The Reading Room

The Koestler Question

Did Arthur Koestler rape Jill Craigie?….

koestlerI have been reading Michael Scammel’s comprehensive biography of Arthur Koestler, a man who lived a remarkable life before ending it in a suitably unforgettable way. An author of considerable brilliance whose adventurous formative years shaped his future writing. Born in Budapest he moved to Palestine in the 1920s, becoming fully engaged in the Zionist mantra before joining the German Communists in the following decade.

Having worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union he fled a Spanish death sentence under Franco by joining the Foreign Legion. Koestler was one of the first journalists to highlight the treatment of the Jews under Nazi rule and, having become disillusioned with Communism, found fame with his portrayal of the Soviet show trials under Stalin in his most famous work, Darkness at Noon.

Life with such a man was never going to be easy and Scammel depicts a lifetime spent womanizing, drug-taking and living with manic depression. Three times married, he had a predatory instinct for women and it was his encounter with Jill Craigie, documentary maker, feminist and wife of former Labour leader Michael Foot which would seal his notoriety after his death.

Jill Craigie was a beautiful woman, twice married before she met Foot, she was never short of admirers in a world in which her talent for serious film-making was over-shadowed by society’s view of women and their role in the professional world. Koestler was a friend of the couple and asked Craigie to assist him in finding a home in Hampstead including a visit to a traditional English pub. Foot was working away at the time and according to a 1998 biography of Koestler by David Cesarani, he raped her at her home following a drink-fuelled Sunday lunch.

Craigie kept the alleged incident secret from Foot for over forty years, she later said that given Koestler’s world standing as a man who ‘stood up’ to Stalin, she would never be believed and given the time in which it took place she was quite probably right. But Scammel takes an all together different view of the story. He describes Koestler as a man who enjoyed keeping a detailed diary of his life, including his sexual exploits and Koestler wrote of the encounter as ‘Jill Craigie-Sunday pub crawl on Heath’. He also states that when Craigie told a colleague about the incident the next day he didn’t recall any mention of violence.

Koestler is described as a man, like many others from that era, whose view of women and their part in a physical relationship was chronically one-sided. Scammel describes how it was common for a man to show his strength and sexual dominance with a ‘widely held belief that it was a woman’s duty to put up a show of resistance even if she was willing, so the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred’

As unpalatable as that reads there may be an element of truth in it but the remainder of Scammel’s counter-argument reads rather weakly. Her silence cannot condemn nor convict and even if she and Foot were guests of honour at Koestler’s seventieth birthday party in 1975 there is something of what she said about her third husband many years later that suggests a very distinct mind-set; “I remember saying to Michael when I very first met him, if you ever have any extra needs I don’t want to know and even more important, I don’t want anyone else to know.” She went on to reason; “That’s the price you have to pay and I think that’s quite a decent attitude isn’t it? A fair one? And that’s how it is” 

Both her and Foot were guilty of adultery during their relationships, Foot was adulterous during his marriage to Craigie, and whilst Koestler was no longer alive to defend himself it has become a sad final chapter in both of their lives. Jill Craigie illustrates the awfulness of the truth behind many of those who we have thought so highly of and a particularly distasteful reminder of the attitude so many women had to adopt through no choice of their own. How often in history have we listened to, believed and followed the words of those we deem wiser than us only to later find that at the most basic level they were far inferior?

One cannot help but think of how many women suffered and indeed continue to suffer as a result of ‘blurred lines’.

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