Gordon Bowker: George Orwell and the Church of England

George Orwell (Eric Blair) is not generally thought of as a religious man. His final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a tale of grim despair, hardly a message to cheer the true believer. It is both sadistic and nihilistic. And even in his famous fairy tale, Animal Farm, religion is represented cynically as ‘lies put about by Moses the tame Raven’ about a supposed animal paradise. In another novel (A Clergyman’s Daughter) he has a Satanic unfrocked priest reciting The Lord’s Prayer backwards while holding an inverted crucifix.

Yet he retained a strong religious streak and a strange affection for the Anglican Church into which he was born, an affection that persisted to the end of his life.

Blair’s paternal grandfather was Vicar of Milborne St. Andrew in Dorset.  He himself was born in Bengal in 1903 and baptised at the Anglican Church of St John in the Wilderness in Motihari. Aged four months he was brought to England, settling with his mother and elder sister at Henley-on-Thames.  Most biographers have him being first taught by Anglican nuns there, but diocesan and local records reveal that the only convent in Henley at that time was run by French Ursulines, forbidden to teach in France.

Having been educated by Catholic nuns in an all-girls school probably explains Orwell’s lifelong antipathy to the Catholic Church and perhaps also his acknowledged misogyny.  Two fleeting and sardonic references seem to evoke the shadowy Ursulines, one (in A Clergyman’s Daughter) to ‘nuns in convents, scrubbing floors and singing Ave Marias, secretly unbelieving’, the other (in a letter to a girlfriend, Brenda Salkeld) rather more subversive:

When we were children we had a story that after Robin Hood was done to death in the Priory, his men raped & murdered the nuns, & burned the priory to the ground. It seems this has no foundation in the ballads —  we must have made it up.  An instance of the human instinct for a happy ending.

As he saw it, the Catholic Inquisition provided the model for both fascist and communist totalitarianism, and gauleiters and commissars were just the priests and emissaries of a new and cruel religion of power.  In Coming Up For Air he wrote, ‘You never read about a Spanish Inquisitor or one of these higher‑ups in the Russian Ogpu without being told that in private life he was such a good kind man, best of husbands and fathers, devoted to his tame canary and so forth.’ The parallel is more fully and closely drawn by O’Brien, Big Brother’s inquisitor, in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

After an unhappy prep school education in Eastbourne, he won a scholarship to Eton, where he was finally prepared for confirmation by the headmaster, King George’s chaplain, Cyril Alington.  In the chapel at Eton in November 1918, he was confirmed by Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford.  However, by this time, according to his friend Cyril Connolly, he had renounced not just God, but Empire, Kipling, Sussex, and Character, reading Butler and Shaw and embracing atheistic socialism in true Shavian style.  At Eton he became known as ‘the College Cynic’, a type denounced from the Chapel pulpit as ‘a real stinker’.

In true ‘Orwellian’ fashion he satirized his tutors, claiming, ‘There are at least six masters on the staff who are making a very good living out of the Crucifixion.’ And, telling a green young Colleger that he was collecting the religions of new boys, he asked, ‘Are you Cyrenaic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Cynic, Neoplatonist, Confucian or Zoroastrian?’  ‘I’m a Christian,’ came the reply. ‘Oh,’ said Blair, ‘We haven’t had that before.’

His Aunt Nellie, a Suffragette friend of Emmeline Pankhurst, ran a literary salon in Notting Hill, and there he met such left-wing luminaries as G.K. Chesterton and the children’s author, E. Nesbitt.  One friend made through Aunt Nellie was Conrad Noel, then a curate in Paddington, but famous later as the ‘Red’ Vicar of Thaxted who flew the Red Flag from his church tower.  Interestingly enough, Noel spent his spare time visiting the ‘spikes’ and lodging-houses used by London’s down-and-outs, a practise for which ‘George Orwell’ was to become famous in the 30s.

From 1922 to 1927 he worked as an Imperial Policeman in Burma, finally resigning, sickened by the violence he was required to use to keep the native population in its place.  In search of expiation, he descended into the Lower Depths, and joined the tramps and down-and-outs who congregated around London.

