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One Encounter: George & Me

When I read about a claim, published several decades after he died, that George Orwell tried to rape someone, it disturbed me. A lot. I am not naïve. I don’t expect perfection from anyone, even individuals I hold in high regard. That accomplished writers may have led less than exemplary lives is not news to me. Still, there is something special about Orwell, and something dispiriting about the idea of him attempting such an act. The reports would not have had nearly the same impact on me if it had been about another writer I admire, but Orwell’s persona cannot be completely separated from his work. After all, he wrote about himself in several books and essays. The values and ideas he emphasized in the writing have come to be associated with the man. He argued for clear-sightedness and equally clear prose and appeared to demonstrate both. He would not accept lies from the political right or left. He was independent, not beholden to anyone. As biographer D.J. Taylor puts it, “Orwell is, above all, a moral force, a light glinting in the darkness, a way through the murk.”

“All your heroes turn out to be assholes,” Shooter Jennings sings in one of those country songs about everything turning out wrong. When I read the accusation against Orwell it felt like one of those sad moments. Was Orwell, decency’s advocate, merely a fraud?

Certainly, violence was a part of Orwell’s life, and some violence, including deadly violence, can be justified. He did try to kill people when fighting in Spain in 1937, and he may have done so. On the Huesca Front, in what Taylor calls “one of the most dangerous episodes of his military career,” he threw a bomb at a group of fascists. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell describes fighters for Franco approaching his position with rifles flashing. He saw one Nationalist soldier just twenty yards away. He made what he calls a lucky toss that placed a bomb exactly where he witnessed the gunmen. The explosion caused a “diabolical outcry of screams and groans,” he says, and continues, “We had got one of them anyway; I don’t know whether he was killed, but certainly he was badly hurt. Poor wretch, poor wretch.” In another episode, recalling the bayoneting demonstration given years earlier by his school boxing instructor, a veteran of the unsuccessful 1915 British offensive at Gallipoli, Orwell tried and failed to stab a soldier in Spain who stayed just out of his reach. Later, soon before being shot himself, he fired at other fascists, but could not say for certain whether he hit anyone. Though he felt some “vague sorrow” after lobbing the bomb, his actions, it seems clear, were warranted.

Sometimes, in Orwell’s view, those who oppose violence are not on the side of justice and those willing to fight have claims to virtue. In the 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” he writes of 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 seemed exceptionally prescient and was repeated frequently fifty six years after Orwell wrote it, in the days after September 11, 2001. In Orwell’s time, violence against Franco and Hitler was absolutely necessary; in the same vein, supporters of military action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban found Orwell’s comments about pacifism and the need to fight especially appropriate.

In these works, however, Orwell discusses a completely different type of violence than rape, which belongs in another category altogether. I do not find Orwell’s conduct during the Spanish Civil War morally troubling; the possibility that he might have come close to violating a woman, however, troubles me a great deal.

Perhaps because of the striking relevance of the lines quoted above or because of the renewed attention paid to Orwell as the 100th anniversary of his birth approached, I read a great deal of his published work – all of it, in fact – after September 11. During the next three years, I read or reread every one of his books. My first experience with Orwell had been in seventh grade, when Animal Farm was assigned reading: I still have that copy with my name written on it. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was in college, just a few years after 1984. And eventually I found my way to his better-known essays (the brick-shaped Everyman’s Library edition of his essays stayed with me for a several-month stretch, and it remains a book that I frequently revisit), all his novels, and his nonfictional work, including his account of his experiences in Spain.

To a great extent it was Homage to Catalonia – his story of “being in some degree disillusioned” in Spain – that helped me cut through the political confusions that came about after September 2001 and helped me understand one of the “dreariest effects” that the war taught Orwell, namely, “that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.” When I finally read Orwell’s version of this realization, I recognized the willingness of committed activists, regardless of their politics, to lie in the apparent belief that, despite all preceding history, corrupt means will this time around lead to just ends. Orwell rejected that sort of delusional rationalizing and set out instead to say what he saw without tailoring his writing to suit anyone’s ideological aims. He believed a book should be assessed on its merits, not according to political expediency (as he explained in a 1945 preface for Animal Farm). While he ended up with mostly “evil” memories of the “disaster” in Spain, his “belief in the decency of human beings” nevertheless increased. To my mind, this indicates a strong measure of rare intellectual and moral courage – not the sort of qualities associated with attempted rapists.

