For many years, there have been arguments about John le Carré’s supposed homophobia – the main evidence being his decision to make his most famous traitor, Bill Haydon, queer. However, when considering le Carré’s actual portrayal of the central queer figures of Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux in his 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a stronger argument could be made that Bill Haydon is queer, not because it was fashionable to portray queered villains, but because le Carré wrote about queer people when most popular writers of his time simply ignored them.
Queerness, in le Carré’s world, is a fact of life. Perhaps that was so because his characters dealt in secrets and the real and imagined enemies that people create, but sexual ambiguity is always present among his characters, the same way that moral ambiguity is always present in his portrayal of spies. Interestingly, John Bingham, le Carré’s former mentor at MI5 and his inspiration for George Smiley, wrote in a letter to le Carré: “You are far from being pro-Soviet or pro-Communist, but I would think the attacks [on the behavior of members of the Secret Service] gave comfort and even pleasure and glee in some places.”
Some might make a similar argument that Haydon’s treachery may give a homophobic person something to smile about, but Haydon’s queerness isn’t necessarily homophobic in itself, even when considering the general homophobia in spy narratives.
Portrayals of queerness are not foreign to Cold War spy stories. There was a lot of queer panic during the Cold War following the argument that queer people were supposedly more vulnerable to be blackmailed into treason by foreign governments (the Lavender Scare in the United States led to the mass dismissal of queer people from government positions). Of course, even before the Cold War, there was a long narrative history of using stereotypically queer traits in the process of othering foreign enemies.
However, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there is no queer panic, and the queerness is not foreign but found in the emblematically English Haydon (who is constantly compared to the also emblematically English and sexually ambiguous TE Lawrence). Haydon’s queerness is not singled out as negative or shameful or even foreign. In fact, the central queer relationship in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not only the sole representation of real loyalty and requited feeling throughout the story, but it also functions as the book’s emotional center.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows George Smiley, a spy who had been unceremoniously ousted from the British Secret Service, as he is brought out of his forced retirement to track down a high level mole, the Service’s golden boy, Bill Haydon. To do so, Smiley needs to dig into the golden past of the now aging and diminished Secret Service and address how espionage and the changing politics of the new world have changed the people he has worked with, and trusted, for years.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, on its surface level, a story about a political betrayal; but the book focuses less on the political aspects of Bill Haydon’s betrayal, instead focusing more on the emotional ones. That isn’t to say that there are no politics in the novel. Like most of le Carré’s books, Tinker Tailor dives into the changing of Britain’s role in world politics, imperialism, classism, and the purpose of the Secret Service, but the structure of the narrative is focused on the betrayal of a relationship, not a country.
Tinker Tailor features two parallel relationships—one between George and his forever unfaithful wife Ann, and the other between Bill and his forever faithful friend and lover Jim Prideaux. Both relationships are estranged in different ways. During the events of the book, Ann is off having an affair, recovering from the painful ending of a dalliance with Haydon. Jim is teaching French at a boy’s school, recovering from a bullet wound, also caused by Haydon’s treachery.
Though these relationships are not portrayed during the events of the book, the events of the book are meant to be read through them. These relationships set Smiley and Haydon up as foils – Smiley as the down-and-out washed-up man of yesteryear, anchored to a disloyal partner, and Haydon as the bright, in-vogue charmer, always supported by his loyal “friend.” More importantly to the plot, the two relationships affect the way other characters perceive Bill and Smiley as they play their game of cat and mouse.
“I heard once [Bill] had a run round the park with Ann, that’s all.”
“Prideaux and Haydon were really very close indeed, you know.”
“Lacon confessed. I hadn’t realized”
The conversations around both relationships mostly focus on devotion or the lack of it. Comments about Ann focus almost exclusively on how she had an affair with Bill. Comments about Jim and Bill focus on how they were inseparable. Smiley can’t go directly after Bill – not in his mind, and not in public –because it is well known that Bill had an affair with his wife. People know, and Smiley knows, that Smiley cannot analyze Bill properly. While others might think that George suspects Bill because of his affair with Ann, George actually thinks better of him for it, quasi-imposing his love for Ann onto Bill.
“And if I wasn’t there, what would you think of him then? If Bill were not my cousin, not my anything? Tell me, would you think more of him, or less?”
“Less, I suppose.”
