Vol. 3 No. 2 · 5 February 1981

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Orwell’s Reputation

SIR: As Frank Kermode brings out (LRB, 22 January), Bernard Crick draws attention in his George Orwell: A Life to the writer’s brutality. What is striking is that some interesting pieces of documentation by contemporaries touching on this are omitted from the biography. Dealing with Blair at Eton, Professor Crick is careful to trace his development as a games-player, yet fails to include this quotation from Denis King-Farlow, a member of Orwell’s election: ‘On the compulsory football field he sometimes showed the sadistic streak that was normally confined to spiteful truculence in conversation – the will to give offence and really to hurt.’ And when Professor Crick comes to sum up the youthful Blair’s rural holidays with Jacintha Buddicom’s family, he says: ‘Eric loved the countryside and the simple country pursuits.’ That is surely true, but Miss Buddicom’s assessment puts the love in a different light: ‘Eric might not have been quite so keen on killing things as was Prosper.’ It is Professor Crick’s biographical policy, he says in his introduction, not to be ‘constantly analysing and re-analysing’ Orwell’s character; he prefers ‘the evidence and the chronicle of events’ to the ‘pseudo-certainties’ of ‘literary psychoanalysis’, and therefore he has, he says, laid stress on ‘the direct evidence of people who knew him at the relevant times’. So far from doing that, he has censored King-Farlow and preferred not to quote a considered and revealing conclusion by Jacintha Buddicom. Further, we are warned off believing other witnesses of Blair, whom the biographer considers antipathetic, such as Rayner Heppenstall and Humphrey Dakin. Professor Crick thinks it more reasonable that we believe his version of how Blair behaved when he beat up Heppenstall than to believe Heppenstall. And of the brother-in-law Dakin’s critical view of Blair he says: ‘Dakin’s view is suspect as motivated by personal dislike.’ What a solecism!

Custodians of Orwell’s writings have in the past developed shielding and maternalistic attitudes, as perhaps Professor Crick found when pursuing his researches. Writings, published and unpublished, of doubtful compatibility with the popular image of Orwell have been withheld and suppressed. Orwell, moreover, has made loyal friends among his readers; we feel he is speaking directly to us and may be unwilling to betray what seems like intimacy. More than anyone else, Professor Crick has been entrusted with the reputation of this monumental yet vulnerable man, and in finding out about him his ‘initial great respect’ has been ‘heightened’. Heightened, it seems, into an unwillingness to be harsh. Orwell would have called it a conspiracy, and denounced it.

John Thompson
London N19

Bernard Crick writes: I don’t ‘draw attention’ to Orwell’s brutality. I mention examples of brutal behaviour, also of gentle and of kindly behaviour. What kind of people do Professor Kermode and Mr Thompson know who can be reduced to a single dominant characteristic? Cambridge dons? However, John Thompson is evidently a close reader of sources on Orwell and his first paragraph is perfectly fair criticism. But, though my method was external and unpsychological, I could not quote everything, nor accept all sources and memories as equal. Because I do not try to make up the reader’s mind for him. I am not mindless. Denys King-Farlow’s account was not merely written after Orwell’s death but long after several critics had made the idea current that Orwell’s sadistic streak is the hidden key to his political writings. I judged that King-Farlow was exercising clever hindsight. Rayner Heppenstall and Humphrey Dakin’s accounts were similarly set down long after the event: so while I recount them fully (for lack of contemporary evidence), I also show reasons for being sceptical about their judgments. The reader must decide. I also made quite clear that among Eric Blair’s ‘simple country pursuits’ was rabbit shooting. Now if Mr Thompson is truly as nice and as gentle as Miss Buddicom, let me honestly tell him that I have killed rabbits with sticks, have strangled chickens and that only one of my sons is a vegetarian: so plainly I am defending my own ‘sadism’ or ‘brutality’ as much as Orwell’s. The second paragraph, however, contains an innuendo about ‘custodians’ and ‘maternalistic attitudes’ which is unjust both to the late Sonia Orwell and to myself. When she asked me, out of the blue, to write the Life, I made two conditions: that I should have unrestricted access to all papers and an absolute right to use and publish what I wished for the purposes of biography. These were tough terms, even if those that any scholar should ask for in similar circumstances. She agreed. This was brave and public-spirited of her. Nothing was withheld and I quoted everything I wanted to quote, even though she disliked the finished portrait. But I neither painted out discreditable things nor highlighted them for effect. Nor have any of Orwell’s writings been ‘withheld and suppressed’ by custodians. I draw attention in footnotes to political essays and early writings which should have been included in the admirably edited but perhaps misleadingly titled Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Yet no two editors or anthologisers ever agree completely. Everything Orwell published is available to be read in the Archive at University College, London; and when the unpublished and restricted material is made available (as I hope it soon will be), no skeletons will be found. All new material I have found has also been put into the Archive. The opening will help interpretations other than mine to be better grounded, but I hope on grounds more complex than any single psychological trait, especially sadism. Happily, the very publication of my book has flushed out interesting new evidence on several topics which I will be incorporating into a revised edition later this year – an edition that will also give me an opportunity to correct some minor errors.

