D. J. Taylor: Orwell and the rats

O’Brien picked up the cage and brought it across to the nearer table. He set it down carefully on the baize cloth. Winston could feel the blood singing in his ears. He had the feeling of sitting in utter loneliness. He was in the middle of a great empty plain, a flat desert drenched with sunlight, across which all sounds came to him out of immense distance. Yet the cage with the rats was not two metres away from him. They were at the age when a rat’s muzzle grows blunt and fierce and his fur brown instead of grey.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell’s obsession with – it would not be quite accurate to call it an aversion to – rats is widely attested. Rats are everywhere in his life, from the practical jokes of his adolescence to the macabre fantasies of his middle age. Undoubtedly some of the roots of this fixation lay in literature. We all know that as a boy Orwell relished the works of Beatrix Potter, in which he must have come across Samuel Whiskers, and was addicted to M.R. James’ ghost stories, a prime specimen of which is simply called ‘Rats’, There is every chance, too, that at an early age he encountered W. H. Davies’ poem ‘The Rat’: Orwell’s 1943 Observer review of Davies’ Collected Poems displays what looks like a long-standing familiarity with Davies’ work, and specifically mentions ‘The Rat’:

That woman there is almost dead,
Her feet and hands like heavy lead;
Her cat’s gone out for his delight,
He will not come home again this night.

Her husband in a pothouse drinks,
Her daughter at a soldier winks;
Her son is at his sweetest game,
Teasing the cobbler old and lame.

Now with these teeth that powdered stones,
I’ll pick out all of her cheek-bones;
When husband, son and daughter come,
They’ll soon see who was left at home.

The poem betrays characteristic Orwellian elements: human vulnerability in the face of vicious animal intelligence (‘They also attack sick or dying people,’ O’Brien tells Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless’); above all, the idea of rats biting their victim in the face. Orwell had obviously studied rats at close hand. Writing about his time in Spain in 1937, hunting firewood in the shadow of the Fascist observation posts, he notes that ‘If their machine-gunners spotted you, you had to flatten yourself out like a rat when it squirms under a door.’ In his early life Orwell must have watched a rat squirming under a door, and the image had stayed with him to provide a neat little metaphor for his own affairs.

Subsequently the rodent tide flows endlessly through his work: an unappeasable furry brood piped in and out of the darkest reaches of his consciousness. Rats are all around him, dancing across the surface of his life like the two outsized specimens he saw first thing in the morning at the Auberge de Jehan Cotard sitting on the restaurant’s kitchen table and eating from a ham that lay there. There is an enthusiastic letter to Prosper Buddicom from early 1921, sent from a holiday in Suffolk, about ‘one of those big cage-rat traps’ Orwell has bought and the sport to be had in letting a rat out and shooting it. ‘It is also rather sport to go at night to a corn-stack with an acetylene bicycle lamp, & you can dazzle the rats that are running along the side & whack at them, – or shoot them with a rifle.’ Rats crawled everywhere in Burma. Alarmed by its role as carrier of plague and disease, the colonial authorities regarded the rat as a public enemy. Local districts were obliged to furnish statistics of rat mortality, and there were carefully enumerated annual culls. Between 1922 and 1923, for example, nearly two million were exterminated in the province. In Rangoon, where the majority of this slaughter took place, it would have been impossible to walk down the average side street at certain times of the year without passing a mound of rat corpses. Neither, too, would it have been possible to avoid the presence of rats on more solemn occasions. There us a rather ghastly aside in Burmese Days where, in the middle of a description of the funeral of Maxwell, the murdered acting Divisional Forest Officer, the narrative pauses to consider the state of the cemetery: ‘Among the jasmine, large rat-holes led down into the graves.’ There is no doubt at all what will happen to Maxwell’s body the moment that it is lowered into the earth. It was in the East, additionally, that Orwell would first have come across the most dreadful of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s many horrors. Starving rats, kept for days in a cage and then released on victims in a confined space, were an ancient Chinese torture.

Thereafter the rats wander in and out of his 1930s life. Staying in a sevenpenny kip in the Southwark Bridge Road in 1931 he notes that ‘the rats are so bad that several cats have to be kept exclusively to deal with them’. On his hopping excursion later that year he recorded a fascinating encounter with the ‘vermin man’ from one of the big London restaurant chains. The rats were so numerous at one branch, Orwell’s informant told him, that it was not safe to venture into the kitchen without a loaded revolver. This is like something out of a novel by James Herbert – the seething grey brood out for vengeance on trapped humanity. But it was Spain that cemented Orwell’s alliance with the rat, to the extent that it sometimes seems that his chief interest is not so much with his Fascist opponents as the hard eye glinting up from beneath the straw. At La Granja, for instance, he saw ‘great bloated brutes that waddled over the beds of mud, too impudent even to run away unless you shot at them’. A barn which his unit occupied was ‘alive with rats. The filthy brutes came swarming out of the ground on every side.’ If there was one thing he hated, Orwell remarked, it was a rat running over him in the dark. ‘ However, I had the satisfaction of catching one of them a good punch that sent him flying.’ Elsewhere he listens to rats splashing along a ditch ‘making as much noise as if they were otters’. What one colleague called Orwell’s ‘phobia’ could have unfortunate consequences. Thoroughly exasperated by a venturesome beast that had invaded his trench, Orwell pulled out his revolver and shot it. Spreading out from the enclosed space, the reverberations were enough to prompt both sides into action. The ensuing conflict left the cookhouse in ruins and destroyed two of the buses used to ferry reserve troops up to the front.

Davies’ poem. The dead rat sent to the Southwold borough surveyor. The brandished revolver in the Spanish trench. All this is too big to be overlooked, too continuous, too nagging. On Jura, in the last part of his life, Orwell took his usual lively interest in the local rodent population. In June 1946 he noted that ‘rats, hitherto non-existent, are bound to come after the corn has been put into the byre’. A buzzard, seen from afar, appeared to be carrying a rat in its claws. In April 1947 a trap borrowed from his neighbour ‘killed an enormous rat in the byre’. Come June five specimens (‘2 enormous’) were dispatched in the byre in a fortnight. Orwell wondered at the ease with which rats allowed themselves to be caught. ‘The traps are simply set in the runs,’ he noted, ‘unabaited and almost unconcealed… I hear recently that two children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face, as usual)’. At almost exactly this time he would have been working away at Nineteen Eighty-Four, perhaps even writing the following exchange between Winston and Julia:

‘Rats!’ murmured Winston. ‘In this room!’

‘They’re all over the place,’ said Julia indifferently as she lay down again. ‘We’ve even got them in the kitchen of the hostel. Some parts of London are swarming with them. Did you know they attack children? Yes they do. In some streets a woman daren’t leave a baby alone for two minutes. It’s the huge brown ones that do it. And nasty thing is that the brutes always – ‘

‘Don’t go on!’ said Winston, with his eyes tightly shut.

‘Dearest! You’ve gone quite pale. What’s the matter? Do they make you feel sick?’

‘Of all the horrors in the world – a rat!’

D. J. Taylor was born in Norwich in 1960. He is the author of five novels, including English Settlement, which won a Grinzane Cavour prize, Trespass and The Comedy Man. He is also well-known as a critic and reviewer, and is the author of A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, After the War: The Novel and England since 1945 and an acclaimed biography, Thackeray. His critically acclaimed Orwell biography, Orwell: The Life (2003) won the Whitbread Biography Award, and he gave the 2005 Orwell Lecture entitled ‘Projections of the Inner “I”: George Orwell’s Fiction’. He is married with three children and lives in Norwich. Reproduced from Orwell: The Life (2003), by kind permission of the author.