“Once a biographer has mastered his subject, sucked it dry as an ant does an aphid and stored its own juice in his own book, the rest of us need no longer bother our heads about inconvenient notions the biographer’s subject may have offered for our consideration.” Germaine Greer
“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” Alfred Korzybski
“THE first feeling on looking at a friend’s relics—letters, manuscripts, odds and ends from the workshop of his mind—is often that they seem almost ridiculously incompatible with the person one knew. This is particularly true of somebody like George Orwell, who kept his life and friends very carefully shut off from each other. Many people do this, of course, but few seal off the compartments as fanatically as Orwell.” Julian Symons
“His second wife Sonia told me that not long before his death she asked him: ‘George, why not Oxbridge? Why the Burma police?’ Orwell replied that this was a long and complicated story and he would tell her some time. But he never got around to it.” Tosco R. Fyvel
“Returning to England on leave in 1927, he abruptly resigned from the Indian police, for reasons that are still unclear to his biographers.” Krishan Kumar
There are still significant gaps and silences in the story of George Orwell’s life. An unusually secretive man, he was always going to prove a challenging subject for biographers. The fact that his estate honoured the request, literally made on his deathbed, that no biography be written made the situation even more opaque.
Although important information about Orwell’s life has surfaced during the 21st century, there has been surprisingly little original research undertaken since the publication of Peter Davison‘s magisterial twenty-volume, The Complete Works of George Orwell, in 1998. There have been endless retellings of the basic biographical information, in books and online, as well as a mountain of critical literary analysis of his work from different theoretical perspectives.
Aspects of the orthodox interpretations of Orwell’s life and work need challenging. There is a growing list of “inconvenient notions” neglected or unknown by biographers but worthy of consideration in an effort to deepen appreciation of Orwell’s motivations, outlook and influences. For example, Krishan Kumar, in a recent review of Douglas Kerr’s new book mentions that biographers have been uncertain why Eric Blair, who assumed the pseudonym George Orwell in 1933, formally resigned from the Indian Imperial Police to become a writer.
Why the (arguably) most influential and widely-read author of the twentieth century decided to quit a conventional career in the service of the British empire and become a writer is interesting in itself. Analysing how the story of Orwell has been constructed by the biographers, his friends and family is equally worthy of consideration.
The reasons usually presented – he was bullied by a superior officer; hated imperialism; was temperamentally unsuited to being a policeman; and, had been suppressing his true nature and just had to become a writer – do not originate from sources dating from the period 1927-1933 when he forged a new career as a journalist and author.
Reading History Forwards
It was a radical decision to resign. Orwell was from an Anglo-Indian background, with both sides of his family having deep inter-generational connections to imperial service and life on the sub-continent. His father served for nearly four decades as a sub-deputy opium agent in Bengal and his mother’s side of the family, the Hallileys, were significant servants of empire.
The conventional narrative – that Orwell “hated the imperialism” he was serving in Burma and had been “outraging” his true nature by not becoming a writer – makes sense, if one reads history backwards. These rare autobiographical assertions were made by Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and “Why I Write” (1946), long after his resignation. The earliest written reflection about his decision, in October 1934, for the preface of the French edition of Down and Out in Paris and London, La Vache Enragée says:
“In 1922 I went to Burma where I joined the Indian Imperial Police. It was a job for which I was totally unsuited: so, at the beginning of 1928, while on leave in England, I gave in my resignation in the hopes of being able to earn my living by writing. I did just about as well at it as do most young people who take up a literary career—that is to say, not at all. My literary efforts in the first year barely brought me in twenty pounds.”
There is no doubt that Orwell’s experience led him to understand his own complicity in the “racket” that was empire but his article, “How a Nation Is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma” published in Le Progrès Civique (4 May 1929) is hardly damning imperialism with comments such as the “Burmese have not had much cause for complaint”:
“Up till now the English have refrained from oppressing the native people too much because there has been no need. The Burmese are still at the beginning of a period of transition which will transform them from agricultural peasants to workers in the service of the manufacturing industries.
Their situation could be compared with that of any people of eighteenth-century Europe, apart from the fact that the capital, construction materials, knowledge and power necessary for their commerce and industry belong exclusively to foreigners.
So they are under the protection of a despotism which defends them for its own ends, but which would abandon them without hesitation if they ceased to be of use.
Their relationship with the British Empire is that of slave and master.
Is the master good or bad? That is not the question; let us simply say that his control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.
Even though the Burmese have not had much cause for complaint up till now, the day will come when the riches of their country will be insufficient for a population which is constantly growing.
