California Literary Review

George & Jacintha: On the Limits of Literary Biography

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April 2nd, 2008 at 3:12 pm

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George Orwell

George Orwell

The claim that George Orwell once tried to rape someone received scant attention in the United States, perhaps because the book bearing the charge did not become readily available. It made news in Great Britain, where the newly amended memoir of his supposed victim appeared and where one of the novelist’s biographers gave credence to the charge. When I saw a passing mention of the accusation in a book review, it disturbed me and prompted me to dig deeply into the matter.

While the reality that writers may not lead exemplary lives is not news, there is something special about Orwell and something especially horrible about the crime. The allegation might not have made a large impact on me if it had involved another writer, but Orwell’s persona cannot be completely separated from his work. The values and ideas he emphasized in the work have come to be associated with the man. He argued for clear-sightedness and clear prose and appeared to demonstrate both. Independent and beholden to no one, he would not accept lies from the right or the left and insisted on describing what he saw in a truthful manner. That such a person might attempt rape must upset his readers. Was Orwell just another hypocrite? Did his distance from a feminist perspective really make it possible for him to be a sex criminal?

Some violence can be justified, and violence was a part of Orwell’s life. He tried to kill people when fighting in Spain in 1937, and he may have done so. On the Huesca Front, in what biographer D.J. Taylor calls “one of the most dangerous episodes of his military career,” which Orwell recounts in Homage to Catalonia, he attacked a group of fascists. Fighters for Franco were approaching his position. He tossed a bomb.

He continues:

I flung it and threw myself on my face. By one of those strokes of luck that happen about once in a year I had managed to drop the bomb almost exactly where the rifle had flashed. There was the roar of the explosion and then, instantly, a diabolical outcry of screams and groans. We had got one of them anyway; I don’t know whether he was killed, but certainly he was badly hurt.

Later, soon before being shot himself, he fired at other fascists. Though he felt some “vague sorrow” after lobbing the bomb, his actions in that incident could be called warranted. Sometimes those who argue against violence are not on the side of justice and those willing to fight have claims to virtue. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell comments on pacifism:

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries.

This passage was often quoted in the days after September 11, 2001, fifty six years after Orwell wrote it. Against Franco and Hitler, violence was absolutely necessary. Supporters of aggressive defense against the likes of al Qaida and the Taliban found Orwell’s comments about the need to fight especially apt.

Yet certain brutal acts – like rape – can never be rationalized, forgiven or overlooked. Orwell’s conduct during the Spanish Civil War may not be morally troubling, but the possibility that he came close to violating a woman would be deeply troubling indeed.

I don’t know if it was because of the lines from that 1945 essay or the increased attention paid to Orwell as the 100th anniversary of his birth approached, but I read all of Orwell’s published work after 9/11. I again read his two most famous novels – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – along with all the ones that preceded them. I read his account of his experiences in Spain and his other nonfiction.

It was while reading a review of a new collection of Orwell’s newspaper columns that I learned about the assault accusation. Frank Kermode in the New York Review of Books mentions it in passing, citing another critic’s article in another publication before quickly moving on to the book under examination.

I was determined to learn the details. A couple of paragraphs in a piece about something else simply were not enough. Probably I wanted assurance that the rape charge was unfounded. However, I told myself that, following Orwell’s example, I would face the facts no matter how disturbing they might be.

The first place I turned was to the article Kermode cited. In the Times Literary Supplement, Orwell biographer Gordon Bowker said the scenario outlined by a relative of one of Orwell’s childhood friends fit with his understanding of the writer’s character and sexual history. Decades earlier, a woman who knew Orwell when he was young Eric Blair had written a memoir about their shared experiences in the 1920s, which she reflected on with pleasure. Now her cousin said a letter by Jacintha Buddicom, the author of Eric & Us, revealed that he had pounced on her, resulting in bruises, torn clothing and tears, but stopped somewhere short of committing rape. This cousin, Dione Venables, had composed a postscript detailing this for a new edition of Buddicom’s memoir.

Next I had to get a hold of that book, which I discovered had no U.S. publisher or distributor. During the few weeks while I waited for it to arrive after ordering from England, I read Bowker’s biography. I thought it might help me get near the bottom of things if I also looked into Taylor’s study of his life, which, like Bowker’s, was published in 2003. A friend of Orwell’s second wife had published a book about her that I decided might offer insights into Orwell’s dealings with women. I recalled that Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters contained a chapter specifically addressing that topic. I also read, yet again, the relevant writing that issued from Orwell’s own typewriter.

