Ashenden: Or the British Agent

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First UK edition (Heinemann)

Ashenden: Or the British Agent is a 1928 collection of loosely linked stories by W. Somerset Maugham. It is partly based on the author's experience as a member of British Intelligence in Europe during the First World War.

Plot summary[edit]

During WWI a playwright named Ashenden is enlisted as an agent through threats and promises by Colonel R., a British Intelligence officer. He is sent to Switzerland where he becomes involved in a number of counter-intelligence operations; which he accomplishes by means of persuasion, bribery, or blackmail. He does not carry or use a weapon.

In one he accompanies a man called the Hairless Mexican to Italy, where a Greek agent of the Germans is to be bribed into turning into a double agent. However since the Greek will not cooperate he is murdered by the Hairless Mexican, who also keeps the bribe money intended for the Greek as his fee.

In another he must induce an Italian dancer to betray her Indian lover, a German agent, by convincing him to cross the border from neutral Switzerland to see her in allied France, so that the Allies can arrest him; the ironic denouement is that after the man is captured by the British, then arrested, tried, and executed all on the same day, the dancer goes to Ashenden and begs to have back the valuable ring and watch she had given to the man whom she has just betrayed.

After a number of similar operations, Ashenden is sent to Imperial Russia during the 1917 revolution, as an "agent of influence", to do what he can to keep Russia in the war against Germany. This is the setting for the last six chapters of the book.


  1. R.
  2. A Domiciliary Visit
  3. Miss King
  4. The Hairless Mexican
  5. The Dark Woman
  6. The Greek
  7. A Trip to Paris
  8. Giulia Lazzari
  9. Gustav
  10. The Traitor
  11. Behind the Scenes
  12. His Excellency
  13. The Flip of a Coin
  14. A Chance Acquaintance
  15. Love and Russian Literature
  16. Mr. Harrington's Washing

The chapters are collected in later collections under different titles, as below. It is unknown whether they were rewritten slightly from original publication.

  • "A Domiciliary Visit" & "Miss King" as Miss King
  • "The Hairless Mexican", "The Dark Woman", "The Greek" as The Hairless Mexican
  • "A Trip to Paris, "Giulia Lazzari" as Giulia Lazzari
  • "Gustav", "The Traitor" as The Traitor
  • "Behind the Scenes", "His Excellency", as His Excellency
  • "A Chance Acquaintance", "Love and Russian Literature", "Mr. Harrington's Washing" as Mr. Harrington's Washing


The incidents described in the stories are modeled on Maugham's experiences as a secret agent, and "the central character, Ashenden, is very much an autobiographical character."[1] He is supposed to have modelled Chandra Lal after Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, an Indian Nationalist in Germany during the war.[2] Maugham, who was in the British Secret Service in Europe during the war, based a number of his stories on his own experiences. Among other enterprises, Britain's European intelligence network attempted to eliminate a number of Indian nationalists in Europe, notably members of the Berlin Committee. Donald Gullick, a British agent, was dispatched to assassinate Chattopadhaya while the latter was on his way to Geneva to meet another Indian nationalist, Mahendra Pratap and forward the Kaiser's invitation to Berlin. The short story of Giulia Lazzari is a blend of Gullick's attempts to assassinate Chattopadhyaya and Mata Hari's story. Winston Churchill reportedly advised Maugham to burn 14 other stories.[3][4]

Film and TV adaptations[edit]

The 1936 Alfred Hitchcock-directed film Secret Agent is a loose adaptation of "The Traitor" and "The Hairless Mexican", with John Gielgud as Ashenden (whose "real" name is Edgar Brodie), and Peter Lorre as The General. In the 1950 anthology film Trio, Ashenden was played by Roland Culver in the third story called Sanatorium.

On 7 August 1959 BBC Television broadcast a live version of "The Traitor." Written by Troy Kennedy Martin and directed by Gerard Glaister, it starred Stephen Murray as Ashenden, Donald Pleasence as Grantley Caypor, and Mai Zetterling as Frau Caypor. No copy is known to exist.

A number of the stories formed the basis of the 1991 four-part BBC1 series Ashenden, directed by Christopher Morahan, with Alex Jennings in the title role, Joss Ackland as Cumming and Ian Bannen as 'R'. Guest actors included Harriet Walter as Giulia Lazzari in the first episode, Alan Bennett as Grantly Caypor in the second, and Alfred Molina as Carmona, the titular character in the final story. A framing device at the start of each episode shows progressively more of an aged Ashenden living in France in the mid-1960s, reacting adversely to a piece of music on the radio. The final episode – which gives the context to this reaction – closes with a return to this "future" setting.

Other appearances[edit]

Ashenden is the narrator of Maugham's novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and The Razor's Edge.[5] The character appears briefly in the book The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman


  1. ^ Robert Calder, W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, 1972, p. 201
  2. ^ Balachandran, V. (28 August 2011). "True fiction: The best spies are really quite boring". Sunday Guardian. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  3. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 234
  4. ^ Barooah 2004
  5. ^ Kathleen Kuiper, Cakes and Ale (novel by Maugham)., 2011. Accessed 23 November 2013.


External links[edit]