Then they will be able to appreciate how capitalism shows its gratitude to those to whom it owes its existence.”
Contextually, at this juncture in his life, Orwell was more concerned by capitalism than imperialism. To believe that the major reason for his resignation was his growing hatred of imperialism is one worth challenging.
Another issue is that books about Orwell are bedevilled with factual errors and intellectual complacency regarding this era of his life. There are a number of reasons for this problem – besides the proofreading and editing process – including that the new works reference out of date materials rather than more recent research or newly discovered sources. It seems important that misinformation about Orwell’s life be corrected and new interpretations, based on new knowledge is shared.
D.J. Taylor‘s most recent biography of Orwell offers the following summary of the period leading up to Orwell’s resignation (without wishing to be rude to David) with errors highlighted
strikethrough) for the purpose of revealing how overlooked primary source material suggests new directions and possible interpretations: Early in September Orwell set off for Shropshire to spend a fortnight with the Buddicoms, in the course of which he planned to ask Jacintha to marry him. The visit, as far as we can determine by conflating Jacintha’s original account and information which came to light after her death, was a disaster. Although Prosper and Guinever were at Ticklerton, there was no sign of their sister. Neither was there any convincing explanation of her absence. The suitor was not to know that two months previously Jacintha, seduced by one of her brother’s college friends, had given birth to an illegitimate daughter whom she was giving up for adoption by an aunt and uncle who would pass as the child’s biological parents. Left to fret, and never let into the family’s secret, Orwell quite reasonably assumed that he had been rejected. According to the Buddicoms, he wrote a ‘bitter letter’ to Prosper complaining that he ‘couldn’t get her out of his system’ and made some histrionic declarations that greatly upset the two sisters. Aunt Lil lian’s diary notes her distress at this ‘terrible situation.’ Clearly Orwell’s behaviour at Ticklerton had not impressed his hosts, as a letter from Aunt Lil lian to Jacintha insists that their guest was ‘not at all what he used to be, and I don’t think you’d like him much now’. Still ignorant of the true situation, Orwell left for Cornwall, where the Blairs had gone on holiday, and informed his family that he never wanted to hear Jacintha’s name again. The ring was put back in its box and given to Mrs Blair for safe keeping.
Meanwhile, there was a second bomb awaiting detonation. It exploded in Cornwall when, before an audience consisting of his parents and Avril, Orwell declared that he would not be going back to Burma but intended to stay in England and become a writer. Blair family life was characterised by its reserve, and the only surviving comment is Avril’s remark that her mother was ‘rather horrified’. This is a substantial understatement. In fact, the Blairs were scandalised. Not only was Orwell throwing over a well-paid job in the service of his country, he was also abandoning a decades-old family tradition. Richard Blair, in particular, was aghast. He is supposed to have remarked that his wayward son was behaving like ‘a dilettante’, and their relationship seems to have taken several years to repair. Certainly Orwell’s reaction to his death in 1939 is unusually heartfelt – he told his agent how glad he was that ‘latterly he had not been so disappointed in me as before’ – and suggests an outright estrangement. Family friends who got wind of Orwell’s decision were similarly upset. The news ‘filled everyone with horror’, Ruth Pitter recalled. But Orwell would not be dissuaded. A letter was sent to the India Office and his
resignation set to take effect retrospectively from 1 July 1927.
Still, though, there is a sense that the situation was not as clear cut as it was later represented. One mark of Orwell’s determination is his refusal to remind the authorities that
he had officially come home on sick leave, thereby forfeiting £140 in pay. On the other hand, Maurice Whittome, an old school acquaintance re-encountered later on in the autumn, came away from their meeting with a distinct impression that the business was not yet settled and that Orwell was still undecided about his prospects. And then, of course, there is Jacintha’s offstage role in Orwell’s vision of his future life. As he had come back from the East determined to ask her to marry him, it is worth asking what he would have done had she said yes. (Orwell: The New Life pp.108-110)
A timeline detailing what Taylor means by conflating Jacintha’s original account and information which came to light after her death (including information not considered by him) is useful in an effort to understand these gaps, secrets and silences.
1971 – In January, Jacintha Buddicom watches The Road to the Left, a television documentary about Orwell and tells biographer Bernard Crick she was so ‘astonished at the completely erroneous picture of his early life’ that she decided ‘in desperation and disgust’ to try to set the record straight
– contributes a chapter to The World of George Orwell
– tells Crick she was not at Ticklerton in 1927 due to caring for a sick relative rather than the fact she had just had a baby
– tells Crick that Eric ‘wanted me to be engaged to him before he went to Burma’
1972 – Jacintha writes to a relative expressing her regret at rejecting Orwell’s proposals of marriage (the letter was unknown until 2010)
1973 – Anna Zinkeisen commissioned by Jacintha Buddicom to provide cover art for an unpublished book of poetry (publicised in an essay by Eileen Hunt in 2021).