Gradually he got started as a writer, supplementing his income by teaching and afterwards by working in a bookshop.  Interestingly enough, wherever he was — with his family in Suffolk, teaching at a school in Middlesex, or running a village store in Hertfordshire — he invariably made friends with the local clergy.  They, after all, were often the most educated members of the community, and, according to Orwell, vicarages had some of the best libraries in England.

In 1932, while teaching in Hayes and researching A Clergyman’s Daughter, his second novel, he became friendly with the curate of St Mary’s (Ernest Parker — ‘High Anglican but not a creeping Jesus,’ he told Eleanor Jaques). He organized a school play at the Church Hall and helped refurbish some church statuary, all of which found its way into his novel.

In October that year, he told Brenda Salkeld, ‘I take in the Church Times regularly now & like it more every week.  I do so like to see that there is life in the old dog yet — I mean in the poor old C. of E.  I shall have to go to Holy Communion soon, hypocritical tho’ it is, because my curate friend is bound to think it funny if I always go to Church but never communicate. What is the procedure? I have almost forgotten it…You have to go fasting, do you not? And what about being in mortal sin? I wish you would prompt me. It seems rather mean to go to H.C. when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up the deception.’

In those pre-war years religion exercised him a great deal, and he especially enjoyed taunting Catholic apologists.  Reviewing Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism in June 1932, he wrote, ‘The contrast between the Catholic who simply believes, and the convert who must for ever be justifying his conversion, is like the contrast between a Buddha and a performing fakir.’  Afterwards, he told a girlfriend, ‘It was the first time I had been able to lay the bastinado on a professional R.C. at any length.’  By comparison with what he considered a cruelly-repressive and unforgiving Catholicism, he saw Anglicanism as a kinder, gentler more liberating faith.  He spoke of ‘the poor old inoffensive Church of England’, identified himself strongly with the sixteenth century Anglican martyrs and attributed the emergence of the novel (the highest manifestation of the liberated imagination, he thought) to the Protestant Reformation.

He equated the extremes of Catholicism with those of Communism, and the bold attacks on Catholicism in which he took so much pleasure, demonstrated how focussed and intense this antipathy had become.  Jon Kimche, who worked with him at the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in 1935, recalled that Orwell’s conversation at that time were little more than diatribes against Roman Catholicism.  This antipathy at time bordered on paranoia, and he told his flatmate, Rayner Heppenstall, that ‘Vatican spies are everywhere’.  This fear of being spied upon was later transferred to the Communists — with good cause, it transpired.

Later, he complained about the Times’s attacks on Bertrand Russell over birth control and its eulogizing of a certain Anglo-Catholic poet.  In 1936 he wrote mockingly in a book review: ‘The editorial staff of the “Church Times” gnash their false teeth and quake in their galoshes at the mention of “modern” (i.e., post-Tennysonian) poetry, but strange to say they make an exception of T. S. Eliot’ — its ‘spoiled darling’.  By 1943, however, he was applauding the paper, which had, he said, ‘for some years past been a mildly leftwing paper and politically quite intelligent’ — a plaudit indeed from one of the twentieth century’s shrewdest political commentators.

In June 1936, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy at St Mary’s Church at Wallington in Hertfordshire.  Eileen, an Oxford graduate who had been taught by J.R.R. Tolkien and had been Head Girl at the Sunderland Church High School for Girls, arranged for the clergyman she had known as a child in South Shields (John Woods, then Vicar of St Mark’s) to conduct the marriage ceremony.  To Orwell’s surprise, she had also arranged for the ceremony to be doctored so that she was not required to ‘obey’ her new husband. After marrying, they settled down to run the Wallington village store.

He found the Church a continual source of amusement.  In August 1937 just after returning wounded from fighting with the anti-clerical Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, he wrote to an old comrade, ‘This afternoon Eileen and I had a visit from the vicar [Vernon Rossborough], who doesn’t at all approve of our having been on the Government side.  Of course we had to own up that it was true about the burning of the churches, but he cheered up a lot on hearing they were only Roman Catholic churches.’

