In an effort to set the record straight about the boyhood of one of the twentieth century’s most significant writers, Jacintha Buddicom published Eric & Us, a recollection of her early life with Eric Blair, better known by his pseudonym, George Orwell. However, Orwell was not the only friend who gained iconic, popular cultural renown. Buddicom also knew Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist, writer, poet and magician, towards the end of his strange life.
Buddicom had grown annoyed at the representation in television documentaries of Orwell’s youth as an unhappy one. The bitterness he felt about his schooling, described in Such, Such Were The Joys, a posthumously published essay, was not her experience of Orwell and Buddicom had known him well from 1914 until his departure for Burma in 1922.
Eric Blair had made friends with the three Buddicom children – Jacintha, Prosper and Guinever – during a stunning English summer on the eve of war when they lived at Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.
It was hard for the Buddicoms not to notice the eleven-year-old Eric, who was showing-off doing a headstand in an adjoining meadow as they played French cricket in their large, overgrown garden. Eric, successfully capturing their attention, explained away his odd behaviour when questioned with, ‘you are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up’. It worked, the children invited him to play French cricket and became inseparable each summer.
Thirteen-year-old Jacintha was older and over the next eight-years a close companionship developed based on their mutual love of books. This blossomed into a strong physical attraction. In the years immediately after the war Blair grew infatuated and they became affectionate. She remembered their first kiss nostalgically as an ‘amber moment’ of ‘complete trust, complete joy, complete peace’ where they ‘seemed to be wrapped round in golden light’. Buddicom later described the nature of their intimacy as one confined to ‘heavy petting’ rather than anything more sexual but felt unable, as it turned out, to be completely honest in her book about the complexities of their relationship and the disturbing way it ended.
Jacintha nurtured Eric’s childhood dream of becoming a ‘FAMOUS AUTHOR’ (always capitalised in their correspondence). He shared stories, plays and increasingly wrote poems professing his love. The Pagan was the first of these love poems in autumn 1918 and was followed by this sonnet in at Christmas:
Our minds are married, but we are too young
For wedlock by the customs of this age
When parent homes pen each in separate cage
And only supper—earning songs are sung.
Times past, when medieval woods were green,
Babes were betrothed, and that betrothal brief.
Remember Romeo in love and grief—
Those star—crossed lovers—Juliet was fourteen.
Times past, the caveman by his new—found fire
Rested beside his mate in woodsmoke’s scent.
By our own fireside we shall rest content
Fifty years hence keep troth with hearts desire.
We shall remember, when our hair is white,
These clouded days revealed in radiant light.
Jacintha also wrote poetry. She erotically imagined herself as Eric’s vampire lover in one poem and in another, she was the violin and Blair the gipsy virtuoso. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was Eric’s gift to her at Christmas 1919 and he thoughtfully, with a sense of flirtatious fun, provided a carefully wrapped crucifix and a clove of garlic in case she grew fearful while reading the vampire story.
Orwell was surprisingly superstitious and interested in magic. Rational activities, like taking important scholarship examinations, were aided by horseshoes, wishbones, wishing wells and prayers under new moons. He read widely about ghosts and poltergeists and told Buddicom that half the people walking the streets were in fact ghosts.
While at Eton, Orwell and a peer infamously fashioned candle wax into the image of another student they did not like — and snapped off the leg. Disturbingly soon afterwards, the boy, Phillip Yorke, broke his leg and died of leukaemia. His brother, Gerald Yorke, subsequently became keenly interested in the occult and mysticism and contacted Aleister Crowley in order to learn about magic. Even though his family thought it disgraceful, Yorke became a close associate of Crowley’s until the occultist’s death in 1947.
After leaving school, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police and by the end of his service, each of his knuckles were tattooed with a small, grapefruit-shaped blue spot, a traditional Burmese charm against death from a bullet-wound or knife-thrust. Much later in life, Orwell had a friend cast his baby son’s horoscope, apparently taking it very seriously:
I’d like you very much to draw little Richard’s horoscope. He was born on May 14th. I thought I had told you, however, that he is an adopted child. Does that make any difference to the horoscope?
