Searching for the Soul of George Orwell
The recent republication of Christopher Hollis’s controversial critical-biographical study of George Orwell—originally published in 1956 (by Hollis’s own firm, Hollis and Carter) and out of print for more than half a century—furnishes an occasion not only to reconsider the conservative streak in the socialist Orwell but also to examine the tense yet rewarding lifelong relationship between these two Old Etonians.
When I first read Hollis’s A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works around 1980, not long after Hollis’s death, I regarded it as well-written and provocative, a serious examination of a political icon and leading figure in 20th century English literature. Nonetheless, I expressed strong reservations about Hollis’s “shadow-boxing” style of jumping into the ring with Orwell and counterpunching his way through round after round of argument on practically every issue that separated the two men, with unceasing blows directed against Orwell’s deviations from Hollis’s orthodox Catholicism and political conservatism. As a fellow Catholic layman who shared Hollis’s admiration for Orwell, I felt chagrined by Hollis’s aggressive, no-holds-barred proselytism—as if Hollis was trying to convert his old schoolmate acquaintance posthumously into a pious churchman—or at least a religious fellow-traveler.
Rereading Hollis’s Study decades later—and it is indeed a close “study” that scrutinizes his debating opponent’s positions, weighs the evidence thoughtfully, and counts up the ayes and noes of the “case” carefully—I am much more impressed by its frank and forthright style of presentation. Especially in the current political climate of criminal disinformation campaigns, false news, endless spin control, and utter disrespect for and blatant distortion of an adversary’s statements, I would now emphasize that Hollis pays Orwell the deep respect of addressing his positions with full seriousness while bringing to the task literary clarity, political candor, and moral courage.
This is not strictly speaking a biography of the man born Eric Arthur Blair but known to history more by his pen name “Orwell.’’ Rather it is more of a critical assessment and biographical portrait. Hollis’s Study appeared just six years after Orwell’s death (he was born in 1903 and died in 1950), when his reputation was beginning to skyrocket, and the book played a major role in defining Orwell as a man of “common decency,” the signature phrase of his oeuvre.
Until George Woodcock’s The Crystal Spirit (1966), written by an anarchist thinker-activist and man of letters who befriended Orwell during the last decade of his life, Hollis’s Study remained the most influential book on Orwell. Today it still stands as a classic of the 1950s, the most comprehensive eyewitness account of Orwell during the Eton and Burma years. In a trim 200 pages, Hollis (1902-1977) combined intellectual biography and personal reminiscence in an engrossing, combative engagement with the man and his works.
Hollis and Orwell lived intertwined lives. Born just seven months before Eric Blair in December 1902, Hollis was one of four sons of an Anglican bishop. He attended Eton on a scholarship, then won another scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he carved out an impressive career, including president of the Oxford Union Society. In 1924 he converted to Catholicism and soon became well known in Catholic intellectual circles. After graduation Hollis travelled with the Oxford debating team on an international tour that included Australia and New Zealand, providing him the opportunity to stop off and visit Blair in Burma for a week in 1925. During the next decade, Hollis taught at Stonyhurst in Lancashire, a Jesuit secondary school, and then spent five years teaching and doing economic research at the University of Notre Dame. He returned to England in 1939 to serve the British war effort as a Royal Air Force intelligence officer.
Elected as a Conservative member of Parliament for Devizes in Wiltshire in 1945—against the liberal-left political tide that swept the Labour Party to power over Winston Churchill and the Conservatives—Hollis was reelected twice before retiring in 1955. Chairman of the educational publishing house Hollis and Carter and a member of The Tablet’s board of directors for three decades (and frequent contributor to the pages of Britain’s foremost Catholic magazine), Hollis was one of England’s prominent postwar Catholic laymen.
