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The Catholic Who Knew Orwell
This essay appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Some books are classics and deserve to remain in print. Such is the case with Christopher Hollis’s A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works, one of the first serious examinations of that seminal figure of twentieth-century English literature. Hollis’s book appeared just six years after Orwell’s death, in January 1956, and played a major role in the evolution of Orwell’s reputation. It also made a major contribution to defining Orwell as a man of decency and morality. Hollis’s study remained the best critical analysis of Orwell’s significance until his friend George Woodcock’s The Crystal Spirit appeared a decade later.
Amid the flood of books on Orwell, Hollis’s study remains significant. It has been recently republished with a long critical introduction by the Orwell scholar John Rodden, which is invaluable in its own way in elucidating Orwell’s importance today. In just over two hundred pages, Hollis produced a combination intellectual biography and one of the first and best written evaluations of Orwell’s writings. Scholars have been drawing on Hollis’s book for sixty years.
Born in 1902, one of four sons of an Anglican bishop, Hollis attended Eton on a scholarship. Another scholarship took him to Balliol College, Oxford, where he carved out a distinguished career, including as president of the Oxford Union. After graduation he went with the Oxford debating team on a world tour, during which he met Orwell in Burma in 1925.
In 1924 Hollis converted to Catholicism and became a well-known figure in Catholic intellectual circles. From 1925 to 1935 he taught at the Jesuit secondary school Stonyhurst in Lancashire. He spent five years teaching and doing research at the University of Notre Dame, leaving when the war broke out in 1939. During the war he served in the Royal Air Force as an intelligence officer. He was elected a Conservative Member of Parliament in 1945, winning reelection twice before retiring in 1955. He was one of the founders of the publishing firm Hollis and Carter.
Hollis and Orwell shared many qualities yet, in some ways, were the reverse image of each other. They were near contemporaries. Orwell was one year younger than Hollis, who entered Eton in 1914; Orwell arrived two years later. Both men came from the same social and economic background—the rising middle classes of late Victorian and early Edwardian England. Orwell’s father worked for years in the Indian civil service; Hollis’s father was an Anglican bishop. Both men shared the typical preparatory school rigors of the English higher classes. Orwell’s experience at St. Cyprian’s—which he wrote about in bitter terms in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”—scarred him for life. Hollis attended the more fashionable Summer Fields, where he enjoyed the benefactions of his headmaster, Dr. Williams, who guided him to a scholarship at Eton. Orwell also won a scholarship to Eton. Both men were admirers of G. K. Chesterton, who was a major factor in Hollis’s conversion to Catholicism. Orwell admired Chesterton’s literary gifts and his patriotism but despaired of his religious views.
Hollis’s study contains shrewd insights into the young Orwell. He notes, for example, that despite his complaints about English public schools, Orwell wrote virtually nothing critical about his time at Eton, in contrast to his bitterness regarding his St. Cyprian’s experience. Hollis believes the answer lies in the simple fact that “he was little interfered with” at Eton and allowed to follow his own interests, unlike the constant prodding to win laurels for St. Cyprian’s. As to Eton’s influence on Orwell, it is revealing that when he and his wife adopted a little boy they made sure to enroll him there.
Hollis went on to Oxford while Orwell followed in this father’s footsteps and joined the Indian civil service as a policeman in Burma. The two men reconnected in London in the 1930s, traveled in the same social circles, and met off and on during the last twenty years of Orwell’s life. They were acquaintances rather than confidants, engaging, in Hollis’s phrase, in “years of continuing friendly argument.” They shared interest in certain questions of the day. Both were adamant foes of capital punishment, a position that Orwell later spelled out in his essay “A Hanging,” written in the early ’30s. Hollis played a prominent role in the U.K.’s abolition of capital punishment in the 1950s. When Orwell was having difficulties securing a publisher for Animal Farm in 1944 because of its political implications, i.e., its indictment of the Russian Revolution and Stalin, his agent Leonard Moore, knowing of their friendship, wanted to approach Hollis’s firm, Hollis and Carter. Orwell’s reaction is revealing of the gap that separated the two men and says much about his relationship with Hollis. He told Moore “on no account” to offer the book to Hollis, as his firm was pro-Catholic and had “published some most poisonous stuff since he set up business. It would do me permanent harm to be published” by him (Orwell to Moore, 3/23/44, quoted in George Orwell: A Life in Letters, edited by Peter Davison).