Another friend was uncertain if Orwell was jesting or serious in his belief that enemies could cut out his name and work “some black magic on it”. With this in mind, it was probably far too risky for Eric Blair not to employ a pseudonym.
Orwell had read Aleister Crowley’s work in his youth but surprisingly Buddicom — known as “Cini” to her family — knew “The Beast” well in his final years.
Cini & The Beast
Lady Harris took me to see Aleister Crowley at Hastings. He was then — to me, at any rate — the most respectable, courteous, peaceful old gentleman imaginable. He lent me a lot of books, and gave me a lot of bits and pieces, and wrote me a lot of letters.
Aleister Crowley — a writer, mountaineer, poet, magician, occultist and founder of a religion — would have won most polls seeking the least respectable men in England.
Harris, considered by most as extremely unconventional and eccentric, had exhibited paintings under the name of “Jesus Chutney” and was married to Sir Percy Harris, Liberal MP for Bethnal Green. Crowley cheekily encouraged Harris to run against her husband for parliament. Harris, who was two years younger, provided Crowley a stipend of £2 a week (quite a tidy sum at that time) and was a very close friend, perhaps his closest in his later years (but not a lover). She became one of the executors of his will.
Buddicom was a member of the Folk-Lore Society and attended a lecture by Crowley in June 1946. There were only 20 people in the audience to listen to him talk so they likely met. Crowley diarised about a letter from Jacintha later in that year and one can deduce Lady Harris took her to lunch at Netherwood, which was the boarding house in East Sussex where he spent his final years, on the last Sunday of September 1946.
Crowley, who clearly enjoyed Buddicom’s company, recorded her address in his diary (Little Bogey 8 Pond Place SW3) and often misspelt or changed the spelling of her name for his own amusement. He inscribed a copy of Olla (1946) to “Jiacintha”.
They continued to correspond and by early November Crowley provided Buddicom with a draft of his book, Magick Without Tears, to edit. Originally titled, Aleister Explains Everything, it was published posthumously in 1954 and there is no mention of Buddicom. However, she had volunteered to write about ‘geomancy’ for him and that topic is covered very thoroughly in the book.
One can gauge the playful nature of their relationship by “a little song” Buddicom wrote which “immoderately pleased” Crowley:
The Carefree Pupil of the Erudite Master
A certain Personage, a Mister. C.
Resolved to solve all rigmaroles for me:
He squared the circle, then he cubed the sphere,
But how he did it was not very clear.
I half expected him to disappear —
But he did not.
“Pray persevere” exclaimed the subtle Sage,
“It’s slightly simpler at the later stage
when oil is water, metal turns to wood.”
But even this I scarcely understood:
I rather wondered if they were as good
“All this is is nothing” quoth the Learned Gent:
I found it hard to follow what he meant.
As around the star he heptagrammed the trine,
It seemed to be a pretty far-gone sign —
HIS brand of Magic’s not the same as mine —
Growled he “SO WHAT?”
Buddicom later recalled that Crowley roared with laughter declaring it was “arrogant irreverence” and jested he would turn her “into a frog princess if only he knew how”. Buddicom suggested he “better make it a tadpole” so she wouldn’t be able to “answer back”.
There were regular weekend visits and correspondence until mid-1947. Jacintha’s last known letter to him is written in her familiar, light-hearted style:
Very many thanks for the happy and interesting time you gave me at Netherwood this last weekend. It was so nice to see you again, especially as you really do not look any the worse for your unfortunate experiences of the winter…take things slowly and do not try to do too much at once: rest as much as possible.
