charge of soliciting sex in a rail station men’s room by telling the judge “he’d been inside the cubicle reading George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.”

Burgess’ apparent attachment to Austen is a reminder that the current female-dominated state of Janeite fandom is a relatively recent development: as Claudia L. Johnson and Claire Harman have noted, the tough-minded, sarcastic Austen used to be seen as a special favorite of male readers, a sort of Raymond Chandler of the marriage plot.

Alas, the denouement of the Burgess/Maclean Austen story isn’t what we Janeites might wish. Just as I was beginning to paint a half-charming, half-sinister mental picture of the two moles, en route to Moscow by way of Paris, Switzerland and Prague, filling their downtime by catching up on the doings of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Lownie told me that, once across the English Channel, “Burgess and Maclean went ashore, leaving their luggage in their cabins” and caught a taxi to Brittany.

Presumably, the Austen was left behind with the tweed and the tuxedo -- just another relic of an England betrayed and abandoned.

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