I first learned of the accusation of rape from a review of a collection of Orwell’s newspaper columns. Writing in The New York Review of Books (June 14, 2007), Frank Kermode mentions it in passing, citing another critic’s article in another publication before quickly moving on to the book under examination.

Shocked by the suggestion, which contradicted so much of what I believed about Orwell, I needed to know more. A few sentences in a piece about something else were not enough. Did I merely want confirmation of my suspicion that something was wrong with the claim of an attempted rape? Was I simply in a condition of denial? I decided to follow what I took to be Orwell’s example as an author. In the 1946 essay “Why I Write” he describes his “power of facing unpleasant facts,” and I vowed that I would confront the facts no matter how disturbing they might be. The truth, not some consoling illusion, mattered. If he really was not the exemplar I had thought, I wanted to know it.

I turned next to the article to which Kermode referred. In the Times Literary Supplement (February 23, 2007), Gordon Bowker, the author of George Orwell, one of the Orwell biographies that appeared around the centennial of his birth, said the accusation seemed believable. He wrote that the scenario outlined by a relative of one of Orwell’s childhood friends fit with his understanding of the writer’s character and history. Decades earlier, Jacintha Buddicom, whom Orwell befriended when he was young Eric Blair, had written a memoir called Eric & Us in which she recalled with evident fondness their shared friendship in the 1920s. Now one of her cousins, Dione Venables, claimed that previously unstudied family letters revealed that he had pounced on Buddicom, resulting in bruises, torn clothing, and tears, but had stopped somewhere short of committing rape. Venables composed a postscript detailing this for the 2006 reissue of Eric & Us.

My copy of Eric & Us had to be shipped from the United Kingdom and I waited with both anticipation and dread for it to arrive so I could finally see for myself what it actually said. In the meantime, I immersed myself in all things Orwell, reading about him, revisiting his work, comparing what others said about particular passages to my own interpretation. I decided to read the biography by the person who said the account of the assault struck him as plausible. In addition to reading Bowker’s biography, I returned to Jeffrey Meyer’s work, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. I read D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life, published in 2003. I looked again into Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters (with its section on “difficulties with girls”). And I again pored over Orwell’s autobiographical work, particularly with an eye to discerning his attitudes about with women.

Was I going overboard with all of this? I certainly was dedicating a great deal of time to scrutinizing the writer and his experiences with women, 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, there could be no way to know for certain whether George Orwell had forced himself upon Jacintha Buddicom.

When my copy of Eric & Us showed up, I quickly saw that Venables’s postscript suffers from serious shortcomings. Characteristically, it is Orwell, who set great store by the act of witnessing, who anticipates the main problem bedeviling the appendix to Buddicom’s memoir. More than once in Homage to Catalonia, he mentions that he is documenting what he saw with his own eyes. He also readily admits that his first-person observation does not give his book anything like an exhaustive history of the events he witnessed. He states, “It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist.” Before I read her account – before I saw it firsthand, that is – I had assumed that Venables would have something definite to point at in support the suggestion of an attempted rape. She doesn’t. Instead, she turns out to be an unreliable non-eyewitness multiple steps removed from the incident at the center of her revelation. Jacintha Buddicom’s sister, Guinever Buddicom, told Venables that she had “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.” However, Guinever had burned the letter. Consequently, Venables (and the capital letters for emphasis can only be hers) relies on a verbal reconstruction of a letter that had been set ablaze more than a dozen years before she reported its contents on the basis of admittedly “hazy” recollections attributed to Jacintha Buddicom’s younger sister. Venables goes on to assert that Orwell attempted to “make SERIOUS love to Jacintha” by holding her down and bruising her in the process. Although Bowker and Kermode baldly state that in her postscript Venables accuses Orwell of attempted rape, Venables does write that Guinever did not think “it sounded as though Eric had raped” Jacintha, since “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.