Hollis’s biographical chapters in A Study of George Orwell dealing with his subject’s career at Eton and the author’s meeting with him in Burma in 1925 are among the most important in the book. They have provided valuable material that all Orwell’s biographers have drawn upon. This particularly is the case with the Eton period. Hollis’s insights into Orwell at this time are important for understanding his later development. He argues that Orwell’s “grievance” that he was a poor boy among the rich, that he was ugly and unpopular, was nonsense. Orwell was, in Hollis’s words, “a natural solitary” who enjoyed the opportunity Eton gave him to pursue his own interests, to read whatever he wished, and to be left alone. Hollis also disputes the belief that Orwell’s academic record was such that he couldn’t have gone to Oxford or Cambridge. Hollis believes that Orwell rejected university life as an iconoclastic act of defiance. Nor did economic issues have anything to do with Orwell’s decision to bypass Oxford or Cambridge. Eton, Hollis notes, was generous in granting scholarship money to needy boys, Hollis among them. He believes that Orwell missed much by spending important years of his youth in Burma instead of at Oxford or Cambridge among his intellectual peers. This is questionable, as it would have denied us some of Orwell’s best work, including his breakthrough novel, Burmese Days, and what is, along with “A Hanging,” probably his most admired essay, “Shooting an Elephant.” Despite passages in his writings denouncing Oxford and Cambridge, Hollis believes that Orwell came to regret and resent his exclusion from those circles. Interestingly, a recently discovered letter from Orwell’s first love, Jacintha Buddicom, indicates that Orwell may have decided to join the Indian civil service after she rejected his proposal of marriage.
Hollis’s discussion of a visit to Orwell in Burma in 1925 while he was on the Oxford Union debating tour has found its way into the Orwell biographies. Hollis describes Orwell as behaving during their two meetings like the typical English imperialist. His sense of loneliness had embittered him, Hollis thought. There “was no trace of liberal opinions” that he had shown at Eton. Hollis writes that Orwell was “at pains to be the imperial policemen, explaining that these theories of no punishment and not beating were all very well at public schools but that they did not work with the Burmese.” Orwell had a special hatred for the Burmese priests, not for religious reasons but “because of their sniggering insolence.”
Hollis wrote that he carried away this view of Orwell until he read “Shooting An Elephant” years later and discovered how much Orwell hated his role in policing the natives. It also is possible that Orwell had been pulling Hollis’s leg and acting the typical Sahib. Orwell’s official biographer, Bernard Crick, believes that he thought Hollis “a glib and priggish liberal, Oxford Union to boot; so he probably gave him the ‘realist’ line” with satiric tongue in cheek.
* * *
An overarching theme of Hollis’s estimate of Orwell is that, despite his atheism, he was essentially a moralist, and there was a religious sensibility to him and his writings, the same kind of meaning that Hollis himself was searching for when he became a Catholic. Hollis believed that Orwell’s thought rested on a subconscious Christian foundation. What makes Hollis’s study unusual is that despite his own deep Catholic belief, he is able to look beyond Orwell’s anti-Catholicism and find what he called “a naturally Christian soul.” Some commentators on Orwell have argued that Hollis is responsible for trying to press-gang the author of The Clergyman’s Daughter into the Catholic camp, what Christopher Hitchens called “the body snatching of Orwell.” In a review of Hollis’s book, Kingsley Amis observed that Hollis “cannot resist drawing Orwell in his own image.” Indeed, the book at times reads as a dual biography, as Hollis carries on an argument with Orwell about religious and spiritual matters, explaining away his atheism and translating their differences into agreement.
Hollis’s portrait of Orwell as some kind of crypto-Christian has outraged scholars, but it contributed to the posthumous canonization of Orwell as a kind of secular “St. George.” What gave this view some validity was Orwell’s belief that religion might be without value but its collapse left a gap to be filled. Hollis noted that Orwell had written that one of “the major problems of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality.” As the latest scholar on Orwell’s religious sensibility, Michael Brennan, has written in George Orwell and Religion, he “simply could not leave religion alone, not only in his private correspondence and notebooks but also in his published fiction, journalism and reviews.”