Hollis’s A Study of George Orwell, published just after Hollis left Parliament, is probably his best-known work. It gained an enthusiastic reception in English Catholic circles, within which it exerted a significant shaping influence on the Catholic intelligentsia. Hollis’s detailed report of Blair’s schooldays at Eton was received as authoritative, even more so than was Cyril Connolly’s class portrait in Enemies of Promise in the 1930s. Except for Connolly, “No one…knows…more of [Orwell’s] early years than I,” said Hollis, noting that only he among Orwell’s memoirists had met Blair in Burma and had read Orwell’s work in the order it had appeared, without the distortions of Orwell’s later fame. Until Peter Stansky and William Abrahams’s The Unknown Orwell (1972), their book-length biography of the Blair years, Hollis’s personal account of Blair’s Eton and Burma periods was generally accepted as the final word. In fact, it reads today as a miniature version and rich foretaste of that book—the “Unknown Orwell,” as it were, before The Unknown Orwell.
Both the elective affinities and sharp contrasts between Hollis, the Conservative Catholic apologist, and Blair/Orwell, the adamant atheist and heterodox democratic Socialist (he always capitalized the noun), are notable. Hollis entered Eton College—the famed public school—in 1914; Blair arrived two years later. Sharing a similar social and economic background—the rising middle classes of late Victorian and early Edwardian England—both Blair and Hollis came from families of modest means and were “scholarship boys” at prep school. Blair’s father worked in the Indian Civil Service; Hollis’s father was vice-principal of the Wells Theological College and later Bishop of Taunton.
Although both Hollis and Blair underwent the prevailing preparatory school rigors of the English upper classes, they responded in utterly different ways. Blair’s horrific experience at St. Cyprian’s, of repeated beatings and merciless ridicule by the headmaster and headmistress, all of which he recalled with still-lingering outrage in his posthumously published essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” scarred him for life. Hollis attended the more fashionable Summer Fields school where he enjoyed the benefactions of his headmaster, Dr. Williams, who guided him to Eton. Both young Etonians read and esteemed G.K. Chesterton, who defended Christian and Catholic orthodoxy aggressively and formally converted to Catholicism in 1922 (and influenced Hollis’s own conversion two years later); Blair-Orwell prized the literary gifts of “G.K.C.” and his patriotism, while lamenting (and lambasting) his religious views.
Hollis’s biographical chapters on Blair at Eton and in Burma in 1925 are the most authoritative in the book, but also much disputed. He argues that Orwell’s “grievances”—that he was a poor boy among the rich, that he was unpopular and branded “ugly”—were nonsense. Rather, Blair was “a natural solitary” who enjoyed the fact that Eton allowed him to pursue his own interests and read whatever he wished—and otherwise largely left him alone. Even though Hollis seldom crossed paths with Blair at Eton and knew him only slightly there, his Study does not hesitate to draw conclusions. Regarding Orwell’s later critical evaluation of his Eton years, Hollis notes that when Orwell and his wife Eileen adopted a little boy, they made sure to enroll him there.
Hollis also contests the widespread assumption that Blair applied to enter the civil service because his mediocre academic record prevented him from attending Oxford or Cambridge. Hollis believes that Orwell rejected those prestigious universities in an act of defiance. Nor did economic issues have anything to do with Orwell’s decision, contends Hollis, because Blair could have (like Hollis) probably won a university scholarship. Blair missed much by spending five important years of his youth in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma instead of at Oxford or Cambridge among his intellectual peers, Hollis contends. He adds that despite passages in his writings criticizing Oxford and Cambridge, Blair-Orwell came to regret and resent his exclusion from those circles. Such speculations are difficult to confirm or refute. But a recently unearthed letter to Jacintha Buddicom, Blair’s childhood friend (and adolescent sweetheart), suggests that Blair may have decided to join the Indian Civil Service after she rejected his proposal of marriage.
So Hollis went up to Oxford while Blair followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Indian Civil Service as a policeman in Burma. During their two meetings in Burma in 1925, Hollis describes Blair as behaving like the stereotypical sahib and imperialist, exhibiting “no trace of liberal opinions” such as he had paraded at Eton. “At pains to be the imperial policeman,” Hollis thought, loneliness had embittered Blair, who explained to Hollis that “theories of no punishment and no beating were all very well at public schools but that they did not work with the Burmese.” Blair voiced a special hatred for the Burmese priests—not for religious reasons but rather for their “sniggering insolence.”
