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Review by Karen Langley

When most people think of the high profile spies of the 20th century, names like Burgess, McLean and of course Kim Philby are probably the first ones which spring to mind. However as a new book, Parallel Lives by Maryam Diener makes clear, the so-called fairer sex were just as adept at the art of espionage.

The parallel lives of the title are those of real people: Edith Tudor-Hart, an Austrian-British photographer and spy for the Soviet Union; and Ursula Kuczynski, a German Communist activist who also spied for the Soviets. The book opens in the gardens of the iconic Isokon building, and it’s here that their paths could have crossed, as both were circulating in the same bohemian milieu; however, they never met, despite the similarity of their situations.

Tudor-Hart was brought up a socialist and had trained as a photographer at the Bauhaus; an early connection with Arnold Deutsch, recounted in the book, resulted in her recruitment for undercover work, and her relationship with Arnold is a current which runs through her life. Kuczynski was from a Jewish family and it was when she and her first husband were relocated to China for work that she made connections with spying rings.

Both women had close friendships with others involved in spying, and much of their conviction seems to have come from a wish to fight Fascism (understandably). But as Diener reveals, they faced many difficult decisions during their lives, often moving from country to country (particularly in the case of Kuczynski) and not often in control of their destinies. Their work was dangerous, and they were often under the threat of arrest and imprisonment, which had quite a knock on effect on their personal lives.

For these women, love often went hand in hand with ideology and their relationships were regularly as a result of following orders or creating a public persona to mask their behind-the-scenes espionage. Yet both Edith and Ursula loved strongly and were often wrenched away from those they would rather be with. They had to make hard choices when there was a conflict between their beliefs and their families, and inevitably this affected the children.

This was a particularly moving part of the book; Diener explores the story of poor Tommy, Edith’s son, who developed serious issues and it’s suggested that this could be the result of lack of parental contact at a young age.  Ursula’s two children had a remarkably peripatetic life and were often farmed out to relatives; your heart really bleeds for them.

As Diener reveals, the lives and actions of both of the women had significant effects. Edith was involved in the recruitment of the Cambridge Five spy ring, and Philby in particular appears regularly in the narrative. Ursula was the handler of the nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs, responsible for passing on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Yet despite this high-profile espionage, Diener humanises Edith and Ursula, revealing the real women behind the dramatic lives, women struggling to balance conviction and the family. The decisions they had to make were difficult, and it seems that the men involved found it easier to walk away from wife and child to build a new life.

The publicity material for the book describes the author as “masterful at the blending of fact and fiction”, and certainly it’s not entirely obvious into which category the book falls; for me, it reads very much like narrative non-fiction, but then I didn’t know anything about the subjects before reading it. There is, perhaps, a slight tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ which makes the book veer close to reading like a Wikipedia entry in places, but Diener mostly manages to bypass this. And she’s very good at spotlighting the particular difficulties faced by women trying to survive in such a difficult world, especially when trying to reconcile their creed with everyday life and commitments. 

Parallel Lives is a fascinating read, capturing glimpses of life at the start of the 20th century, revealing the stories of the women who were the movers and shakers behind a number of spy rings, and exploring the sacrifices they made for their causes. Whether you agree with their ideologies or not, you have to admire the conviction of these two women with intriguing and, yes, parallel lives. For my part, I’m definitely inspired to go off and explore their lives in a little more detail! 

NB: The publication of this book also coincides with an exhibition at the Isokon Gallery on Edith Tudor-Hart – more information can be found here.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)

Maryam Diener, Parallel Lives (Quadrant, 2024) ISBN 9781738459841. 127pp, paperback.

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  1. This does sound really interesting! And what a fascinating way to explore history: looking at the lives of lesser-known people who influenced the times. We don’t think of the impact of espionage on the families involved, but it must have been considerable.

    1. It’s not an angle I’d necessarily thought of before as we usually think of spies as solitary male figures. But these women really had to juggle commitment and family; it was the fate of some of the children which moved me most about the story.

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