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.
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.