Seeing Orwell in his own image, Hollis argues that Orwell resembled the kind of old-fashioned conservative for whom tradition, decency, patriotism, and love of nature were important. Hollis believes Orwell shared his own view that despaired of modern “Conservatives because they despaired of Conservatism.” Hollis was on to something. Orwell, while a political radical, was a traditionalist in cultural matters. His idols Dickens, Poe, and Swift were hardly avant-garde.
The bulk of Hollis’s study consists of a summary of and running commentary on Orwell’s major writings: fiction, nonfiction, and some journalism. The quality of Hollis’s analysis is high and shows an appreciation of the complexity of Orwell’s thought even as Hollis searches for the religious link throughout his literary output. Some of Orwell’s novels he found pedestrian, especially Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. Hollis had a good critical eye. He was the first to point out the similarity between Orwell and his characters John Flory in Burmese Days and Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The two protagonists, like Orwell, were public school boys thrown into an atmosphere for which they were unprepared. Hollis is particularly harsh on the Comstock character, describing him as Orwell with all the fun left out. The book itself he found dreary. After he became famous, Orwell apparently shared that view, asking that it not be reprinted.
Hollis does not have a high opinion of The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible conditions among miners in the north of England during the worst years of the Depression. Although it was the book that first gained Orwell literary fame, his denunciation of soulless industrialism, his call for justice, even his sharp criticism of the failures of socialism Hollis found unconvincing. The book suffers in Hollis’s view because Orwell is posing questions that can only be “soluble within a religious framework.” Given the nature of the modern state, Hollis argues that the destruction of existing class distinctions that Orwell called for would lead not to equality but to a more ruthless ruling class. Not a bad insight given where Orwell took the same problem in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Hollis describes Homage to Catalonia—about Orwell’s role in the Spanish Civil War—as his most important and honest book, despite Hollis being in the opposite camp to Orwell. Hollis and most English Catholics supported General Franco, while Orwell fought on the Republican side. Despite his support for Franco, Hollis admitted that had Hitler intervened in the Spanish Civil War and had Franco then lost, it would have been a blow to the Nazi leader’s prestige and might have changed the course of history. What particularly impressed Hollis was Orwell’s argument that the Spanish war showed that the concept of objective truth was being lost in the ceaseless stream of lies spread by both sides in the struggle. It also was in Spain that Orwell became a dedicated enemy of communism and the English leftists that parroted its line. The route to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four Hollis correctly traces to Orwell’s experiences in Spain.
Orwell’s journalism during World War II Hollis treats in just one chapter of fifteen pages. He is especially interested in Orwell’s running war against the pacifists who opposed the conflict. Orwell had little time for what Hollis describes as the sentimental pacifist who acted as if good will always triumph by merely displaying itself. Orwell also rejected religious pacifists like Gandhi, a man he otherwise admired for his moral courage. Gandhi’s argument that the Jews should have committed collective suicide as a way of arousing the world against the Nazis was for Orwell nonsense. He correctly pointed out that Gandhi’s brand of pacifism was only successful when dealing with liberal societies like Britain. It would have been an abysmal failure in Hitler’s Germany.
Hollis admired Orwell’s last two indictments of totalitarianism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but had little original to say about either book. Hollis regarded Animal Farm as a great work of art, literary genius united with a good cause. He saw the work as a combination of Lord Acton’s view that power corrupts and James Burnham’s belief that revolutions lead not to greater equality but instead to a new ruling class. Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, was problematic for Hollis. It was too bleak and negative in his estimate. He regarded it not as the ultimate degeneration of communism but rather as the inevitable outcome of a trend toward totalitarianism resulting from a half century of war. Orwell saw but could not accept the answer to the pessimism and despair of Nineteen Eighty-Four: religious belief that this life is a preparation for the next. As Orwell wrote, one of the problems of the modern world was how to “restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final.”
Despite the enormous growth of and interest in Orwell studies over the past fifty years, Hollis’s book remains today one of the foundational works that scholars rely on to understand Orwell’s ideas. ♦
John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
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