Book Review: Memoirs of a British Agent by R.H. Bruce Lockhart

Memoirs of a British Agent by RH Bruce LockhartMemoirs of a British Agent became an instant international bestseller when it was published in 1932.  Robert Lockhart, the writer, was a British diplomat at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917.  He candidly reveals his thoughts and actions at this exciting and pivotal point in Russia’s history.

Okay, I’m probably making it sound like a boring history lesson.  But trust me, this is still a really good read all these years after publication.  Lockhart’s friendly, confiding tone gains your trust and makes you want to read on to discover what happened to him next.

The book begins with Lockhart revealing his adventurous years as a young man in Malaya, where he fell madly in love with the ward of the local Malay prince.  Her decision to live with him caused a scandal, leading to them both becoming outcasts.  However, Lockhart fell seriously ill and the couple were forced to separate.

When he eventually returned from his travels, his family pulled strings to get him interviewed by the British Consular Service where he secured a job.  Working his way up the career ladder, he was eventually posted to Russia and in time became Head of the British Mission to the Bolsheviks.

Lockhart freely acknowledges his youthful weaknesses and the mistakes he made throughout the course of his career.  He also doesn’t shy away from the fact that his felt his political reputation was tarnished when he returned to London in 1918, following his detainment in a Bolshevik prison.  He gives his side to the story, taking on the criticism that accused him of failing to predict the Russian Revolution and its consequences, and of bungling British diplomatic relations with the Russians.  Lockhart emphasises the fact that while he was not without blame, he was ideally placed to become the scapegoat for the Allies’ severe misjudgement of the situation.  In essence he paints himself as a normal human being displaying normal human faults, reacting to extraordinary situations.

British Agent

Film cover for ‘British Agent’, the 1934 Warner Bros film based on ‘Memoirs of a British Agent’

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that.  He clearly had a true gift for languages (he spoke French, German and Russian fluently).  He was assessed and accepted by the British Foreign Office as a top candidate, despite having less time to prepare for his examinations than any of the other hopefuls.  He also demonstrated a gift for diplomacy amongst highly influential people in a volatile, unpredictable environment.

Yet Lockhart brushes over these things in that truly British way of modestly making a joke out of your own good points rather than accepting and acknowledging them.  It’s clear that he wanted to be liked by those around him, wherever he was in the world, and he wanted to be liked by his readers, so perhaps this partly explains the complete lack of boastfulness about his skills and intelligence, even to the extent of downplaying them at times.  The result is not a sense of false modesty, but of an earnest desire to be accepted and understood.

Once again I’ve had my shocking ignorance of history outed by a book.  This is a great way to get an insight into Russia’s turbulent past from a writer who brings the events to life: the sensory experience of Russian gypsy-singing, the sounds of revolutionaries on the streets, and the inside of a Bolshevik prison cell are all conjured up vividly.  Highly recommended if you’re interested in finding out more about the early days of the Russian Revolution.

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Vince Stephen
    Jul 24, 2012 @ 19:59:32

    That sounds like an interesting read. I can’t help feeling concerned about that ward of the Malay prince. They both became outcasts in her country, but then Lockhart was able to stroll back into the British upper classes. Does he say what became of her?

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Jul 25, 2012 @ 08:01:17

      He doesn’t say what became of Amai (the ward), but he does highlight that she wasn’t the timid young girl you might expect. When Lockhart first met her she was already married, but going through a divorce, and as soon as the divorce was through she was to be married off to the prince’s cousin. Once her divorce was through, Amai moved in with Lockhart, and he writes this about her:

      “The irregularity of her position worried her not at all. Marriage and my own Mohammedanism [Lockhart was considering converting to her own faith] never entered her head. As mistress of the only ‘Tuan’ [a polite form of address to a man, like “sir”, maybe referring to Lockhart as the only white man?] in the district, she held her head proudly.”

      They appear to have been happy to carry on in that way, but Lockhart fell seriously ill with malaria and his uncle (who was in Malaya with him) was advised by doctors to remove him from the country to save his life. He was too weak to resist, and was not consulted in any case, and was literally carried out of the house and put on a boat home. He never saw Amai again, and while she is hardly mentioned in the rest of the book, you do get the feeling that he never really got over her.

      It’s interesting to wonder what happened to Amai. It seems to be suggested, from the way Lockhart writes about her and about the people, that the royal family would actually not have disowned her, but would have taken her back in and still married her off the cousin. Of course, she would have had to marry a man she didn’t love, but she would not have continued to be an outcast. Very different to how things would have been done at the same period in England.

