John Rodden reviews A Life in Letters

Peter Davison (ed.), Orwell: A Life in Letters reviewed by John Rodden, 20pds, 542pp., 2010.

There are two ways to review this excellent new collection of George Orwell’s letters edited by Peter Davison. One can either highlight the original material that appears in the book, which is truly path-breaking. Or one can discuss the volume in much wider terms for its contribution to an enriched appreciation of Orwell’s life and times. Let me take the first approach in the remarks that follow. In a review for the Blair/Orwell Forum, I havel taken up the larger question of Orwell: A Life in Letters as an important contribution to Orwell studies generally – as, in fact, the personal memoir or autobiography that Orwell vowed he would never write.

Collected from Peter Davison’s 20 previous volumes of Orwell correspondence, Orwell: A Life in Letters contains almost 500 letters and is the twenty-ninth volume of Orwelliana that Davison has written or edited. Davison has selected this correspondence from among the 1,700 letters that he published in volumes X – XX of The Complete Works of George Orwell (1998) and in The Lost Orwell (2006). Among The Lost Orwell items included in A Life in Letters are Eileen Blair’s letters to Norah Myles, which I will discuss in my next review-essay. The new collection also includes, however, significant new material, in particular a letter written by Jacintha Buddicom (1901-93), the teenage sweetheart of Eric Blair and a family friend of the Blairs, which shows their relationship to have been far more serious than originally supposed.

The Jacintha letter is the big news in Davison’s collection. In hindsight, it is clear that Jacintha misrepresented her relationship to Eric in her memoir Eric & Us (1974). She maintained there that neither of them had any “romantic emotion” for the other. She took the secret of their shattered love with her to the grave in 1993. One aspect of the secret was that, on one of their long walks in Rickmansworth, where both the Blairs and Buddicoms had rented a holiday home in 1921, Eric sexually assaulted her. She describes it as something equivalent to a near-rape attempt.

This much is already known as a result of the postscript published by Dione Venables, Jacintha’s cousin, in a new edition of Eric & Us, The Postscript Edition (Finlay 2006). Dione established that the Jacintha relationship was more important than scholars realized. Dione also relates that Blair returned from Burma in 1927 with an engagement ring for her, but she refused to see him. Predictably (and understandably), Eric assumed that she had not forgiven him for his conduct during their walk in 1921, only weeks before he sailed for Burma. Jacintha’s reason was not Eric’s misconduct but, due to a tragic event during his absence, she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child, and had then been forced to hand her over for adoption after the father abandoned her.

Eric and Jacintha never met again. Orwell never learned why he had been rejected. Their only communication occurred in early 1949, less than a year before Orwell’s death, when Jacintha wrote to him after having learned that the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was none other than Eric Blair. After an exchange of letters, Orwell and Jacintha had three conversations on the telephone in February and March 1949. Dione’s postscript addressed all this, and it is invaluable especially because it explained how Jacintha’s shame prevented her from seeing Eric in 1927.

The other part of the secret is disclosed more fully in a newly published letter that Jacintha wrote to a cousin in May 1972. It reveals the deep poignancy of the sexual mores that disabled Jacintha from coping with her illegitimate pregnancy and Eric’s impetuosity – and sent him off to try out a police career in Burma. Jacintha confesses that she is writing Eric & Us “in the hope of ridding myself of a lifetime of ghosts and regrets at turning away the only man who ever really appealed on all levels.” In her letter, which she wrote to comfort a relative who had also had a pregnancy out of wedlock, she describes her regret that she missed her chance to marry him. “How I wish I had been ready for betrothal when Eric asked me to marry him on his return from Burma. He had ruined what had been such a close and fulfilling relationship since childhood by trying to take us the whole way before I was anywhere near ready for that. It took me literally years to realize that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met. When the time came and I was ready for the next step it was with the wrong man and the result haunts me to this day.”

Jacintha also vouchsafes that she was quite unprepared and indeed shocked when she read Nineteen Eighty-Four in June 1949. Jacintha became convinced that Julia, Winston Smith’s lover, was a portrait of herself. In her letter to her cousin, Jacintha writes: “He [Orwell] describes her with thick dark hair, being very active, hating politics – and their meeting place was a dell full of bluebells.” Jacintha was devastated by what she regarded as Orwell’s literary act of vengeance. She concludes: “In the end he absolutely destroys me, like a man in hobnail boots stamping on a spider. It hurt my mother so much when she read that book that we always thought it brought on her final heart attack a few days later. Be glad that you have not been torn limb from limb in public.”

