Born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India in 1903, George Orwell grew up in England, the modestly privileged son of an imperial civil servant. Following an education at Eton he became an Indian Imperial Policeman in Burma, but eventually rejected imperialism. He struggled to become a writer and, in the early 1930s, was able to launch a literary career. When he died in 1950 he left behind a legacy of works that are still enjoyed by a worldwide readership. With the recent publication of the twenty-volume The Collected Works of George Orwell [London: Secker & Warburg, 1998 and in a new edition 2000-1] edited by Peter Davison, we now know much more about the extraordinary man who wrote Animal Farm (1946), 1984 (1949), Homage to Catalonia (1939) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) among other works.
What readers value in George Orwell is his attempt—not always successful— to overcome the prejudices of his own social class. He tried to transcend the parameters of his education and family background in order to deliver a more objective analysis of great social questions. Most of us appreciate his rational discourses, his analyses of contemporary politics, his struggles with moral issues and his critical deflation of causes and personalities deserving of it. Even when he gets things wrong or has to retract an earlier opinion, he is still interesting for his admirable humanity.
Recent research on Orwell has been based on the wealth of new material in the collected works. Gordon Bowker's very fine George Orwell (Abacus, 2003) is one of the first major biographies to make use of them. According to Bowker, a new, more human picture of Orwell emerges from this "mass of material." In particular, we find a trail of references to Orwell's interest in the occult: in 1931 Blair/Orwell's "feeling for the occult...was still very much with him"; in 1932 he laid a curse on an old enemy by giving his surname to a character in a play he had written for schoolboys; and in 1945 "the old fascination with mysticism still lingered" when he had his son's horoscope cast by Rayner Heppenstall. [Bowker, xiv, 117, 141 and 318]
Bowker's opening paragraph sets out this new interpretation:
"As a young man Eric Blair was fascinated by ghost stories and intrigued by black magic. Once, seemingly to deadly effect, he laid a curse on a schoolboy who had offended him. On another occasion he reported seeing a ghost. Later, he told a friend that he used a pseudonym so that no enemy could take his name and work magic against him.....None of this quite fits with the widely held image of a man who transformed himself into the writer of clear-headed, rational and lucid prose, George Orwell." [Bowker, 1]
The aim of this essay is to explore how far these new insights bear up under more intense scrutiny. Using the same twenty-volume collected works, I have tried to research George Orwell's attitudes to the supernatural. (The essay excludes his views on Christianity, since in this regard there is a definite, long-recognised inconsistency in Orwell's life. He was an atheist, but fond of Anglican ritual, and was buried under the rites of the Church of England.)
Shortly after his arrival at Eton in 1917 young Eric Blair was involved in an alleged occult episode. Various accounts of this survive from the reminiscences of fellow students many years later, but not from Orwell himself. The details are confused, but it appears that Blair (or a friend) carved a wax (or a soap) effigy of another student (or was it more than one?) After damaging the effigy, the intended victim (s) suffered injury or death. Whether the students— or Blair himself— believed in Blair's supposed supernatural powers is not known with any certainty. [Bowker, 56-7]
What is known is that Blair liked ghost stories and wrote a few juvenile literary efforts on the supernatural. In June 1920 he published a short story entitled "Mr. Simpson and the Supernatural" in Eton's Bubble and Squeak. In this simple tale Mr. Simpson takes a bet that he can stay in a certain hotel room overnight, but, frightened by various nocturnal occurrences, he flees the room early and loses the bet. The story's conclusion is completely non-supernatural: the victim discovers that he has been frightened by the tricks of a professional conjuror and illusionist. [X, 66-7. Citations in this format are to the volume and page numbers of the collected works.]
In July 1920, Blair wrote a story for Eton's College Days entitled "Is There Any Truth in Spiritualism?" He opens his article with a profession of neutrality: "The spiritualists may be right, and they may be wrong. Those are my views on the subject." A little further on he declares, "Seeing is believing with me, and I accept nothing unproved." There then follows an anecdote about a woman who visited a friend. The friend became agitated and pressured her to leave, and when the woman got home, she found her children unattended in the nursery trying to burn the house down. The story concludes with a question: "Is it possible that some exterior influence conveyed to the hostess' mind that feeling...of the necessity of departure? Perhaps, and perhaps not." For a final flourish, the clever young Mr. Blair quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..." [X, 70-1]
These ambiguous juvenile musings are interesting, but hardly sufficient to make the case that Orwell held a lifelong belief in the supernatural. We need more substantive evidence, clear statements from the mature Orwell to make the case for his acceptance of supernatural phenomena.
A 1931 episode is worth noting. Eric Blair wrote on 16 August to Dennis Collings "about a ghost I saw in Walberswick cemetery." Clearly he was quite excited about this: he provided a map of the locale and his sighting. The account is very banal, about a mysterious figure that he observed as it silently passed him. He decided, however, that it was "Presumably an hallucination."[X, 211-12.] So this 1931 incident did not result in a conclusive declaration of his belief in ghosts.
Then, in the early to mid-1930s, Eric Blair underwent the transformation into George Orwell. He became a socialist and a successful writer in this period. It is probably reasonable to hypothesise that he jettisoned much of his earlier interest in the supernatural in this most formative part of his life. As to the tale that he chose his pseudonym to prevent an enemy from cursing him, we have to be cautious. Supposing that Orwell did actually say such a thing, I suspect that it was merely in fun. (Indeed, the remark makes no logical sense, for surely a determined enemy would quickly find out an author's real name.)
In November 1936 Orwell wrote an article for Fortnightly describing a time when he worked in a used bookshop. In addition to books, the shop had sidelines in second-hand typewriters, used postage stamps for collectors, and "sixpenny horoscopes.... They were in sealed envelopes and I never opened one of them myself, but the people who bought them often came back and told us how 'true' their horoscopes had been. (Doubtless any horoscope seems 'true' if it tells you that you are highly attractive to the opposite sex and your worst fault is generosity.)" [X, 510-13.]
