James Bradshaw examines the great writer’s love-hate relationship with faith.
Religion features in all of Orwell’s work, particularly in the more serious books and essays. There was a strong Anglican ethos in his schooling, and a sentimental attachment to the Church of England never left him. He was married and buried according to the Church of England’s rites, and rests in a country churchyard as he wished. When outlining his views on literary style in Politics and the English Language, Orwell cited a verse from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes as an example of well-constructed English.
When working as a teacher in his late 20s, he had become active in the parish. The facts about this period are characteristically ambiguous. He expressed discomfort with the ‘Popish’ High Anglican services in the church, and wrote to a friend that he was maintaining a deception by receiving Communion without believing. Yet the curate’s wife would later insist that there seemed to be much more to Eric Blair’s faith than George Orwell later let on (his voluntary work included washing up after meetings, chopping wood and even assisting her husband in administering the last rites). The attachment did not extend too far, however, and though he repeatedly acknowledged the positive influence of religion, the author never seemed to possess any deep faith, or to possess a desire to explore the area with sufficient thoroughness.
Coming Up for Air is a nostalgic novel in which a middle-aged narrator visits his childhood home, and remembers churchgoing with fondness, but adds that ‘it was only a feeling, you couldn’t describe it as an activity’. In Burmese Days, the six-weekly church service for the colonial administrators and their families ‘was the great social event of their lives’. The service itself is not taken seriously by attendees though, and the most racist of the Englishmen loudly protests about the attendance by native Burmese converts. Elsewhere, this social function of organised religion, Christian or otherwise, is shown in the attitude of the novel’s scheming Burmese villain, who plans to atone for his misdeeds by building Buddhist pagodas before death takes him.
Orwell frequently took aim at clergymen of all denominations – from Buddhists to Anglican vicars. A recurring criticism was the link he saw between religion and social privilege. The Church of England, he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, never had a real hold on the English people as ‘it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry’,’ and the rector in A Clergyman’s Daughter is irritated that a request from ‘a common bricklayer’ to baptise an ill baby would interrupt his breakfast. In Animal Farm, the raven which represents Russia’s State Church does no work, and earns the affection of the ruling Mr Jones by telling the other animals comforting lies about a paradise ‘called Sugarcandy Mountain to which all animals went when they died’. Importantly, before a successful rebellion could occur, the animals needed to be convinced by the revolutionary pigs that no such place existed.
Catholicism attracted a disproportionate share of Orwell’s ire, and the reasons for this deserve careful consideration. Firstly, there is the traditional anti-Catholic bigotry which exists in England, and which is captured in his novels and non-fiction work, such as where a vicar mocks the sound of the ‘RC’ church bells, or in how Orwell observed that some working-class English people avoided brown bread due to an alleged connection to Catholicism.
Orwell mocked this illogical prejudice, yet frequently exhibited symptoms of it, writing to a friend in the 1930s that it was good that a local shop had a sign up saying it did not stock Catholic Bibles, for ‘so long as that spirit is in the land we are safe from the RCs’.
Christopher Hollis’s assessment is of particular interest, given that they knew each other at Eton before they both became writers, and before Hollis became a Catholic. To Hollis, the turning point was the Spanish Civil War. Before that, Orwell had not encountered Catholics apart from the working-class Catholics of Lancashire about whom he wrote very sympathetically (in part because they were often Socialists too).
The Catholic Church had, Hollis writes, ‘up till then been for him a quaint and unimportant survival, [but] now showed itself for the first time as one of the great claimants to power – a force much stronger and therefore, as it appeared to him, much more evil than any of its Protestant rivals’. Orwell was reluctant to examine the facts about why Catholics opposed the Spanish Republic. At the same time, no Catholic observer could examine the history of 1930s Europe without admitting that mistakes were made when many Church leaders tied themselves to right-wing strongmen like Franco. Orwell was not one for forgetting this, and from this point on a stronger criticism can be seen in his work.
Indeed, the dislike (and perhaps envy) of more established Catholic writers fuelled this fire. In this era, many young writers like Waugh and Hollis had converted, and Orwell compared this to the process whereby other intellectuals had become Communists. As a former admirer of Chesterton, Orwell took particular exception to how Chesterton had often tried to show the superiority of Catholic practices and countries over Protestant ones, claiming that he had chosen ‘to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda’.
Outside of his serious work, he tended to vent in his novels.
In A Clergyman’s Daughter, a local Catholic convert family is rumoured to be teaching their parrot to say Extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside the Church there is no salvation], while the narrator in Keep the Aspidistra Flying notes that a bookshop had ‘Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of RC propaganda’ in stock. [a cheeky reference to the ultra-Catholic Hilaire Belloc and to G. K. Chesterton.]
Just as his adherence to revolutionary views prevented him from considering his side’s atrocities in the Spanish Civil War – atrocities which probably cost Spain’s Socialists the war – Orwell’s increasingly strong anti-Catholic prejudice blighted his judgement about religion too.
Linking Catholic orthodoxy to Communist orthodoxy in Inside the Whale, Orwell’s arguments descended into absurdity: “How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.”
He wrote these lines in 1940, at a time when Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were at the height of their powers, and his harsh reviews of their work (an unfinished review of Brideshead Revisited includes as a note: “One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up”) proves nothing except that religious bigotry is a great hindrance to literary criticism.
All the same, when Orwell actually examined philosophical questions in depth, he did so very well, as in A Clergyman’s Daughter. Dorothy, the aforementioned daughter, is dedicated to the parish and works tirelessly in its social ministry in an England which is rapidly urbanising and secularising. Her’s is an ascetic faith, involving cold baths and strict fasting before Communion, but one which is also focused on caring for others.
Dorothy sees in her encounters around the parish that ‘vague, blank disbelief’ of the modern age. Where she does witness the faith shown by an old rheumatic woman, it is suspiciously similar to the vision of Sugarcandy Mountain in Animal Farm, as the old woman has ‘only two subjects of conversation; one of them was the joys of Heaven, and the other the miseries of her present state’.
A dramatic change later alters Dorothy’s life completely, and her loss of faith is total, but crucially, she continues to practise. While she can never pray again, she continues to find comfort in those church services which held her life together. “[S]he perceived that in all that happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposed purpose may be, there is something – it is hard to define, but something of decency, of spiritual comeliness – that is not easily found in the world outside,” Orwell writes.
When she resolves to maintain the pretence of belief and is challenged by an irreligious friend, Dorothy shows no interest in the hedonistic alternative he suggests, and continues to struggle with the questions about a life without meaning. “It seemed to her that even though you no longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better to follow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom,” Orwell writes.
In a particularly crucial passage, Orwell writes that ‘the Christian way of life was still the way that must come naturally to her,’ but that ‘she could not put this into words’. Perhaps Orwell could not either, and this may have been his best attempt. Yet he could not explain faith itself and did not try hard in this book, writing it off as something ‘not rooted in logic … a change in the climate of the mind’. This is the core problem with it, and one which Hollis observed when he wrote that both Dorothy’s faith and unfaith were entirely devoid of a rational basis. She does not wonder much about God’s existence – she feels he is there, and then stops feeling that. Christ is also not a factor, and goes more or less unmentioned elsewhere in Orwell’s work.
It is hard to say what Orwell found inside the walls of a church, although he certainly seemed dissatisfied with social changes which were already underway in his lifetime and which have since accelerated. Even after he became convinced of the merits of democratic socialism, he continued to criticise social reforms which Socialists demanded. A clear example of this is seen in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where the central character Gordon abandons a prosperous career in order to thwart the ‘Money God’ and suffers poverty as a result. Nothing, not even the love of his girlfriend Rosemary, can persuade him to reverse his course. That is until a pregnant Rosemary tells him she is considering a termination.
The thought of aborting violates his moral code: “The words ‘a baby’ took on a new significance…. He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating – a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning.”
This was more than a throwaway line in a novel. In one of his later essays, The English People, Orwell lamented the anti-natal and anti-family policies of government while criticising the view ‘that abortion, theoretically illegal, should be looked on as a peccadillo’. (Oddly, the fact that the Spanish Republic he fought for had legalised this peccadillo appears to have passed him by). In this and other areas, the deep imprint of his cultural Christianity is shown. We see it, for instance, in his correct identification of the basis of Nazi ideology and his implicit description of the unique quality of Western civilisation, writing: “It is precisely the idea of human equality – the ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judaeo-Christian’ idea of equality – that Hitler came into the world to destroy.”
To Orwell, the ethics of Christianity were good, and even though English people had abandoned firm theological positions, they had proven immune to ‘the modern cult of power worship’ because they held to an unspoken doctrine ‘that the Church never formulated … that might is not right.’
Though he did not much lament the loss of faith in religion, he was clearly concerned with the resulting threat to ethics.
It is noteworthy that both Orwell’s condemnation of capitalism (Money is what God used to be) and the rhetoric used by 1984’s socialist totalitarians (We are the priests of power…God is power) present this sharp contrast so clearly.
Towards the end of his life, Orwell appeared more and more troubled by this, insisting that ‘[o]ne cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity,’ adding that though he ‘did not want the belief in life after death to return,’ he did need to point out ‘that its disappearance has left a big hole’. It appeared that he wished to preserve Christian ethics in a world where Christian belief had faded, and to continue to live by those principles, just as Dorothy did.
Eighty years after Orwell wrote that the English had ‘retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ’, all that has happened since suggests that this path was never a viable one to begin with. Such a pity it is that he did not live long enough to ponder, and perhaps answer, the questions which he raised.
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