Orwell’s Religion in this Week’s Tablet

D J Taylor writing in the latest edition of The Tablet addresses the issue of George Orwell’s attitude toward religion in general and the Roman Catholic church in particular. This is in an essay entitled “The Other Saint George: George Orwell’s Nuanced and Ambivalent Views on Religion.”  Taylor, who has also written a biography of Orwell, opens with this discussion of how his friends considered his religious tendencies:

What Orwell thought about religion is necessarily complicated by his friends’ habit of conceiving him in explicitly religious terms. V. S. Pritchett thought him “a kind of saint”. Anthony Powell, too, reckoned him “in his way, a sort of saint, even if not one in sparkling raiment bright”. Evelyn Waugh, visiting him in a Gloucestershire sanitorium in the year before his death, pronounced that he was “very near to God”. To which it may be added that Orwell himself greatly distrusted the notion of personal sanctity, and wrote a pointed little essay on Gandhi whose asceticism he found deeply suspect. Sainthood, he decided, was a condition best avoided by living men and women.

According to Taylor, Orwell’s “personal life was rooted in conventional early 20th-century Anglicanism…while his moral beliefs, founded on such code words as “fairness” and “decency”, are essentially Judeo-Christian…” He did, however, have anti-Catholic tendencies, despite (or perhaps because of) his early schooling by Ursuline nuns in a Henley convent:

The thought that to Orwell Catholicism is itself a form of totalitarianism whose dogmas are imposed not to buttress any particular law but merely to reinforce the power structures that lie behind them has clearly occurred to Michael G. Brennan [in his recent book George Orwell and Religion]… No question that the evidence Brennan marshals in his assault on Orwell the anti-Catholic bigot isn’t damning in the extreme. From Ronald Knox to Monsignor Hugh Benson and from the rosary-fingering Irish peasantry to the journalism of “Beach­comber”, Orwell rarely misses a chance to let some Catholic institution or celebrity have it with both barrels.

Taylor closes with another story that he thinks Brennan (who has also written a study of Evelyn Waugh and is editor of some of the CWEW volumes) might have used. This involves a meeting arrranged by Anthony Powell between Orwell and Alick Dru, Powell’s friend from his Army days who was also a Roman Catholic as well as Evelyn Waugh’s brother-in-law. The two did not hit if off, and Taylor believes this may relate to Orwell’s attitude toward a French theologian named Charles Péguy. Taylor might also have mentioned Brennan’s closing of his book on Orwell and religion. In this Brennan considers an unfinished essay reviewing Waugh’s career that Orwell was working on when he died. In the surviving notes, Orwell wrote this as his conclusion: “Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (ie. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.” (Orwell, Complete Works, v. 20, p. 79)

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