Did Jacintha really inspire “Julia”? Not if one considers her renewal of contact with Eric to have been a possible factor: The manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four was already at the printer in mid-February 1949, so Orwell could not possibly have based Julia on the sudden re-entry of Jacintha into his life. She bases much of her argument that she is the model for Julia on the bluebell dell, which was “our special place.” But it seems probable that Orwell did not share this memory, or at least that bluebells hadn’t the same emotional force in his life as in hers, and that the breakup was a permanent sadness for her but not for him. Jacintha writes that she is “certain” that Julia “is clearly Jacintha.” Of Winston Smith and Julia, she writes:

[…] their meeting place was a dell full of bluebells. We always wandered off to our special place when we were at Ticklerton which was full of bluebells. They die so quickly if you pick them so we never did but lay amongst them and adored their heavy pungent scent. That very bluebell dell is described in his book and is part of the central story.

And yet if we take seriously a line of Orwell’s February 15 letter to her, with a sympathetic nod to Jacintha’s viewpoint, her suspicions gain a stronger footing. Orwell says that he “can’t stop thinking about the young days with you and [her siblings] Guin and Prosper and things put aside for 20 and 30 years. I am so wanting to see you.”

So the 1972 Buddicom letter is the major item of interest among the unpublished material, disclosing that the 1921 parting between Eric and Jacintha haunted her (and perhaps even him) for life – and may have inspired Orwell’s most famous female character. But Orwell: A Life in Letters sheds revealing new light not just on Orwell’s personal life. It also provides insight into the development of his political outlook. For instance, in a previously unknown letter to Richard Usborne, written in August 1947, Orwell furnishes a 1000-word summary of his political evolution. Most important is his remark that “there is not much to choose between communism and fascism.” Orwell, the leading literary Cold Warrior of the West, was not supposed to have regarded communism as an evil equivalent to Nazism and fascism – not even by his conservative or neoconservative admirers. Thus the statement to Richard Usborne represents a rather surprising revelation.

But let me return, in closing, to the Eric-Jacintha relationship and its import for our understanding of Orwell’s “life in letters.” I recently published (with John Rossi) an essay that speculated about the course of Orwell’s life “if he had lived” beyond January 1950, the month of his premature death at the age of 46. The article is entitled: “‘If He Had Lived’: George Orwell, A Counterfactual Life.” I beg the reader’s patience if I return to that thought experiment in these final remarks.

I wish I had reflected more on the Eric-Jacintha relationship (and had read Jacintha’s newly published letter) before completing “If He Had Lived.” For the material about Jacintha could drastically alter our conception of Orwell’s life. The new disclosures raise intriguing questions: What if Eric Blair had married Jacintha Buddicom? Would he have ever gone to Burma? Would he have ever seen a hanging or shot an elephant? How do we interpret Orwell’s remark in his February 1949 letter that he could not “stop thinking about the young days with you … and things put aside for 20 and 30 years?” Perhaps he too – just like Jacintha – ruminated on those days, fantasized about them, indeed stowed them away for future use, ultimately expressing them via the creation of Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. If so, then Jacintha truly was the model for Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four (and not Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s second wife, whom most scholars have until how regarded as the original for Julia).

The speculations are endless. We could reimagine Orwell’s entire life and work from this new information about Jacintha’s cameo appearances in it: her exit from Blair’s early life and her brief reappearance at Orwell’s end. Her significance thus shifts from the minor status of a forgotten, platonic childhood friend to the role of leading lady – as potential wife and/or unrequited lover and soul mate. On this latter view, her limited presence in Blair-Orwell’s life changes radically its arc and shape. We may even wonder whether “Eric Blair” would have become “George Orwell” at all. Jacintha represented the oldest non-family friend who continued to know Orwell as “Eric.” Perhaps he would have retained his birth name as his pen name – influenced by his wife’s preference – and what might that have meant for “George Orwell”?

And that latter question concerns not just the narrow topic of a pen name. Both Jacintha’s family and Eric’s mother were campaigning in 1921 for Eric to sit for the entrance exam to Oxford. He opened to the possibility – and only the Rickmansworth incident, which (temporarily) alienated the families and rained opprobrium on him, nixed the plan. That left Burma as his sole option – a form of punishment and exile, as it were, at least from Jacintha’s viewpoint.

Human error, tragic misunderstanding, bathos, and revenge: This is indeed the stuff of tragicomedy. It could be part of a melodramatic plot by Thomas Hardy, something akin to star-crossed fates of Tess and Angel. Yes, Orwell’s afterlife continues to amaze. It represents a literary second act that has no equals.

© John Rodden and John P. Rossi. 2010

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