Even if Venables immediately transcribed what Guinever Buddicom said to her about this in 1993, this leaves ample room for error. The conversation between Venables and Guinever occurred 72 years after the alleged incident. She cannot quote from the non-surviving letter, which no one else can examine. Guinever, who died in 2003, can answer no questions about it. Venables is vague about how much of the account was taken from the recollection of the gist of the letter and how much came from its burner’s independent memories of the alleged incident. After September 4, 1921 (the date on the letter, according to Venables), Orwell continued to spend time with Jacintha’s siblings, but she “made herself scarce” whenever he was around. However, in Eric & Us, Jacintha Buddicom refers to a long walk with Orwell in 1922 as well as other meetings. Although documents revealing previously unknown aspects of Orwell’s life and personality may appear (perhaps including those Guinever did not destroy), a full, disinterested biography remains unlikely – and for the identical reasons Orwell addressed concerning the history of the Spanish Civil War.

Bowker’s willingness to deem Venables’s claims credible looked to me like it rested on flawed reasoning – his thorough biography showed close attention to detail, but he seemed less than rigorous in his reading of this postscript. He fails either to notice or to mention that the key document Venables refers to does not exist. In the Times Literary Supplement, he states that a “draft letter to Eric, dated September 21, 1921, discovered after Jacintha’s death, shows that their friendship was broken off when the eighteen-year-old, six-foot-four Eric pounced on the barely five-foot Jacintha and attempted to rape her.” No one knows what the letter “shows.” Bowker neglects to mention that Venables depends on Guinever Buddicom’s reiteration of the contents of an epistle she obliterated. (And he gets the date wrong.) He also knows, as his own biography makes plain, that contact between the two continued for another year or so until Orwell moved from England to Burma as a member of Imperial Indian Police.

In his biography, Bowker extracts Orwell’s sexual proclivities in the words of fictional characters, offering selective and superficial readings of passages from the fiction as though this could offer direct access to the author’s mind. To cite just one example, Bowker takes Gordon Comstock’s fantasizing in Keep the Aspidistra Flying of satisfying sexual longings the way beasts do as a parallel to what Bowker calls Orwell’s characteristic “pounce.” He highlights this passage:

This woman business! What a bore it is! What a pity we can’t cut it right out, or at least be like the animals – minutes of ferocious lust and months of icy chastity. Take a cock pheasant, for example. He jumps up on the hens’ backs without so much as a with your leave or by your leave. And no sooner is it over than the whole subject is out of his mind. He hardly even notices his hens any longer; he ignores them, or simply pecks them if they come too near his food. He is not called upon to support his offspring, either. Lucky pheasant! How different from the lord of creation, always on the hop between his memory and his conscience!

Comstock’s envy of the directness of animals, it could be argued, speaks to his wish that he could ignore the conventions of respectable human conduct, as well as decency itself, and commit rape. Yet fiction is not always thinly disguised autobiography, and the problem with conflating them can be seen when you try to attribute Comstock’s admiration of cock pheasants to Orwell. Orwell was very fond of children. He despaired at the thought of his possible infertility and eagerly adopted a son, Richard. No one familiar with this side of Orwell – and Bowker mentions it in his biography – would believe Orwell shares Comstock’s envy of a male animals’ freedom from having to support offspring. But if one can point to one part of a paragraph as representative of the writer’s actual outlook but conveniently ignore another part, then this method of teasing out a person’s real beliefs is spotty and unreliable at best.

Kermode also takes a too casual approach to some basic facts, writing, for example, that “a memoir has been published,” suggesting that the book itself, rather than only the postscript, is new. Seemingly using only Bowker’s article, and not Venables’s actual text, Kermode also says Orwell “tried to rape” Jacintha, not conveying Guinever’s observation that he stopped when he was told to stop.

I fully recognize that Orwell does not come off well if looked at exclusively in terms of sexual politics. His behavior could be quite shabby, his attitude toward women rather poor. His works supply ample ammunition for those who regard him as sexist. His interactions with women included several desperate marriage proposals, numerous awkward passes at women who found him unattractive, a great deal of self-pity, and unfaithfulness to his first wife. Nevertheless, Orwell did display a willingness to challenge prevailing prejudices. After a close look at what has been written by and about him, I am not convinced that his behavior with Buddicom can accurately be called “rape” or “near-rape.”

