A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago,
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven. . .
THESE words from “A Little Poem” (1936) are not the best-known of George Orwell’s oeuvre. Far removed from the imagined worlds of Animal Farm (1945), or Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), they none the less illuminate the intelligence that conceived them.
The lines quoted are perhaps worth pondering in the week of the 70th anniversary of the author’s death from tuberculosis in the avowedly secular surroundings of University College Hospital, London, on 21 January 1950.
Officially an atheist, Orwell — born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 — chose Anglican baptism for his son, Richard, an Anglican marriage to his second wife, Sonia, and surprised the executors of his will with its final clause: “And lastly I direct that my body shall be buried (not cremated) according to the rites of the Church of England in the nearest convenient cemetery.”
Orwell’s relationship with faith intellectually, and Anglicanism institutionally, present a knotty riddle to his admirers.
In his autobiographical essay about his schooling, “Such, such were the joys” (published posthumously in 1952), Orwell wrote that until he was “about fourteen I believed in God. . . But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs.”
Orwell even maintained that, in so far as he had sympathy with any biblical characters, “it was towards such people as Cain. . . Judas and Pontius Pilate.”
Scholars, however, doubt Orwell’s credentials as a reliable narrator of his early life in the essay.
At prep school, he named his three pet caterpillars Savanarola, Paul, and Barnabas. Any doubts did not prevent Orwell’s being confirmed (aged 15) as a scholar at Eton in the college chapel by the then Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore. Orwell’s loss of faith — perhaps a slow ebbing away rather than a sudden realisation — seems more likely a fact of his twenties than his teens.
AS AN Assistant Superintendent of Police in colonial Burma (1922-27), he surprised observers by participating in the “native” church service of the local Karen ethnic group during extended patrols of his district. Orwell’s poem “The Lesser Evil”, dated to this period, speaks of a young man torn between two houses — one of sin and one of God — and possibly elucidates Orwell’s path to unbelief. The poem is set across two successive Holy Weeks in Rangoon when “Within, old maids were caterwauling A dismal tale of thorns and blood.”
One year, the main character or Orwell himself succumbs to temptation, plunging into the arms of a brothel prostitute (“I turned into the house of sin”). The next year, he opts for the Church’s embrace (“I turned into the house of God”). The poem’s title, however, frames our understanding of that turn: Christianity is only “the lesser evil”, not a positive good.
The argument for Burma, not boarding school, as the likely place for Orwell’s loss of faith is strengthened by the noted cynicism with which he treats Christianity in his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). This novel is a searing reflection on his experiences in the Far East. Fear of the controversy that it might provoke caused Eric Blair to adopt the pen name by which he would for ever be better known.
As Michael Brennan notes in George Orwell and Religion (Bloomsbury, 2016), here, “Colonial religious practices are consistently treated as either meaningless or demeaning.” The novel raises the “thorny issue of the numerous illegitimate Eurasian children produced by colonial officials”, and does so in a specifically religious context.
Christianity, thought to be the greatest gift that Britain could bestow on its colonies, fails to stop the British from exploiting the Burmese. Orwell’s faith in Empire and adherence to the faith that sustained the imperial project departed together.
It was a moral failure in which he felt himself guiltily implicated. Shame at his association with physical brutality permeates later reflective short pieces, such as “A Hanging” (1931) and “Shooting an Elephant” (1936).
ON RETURNING to England in 1927 with damaged health and a broken spirit, he discovered a new vocation — or, rather, recovered one that had stirred in adolescence: writing. The instinctive anger at injustice which fuelled his hatred of racism abroad evolved into horror at inequality at home amid the Great Depression. In time, democratic Socialism (his capitalisation) became Orwell’s new creed.
Orwell’s devotion to left-wing advocacy was born of bitter experience — but now as exploited rather than exploiter. Determined to sustain himself while breaking into print (and not depend on family handouts), but lacking professional qualifications, he took whatever work he could.
For several years, he found employment variously as a teacher, restaurant dishwasher, and bookshop assistant. These jobs ingrained in him an understanding of what it meant to cling to the precarious margins of respectability, and even of life itself.
These themes dominate most of the books that he produced in the 1930s, from Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) to Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), before being interrupted by the contemplation of impending war (Coming up for Air,1939) and his work for the BBC during the war.
Clergy and church workers fare badly in his visceral sketch of poverty in Down and Out. He attacks the fusion of poor relief and proselytism: making those who cannot pay for their supper “pray for it” instead. “It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
Having for a while joined the ranks of the tramps himself, Orwell is perturbed to encounter a clergyman and his daughter, who “came and stared silently at us for a while as though we had become aquarium fishes and then went away again”.
Christianity is pushed first to the margins and then out of view in the diptych of late political books that were to make Orwell’s fortune and lasting reputation.
In Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s allegory of the Russian revolution, religion makes only two brief appearances in the form of Moses the raven (standing for Eastern Orthodoxy). In the days of Farmer Jones’s rule, Moses distracts the working animals from their suffering by talk of “a mysterious country called Sugar-Candy Mountain to which all the animals went when they died”. Expelled with Jones, Moses eventually returns to pick up his former position in uneasy partnership with the pig Napoleon’s new leadership — referring to Stalin’s 1943 concordat with the Moscow Patriarchate.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Christianity has been suppressed altogether in favour of the cult of Big Brother, and so does not feature as an object of satire. The bleak note of nihilism on which the book ends gives no hint of hope in the redemptive transformation of a future Christian eschaton. The last page of his greatest book is, however, where Orwell’s conversation with faith ended.
YET even as Orwell fought against Christianity, denying its metaphysical claims and finding it wanting in moral integrity, he had to acknowledge that the standards by which he judged it — and, indeed, the world — were Christianity’s own.
Ultimately, Orwell understood that he had no “eyes to see” but those that Christianity had given him. Like Tom Holland in Dominion (Books, 13 September; Features, 27 September), he intuited that his secular belief in the value of human life made sense to him because he lived in a thought-world shaped by belief in the incarnation. Likewise, he understood that a desire for human equality sprang from a sensibility formed by the imprint of the precept that all men are “equal in the sight of God”.
Thus, Orwell could write in “The Christian Reformers” (1946): “Christian thinkers . . . claim, rightly, that if our civilisation does not regenerate itself morally it is likely to perish — and they may be right in adding that, at least in Europe, its moral code must be based on Christian principles.” A year earlier, he had actually gone a step further in a review of Jacques Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy, asserting that, in the coming post-war order, “Somehow the religious attitude to life must be restored.”
In A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), Orwell explores what it is to lose the orientation that faith bestows. Dorothy, the character whose experience of London school-teaching echoes Orwell’s so closely, is unable to articulate why, having lost her belief, she is still drawn to the Church and its rituals. Orwell, as narrator, takes on the task for her: “What she would have said was that though her faith had left her she had not changed, could not change . . . the spiritual background of her mind; that her cosmos though now it seemed to her empty and meaningless was still the Christian Cosmos.”
For “Dorothy” read “Orwell”. For a time (1932), he even subscribed to the Church Times. An atheist? Yes — but a peculiarly Anglican one.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.
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