I immersed myself in all things Orwell. I scrutinized the writer, his life and topics that were related (if only distantly), even though I knew from the beginning that I would never be able to settle the matter conclusively. With no forensic evidence, no witnesses and no way to question any of those directly involved, it would be impossible to know whether Eric Blair had been forceful with Jacintha Buddicom.

Ultimately, after analyzing the relevant material, I satisfied myself that there were serious shortcomings in the postscript added to Eric & Us and in the reasoning behind Bowker’s willingness to deem it credible. A wholesale reevaluation of Orwell’s work and reconsideration of its enduring value would be unnecessary. For one thing, the letter on which the revelation rested had been burned more than a dozen years before the report of its contents, based on the memories of the person who destroyed it, were made public. Buddicom herself had nothing but positive things to say about the boy she once knew. Hilary Spurling, in The Girl from the Fiction Department, says Sonia Brownell despised the sadism some commentators see in Orwell, yet she decided to marry him. Bowker says there were several rambles in the countryside that culminated in Orwell’s “pouncing” on female companions. Curiously, several of these women became lifelong friends of his, maintaining correspondence and visiting him as he lay on his deathbed.

Still, there was something unsavory about the whole endeavor. Literary studies should not resemble an attorney’s efforts to discredit a witness on the stand. Reading novels, essays, biographies and book reviews with an eye out for what they might reveal about an author’s sex life is exactly as unseemly as one would imagine. Looking at literature with a determined interest in specific issues such as race, sex or ideology distorts perspective. It artificially emphasizes certain aspects of texts, twisting them to fit particular prejudices. Works become assessed on the basis of their authors’ actual or surmised beliefs rather than their artistic merits.

Admittedly, if one examines Orwell exclusively though the lens of sexual politics, then he seems decidedly unenlightened. His interactions with women included desperate marriage proposals, awkward passes at numerous women, a great deal of self-pity and unfaithfulness to his first wife. His behavior could be quite shabby, his attitude rather poor.

Yet there was more to him than that. In that same World War II-era essay quoted above, Orwell says, “Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing off of one part of the world from another, which makes its harder and harder to discover what is actually happening.” He earned a reputation for his commitment to belief in the existence of objective truth and his efforts to learn and reveal it. He also proved himself willing to fight, literally, with justifiable violence, for what he believed. While it is certainly possible to point to sentences plucked from various works as evidence of misogyny, it is also easy to find repeated insistence on the need and human capacity for decent behavior. Looking only at certain elements of his writing or his biography obscures the truth of his accomplishments, making it hard to see what he actually did.

  • http://www.finlay-publisher.com Dione Venables

    The postscript to Jacintha Buddicom’s memoir contained no accusation of rape by Eric Blair. It emphasised the opposite in fact, merely recording the inexperienced passion of a teenager having difficulty in coping with his testosterone. It clearly frightened Jacintha at the time, as it would any very small girl with a lusty young man of over 6ft tall.
    Mr Rodwen’s article suggests that Jacintha was just a passing friend among many during childhood, but I’m afraid that this is also inaccurate. Eric Blair, in the eight years of his friendship with the Buddicom family, was an intimate member of that family and treated by Mrs Buddicom as one of her own children. This was NOT a casual friendship but an absolutely prime relationship which, if you look through more than just his two most popular novels and explore his wonderful essays, leave their mark everywhere in his writing, be it poetry, characterisation or descriptive location.
    Gordon Bowker coined the word ‘pounce’ which, in Orwell’s romantic dealings with women in all the biographies, seems to be a pretty accurate term. That the word ‘rape’ was ever introduced at all is regrettable (and I see that I wrote the dreaded word [p.182 para 2]). It did not, however, actually happen, nor was there any suggestion that it had. Sadly, newspapers thrive on such words in order to sell. It is regrettable that this HEADLINE mentality is not ignored by those who are in the business of interpretation and should know better. LOVE is the word which actually applied between Eric Blair and Jacintha. As Peter Davison, Sir Bernard Crick and others will tell you today, things are still emerging from Orwell’s life which suggest this extremely important commitment ever more positively.

  • John G. Rodwan, Jr.

    I state quite clearly in my essay that I investigated reports that George Orwell/Eric Blair may have “tried” to commit rape. I state that explicitly in the first sentence before proceeding to explain that I chose to examine the suggestion of an “attempt” to commit rape. I never claim, as Dione Venables implies I did, that she accused him of rape.