      Reply

      • Vince Stephen
        Jul 25, 2012 @ 09:06:59

        That’s reassuring, especially that they don’t seem to have been total outcasts. Imagining it from an British or American perspective, I had her sitting in the house they’d lived in, alone with no contacts at all!

      • TheBrontëSister
        Jul 26, 2012 @ 13:24:29

        I mean I’m sure it caused a scandal and that there would have been a lot of local gossip about her, which Lockhart doesn’t really go into, but she does come across as a woman who knew her own mind and didn’t care what other people think. Even for someone of royal lineage though, that struck me as highly unusual for someone of her time, gender and culture! Interesting to wonder whether Lockhart would have gone back for her once he’d recovered from his illness if she had been totally outcast from her people…

      • gordsellar
        Jan 31, 2013 @ 02:43:29

        I know I’m a bit late for the discussion, but I happened to be researching Lockhart’s life a little bit while reading up on Moura Budberg (mainly in connection with H.G. Wells, who was her lover later in life — such a tiny world this was) and anyway, for those curious about the fate of Amai, Lockhart actually discusses meeting her again on a subsequent visit to Malaya, which he writes about in Return to Malaya (1936).

        I can’t remember the details, but the book is freely available at archive.org so you can download it and find out for yourself, if you like!

        http://archive.org/download/returntomalaya006324mbp/returntomalaya006324mbp.epub

      • TheBrontëSister
        Feb 02, 2013 @ 16:46:14

        Oh really? A very small world indeed. I find that very interesting that he wanted to see Amai again in later life – just from the way he writes about her early in this book, he clearly loved her deeply and I think he even says (or at least he gives the impression) that she colours the rest of his life – but then never mentions her again in the rest of the text. I must look that book up – thanks for sharing!

      • gordsellar
        Jan 31, 2013 @ 02:44:27

        Oops, forgot to mark this for notifications of follow-ups. So now I am.

      • gordsellar
        Feb 02, 2013 @ 22:42:39

        Oh really? A very small world indeed.

        Vanishingly small. I was reading the memoir of Moura Budberg’s daughter Tania–also worth a look–and stumbled upon a reference to how the Budberg’s nanny was an Irish woman, who’d been sent over to Russia after a scandal. And who sent her? It turns out to be none other than Maud Gonne… the Irish nationalist who is best remembered for her relationship with Yeats (they were both in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for one thing, and she turned down his proposal of marriage, as did her daughter in her turn).

        Weirdly, I’ve been researching Ezra Pound, who was also linked up with all these people: he worked for Yeats and had an affair with Gonne’s daughter Iseult, apparently, and knew (and clashed sometimes with) H.G. Wells, though that was before Wells and Budberg became lovers.

        Still, it’s just a tiny social world, and playing Six Degrees of Gurdjieff (or Six Degrees of Aleister Crowley or of T.S. Eliot) seems quite a viable game when you start reading these biographies. It’s a much tinier social world than I imagined before I started looking at this stuff.

        In any case, it is indeed very interesting that Lockhart not only wanted to see Amai again, but that he managed to do so. It would have taken some doing, in his time, for that to happen… or, well, maybe not as much as we might thing. Maybe the world (in social terms) really was smaller, especially if Amai was from a Malayan family as important as he made her out to be.

        He certainly seemed to have a more love-her-and-leave-her type of attitude with Budberg; he writes sweetly about her, but she was quite brokenhearted at how he failed to reply to any of her letters after he left Russia finally. My impression of Budberg is that she remained in love with him forever, though she resigned herself to it being both impossible and, probably, unrequited on his part. But they did stay in touch for the rest of his life, and their letters are full of surprisingly modern language: she calls him “baby” quite a lot.

        He had (and probably could have) none of this with Amai, of course. One wonders, though, just how he thought of the relationship in hindsight (did he come to think it’d been a hopeless situation anyway?) and to what degree he was, as with his separation from Budberg, playing up the drama of the separation from Amai for the benefit of his readers. But certainly, even so, Amai does seem to have made a big impression on him… and the fact he actually bothered to see her again years later speaks volumes.