1974 – The “peer of the Realm” with whom Jacintha conducted an affair for thirty years dies
– Eric & Us: A Remembrance of George Orwell, is published revealing a great deal about his childhood life and ambitions to become a “FAMOUS AUTHOR”. It included important letters to Jacintha from Orwell in 1949. There is no mention of her baby or attempted rape
1983 – her memories of Eric Blair recorded for the BBC Arena program
1984 – she is interviewed for Canadian radio
1993 – Jacintha Buddicom dies
1995 – Michal (Jacintha’s daughter) is killed in a car accident (unknown outside the family until 2006)
2006 – cousin and literary executor, the late Dione Venables, publishes a postscript version of Eric & Us which includes the revelations that Orwell attempted to rape Jacintha (which unsurprisingly ended their friendship); that Jacintha had a child in 1927 (to an un-named father); and, that she was in a long term affair with a “peer of the Realm”
2010 – a letter from Buddicom (1972) which expresses her regret at rejecting Orwell’s proposals of marriage is published
Establishing an accurate chronology of the biographical details of Eric Blair’s life, from the time he departed Burma until the publication of his first paid article in October 1928 is desperately needed. The period from July 1927 until June 1928 is fundamentally important to developing a greater understanding of his motivations to resign from a well-paid job in Burma and become a writer.
The following timeline is verifiable with hard evidence from British government publications, French census data, letters, private diaries, birth certificates, his state surveillance file, newspapers and other materials (some written in Esperanto). Anything bolded is almost certainly true but the evidence is circumstantial, sometimes oral history or inferred by his biographers, friends and relatives.
7 – Eric Blair has his passport reissued in Rangoon (not sighted again until 2005)
14 – he departs Rangoon aboard the MV Shropshire bound for Marseilles
22 July – Jacintha Buddicom’s daughter Michal is born at the Baby Clinic and Hospital in North Kensington, London (NB not in May as previously published in 2006). The father, an Oxford friend of her brother, is Thomas Charles Poynder Tunnard-Moore (1904-1984)
25 – Ida Blair arrives at Ticklerton Court, Shropshire and is paid to work as a gardener by Aunt Lilian Hayward (née Buddicom)
28-30 Eric Blair arrives in Marseilles aboard the MV Shropshire
30 – Eric Blair witnesses a demonstration in Marseilles protesting against the scheduled execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti
Eric Blair visits his Aunt Nellie in Paris (census data shows she was residing in the city and, as biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “almost certainly he visited Aunt Nellie, the one aunt, intellectual and bohemian, he had always liked. She was living in Paris with a prominent Esperantist“
12-19th – Nellie and Adam facilitate the SAT Esperanto conference in Lyon
20-23rd – Eric Blair travels home to England. His family have probably not moved into 3 Queen St, Southwold and Ida is still living with the Buddicoms at Ticklerton Court, Shropshire
23 – Eric Blair arrives at Ticklerton Court with the intention of proposing marriage to Jacintha Buddicom. He has an engagement ring from Burma which is now in the possession of relatives of Ida Blair’s maid. Aunt Lilian drops Ida at Church Stretton station to re-unite with her son while she has her hair done.
23 – Sacco and Vanzetti executed
29 – Ida Blair departs Ticklerton Court, Shropshire
30 – Eric Blair departs Ticklerton Court, Shropshire for Polperro, Cornwall. Jacintha does not appear at Ticklerton Court during the duration of Orwell’s visit but he is said to have spoken with her on the telephone more than once
Eric Blair visits Polperro for holidays with family / announces intention to resign from the Indian Imperial Police which is possibly discussed with Maud and Frank Perrycoste
Writes to the published poet and family friend Ruth Pitter seeking accommodation in London.
Late in the month, Eric is measured for a three-piece suit from the leading tailor in Southwold, Jack Denny.
(October – November)
Early October, Blair purchases flannel trousers from Denny’s
Moves to 22 Portobello Road in London
Visits his old tutor from Eton College, Andrew Gow, at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is seated at the High Table with his literary hero, A.E. Housman and they discuss Burma
The ‘old school acquaintance’, Maurice Whittome, claims Blair was uncertain about his future plans (when they met sometime in the autumn)
26th November – submits formal resignation letter from the Indian Imperial Police
Tramping in the East End of London (probably on and off until until departing for Paris in June, 1928)
Returning from London for Christmas, purchases an overcoat – later pawned in Paris.
