George Smiley is England’s greatest, middle-aged cuckolded spy. Quiet, shy, and reserved, George is also perennially pissed off, about being thrown out of work, about his wife, Ann’s adultery, about everyone making fun of him over it (“How’s Ann?”), and people (Lacon, Tarr etc.) inconveniencing him with all of their problems. If he had his own way, he would be a don at Oxford studying 18th century German poets, but Smiley’s mind was far too valuable to Queen and country to be whiled away as an Oxford don.
The marriage of Lady Ann Sercombe and Mr. George Smiley was about as unlikely as it was to later be dysfunctional. She was aristocratic, social, beautiful, and young. He was plain-looking, shy, undistinguished in terms of class or position, and considerably older than her. He thought that Ann was his grand coup, a validation that he was a worthwhile person in a lonely, hostile world. At his wedding he “had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince” while his bride’s upper class relatives make fun of him behind his back. When Ann first leaves him, he becomes a joke that people soon forget about, the toad that had married the beautiful Ann Sercombe. She will return to him and leave him over and over again. He waits for signs that she is growing restless. She only has leave the house without earrings for his heart to sink, because he knows she’s on her way to an assignation.
Oliver Lacon dryly notes that George would have run Ann much better if she had been his “agent instead of [his] wife”. Smiley is a man who is deeply confident about his abilities as a spy, but suffers from cripplingly low self-esteem. Perhaps he feels as if nobody else will ever want him and that he has to accept Ann’s behaviour or else be alone. He is bewildered and overwrought by her. He doesn’t know how to act. He doesn’t know what to feel. He’s overwhelmed by the sight of her face. Upon seeing her after a long absense: “His mouth was dry and he had a lump of cactus in his stomach; he didn’t want her near him, her reality was suddenly too much for him”.
For all the talk of Ann and there is a lot of people who talk about her, the reader only actually meets Ann in the flesh in the final novel of the Karla Trilogy, “Smiley’s People”. Smiley has come to warn her to stay away from their home on Bywater Street for both their safety. Ann is confused and distraught. Her affair with Bill Haydon has put an insurmountable barrier between her and George. He still loves her, and she loves him in her way. Smiley cannot conceive of a world, of a life in which he doesn’t love Ann. However much he can forgive her numerous sexual betrayals, he cannot bear her compromising him and national security by sleeping with Haydon, and by extension, Karla, who ordered the affair in the first place. His sexual desire for her has been tainted by Karla.
George lives quite celibately, except for the occasional tryst with Ann, when she is around and available to him. His sexuality is completely linked to her and it torments him. She is lonely one night and calls him, essentially for a booty call. He hangs up on her, pissed off at her in general, but then is seized suddenly with a terrible longing for her: “Suddenly, he wanted her dreadfully. He could not bear the spaces round him that did not contain her, he longed for her laughing trembling body as she cried to him, calling him her only true, her best lover, she wanted none other, ever.” He thinks he might throw on his clothes and go and see her, but then realizes that, by now, she’s found someone else for the evening. He couldn’t bear the thought of being her husband and having to sneak around to avoid being seen by her lover
Ann is no fool. Actually, she is quite intelligent, which makes her both attractive and dangerous to George. George is a tremendous listener and has an great ability to intuit and understand people’s thoughts, while Ann is very good at understanding and intuiting people’s emotions as well as social cues, which are entirely lost on George. “She had locked her fingers through his own, but then she did those things : she handled people naturally, all people”. Ann is not only sexually voracious, but she is instinctually a sensualist. Her first instinct upon first seeing George is to kiss him: “She kissed him on the mouth, putting her fingers along the back of his neck to guide him, and Haydon’s shadow fell between them like a sword.” Smiley is conscious of being manipulated but the instinct toward her is so strong that he lets himself be.
Their conversations are strange and elliptical. Their intimacy is tremendous. They both see each other completely and can’t actually find the works to speak to each other. “I’m a comedian, George,’ she says. ‘I need a straight man. I need you.” He replies after a pause, “It’s the job.” She understands that he can’t bear to address her directly. Talking about his emotions unbalances him. She needs to talk for the both of him. They both understand the other’s language and they both walk away from the conversation with an understanding of what needs to be done. He has to go get Karla, but she ends the conversation with: “George, this is all there is, I promise you,’ she says, halting to make her entreaty “The whistle’s gone, in your world and in mine. We’re landed with each other. There isn’t any more. According to the averages, we’re the most contented people on earth.” It is not only an entreaty but also a summary of their lives to this point. Their love isn’t perfect, but all they have to hold on to is each other. It’s either that or oblivion.