Hollis writes that this exchange shaped his view of Blair for years until he read Orwell’s superb autobiographical short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” and discovered how much Blair had hated his role in policing the natives. Is it possible that Blair was pulling Hollis’s leg and merely play-acting the cartoonish sahib? Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, argues that Blair-Orwell considered Hollis “a glib and priggish liberal, Oxford Union to boot; so that he probably gave him the ‘realist’ line” with satiric tongue in cheek.
After Eric Blair started to establish himself in London as a writer and adopted the pen name “George Orwell” in 1933, the two men reconnected. They met occasionally during the last twenty years of Orwell’s life and Hollis visited Orwell in the hospital just a few weeks before Orwell’s death from tuberculosis in January 1950. Acquaintances rather than confidants, they shared, in Hollis’ phrase, “years of continuing friendly argument.”
Or perhaps not so friendly, at least to Orwell’s mind. When Orwell was having difficulties securing a publisher for Animal Farm in 1944 because of its political implications—i.e., its satire of wartime ally Russia, its indictment of the Bolshevik Revolution, and its scorn for Joseph Stalin—Orwell’s literary agent Leonard Moore wanted to approach Hollis’s firm, Hollis and Carter. Orwell’s reaction in a letter to Moore discloses the ideological gulf that separated these two cordially contentious Old Etonians and suggests Orwell’s ambivalent relationship with Hollis. Orwell told Moore “on no account” to offer the book to Hollis because his firm was pro-Catholic and has “published some most poisonous stuff since he set up business. It would do me permanent harm,” Orwell wrote, to be published by Hollis.
Frenemies at fisticuffs? Or was the relationship much warmer on Hollis’s side? It isn’t clear from the record. But their considerable differences of opinion and divergent religious, social, and political convictions notwithstanding, they did agree on one burning question of the day: the travesty of capital punishment. Blair spoke out against this “unspeakable” crime as early as 1931 in his short story “A Hanging,” while Hollis played a prominent role that led eventually to the abolition of capital punishment (not a popular campaign to head in his party in the 1940s and ’50s) soon after his exit as a Conservative MP.
A recurrent theme of Hollis’s A Study of George Orwell is that, despite his atheism, Orwell possessed a religious sensibility, even a spiritual hunger, a yearning for the kind of meaning that Hollis had gained as a Catholic. What makes Hollis’s account of Blair-Orwell fair-minded and yet incendiary and controversial is that, despite his own deep Catholic faith, he looks beyond Orwell’s anti-Catholicism and finds what he calls “a naturally Christian soul” whose thought rested on a subconscious Christian foundation.
Left-wing critics have charged Hollis with attempting to “press-gang” Orwell for “the papists.” Hollis’s portrait of Orwell as some kind of crypto-Christian stirred outrage among some. Kingsley Amis observed that Hollis “cannot resist drawing Orwell in his own image.” Indeed, the book at times reads like a dual biography as Hollis carries on an argument with Orwell about religious and political issues, explaining away his atheism and translating their opposing ideological outlooks into agreement. Whatever the excesses of his enthusiastic apologetics and defense of the Church, however, Hollis is always direct and pulls no punches. His influence in the shaping of Orwell’s posthumous reputation—the social-ethical canonization of Orwell as a secular “St. George”—is also undeniable. Hollis explores Orwell’s struggle with the dual view that religious belief was without foundation and thus no longer credible in the contemporary, scientific world, and yet its collapse left “a gap to be filled.” Hollis notes that Orwell vaguely acknowledged, but never explicitly, that no earthly faith—whether democratic socialism or any other “ism” or ideology—could ever fill the gap. Orwell indicated his own lifelong struggle with this yawning “gap” inside him, contended Hollis, when he granted that “the major problem of our time is the decay in the belief in personal immortality.”
