A Divided Life – Robert Cecil

17 November 2018
A divided life Book Cover A divided life
Robert Cecil
Biography & Autobiography
William Morrow & Co

A colleague of Donald MacLean at Cambridge and in the Foreign Office offers insights into the life of the double agent, exploring his motivations and the damage he did to America

In order to really appreciate A Divided Life, you would have to have some awareness of the spy scandal that rocked the heart of the British establishment in the 1950’s, referred to as the Cambridge Spies, as they all attended Cambridge University. What was so shocking was that those involved with this Soviet spy ring came from privileged elitist backgrounds, from families that were regarded as affluent and influential within society. Considered to be entrenched within the governing class they’re background did not create the credentials automatically assumed would lead them to be recruited by the Soviet Union. Their decision did not stem from personal difficulties, for example, struggling with poverty, no access to decent education, living in cramp unhealthy environments, competing for poorly paid jobs or poor working conditions in 1920’-30’s Britain. It seemed to be one of conscience, believing that Communism was the true and right ideology. Convinced in their belief that it was their duty to help and promote the spread of communism for the good of society, regardless of the consequences it had on the community they grew up in. They accepted other ideologies such as Capitalism and Fascism was inherently evil, unjust and destructive for ordinary people.

I initially thought that this was going to reveal more insight as to the characters involved because of Robert Cecil’s apparent close connection to one of the spies, Donald McClean. However, having read the book it did not expose any more than what has already been written. The book was more a chronology of Donald’s career within the Foreign Office and national and international information he was exposed to. The impression I received was that the author did not really know Donald McClean on a personal level. Robert merely operated in the same circles as Donald, for example, attending Cambridge but not at the same time, also working in the Foreign Office but not directly with him. Any insight or opinion as to Donald’s ideology and subsequent actions came from a mix of Donald’s own statements, the author’s conversations with colleagues, and expert speculation from in-depth research by others who have tried to explain the thinking. This book in itself is mostly speculative as to the actual impact Donald’s subterfuge had on world events and Anglo-American relations. There is no indication that he was part of Donald’s inner circle, where he could be considered a friend as opposed to a work colleague and privy to any real or new revelations. It seems the only real insight is that even with colleagues that would have considered him close he never dropped his guard.

Although Robert Cecil sets out to separate fact from fiction, suggesting that many sources have skewed the facts and engaged in disinformation. Having read other accounts and watched various documentaries about the Cambridge spies and their impact, I would agree that these accounts have been technicoloured and embellished with poetic license sanctioned throughout. However, I think overall given that very little if anything was ever really revealed by the spies themselves, they do go some way to forge an understanding as to the motives that drove the Cambridge Spy-Ring, in this case, Donald McClean, to follow the path that he chose. Accordingly, the facts are ambiguous and leave it up to your own interpretation as to what made McClean and the others tick. Only they truly know. This book falls into that speculative category, we are no closer to comprehending what drove these men to follow the paths they did from reading this book.

I would rate this book 3.5 stars and I would like to thank Thistle Publishing for a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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