Jewish Councils

SIR: Writing on the persecution of Amsterdam Jewry, in his review of Walter Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret, Norman Stone comments: ‘Two prominent members of that [Jewish] Council survived the war and were tried for collaboration, they like their German persecutors Harten and Fuenten (sic: transmogrifications of Harster and Aus der Fuenten) could argue ‘we did not know’ (LRB, 20 November 1980). As a matter of fact, the two personalities concerned were never brought to trial at all, as a preliminary investigation failed to reveal anything culpable in their behaviour. True enough, a Jewish honorary board disqualified them from holding office within the Jewish community, but otherwise they were allowed to continue undisturbed their pre-war careers of university professor and diamond manufacturer respectively.

Nor is it true, as one could be led to assume after reading the review, that the Amsterdam Jewish Council had its own police force that assisted the Germans in carrying out deportations. In fact, all deportations were carried out by German and Dutch police units, both regular and irregular.

Although at one stage the Chairman of the Jewish Council did indeed hand over a list with names and addresses to the Germans, with fatal results, this was done long before the beginning of the deportations, indeed even before the Final Soluton had been decided upon. Hence this was a case of naivety rather than of deliberate collaboration. Accusations as to the latter have had to be rescinded because of lack of evidence. Incidentally, it is highly doubtful whether the Jews could otherwise have passed unnoticed. The Germans could manage very well without the Jewish Councils, the function of the latter being mainly to facilitate the task administratively, so that more German hands could be freed for other assignments.

Mr Stone indulges in speculation as to whether the German businessman who informed the Jewish Agency representative in Switzerland of what was going on may have been a foil for British Intelligence. If this was the case, his explanation of why the British did not believe the information – that they ‘were anxious to avoid unauthenticated propaganda’ – becomes untenable.

Finally, I am disturbed by the gratuitous reference to the ‘Jews’ own self-appointed leaders’. Far from being self-appointed or even elected, the members of the Jewish Councils were hand-picked by the Germans. Basically, they are tragic figures. Some responded heroically to the challenge, committing suicide rather than accepting outrageous demands. A few collaborated in order to save their skins. In most cases, whatever they might be guilty of was expiated by a horrible death. A death for which those standers-by, Allied or otherwise, who through their connivance and their silence helped to make it possible must bear at least some of the guilt.