    Press reports did prompt me to look into the matter. Gordon Bowker, writing in the Times Literary Supplement (February 23, 2007) about Venables’s postscript to Eric & Us, says Blair “attempted to rape” Jacintha Buddicom and refers to the incident as “near-rape.” Frank Kermode in The New York Review of Books (June 14, 2007) states that Blair “tried to rape her.”

    However, Venables cannot blame regrettable tendencies of newspapers for a suggestion she made. In response to my essay she says, “That the word ‘rape’ was ever introduced at all is regrettable (and I see that I wrote the dreaded word [p.182 para 2]). It did not, however, actually happen, nor was there any suggestion that it had.” However, in her postscript, she writes that Guinever (Guiny) Buddicom, Jacintha’s sister, “had discovered a furious letter from Jacintha to Eric, telling him of her disgust and shock that he should try and FORCE her to let him make love to her” (emphasis in original). Venables writes that Blair attempted to “make SERIOUS love to Jacintha” by holding her down and that in the ensuing struggle, Jacintha suffered a bruised hip and shoulder. Stating that someone tried physically to force another to have sex does indeed suggest an attempt at rape. Venables knows this; in the paragraph of her text that she cites, she reports asking Guinever whether Blair “had raped” Jacintha. She says Guinever told her that “there was a reference to Jacintha screaming at Eric to stop – and he had.” Still, Venables gives the impression that he tried to rape her but then relented. “Guiny said that she had a hazy memory of Jacintha rushing in with a torn skirt and a tear-stained face like thunder.” In my essay, I accurately summarize the postscript’s account when I relate that it says Blair “stopped somewhere short of committing rape.”

    I also state that the postscript has “serious shortcomings,” which, in case any readers desire more explanation, I describe some of them at greater length here. The story of the aborted assault comes from Venables’s reconstruction of a discussion with a person who combines her “hazy” memories with her recitation of what she found in a letter that she burned. Even if Venables immediately wrote down what Guinever Buddicom said to her in 1993, when she revealed the contents of her sister’s draft letter, this is several steps removed from an eyewitness account. The conversation between Venables and Guinever occurred 72 years after the alleged incident (and then Venables kept her version of it to herself for another 13 years). Crucially, the letter does not survive, so she cannot quote from it. The individual who relayed its contents to Venables died in 2003, so she cannot be interviewed. Venables is vague about how much of the account was taken from the letter and how much came from its burner’s memories of 1921. What we get, essentially, is what she said she said she said…

    On top of the temporal distance and the lack of extant primary source material, there are strange comments and qualities in the postscript that call its reliability into question. Venables starts, not with the accusation (or, at least, suggestion) of attempted rape but instead by saying Eric and Jacintha “loved nothing better than being devious, mysterious with each other” and that Eric & Us was written in that spirit, with Buddicom possibly “straying from the truth” as well as being evasive. Thus, as Venables leaves things, readers are not always to take Buddicom at her word but future biographers should consider a third-hand account of one her destroyed letter drafts. She simultaneously undermines her relative’s trustworthiness and presents a supplement that assumes the Buddicom sisters can be believed.

    In addition to the impossibility of verification, there are other problems as well. Ironically enough, given Orwell’s famously clean prose style, some of these have to do with her at-times less than window-pane clear prose. Others involve contradictions and peculiar suppositions. In her description of Blair’s pounce, she makes a point of mentioning the discrepancy in size between the two friends, giving his height as six feet four inches and Buddicom’s as “under” five feet (despite Buddicom’s own report of her height in Eric & Us as slightly above five feet as of 1919). Venables seems to want to stress that the eighteen year old Blair was significantly bigger and, presumably, stronger than the twenty year old Buddicom. However, one paragraph on she writes of Buddicom: “She may well have recognized at last that the two-year gap in their ages was now like a five-year gap in physical maturity – and she was not prepared for anyone to force himself on her – even Eric.” Is she implying that the reason Blair did not follow through with his attempt to rape her is because Buddicom was able to overpower him? Then what was she trying to prove with the size difference? (Orwell’s size is uncertain in Bowker’s biography. In one place he makes the author an inch shorter than what Venables records. However, once Orwell gets to Spain, Bowker sees him standing that extra inch taller.) It is not evident what Venables want to convey here (just as it is uncertain what “like thunder” describes in the line quoted above. Is it Buddicom’s face, or is it her rushing in?). This weakness can be seen yet again in her response to my essay when she says there was no suggestion of rape even though she acknowledges that she did in fact use that very word.