George’s relationship with Ann has created a distortion in his ability to hone in on Bill, and it is, in fact, for that distortion that Karla, Smiley’s Russian counterpart and the mastermind behind Bill’s placement as a mole, asked Bill to have an affair with Ann in the first place. But it isn’t just George’s love for Ann that changes how he perceives Bill. As Smiley thought more of Bill because of his relationship to Ann, Smiley also reads him differently when he speaks about Jim compared to when he speaks about himself.
Throughout the discovery of his treachery, Haydon shows little to no emotion about betraying Britain, nor does he show emotion when he asks Smiley to financially tie up the loose ends of his girlfriend and boyfriend. Where we really see his emotion is when he speaks about betraying Jim.
“Here Smiley sensed Haydon falter. For the first time, he actually seemed uneasy about the morality of his behaviour.”
We don’t see much of what Haydon thinks about Jim, beyond a gushing early letter about recruiting Jim into the Service during their university years, but we do see his anger and panic when he first hears that Prideaux has been shot and we do see his guilt and defensiveness when it comes to explaining why it had to be Jim who was betrayed in such a public and violent manner. This burst of emotion gives Haydon a moment of genuineness that is otherwise lacking after all of his artifice has been exposed. That shred of humanity disappears (at least in Smiley’s eyes) when he moves on from talking about Jim and starts rambling about his own half-baked politics: “Then he began speaking about himself, and already, to Smiley’s eye, he seemed visibly to be shrinking to something quite small and mean.”
In the dénouement post-traitor reveal, Bill is arrested and arrangements are made to trade him back to Karla. This seems a fitting response for his political betrayal, but not quite as narratively fitting for the personal one. At this point, the story feels mostly wrapped up— Smiley has tracked down the mole, and the mole has been captured. Yet Smiley is still anxious, concerned about Haydon’s security, asking for stricter protective measures to be taken. His requests are not taken seriously, and one night, soldiers stumble across Haydon’s body, his neck having been snapped. The action of snapping a neck as a mercy killing has been tied to Prideaux throughout the book.
This conclusion of Prideaux killing Bill again reframes the central betrayal as a personal one, not a political one. The betrayal must be addressed, not by nations or men acting in the name of a nation, but by an individual man, acting on his own. And Smiley’s decision to not name Prideaux as the killer, even though he knows it was him, follows the pattern of Smiley treating Prideaux’s love as somewhat sacred (even when he is trying to suss out the inner workings of Haydon, he refrains from dragging Jim into it: “Ask Karla: pity I didn’t. Ask Jim: I never shall.”)
Perhaps the strongest argument that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a novel about a personal betrayal is the way that the story begins and ends, following Jim at his teaching position. While there is no question that George Smiley is the protagonist of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the choice to bookend Smiley’s adventures by showcasing the impact that Haydon’s betrayal had on his lover is a telling one. We are meant to feel Haydon’s betrayal because of what it has done to Jim, not necessarily because of what it has done to Smiley or the country.
The ending is told through the perspective of a boy who Jim teaches, who also happens to be named Bill, though Jim has switched to calling him by a nickname halfway through the term “without explanation.”
Young Bill has been watching Jim carefully the entire year, charting his ups and downs and desperately latching onto him as a replacement for his divorced parents. On the last page of the novel, Bill describes Jim’s behavior as mirroring the behavior of his mother after his father left them, with his “staring empty look” and ignoring the “big things” like his previous habits of solitary walks and golf for the “little things” like fixing the lighting for the school play and mending soccer nets.
Prideaux was not simply conned like the rest of the service. He was romantically betrayed, and the betrayal is taken seriously. There are no jokes about it, and the book makes it clear that out of all the people hurt by Haydon, he was the one hurt the most deeply and unfairly. Miraculously, Jim begins to heal in time for the night of the school play.
On that evening, he’s even cheery to young Bill, joking with him and then sharing with parents that “’His real name is Bill…We were new boys together.’” The statement, like all the mentions of young Bill, rings with double meaning; Bill Haydon and Jim were new boys together in the Service, back in their university days. But still, Jim makes it out okay at the end of it all, and his recovery is a triumph against what has been done to him. This is a happy ending for a writer who doesn’t usually do happy endings, and it is framed as healing of a broken heart.
While Haydon’s treachery will send out ripples of political and structural consequences throughout many of le Carré’s following books, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Haydon’s worst crime is betraying Jim Prideaux. In this way, the book could actually be considered a queer tragic romance, but it is not one that focuses on queerness as a part of the tragedy. The tragedy, instead, lies in a man who could not remain loyal, not to his country nor his lovers; a man who, on his own, seemed “quite small and mean,” but when thinking about the man he loved, was something a bit more.