1 – Official date of resignation from the Indian Imperial Police. It is important to recognise that Eric Blair had applied for 8 months L.A.P. (Leave on Average Pay) as noted in the 1927 Gazette. The 1928 edition reveals that he only had 5 months from 12th July, 1927, as he had resigned effective 1 January, 1928.
Late in the month, he spends time researching at the Reading Room in the British Museum
7 – Passport (originally issued in Rangoon 1927) altered to change his profession from ‘policeman’ to ‘journalist’. Passport photo likely taken at this time
Harold Salemson (who translated Eric Blair’s first published article) arrives in Paris; address was first 3 then 5 (from Nov 29), rue Berthollet, Paris
7 – Eric Blair arrives in Paris (this is the date listed in correspondence between the Foreign Office and Scotland Yard/Special Branch)
14 – Nellie Limouzin publishes an article in Esperanto on the anarchist, freemason, vegetarian, nudist and geographer, Elisée Reclus, in Sennacieca Revuo (NB the infamous quip in the second half of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier)
20 – The date of entry into France as recorded in the file of foreigners (microfiche) with the address listed as 6 rue du Pot de Fer (and an incorrect birth year)
6 (Sat) – first published article as a professional writer – ‘La Censure en Angleterre’ – appears with Aunt Nellie’s assistance in Monde (edited by Henri Barbusse). It was translated by Salemson who was the the film critic for Monde.
NB The opening line of Salemson’s manifesto, ‘Presentation’, To interpret the past is to express the present; to express the present is to create the future, in the first issue of the modernist journal he edited, Tambour, is reminiscent of Orwell’s famous dictum, Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past from Nineteen Eighty-Four
Recovering the barely discernible timeline of life events, from when Eric Blair departed Burma in 1927 until arriving in Paris almost a year later, is important for understanding his motivations to become a writer. The fulcrum, between his conventional career as a servant of the British state and decision to resign, is the period from 14th July 1927 until he announced his intention to become a writer while holidaying in Cornwall with his family in September that same year.
Now that the identity and biographical details of the two unknown men in Jacintha Buddicom’s life story – Thomas Charles Poynder Tunnard-Moore (1904-1984) and Chandos Sydney Cedric Brudenell-Bruce – have been revealed, the cover art she commissioned Anna Zinkeisen to produce in 1973 is worthy of further consideration.
Jacintha – depicted as a “sensual female sultan, contentedly reading poetry with her cat in the shade, while three men lurk in the woods behind her in a spectral harem” (Hunt) – appears very much in control. The shadowy figure, far in the background, is Eric Blair; the figure to the right, Brudenell-Bruce (who commenced his schooling at Eton College with Orwell in the summer of 1917); and, the man in the punt, Tunnard-Moore.
The fact that Buddicom’s book, Eric & Us, was published the year after this watercolour was commissioned is worthy of further reflection. Did Jacintha correspond with other friends about the commission and her projected book of verse? What do we make of the timing of the publication of her book about Orwell, considering her lover of so many decades, Brudenell-Bruce, died in 1974?
Considering the chronology explored in the timelines above, what other questions are worthy of further reflection?
Q. Did Orwell know that Jacintha had given birth to a child?
It is speculation to suggest that Jacintha knew of the Baby Clinic and Hospital, where she gave birth to her daughter, from Orwell’s mother or Aunt Nellie but there is strong circumstantial evidence this at least possible. If correct, it seems likely Orwell knew Jacintha had a child which may have led him to believe she may marry him and move to Burma where nobody would know the child was illegitimate. The fact that Ida was at Ticklerton Court three days after Michal was born (staying until her son arrived) and that Orwell had been with Nellie in Paris by early August 1927 are important pieces of the jigsaw. It is possible that the well-connected Dr. Noel Hawley Michael Burke, who was married to Jacintha’s Aunt Mimi and adopted Michal six months after her birth, assisted to find the clinic but either way, the answer is unclear.