One of Orwell's rare discussions of the supernatural occurs in the novel Coming Up For Air, published in June 1939. The plot is set in motion when the hero, inspired by a friend who has been reading a book on astrology and horse-racing, places a successful bet and spends the prize money on a sentimental journey to the place where he grew up. There he recalls an episode in which his wife and her friends held a séance at their house and "a hank of butter-muslin" dropped out of the medium's trouser-leg: "Butter-muslin is what they make ectoplasm with, so I'm told." Later the narrator encounters a local eccentric who tells him about a neighbourhood celebrity, "Professor Woad the psychic research worker," who "goes wandering out into the woods.... He says he's walking among the fairies. Do you believe in fairies? I admit--te hee--I'm just a wee bit sceptical. But his photographs are most convincing."
Orwell's treatment of these topics— astrology, fairies, and séances with their ectoplasm manifestations—is entirely comical. The remark about ectoplasm is, in fact, based on his personal experience. On 16 February 1938 he wrote to Jack Common, gently warning him about his latest enthusiasm for séances: "The only bit of advice I can give is that on a number of occasions when someone suddenly turned the light up the ectoplasm turned out to be butter-muslin." [XI, 122-3] This suggests that Orwell had attended some séances before 1938, found them fraudulent, and subsequently made light of them.
Attempts to label George Orwell as 'mystical' fly in the face of negative evidence. He wrote very little on the supernatural as a mature writer from the mid-1930s on, despite his prolific output and very wide-ranging interests. He kept a wartime diary, a journal of his trip to Morocco, and notebooks on expeditions to various parts of England. He made notes on bird-watching and gardening and wrote essays about boys' magazines and seaside postcards, in addition to his better-known political commentary and literary criticism. Considerations of the supernatural are sparse, and are found in his reviews of others' books on the topic.
In September 1940 Orwell reviewed Sacheverell Sitwell's book Poltergeists for Horizon magazine. Though in general agreement with the author's analysis of various cases, Orwell suggests three possible explanations for them: "One is 'spirits,' one is hypnotism and hallucination, and another is vulgar fraud." Orwell is chiefly interested in the second explanation. He concludes that we will never understand the poltergeist if it continues to be "accepted as a real ghost or laughed at as an old wives' story. It is probably neither, but a rare and interesting form of insanity. When it has been further studied it will probably....teach us a little more about hallucination and group-psychology." [XII, 246-8]
Later, in Horizon January 1943, Orwell favourably reviewed V. K. Narayana Menon's book The Development of William Butler Yeats. This little essay is important for what it reveals of Orwell's attitudes to the occult. He follows Menon in classifying Yeats as a believer in the occult and a poet whose "tendency is Fascist," suggesting that "Yeats's political ideas link up with his leaning towards occultism." According to Orwell, the occult takes a cyclical view of history: everything has happened before, so that "science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes for ever impossible." He believes that occultism and fascism share "the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates." [XIV, 279-83, and see also his review of the same book, less hostile to Yeats, in XV, 69-71.] Given his association of the occult with fascism, an ideology which he had long vigorously opposed, it is difficult to imagine him harbouring or suppressing mystical views of his own.
In November 1945 Orwell wrote a review for the Manchester Evening News of The True Conan Doyle, a short pamphlet by Arthur Conan Doyle's son. Orwell criticises the author for inadequately probing Conan Doyle's beliefs in spiritualism and fairies—of which he clearly disapproves— and wonders how the creator of the super-analytical Sherlock Holmes could have been deceived by the Cottingley fairy photographs. Orwell again voices criticism of spiritualism in a Tribune column of 24 November 1944, recommending some critical books on the subject. He suggests that poets are less likely than scientists to develop a belief in spiritualism, and that conjurors never do. [XVI, 473] Finally, there is his 6 June 1948 Observer review of a book by Jean Burton entitled Heyday of a Wizard, a biography of Daniel D. Home, a famous Victorian spiritualist who, it was claimed, had once floated out an upper level of one building over to another. While Orwell believes that "there must have been imposture of some kind," and takes Burton to task for failing to highlight this, at the same time he is not prepared to dismiss all of Home's feats as tricks, or lies by 'witnesses.' He asks "why should reputable and intelligent people conspire to tell stories which were bound to get them laughed at?" and speculates that Home hypnotised the spectators. Once again, he is less interested in the alleged supernatural phenomena than in why people believed in them. [XIX, 388-90]
What do these various passages tell us about Orwell's attitudes towards the supernatural? We need to draw a distinction between views expressed by Eric Blair up to 1931 or 1932, and the opinions of the more mature George Orwell from the mid-1930s onwards. The earlier body of evidence is ambiguous (and some is based on hearsay), with the youthful Blair failing to make a clear statement about his supernatural beliefs— surely characteristic of a bright young person struggling to make sense of the world—but at some point in the 1930s he gave up completely on the paranormal.
The evidence for Orwell's later views is much more solid, since the examples cited from the mid-1930s onwards are his own writings. First, as his remarks on Yeats indicate, he was philosophically opposed to the occult. Second, he suspected fraud in various reports of paranormal phenomena. This is not the position of a believer in the supernatural; on the contrary, it is the outlook of a sceptic, albeit one interested in the psychology of belief. Thus on this interpretation there is no great contradiction to be resolved in Orwell's thought between his rationalism and a belief in the supernatural. The juvenile Eric Blair had confused musings about such things, but he abandoned them as he metamorphosed, in the mid-1930s, into the sceptical George Orwell.— Fred Donnelly