Although the far-from-convincing suggestion of attempted rape and the less than scrupulous handling of it in journalist reports persuaded me that wholesale reevaluation of Orwell’s work and reconsideration of its enduring value would be unnecessary, I cannot call the journey to this conclusion an enjoyable one. I felt like my literary studies degenerated to the point that they started to resemble a lawyer’s efforts to discredit someone on the stand. Investigating novels, essays, biographies and book reviews for what they might reveal about an author’s sex life and whether they support declaring the writer a sex criminal is exactly as unappetizing as it sounds. I believed, and still believe, that scrutinizing literature with a predetermined interest in specific issues like sex or politics distorts a reader’s perspective, exaggerates certain aspects of books and twists texts to fit particular prejudices. Kermode hints at a close connection between Orwell’s biography and his method of expression that offers avenues for just such misreading. He allows for the possibility of attempted rape because of Orwell’s familiarity with violence, which had “inevitably been part of his job” in Burma. Kermode also says that “in later life this quiet man did express violent political opinions,” as if that might signal a propensity to sexual violence. When I was in graduate school (right around the time Guinever Buddicom and Venables discussed the missing letter), I felt like too much criticism took the form of fatuous disputes over an artist’s value based on judgments of the correctness of his (actual or presumed) commitments, and Orwell obviously lost point in such debates. No one would mistake him for a feminist, but I did not want my reading of his work to only revolve around such matters or to ponder whether fierce criticism signaled a capacity for physical attacks.

Everyone has multiple sides and qualities, some attractive, some less so, and Orwell is certainly no exception, as reading biographies of him makes plain. I still think it is important to look at all those aspects, whether positive or negative. In “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell writes, “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 and with a defensible sort of violence, for what he believed. One of the things he believed in was decency. Arguing for decency does not necessarily mean embodying it, of course. While it is certainly possible to point to sentences in various works as evidence of misogyny, it is also easy to find repeated insistence on the need and human capacity for decent behavior. There is also evidence that he tried to meet that standard. Looking only at certain elements of his writing or his biography obscures the truth of his achievements, I think, making it more difficult to recognize and appreciate what he really did.

One thing Orwell did for me was provide a model for the craft of nonfiction writing that I could emulate. Nineteen Eighty-Four may be nearly bullet-proof, and Animal Farm is exceedingly clever and expertly executed, but it’s really in his essays, criticism, and other nonfiction that I think Orwell achieves mastery. I do not mean I try to mimic his style, and I do not flatter myself that I generate comparably clear prose. But I do share his commitment to taking care with facts and striving not to mislead. I try to avoid making claims I cannot support with evidence. I also recognize the inevitability of failure in reaching complete truth, due to the inherent difficulty of doing so as well as my own limitations. The drive to see the truth – having the stomach to face experiences directly and the determination to describe them accurately – does not automatically lead to a complete, precise record of what occurred. The hard work happens here. Orwell fully recognized his own lack of objectivity and the possibility of errors infecting his telling of what he saw. Near the end of Homage to Catalonia, he writes:

I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such issues as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan…. [B]eware of my partisanship, my mistakes or fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

These warnings obviously apply to writing about events other than the one Orwell covers in that particular work. That willingness to examine matters closely even while knowing and acknowledging the elusiveness of truth makes Orwell an exemplary figure for any honest essayist.

Traveling the path Orwell maps means taking seriously troubling assertions like those Venables raises. I endeavored to do so. Still, following as best I can in his footsteps, I admit that, as an admirer of Orwell, I too write as a partisan, some one who takes sides based on his understanding of the facts. I find myself an uncomfortable one, however, one unsure if he achieves the clear-sightedness he prizes. This seems appropriate somehow.

John G. Rodwan, Jr., lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in diverse publications including California Literary Review, Spot Literary Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, and the boxing websites Fight News and Ringside and Training Principles.