Q. Did Orwell believe Jacintha would accept his proposal and they return to Burma as a family?
We do not know. It is contextually worthy of further exploration. It has always been puzzling that Orwell would think Jacintha likely to marry him (after the sexual assault and the paucity of letters during the previous five years in Burma). It is a mistake to trust fictional work as biographical evidence but note what John Flory, Orwell’s protagonist in Burmese Days (1934), believes about living in Burma:
He had no tie with Europe now, except the tie of books. For he had realised that merely to go back to England was no remedy for loneliness; he had grasped the special nature of the hell that is reserved for Anglo-Indians. Ah, those poor prosing old wrecks in Bath and Cheltenham! Those tomb-like boarding-houses with Anglo-Indians littered about in all stages of decomposition, all talking and talking about what happened in Boggleywalah in ’88! Poor devils, they know what it means to have left one’s heart in an alien and hated country. There was, he saw clearly, only one way out. To find someone who would share his life in Burma – but really share it, share his inner, secret life, carry away from Burma the same memories as he carried. Someone who would love Burma as he loved it and hate it as he hated it. Who would help him to live with nothing hidden, nothing unexpressed. Someone who understood him: a friend, that was what it came down to.
A friend. Or a wife?
However, we now know how Blair arrives in England and immediately travels by train to Shropshire to propose to Jacintha in August, 1927. He must have felt it was possible she would share his life. As Taylor mentions, “it is worth asking what he would have done had she said yes”. Would he have resigned or taken on some new career? It is unknowable. Ultimately, returning to Burma without Jacintha appears to have not been an option (and it has always seemed ridiculously unlikely to think she would travel to such a backwater). If Orwell knew Jacintha had a child out-of-wedlock, it makes a great deal of sense that he was providing a way of her keeping the child by fleeing to Burma with him where nobody would know it was not his child.
Q. If this was the case, that Eric Blair was aware that Jacintha had a child, does it impact on how Orwell, the man, who sexually assaulted her, is evaluated?
Too hypothetical to consider at this stage.
Q. Considering their professional and personal circles over-lapped, did Orwell know Tunnard-Moore or Brudenell-Bruce?
Orwell certainly knew Brudenell-Bruce from Eton, at least a little. It is also interesting (and I will not take the time to explain this other than to say read this) that Arthur Koestler lived with Peter Quennell, whose wife went onto marry Brudenell-Bruce. This question needs further investigation.
Q. To what extent did Orwell’s experiences of rejection by Jacintha contribute to his decision to become a writer?
I agree with Liam Hunt, Buddicom was “Orwell’s demon” (Davison 2010)! It seems reasonable to posit that the rejection by Jacintha was a key psychological driver of his ambition to become a successful writer.
Q. How did this rejection – and the class background of her potential suitors – impact on his decision to go “down and out” and lifelong penchant for wearing “proletarian fancy dress”?
Last year, while visiting St Edith’s Church, very near the Buddicom family home at Ticklerton Court, it occurred to me how privileged this family was that Eric Blair visited so often. The name “Buddicom” can be viewed in the stained glass windows and on many of the surrounding grave plinths.
From 1917-1921, Orwell spent most of his holidays riding, rambling, fishing, engaged in conversation and reading the first editions in the library with a family who had a much more established social position than his own. After his proposal of marriage was rejected by Jacintha, in the late August of 1927, that life receded far into the background.
Eric Blair then rejected, at least temporarily, his class, family and career. The life of the impoverished artist seemed the only viable response to his predicament.
The above piece is a draft for collaboration and discussion. Your feedback in the comments below or via email would be appreciated. Even if you find the speculation fanciful, the timeline adds to our sum of knowledge about Orwell during this critical period in his life.
NB The references for each point in the timeline will be published formally next year but I am happy to share them with anyone who needs the exact source.
Often oral history and family documents provide the most incredibly useful leads and resources. I am extremely grateful to Melanie Scott for contacting me regarding Jacintha Buddicom. Her willingness to discuss what she knew about her grandmother, kindness in granting permission to use the cover art and documents in her possession, is greatly appreciated.
My heartfelt appreciation goes to Jennifer Brown, Jacintha’s niece, who kindly allowed me to visit her home, read Aunt Lilian’s diaries and examine family photographs. Her answers to subsequent emailed questions have proven an invaluable part of the jigsaw.
Thank you to Liam Hunt, who completely understood the significance of “Orwell’s demon” years ago. Our Zoom chats over the last few years have provided much-needed succour.
My visit to Ticklerton and Church Stretton in Shropshire was greatly enhanced by Ann and Zigurds Kronbergs’ knowledgable guidance. In particular, Ann’s knowledge of Aunt Lilian and her diaries has proven invaluable. Thank you!
I particularly value Duncan Stewart’s friendship and our shared intellectual journey to understand Orwell’s life during his days in Paris.
My appreciation for the late Dione Venables’ endless patience in responding to emails and answering questions is boundless. We corresponded often. She kindly invited me to visit her home last year and we chatted about Jacintha and Orwell. Dione generously shared her knowledge and a treasure trove of letters and artwork. I snapped this photo that lovely afternoon.
I miss her!
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