I am absolutely delighted with the wonderful copy of Olla, and have been re-reading it happily [accompanied by your nice box of candy] with extreme pleasure, picking out all the old favourites — the poems not the candies, I mean, though I’ve made a bit of a pig of myself over both…
She signed the letter, ‘93 93/93’.
Thelemites (members of the religion Crowley established) greeted each other with “93” in written correspondence or in person. Crowley often employed “93 93/93” his own letters which is shorthand for “love is the law, love under will”. When they first met, Crowley had gifted Buddicom The Book of Law, the central sacred text of Thelema.
Crowley died on the 1st December 1947.
Eric Blair is George Orwell
A little over a year after Crowley died Buddicom discovered from her aunt that George Orwell was Eric Blair. She immediately contacted his publisher for an address and wrote a letter to her childhood companion, whom she had not heard from since 1927, when he had returned very ill from Burma.
Orwell responded with two letters, posted in the same envelope, which relayed a great deal about their relationship all those years ago:
Are you fond of children? I think you must be. You were such a tender-hearted girl, always full of pity for the creatures we others shot & killed. But you were not so tender-hearted to me when you abandoned me to Burma with all hope denied. We are older now, & with this wretched illness the years will have taken more toll of me than of you. But I am well cared-for here & feel much better than I did when I got here last month. As soon as I can get back to London I do so want us to meet again.
He concluded the letter in their customary manner:
As we always ended so that there should be no ending.
Farewell and Hail,
Much had changed since 1921 when they had both dreamt of studying at university together. Eric was a boy who lived for books and she believed his heart was set on going to Oxford but Mr Blair had been pushing Eric into the civil service against the wishes of his mother, supported by Mrs Buddicom, who were in favour of Oxford. The argument concluded after a deeply disturbing development that came to both mothers’ attention while the families holidayed together at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, during the summer of 1921.
Blair’s last poem to Buddicom, written at this time, is telling:
Friendship and love are closely intertwined,
My heart belongs to your befriending mind:
But chilling sunlit fields, cloud-shadows fall—
My love can’t reach your heedless heart at all.
Are dazzled eyes betrayed:
Content in tranquil shade
During one of their walks in the surrounding lanes and countryside, Blair held Jacintha down — tearing her skirt, badly bruising her shoulder and hip — in an effort to have sexual intercourse. Jacintha had screamed for him to stop and he reluctantly did. She was furious and mortified. Blair stayed with the family for the rest of the holiday, but she avoided him. Two days later he departed for his last term at Eton before travelling abroad with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma the following year.
Blair wrote three letters from Burma in five years. Buddicom responded just once. His first letter, she recalled, was dreadfully depressing as he whined about how awful it was in Burma. Her response was ‘come home then’ but in subsequent letters Blair responded that was impossible. Jacintha’s life moved on and she decided not to write, seeing little point in maintaining contact with her disgraced childhood friend, who no longer seemed destined to be an author and was apparently fated to live in Burma for most of his life.
Eric, returning home on leave, visited the Buddicom family estate at Ticklerton, where he stayed for a week from the 23rd August 1927. He knew and loved the surrounding countryside where he had enjoyed idyllic summers in nature, swimming, fishing and learning to shoot with Prosper. Lilian Buddicom, his friends’ aunt, was extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna they saw while rambling and was an early influence on Orwell’s love of nature. She was fascinated by natural history, archaeology and botany and often consulted her friend, Henrietta Auden, who was W.H. Auden’s aunt, about these matters.
Eric’s intention to propose to Jacintha appears desperately optimistic. However, he must have felt that the strength of their relationship, prior to the attempted sexual assault, gave him some hope. On arrival at Ticklerton, his plan was seriously thwarted by Jacintha’s unexpected absence. The family were evasive and there was an awkwardness which Blair was to understandably misinterpret. Bitterly disappointed, he assumed Jacintha was avoiding him because ‘he had ruined what had been such a close and fulfilling relationship’ in that final summer with her in 1921. He never learned the truth about the reason for her absence.
