“I always knew there was something unusual about him compared to my other grandparents, in Somerset, who just lived in a farmhouse,” says Charlotte Philby of her grandfather Kim Philby, the most notorious traitor in British-espionage history. After defecting to Russia in 1963, when he was revealed to be a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, Kim died when Charlotte, now 37, was just 5. “I have these memories of arriving at Moscow airport and being escorted to an old car. They would get out the siren from the back seat and whiz us down the motorway. We would be chaperoned by K.G.B.—well, I didn’t know they were K.G.B. then, but they were,” she says. “And I knew his funeral was a big deal. It was on the TV, and it was a big state ceremony.”
Her grandfather’s presence has never left her. Among his various letters and belongings, Charlotte still displays Kim’s old chessboard and the tattered matryoshka dolls he gave her in the London home she shares with her husband, the art director Barney Beech, and their children.
Charlotte started her career as a news reporter at The Independent, a left-wing paper in London, but quickly realized that what interested her more were stories with history and nuance—like writing about her grandfather, which her more inquisitive colleagues often asked her to do. So, at 27, having just given birth to her first child, Charlotte enrolled in a creative-writing class. It was there that she learned “writing news is the worst thing you can do in terms of creative writing, because it teaches you to write inside these really strict structures that constrain your imagination,” she says. “That was something I always felt when I was a news journalist—I was interested in the story, but the facts were almost superfluous. I was interested in the motivation, and how people got themselves into certain situations.”
“I always knew there was something unusual about him compared to my other grandparents.”
Charlotte’s debut novel, Part of the Family, was published in June of last year. Described by one reviewer as “The Night Manager set in a woman’s world,” Charlotte took inspiration from Kim but focused it on the female point of view. “Because my grandfather was a famous spy, so many people know his story, but it’s always seen through the lens of his betrayal of the men he worked with and of his country,” she says. “I just felt like if he had been a woman, her actions would have been seen through the prism of her being a mother. She would have been vilified much more strongly, because we expect so much more from women. Particularly women who have children.”
The balancing act of motherhood and career is something that consumes Charlotte, now a mother of three, so much so that in 2014 she launched motherland.net, an unpretentious online platform dedicated to supporting mothers.
Charlotte’s second book, A Double Life, borrows from the childhood stories her grandmother shared. “About a year ago I inherited all my grandmother’s letters—she was an avid writer. And as I was going through them I realized this is exactly what I have written. So it just goes to show the power of the subconscious.” Similarly, the story line takes inspiration from her grandfather’s betrayal. “I started to think about Kim as a father, and the impact his decisions had on his children,” she says. “Regardless, he would have thought, ‘Well, good on her, she’s giving it a go.’ He loved a strong woman.” (Charlotte is in talks with production companies for the on-screen adaptations of Part of the Family and A Double Life.)
Charlotte hesitates when it comes to passing too much judgment on her grandfather. “I don’t think you can take someone’s end point and try to define how they got there,” she says. As for what Kim would make of her books? “I think he would have been pleased with the resolution in my third book, which I have just finished writing. And whatever he told me, I would have taken it with a pinch of salt.”
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail