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A Modest Proposal

When George Orwell’s wife died unexpectedly in 1945 in the course of what was understood to be a minor operation, he seemed, according to some accounts, to take it rather in his stride. “Such a shame, she was a good old stick”, was a reaction reported by one acquaintance. Others, however, closer friends, claimed he that he was grievously stricken – as well he might be: Eileen O’Shaughnessy was by all accounts a quite remarkable woman and a great support to her no doubt often exasperating husband.

Still, the world turns, and before long Orwell was intent on marrying again, if possible finding not just a lover and companion but a mother for his adopted son, Richard, whom he was determined not to give up. According to biographer Bernard Crick, he proposed to at least four women in the year following Eileen’s death.

Orwell had, by this (late) stage of his life a considerable and growing literary reputation, which can count for something in the business of pairing off. On the other hand, he was a good deal older than most of the women he pursued, in very bad health and showing it in his physical appearance. In a conversation with his friend Arthur Koestler and his wife, Mamaine, he was asked which attributes did he think he lacked but would most like to possess. “I should like to be irresistible to women,” he replied.

Having been politely turned down by Mamaine’s twin sister Celia Kirwan, he turned his attentions to the young Anne Popham, whom he asked to marry him the day after meeting her for the first time at a literary dinner. She too turned him down, though politely, even affectionately. He then wrote her a letter [she had returned to her job in Germany with the occupation administration], half apologising for, half renewing his proposals. And then another one, which included this passage:

I wonder if I committed a sort of crime in approaching you. In a way it’s scandalous that a person like me should make advances to a person like you, and yet I thought from your appearance that you were not only lonely and unhappy {Anne’s boyfriend, serving in the RAF, had been killed in the war], but also a person who lived chiefly through the intellect and might become interested in a man who was much older and not much good physically. You asked me what attracted me to you in the first place. You are very beautiful, as no doubt you well know, but that wasn’t quite all. I do so want someone who will share what is left of my life, and my work. It isn’t so much a question of someone to sleep with, though of course I want that too, sometimes. You say you wouldn’t be likely to love me. I don’t see how you could be expected to. You are young and fresh and you have had someone you really loved and who would set up a standard I couldn’t compete with. If you still feel you can start again and you want a handsome young man who can give you a lot of children, then I am no good to you. What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.

Orwell was eventually to marry Sonia Brownell (who had on a previous occasion turned him down) in October 1949. The marriage ceremony took place in University College Hospital, with Orwell propped up in bed wearing a dinner jacket, and the wedding luncheon, which the groom could not attend, at the Ritz. After his marriage Orwell thought for a while that he might be getting slightly better (the illness was tuberculosis) and might have a few years left in him. Indeed he had plans to visit Switzerland to recuperate. But this was not to be. He died, suddenly and alone, after a lung haemorrhage on January 21st, 1950. He was forty-six. His friend Richard Rees, himself a Christian, had remarked on Orwell’s beliefs: “To accept death as final was for him a test of intellectual honesty; to care passionately about the fate of mankind after your death was an ethical imperative.”

In spite of his lack of religious belief Orwell had stipulated in his will that he wished his body to be “buried according to the rites of the Church of England in the nearest convenient cemetery”, the last five words a typically Orwellian no-nonsense gesture. The request was not, however, an easy one to fulfil for a man with no connections to the church or its priests. Eventually he was to be buried in a country churchyard in Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire, close to the estate of his friend David Astor, his employer at the Observer.

“The separate groups of his friends,” Crick writes, “gathered together for the first and last time”: literary men, colleagues from Tribune, the Observer and the BBC, political émigrés from Europe, Spanish Civil War comrades, members of the Home Guard, family, friends of his and of Sonia’s, people he knew to talk to in the pubs of Canonbury and Bloomsbury. “Anthony Powell chose the lesson from the last chapter of Ecclesiastes:  ‘man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets’. The mourners noted that it was a long coffin.”

21/1/2017