Lilian Buddicom diarised that Eric looked ‘very ill’ after his return from ‘Burmah’ during his stay in that last week of August. He would not ‘play’ nor walk to Stretton. Lilian appears to have had no knowledge of Eric’s recent fever and infected foot or at least does not mention that as a reason for his lack of participation in their expeditions, which he always loved. She knew Eric well and was not impressed with the changes wrought in him and provided an unfavourable report to Jacintha describing how he had changed – and not for the better. Lilian thought her niece unlikely to find Eric the companion she remembered of old. Perhaps Lilian was trying to spare Jacintha’s feelings but there is little doubt that five years in Burma had dramatically changed Blair.
Unknown to Eric, Jacintha had just, in May 1927, given birth to her daughter, Michal Madeleine. The father, one of her brother Prosper’s Oxford friends. It was all very scandalous, and the family were doing their best to keep it private. Unaware of any of this, Eric extracted Jacintha’s phone number from a guilt-ridden Prosper. He rang from Ticklerton, desperate to meet. Jacintha knew there was no possibility of this happening as she had the imminent and distressing prospect of her uncle and aunt, Noel and Mimi Hawley-Burke, adopting her daughter. Eric phoned again, a fortnight later, resigning himself to the reality that Jacintha would not marry him. He then wrote her a bitter, upsetting letter which she discussed with Aunt Lilian, who diarised her niece’s distress.
Eric Blair never discovered that Jacintha had had a child out of wedlock. He fled to Cornwall for the rest of the summer telling his family he never wanted to hear the name Buddicom again.
Half-a-century later Buddicom wrote about Orwell regretfully:
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 realise 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.
Stranger Than Fiction
Buddicom, a published poet, had a lifelong interest in astrology. She was an assistant to Margaret “Peg” Hone (president of the Faculty of Astrological Studies and a founder of the UK Astrological Society) who employed her expertise to edit astrological manuals.
Buddicom’s cousin, Dione Venables, believes that Jacintha, who read fortunes with impressive accuracy using well-worn tarot cards, thought of herself as an ‘old world Seer’. Buddicom’s sister, Guinever Buddicom, claimed she read not only The Beatles fortunes but also that of Churchill and several other members of his wartime government, and many other famous people besides.
In the postscript version of Eric & Us, Venables briefly mentions Crowley:
She explored the darker side of mysticism and briefly became an acolyte of “The Beast” Aleister Crowley, simply to discover what it was all about. Her basic sense of GOOD being better than EVIL quickly lifted her out of that snakepit…
Buddicom believed Crowley “had been following a hopeless road in Magic” which she felt, “should be learnt alone”. The reality was Buddicom knew Crowley at the very end of his life, when he was mortally addicted to heroin, ill and frail. However, he still had the energy to pen a “disgusting” letter to Buddicom which was destroyed after her death by Guinever.
“Cini” had cast the old occultist’s horoscope and that of the most famous pop bands in the world. In a strange twist, twenty years after his death, Crowley was included — in the top left corner next to Mae West — on the cover of The Beatles most famous album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It is also a strange coincidence that the first recorded word Eric Blair uttered as a baby was “beastly” — a term often found in his writing.
Special thanks to Dione Venables who has been unstintingly generous in answering my many questions as well as providing permission to publish writing by Jacintha Buddicom in her possession. An aside about The Beatles, recorded in Dione’s diaries held at the Orwell Archive, led me to write this article. Dr Liam Hunt’s intellectual generosity has also been greatly appreciated. I have valued our conversations about “Orwell’s demon” more than he can know. Last but not least, thank you to Phil Baker, whose understanding of Crowley’s archival sources saved me endless hours (weeks) of searching for evidence. Phil’s next book, City of the Beast: The London of Aleister Crowley, will be in stores next year.
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Buddicom, Jacintha (c.1947) The Carefree Pupil of the Erudite Master, Unpublished (courtesy of Dione Venables)
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