Orwell’s main argument against religion was that it turned individuals into pawns, hampered progress towards socialism, and opened the way to dictatorship.  ‘As long as supernatural beliefs persist, men can be exploited by cunning priests and oligarchs, and the technical progress which is the prerequisite of a just society cannot be achieved.’ Belief in God, he thought, was all too easily replaced by belief in a Stalin, a Hitler or Mussolini. Once the belief in an afterlife was lost, the alternative hope for an earthly Utopia played directly into the hands of cruel dictators. The omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent Big Brother is the very symbolic of such a manufactured Deity.  He targeted other false gods, of course, including nationalism and racism, imperialism and, inevitably, capitalism.  Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a full-frontal assault on what he calls ‘the money-god and all its swinish priesthood’.

Possessed of an acute social conscience, Orwell agonized over the proper basis for a modern morality.  He stressed what he thought was the highest moral value, human decency, sympathizing with Swift — ‘His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a “next world”‘ — and citing Marx, who did not simply say that ‘Religion is the opium of the people’, but also that it was ‘the sigh of the soul in a soulless world’.  The idea of a soulless, meaningless, entirely materialist world, he found unacceptable.  ‘We have got to be the children of God,’ he concluded, ‘even though the God of the Prayer Book no longer exists.’

His second marriage to Sonia Brownell was sadly a deathbed marriage. It was conducted three months before his death, ‘according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Established Church of England’ in his private ward at London’s University College Hospital by the hospital chaplain, William Braine.  The cynical Malcolm Muggeridge observed ‘George had developed TB in order to be married by a clergyman which otherwise he’d never have had the face to do.’

Many were surprised that in his will, signed just before his death from tuberculosis in January 1950, he asked to be buried according to the rites of the Church of England.  However, as he approached the Great Unknown, he could have been closer to his Creator than anyone imagined.  In late 1949, in a letter from his hospital bed to Malcolm Muggeridge, he enclosed a newspaper advertisement which had, he said, upset him. It was for Wolsey socks, and read, ‘Wolsey socks — Fit for the gods.’  Wasn’t  that blasphemous? he asked.   It is just conceivable that for Orwell, the atheist and Old Etonian Cynic, his relationship with the Almighty had suddenly mellowed.  One of his last hospital visitors noticed that he was reading the first volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

His friends Muggeridge and Anthony Powell arranged a public funeral service for him at Christ Church, Albany Street.  Most of his friends who attended were unbelievers and the service was somewhat ragged, by all accounts.  There were readings from Ecclesiastes and the hymns, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, ‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah’, and ‘Ten thousand times ten thousand’, Orwell’s favourites, were sung.  Powell found the occasion ‘very harrowing’, and, because Orwell was so tall and the coffin therefore very long, Muggeridge thought it extremely poignant.

David Astor, the Observer editor and close friend of Orwell’s, tried to have him buried at a church at Clivedon, his family seat, but the vicar refused him as an unbeliever.  Astor had better luck at Sutton Courtenay where he was a regular worshipper.  The vicar, Gordon Dunstan, however, felt that he must first consult his church wardens.  Initially, one, a farmer, was a bit reluctant until Dunstan showed him a copy of Animal Farm, and he agreed immediately.

Now came the funeral of Eric Blair, the mystery man behind the famous name.  Only a handful attended, and he was duly interred between Herbert Asquith, the great Liberal Prime Minister and a family of local gypsies — a fitting resting place for a man who mingled with the poor and despised and yet whose writing was to make such a great political impact.

On his gravestone is written the simple inscription, ‘Eric Blair 1903-1950’, but he wrote his own epitaph in a poem which seems to say more about his relationship with the Anglican Church than anything else he wrote, and reflects the fact that during ‘the low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s it became difficult for a man of conscience like Orwell to remain detached from the political fray.

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,

For the hair has grown on my upper lip

And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

© Gordon Bowker 2003. Revised 2011. This is a modified version of an article originally published by the Church Times, and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.