L.F. Brakel

Norman Stone writes: I am grateful to Mr Brakel for his interesting letter. The role of the Jewish Councils under Nazi occupation is of course a contentious one, and in basing my remarks on the works of Presser and Trunk, which Mr Brakel will know, I was aware that the matter is far from resolution. It is obviously possible to defend ‘Jewish collaboration’ in the same terms as other collaborations – though Walter Laqueur, by showing the extent of knowledge of the death-camps, implicitly questions even this. It was, of course, a situation of incredible difficulty for any Jew with a sense of responsibility, and I should certainly not wish to be as dogmatic as Hannah Arendt was. Still, the fact remains that where Jewish Councils existed, Jews by and large were deported and killed; where, as in Belgium or occupied France, these Councils did not really exist in any numbers, Jews by and large escaped. I am grateful to Mr Brakel for pointing out places where, in summarising complex issues, I seem to have created a misleading impression of details. I had always assumed that prepositions such as von, aus etc could be omitted from German surnames where they are not preceded by Christian name or title. I did indeed speculate as to whether the British, who were reading Germany’s secret codes, did through an ostensibly different source inform the Jewish Agency in Switzerland of what was happening to the Jews. ‘Lucy’ operated in ways like that. It would have been part of the pattern for ‘Lucy’ information not to have been very widely divulged – certainly not to propaganda people – as there was a vital need to conceal the British discovery of German top-secret codes. But this is pure speculation on my part – though it seems to me more plausible than the ‘conscience-stricken German industrialist close to the Führer’s innermost circle’ who is alleged to have told the Jewish Agency what was happening.


SIR: Anne Barton, a scholar of English Literature, reviewing Puritanism and Theatre by Margot Heinemann, writes that the author ‘is a better and more subtle historian than she is a literary critic’ (LRB, 18 December 1980). Historians, on the other hand, have tended to pronounce a reverse judgment on the book. Both reactions exemplify a basic difficulty of interdisciplinary studies – namely, keeping up with more than one subject. In fact, much of Dr Barton’s adverse literary criticism of Puritanism and Theatre can be explained as a consequence of Miss Heinemann’s outdated historical concepts. The polarities of Court and Country, Crown and Parliament, Puritan and Anglican etc, are now at an increasing discount among historians. Therefore, the attempt to type Thomas Middleton as the spokesman of a Parliamentary Puritan opposition during the 1620s is almost certainly doomed from the outset, and hence also the distortion and simplification of individual plays about which Dr Barton complains. The positive evidence for Middleton’s Puritanism remains extremely flimsy and his patron the Earl of Pembroke was a leading courtier. Moreover, the message of Middleton’s A Game at Chess coincided with the policy in 1624 of the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. Conversely, there was strong Puritan opposition to the theatre, voiced by ‘moderates’ like John Rainolds – something which Miss Heinemann seriously underplays.

Nicholas Tyacke
Department of History, University College London

Anne Barton writes: To say that Margot Heinemann is ‘a better and more subtle historian than she is a literary critic’ is not to claim that her history is unassailable. As I point out in my review, Puritanism and Theatre has its Hill-ish excesses. In particular, Dr Tyacke is right to question Miss Heinemann’s assumption that a Parliamentary Puritan party had crystallised by the early 1620s. (Though Miss Heinemann can scarcely be blamed for not having read Conrad Russell’s Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629, which appeared when her book was already in the press.) Her general argument, however, seems to me much less crude than Dr Tyacke makes out. True, polarities like Court v. Country and Puritan v. Royalist turn up, but it is virtually impossible to write about the early 17th century without using the inherited vocabulary to some extent. (Dr Tyacke proves my point – and, incidentally, ignores the deliberate breadth of Miss Heinemann’s category ‘Puritan’ – by falling back on a Puritan v. Court opposition in his eagerness to refute the book’s treatment of Pembroke.) Carefully deployed and craftily qualified, the old words – most of them, after all, used by contemporaries – still have value. Of course, Dr Tyacke is right to say that Buckingham’s position in 1624 was anti-Spanish. But he is wrong to imply that Buckingham would therefore approve of A Game at Chess. His appearance in the play as the morally ambiguous White Duke must have pleased Pembroke, Middleton’s anti-Spanish but also anti-Buckingham patron. The royal favourite cannot have been flattered by the allusions to his lechery and personal vanity. To take up Dr Tyacke’s last remark: it is simply untrue to say that Miss Heinemann underplays the opposition to the theatre voiced by some Puritan ‘moderates’. As I observe in my review, she goes out of her way to concede it. The study of pre-Civil War England is now in such a confused and contentious state that any new contribution is liable to sniping from some quarter. It is to be hoped that when Dr Tyacke publishes his own, long-awaited book on the period, some of the problems which currently bedevil interdisciplinary work will be resolved.

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