I have to confess that I’d never had a thought, one way or ‘tother, about George Orwell‘s views on anything supernatural. Frankly, I didn’t know that he had any – that is, until Dave Lull sent me a link for the following piece, Robert Gray‘s “Orwell vs. God,” from the most recent edition of The Spectator.
It probably won’t strike many as too much of a surprise that Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) had a nearly allergic reaction to religion. But that’s far too simple a characterization of a complex, intellectually tortured, relationship.
Yet as Orwell approached death, his intolerance of religion seemed to relax. In his last year he was delighted to receive a letter from Jacintha Buddicom, whom he had met at the age of 11, and who had become, during his teenage years, the first girl seriously to attract him — though his urgent desire was never returned. In her memoir, Eric and Us (1974), Jacintha Buddicom recalled how the young Eric Blair had loved ghost and horror stories, and how — jokingly, of course — he had given her a crucifix to keep away the vampires. Half the people walking the streets, he had speculated, were ghosts.
As long as his appetite for horror had been confined to imaginary worlds, he had been able to retain a capacity for joy in the real one. Jacintha Buddicom remembered him as a notably happy boy, and her memoir shows him full of kindness and fun, vastly different from the image he later purveyed of the miserable schoolboy at St. Cyprians, and still further removed from the misanthropic cynic who emerged at Eton.
But then in his first year at Eton Orwell had suffered a severe trauma. Infuriated by the bullying of an elder boy called Philip Yorke, brother of the novelist Henry Green, Blair and his friend Steven Runciman had constructed a wax model of their persecutor, and torn off one of the legs. Shortly afterwards Yorke broke his leg; a few months later he died of leukaemia. Sheer coincidence, no doubt, but deeply disquieting for the boys who had created the model. Runciman remained all his life an enthusiast for the occult; Eric Blair, perhaps more profoundly shocked, thenceforward shied away from any suggestion of the supernatural. Evil was clearly rampant, whereas ‘the good and the possible never seem to coincide’. It was at about 14, he later confessed, that he had abandoned his belief in God.
But that’s not all. Gray continues:
Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. [I wonder which translation – ED.]
In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.
There was, however, a hitch. One of the churchwardens at Sutton Courtenay, a farmer, seemed doubtful that permission should be given. Had this fellow Orwell, or Blair, or whatever, really been a sound Christian? Fortunately the vicar had the inspired idea of showing the agricultural churchwarden a copy of Animal Farm. It was a title which instantly removed all scruples.
And that’s where he remains.
There’s lots more to the story – check out The Spectator article.
By the way, Jacintha Buddicom was the recipient of more than distant yearnings – John G. Rodwan’s fascinating, and very well-informed, discussion of hot, steamy sex … well, the desire for hot, steamy, sex, anyway… under the stuffy title, “George & Jacintha: On the Limits of Literary Biography,” is here.
Postscript on 6/14: Dave Lull wrote to add a note on a parallel theme, a review of David Lebedoff’s The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War – it’s reviewed briefly in “A Study of Two Masters of English Prose,” by John P. Rossi. The thought extends a passage from The Spectator article: “Perhaps Evelyn Waugh divined something of Orwell’s buried spirituality when he wrote to congratulate him on Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and subsequently visited him in the nursing home at Cranham in Gloucestershire. On the other side, one of Orwell’s last attempts at writing was to draw up notes for an essay on Waugh, who, he considered, ‘is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding unacceptable opinions’.”