    Then there are the flat-out odd remarks in the postscript, like this one about Buddicom’s supposed reaction to Blair’s pounce. “She must have realized that Eric was not entirely to blame over this incident because she had not stopped his adolescent romancing earlier” – romancing Buddicom denied ever occurred, by the way. So she encouraged him, Venables implies, but he stopped somewhere short of rape either because she told him to or because she prevailed in their tussle.

    Venables’s speculation that Blair imagined Buddicom while having sex with Burmese prostitutes is also, frankly, weird. She writes: “One cannot help wondering whether, losing his virginity to a stream of uncomplaining little Burmese girls, he was seeing the petite Jacintha in their very similar sized bodies.” Ignoring the question of her sources regarding the physiques and personalities of any prostitutes Blair may have hired (and D.J. Taylor admits that very little is known about this), one really cannot help but wonder how a person loses his virginity to a “stream” of people. Wouldn’t it have been gone after just one?

    Commenting on my essay, Venables expresses satisfaction with Bowker’s term “pounce” in describing Orwell’s sexual maneuverings. However, Bowker essentially uses it as a synonym of “attempted rape,” which may be why he so readily accepts Venables’s account and accurately views it as describing attempted rape. He also assumes Orwell pounced on women even when he has no evidence. Regarding a mid-1940s meeting between Orwell and Sonia Brownell, for instance, Bowker writes: “Whether he pounced or simply propositioned her is not known.” In a troublesome fashion, he relies on passages from the novels to support his speculations about what he believes Orwell actually did.

    As to the claim that I treat the friendship between Jacintha and Blair as a “passing” or “casual” one, I can only say I do not know what passages she has in mind. I write that Jacintha and he had “shared experiences” in the 1920s and that she recalled them “with pleasure.” Beyond that, I do not comment on the content, quality or length of their relationship. I do not doubt that the two were close friends, and never said that I did.

    I also do not know what to make of her comment about the looking “through more than just his two most popular novels.” In fact, I quote other works of his in the essay.

    I do not doubt that revealing information about Orwell’s life could emerge. I simply did not find any in the 2006 postscript to Eric & Us or in the careless press reports about it.

  • William Hunt

    Everyone should draw a deep breath and relax. There are no irreconciliable differences between Mr. Rodwan and Mrs. Venables, and the quibbling over style is both distasteful and distracting. The fact is that the reprint of “Eric & Us”, supplemented by Mrs. Venables’ illuminating (if inconclusive)Postscript, has provided a dramatic new perspective on the evolution of “George Orwell”. All students of Orwell owe her a debt of gratitude.

    I am currently working on a study of the youth of Eric Blair, and I have become convinced that Dione Venables is absolutely right: Jacintha Buddicom was very important to the future George Orwell, and their relationship played a key role in his emotional and intellectual maturation.

    Mrs. Venables has allowed me to examine a number of documents in her possession which she did not mention in the Postscript. These sources, combined with oblique references in Orwell’s own writings, suggest that neither Jacintha nor Orwell were entirely honest, in print, about their experiences together.

    Here I have neither time nor space to present the evidence. But briefly, this is what seems to have happened. Eric and Jacintha were were much more erotically involved than Jacintha Buddicom could later admit. In September 1921 Eric tried to force the sexual issue, as frustrated young males will do, no doubt in the belief that Jacintha “really wanted it,” and would yield to a determined display of masculine vigor. When her resistance finally convinced him that “no” really did mean “no” he gave it up. In other words, he abandoned the “attempted rape” once he realized that rape was what it in fact would be.

    The evidence suggests that Jacintha forgave him, but that he never quite forgave himself, with lasting consequences for the character and work of “George Orwell”. I hope soon to be able to explain all this in more substantive and persuasive detail. In the meantime, let us disagree, if we must, without being disagreeable.

    William Hunt, Professor of History, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617

  • John G. Rodwan, Jr.

    I respectfully reiterate that nothing in my essay or in my response to Ms. Venables’s comments on it contradicts the conclusion that, as Professor Hunt puts it, “Jacintha Buddicom was very important to the future George Orwell, and their relationship played a key role in his emotional and intellectual maturation.”

    While we can all agree on that, I think, I do not believe that scrutinizing the Venables postscript amounts to mere “quibbling over style.” I happen to believe that the scenario Hunt outlines seems convincing. However, the press coverage of the incident based on the postscript treated it as “attempted rape” because that, in essence, is what Venables describes, regardless of whether that’s what she intended.

    I look forward to seeing the results of Professor Hunt’s research.

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