      • TheBrontëSister
        Feb 03, 2013 @ 11:13:27

        Fascinating stuff! You’ve clearly done mountains of research into these people. I’ve been nosing about on your blog and now I’m curious – have you looked into the period for something you’ve been writing or written? Or just because it interests you? That’s a hell of a lot of detail you have to hand.

        I didn’t actually realise that Lockhart saw Amai again! I agree – from a modern perspective, you’d assume it would be a difficult task to track her down and be allowed access to her, but as you also say, it was a smaller world. I’d have thought it would be the access to her that would have been more difficult than the actual finding of her.

        Interesting point that he may have been playing the situation up a bit for dramatic effect. It certainly worked for me if that was what he was trying to do… but still, something tells me that she did mean a lot to him. Perhaps she meant more to him because of the separation – that feeling of “what if” can be a powerful thing to brood on. Or perhaps I’m just being sentimental…

      • gordsellar
        Feb 03, 2013 @ 11:40:08

        Fascinating stuff! You’ve clearly done mountains of research into these people. I’ve been nosing about on your blog and now I’m curious – have you looked into the period for something you’ve been writing or written? Or just because it interests you? That’s a hell of a lot of detail you have to hand.

        Yeah, several projects actually: one was a sort of novella-length piece focused on Moura Budberg sometime after Wells’ death, picking up and going with the idea that Wells was actually onto something, subconsciously, in his late, weird mini-novel Star Begotten. It mainly features Moura and Lockhart, though Wells is a kind of absent presence throughout.

        And I’ve been researching other things about Wells, out of interest in just how foundational he’s ended up being for SF. I’d argue that even the contemporary obsession with the Singularity and post-Singulatarian worlds is something that Wells started us out on (in several of his books, really). But all the research has kind of influences the stories in my head, and so Wells has sort of shown up (sometimes as himself, sometimes as a thinly veiled reference) in a few stories of mine over the years, in fact.

        Also, I’ve been researching Pound for a possible book-length project (ie. a novel) that, to be honest, I’m not sure can or should be written, but which basically sort mashes together Pound’s biography (and The Cantos) with a kind of modernist-lit-and-arts-centric version of the standard secret magical war type narrative. Wells and Pound having known one another was what set me off on tracing connections between Pound and other people of the time, as a story where Pound and Wells meet up is probably infinitely more saleable to a SF/fantasy crowd than a story where Pound and HD and Eliot meet up.

        I also was surprised that he managed to actually see her again. But then maybe you’ve read the account already — for me it was a while ago. It did drive home what a small world they lived in. I mean, Wells visited Stalin and Gorky and Roosevelt. He got in the door and everything. Hell, Wells almost certainly met up with W.E.B. Du Bois when he spoke at the Third Pan-African Congress in London (in 1923) and I’m pretty sure I remember something about their exchanging a few letters too. Pound got around in one circle, Wells in another, but the circles overlapped in weird ways… which isn’t so surprising, finally: the world of SF/fantasy writers is a bit like that too, even today.

        As for Lockhart: there’s probably a little bit of both elements going on at once: he maintained contact with Moura for the rest of his life, after all, so he probably did feel some curiosity and maybe regret… or at least an enduring connection. But at the same time, when he was returning to England after leaving Russia, he was returning with his reputation in bad shape, and I imagine he probably was playing the story up for sympathy. Still, if you think Lockhart’s an interesting character, I strongly recommend you pick up some (unfortunately non-free) books about Moura Budberg. She’s a hell of a character!

  2. timctaylor
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 16:11:10

    It’s a great read. I’m glad it’s not just me who enjoyed it! I stumbled across this a few years ago after watching the DVD of Reilly Ace of Spies, another interesting character who shared some ‘adventures’ with Lockhart. I think I picked this up from Project Gutenberg.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Sep 05, 2012 @ 20:34:22

      And I’m glad it’s not just me! Ah Project Gutenberg’s great isn’t it?

      Reply

      • timctaylor
        Sep 06, 2012 @ 00:41:14

        I agree. I’ve picked up some gems. I like the period 1900-1930 because the world is so similar in many ways and yet the attitudes can be so alien that it’s like reading fantasy worlds, albeit well-constructed ones. I had a phase of reading the ‘Invasion’ genre that kicked off with The Battle of Dorking. One of the most intriguing was The Coming Conquest of England by August Niemann because it’s written by a German just before WWI and he writes about how Germany, Russia, and France gang up to take England down a peg or two in a great war. He seems unclear whether Germany is at war with England or Britain. Fascinating.

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