Imagine that you and your former high school boyfriend or girlfriend parted amicably or maybe not so amicably* many years ago. You lost track of that once central person in your life after high school. He/she went overseas for a few years, changed his/her name, and unbeknownst to you became a world-famous author. When you discovered this, you exchanged a few letters shortly before that person’s untimely death. Then, sixty or so years after your childhood romance, after scores of others had written biographies, you decided you might as well write a book about your old flame, because no one else could really know him/her as you had.
That scenario is the basis of Eric and Us
, Jacintha Buddicom’s odd little memoir of her relationship with Eric Blair, later to be known as George Orwell. The Blairs and Buddicoms were neighbors in the village of Shiplake, and young Eric and Jacintha were childhood friends. Buddicom paints an idyllic picture of life in Edwardian/Georgian England, full of fishing trips and parlor games. She describes the young Orwell as bright, happy, and determined to be a FAMOUS AUTHOR from a young age. He stands on his head to get the attention of Jacintha and her siblings, writes poems for her, and gives her books (including a copy of [b:Dracula|17245|Dracula|Bram Stoker|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347251549s/17245.jpg|3165724], accompanied by a carefully wrapped crucifix and clove of garlic).
Buddicom is proprietary about her memories of Orwell, becoming irritable about those who have created a “mystique” surrounding him that doesn’t fit with her recollections. She is oddly defensive about Orwell’s claims of unhappiness at boarding school in his essay Such, Such Were the Joys
, going point by point to refute him (nobody got caned all that much, the rich boys weren’t really Scottish millionaires, he wasn’t really ugly or smelly, he wasn’t that poor). It seems like a strange fight to pick. While Orwell may have exaggerated his miseries at St. Cyprian’s in his essay, Buddicom wouldn’t necessarily have been in a position to know. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that he could have experienced inner distress that he didn’t choose to talk about on school vacations. She writes, “In Such Such Were the Joys
we hear the voice of the sick and disappointed man of forty-three: not the voice of the good-humoured schoolboy of fourteen” (53). Undoubtedly Orwell’s essay could have been colored by time and subsequent events, as could have Buddicom’s rosy memories.
Buddicom seems most offended by Orwell’s books. While she liked [b:Animal Farm|7613|Animal Farm|George Orwell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327872845s/7613.jpg|2207778] and [b:Burmese Days|9650|Burmese Days|George Orwell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1166031282s/9650.jpg|1171545], she was “shocked” by [b:Homage to Catalonia|9646|Homage to Catalonia|George Orwell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1337103046s/9646.jpg|2566499], about Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War, saying, “It is impertinence for independent members of a different nationality to interfere with the internal affairs of a country not their own” (154). She can’t understand how Dorothy in [b:A Clergyman's Daughter|319238|A Clergyman's Daughter|George Orwell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348227755s/319238.jpg|1469726] ends up in the company of tramps, a situation she calls “utterly revolting” (136). Buddicom may have seen Julia in [b:1984|5470|1984|George Orwell|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348990566s/5470.jpg|153313] as being vengefully modeled on her
. Speaking of his novels, she laments, “If only one
of them could have had, if not a happy, at least an encouraging ending” (155).
Jacintha Buddicom presents an insight into George Orwell’s youth from a perspective not available elsewhere, but her viewpoint is slightly tilted. She sees his life and work through a very particular prism, as if his life stopped in 1922 and picked up again in 1949, without any intervening world or life events. Buddicom must have wanted him to have had a happier childhood and written happier books (preferably without the pesky politics) than he did. She would not be the first to project an agenda or ideology onto Orwell’s work, in what she called the “Orwell Mystique.” But it seems strange in someone who knew him so well.
*I read the first edition of this book, the one without the notorious postscript by Dione Venables, Jacintha Buddicom’s cousin. The postscript, published after Buddicom’s death, describes an encounter between Orwell and Buddicom that was anything from a "botched seduction"
to attempted rape. Depending on the biographer, this event may have been the precipitating event that led to Orwell moving to Burma rather than pursuing a university education. It’s a far from clear-cut scenario, with Venables writing rather fancifully of Jacintha as Orwell’s "muse"
, and Buddicom herself saying, “...among all the boys we knew, Eric was one of the most interesting, the best-informed, the kindest, the nicest
” (143). If the story is accurate, those descriptions hardly seem apt, but it may explain the odd undercurrent of ire in this book.