A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works amounts to a running, spirited commentary on Orwell’s writings, including fiction, documentaries, reportage, essays, and journalism. Hollis’s analysis shows an appreciation for the complexity of Orwell’s thought even while Hollis searches relentlessly for the religious dimension in his literary oeuvre. Casting Orwell in his own image, Hollis viewed Orwell as the kind of old-fashioned cultural conservative for whom tradition, decency, patriotism, and love of nature were important. Hollis believes Orwell shared his own views opposing nationalists, jingoists, and other conservatives who championed colonialism and empire.
Hollis also was the first to point out the autobiographical attributes of Orwell’s fictional anti-heroes, especially John Flory in Burmese Days and Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying; the latter he described as Orwell with all the fun left out. Like Blair-Orwell, the two protagonists are public school boys thrown into an atmosphere for which they are unprepared.
Hollis’s verdict on Orwell’s nonfiction reportage is mixed. Although it gained Orwell literary prominence for the first time in the mid-1930s, Hollis does not have a high opinion of The Road to Wigan Pier, which addressed the terrible conditions of the miners in the north of England during the worst years of the Depression. Hollis found unimpressive Orwell’s denunciation of soulless industrialism, his call for social justice, and even his biting derision of the failures of socialism because Orwell conceives these issues exclusively in sociopolitical terms, failing to grasp them more deeply as questions only soluble “within a religious framework.” Furthermore, given the nature of the modern state, Hollis argues, the destruction of existing class distinctions would lead not to equality but to a more ruthless ruling class.
Not surprisingly, the two men stood in opposite camps on the Spanish Civil War, with Hollis and most English Catholics supporting the fascists under General Francisco Franco and Orwell on the Republican side as a militiaman fighting to defend the Loyalist government. Still, Hollis generously praises Homage to Catalonia as Orwell’s most attractive book. Hollis also concedes that Franco’s defeat would have been a blow to Hitler’s prestige and might have changed the course of history. What particularly impressed and gratified Hollis was Orwell’s realization that the war assaulted the concept of objective truth through a ceaseless stream of lies spread by both sides. Catalonia turned Orwell into an implacable foe of Stalinism and of the English leftists who parroted its line, and this political outlook is traceable to Orwell’s experiences in Spain.
Orwell’s journalism during World War II is of particular interest to Hollis because of their shared patriotism and sense of “Englishness.” Hollis applauds Orwell’s severe criticism of the British pacifists who opposed the war effort, most especially the naïve, sentimental pacifist who imagines good will always triumph. Orwell’s critique included religious pacifists like Gandhi, a man otherwise admired by both men for his moral courage. Gandhi’s argument that the Jews should have committed collective suicide as a way of arousing the world against the Nazis was flawed, Orwell and Hollis concurred, because Gandhi’s pacifism could only succeed in liberal societies such as Britain, not in Hitler’s totalitarian Germany.
Hollis lauded Orwell’s last two indictments of totalitarianism, the fable Animal Farm and the dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four, both arguably gestated during his years in Spain. As a stellar work of art—literary genius united with a good cause—Animal Farm combined Lord Acton’s bromide that “power corrupts” with James Burnham’s argument that revolutions lead not to classless societies but to new ruling classes.
Orwell’s final, towering masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was more problematic for Hollis, ultimately too bleak and negative. The tyrannical superstate of Oceania emerged not from the degeneration of Communism but rather as the inevitable outcome of a trend toward totalitarianism after a half-century of war, argued Hollis, insisting yet again that Orwell’s atheism undermined his emotional and spiritual awareness: Orwell saw but could not endorse that the answer to the pessimism and despair of Nineteen Eighty-Four entailed the acceptance of religious belief and the corollary that this life is a preparation for the next. Orwell could not, therefore, resolve a dilemma that he recognized as the paramount challenge for the modern age: how to “restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final.”
John Rodden has written several books on Orwell’s life and legacy, including George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation andGeorge Orwell: Every Intellectual’s Big Brother.