The Sharpest Thorn

During his years as literary editor and columnist on the left-wing weekly Tribune George Orwell wrote, in addition to his journalism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Tribune suited him very well, letting him do as he pleased, offering a measure of political agreement but also a background against which his boldness and oddity stood out very clearly.

The bold and odd Orwell is in the news at present: a memoir has been published describing his friendship with a young girl back in 1914, when he was eleven and she thirteen. They met when Jacintha, wandering around her father’s estate, came upon Eric Blair (to give him his true name) standing on his head in a field. Asked why he was doing so, he explained that it was a good way to get noticed. So it proved, and a close friendship developed. Whenever Eric was home from school (Eton) they would take long walks, or go fishing, or discuss poetry and the occult. He gave her a copy of Dracula, a crucifix, and a clove of garlic. Happy days, in an idyllic setting that will recur in the “Golden Country” of Nineteen Eighty-Four!

Orwell’s biographers knew about this youthful affair, but it now appears that Jacintha broke it off when Eric, aged eighteen, tried to rape her. When he went off to be an imperial policeman in Burma she did not reply to his sad letters, and on his return in 1927 she still did not relent. Years later, in 1949, when he was desperately ill, a widower with a young adopted son, he appealed to her to come and see him. Apparently Nineteen Eighty-Four had so shocked her that she decided against it, but she attended his funeral in 1950. Orwell never mentions her in his published work.

The sexual manners of eighteen-year-old boys are rarely polished, and it may be that Eric was a rough rather than a criminal suitor, but Orwell’s biographer Gordon Bowker thinks otherwise: “The sudden pounce…remained his preferred mode of seduction.”1 Either way the entire episode is suggestive. By all accounts Orwell’s normal demeanor was perfectly civil, just what could be expected of a man of his class and education, but there were occasions when it must have seemed, not least to other members of that class, to be as odd as standing on one’s head to attract attention.

As to the allegation of violence, it is true that it had inevitably been part of his job in Burma; and in later life this quiet man did express violent political opinions and spoke of his own “intellectual brutality.” He condemned the English public (i.e., private boarding) school system, but not the almost universal practice in such schools of corporal punishment, which he thought a useful preparation for adult life. He defended the bombing of civilian populations. And so on. Yet he had unusually strong sympathy with the destitute and the suffering and could imagine extremes of desolation, as in the famous essay on…

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