n 1954, four years after George Orwell’s premature death from tuberculosis, his friend Christopher Hollis recalled: “One of the most interesting and deepest of Orwell’s beliefs was his belief in the profound evil of contraception.” Near the end of his life, Orwell expressed the view that even the Catholic teaching on “the safe period” was too lax. He thought, according to Hollis, “that people who desired intercourse without desiring children were guilty of a profound lack of faith in life, and that a generation which slipped into the way of thinking such a desire legitimate was inevitably damned.”
Orwell was an awkward character during his lifetime, too independent to fit into anybody else’s ideology. In death, he has proved slightly easier to manipulate, because commentators can simply ignore his more inconvenient opinions. But though Orwell’s antipathy to birth control has been largely overlooked, it is far from incidental to his worldview. Take his poem “St Andrew’s Day, 1935,” a grim sketch of anxious, helpless wage slaves in thrall to
The lord of all, the money-god,
Who rules us blood and hand and brain,
Who gives the roof that stops the wind,
And, giving, takes away again.
The money-god of capitalism strips human life of its color, limiting “our thoughts, our dreams.” Only in the last stanza, however, is his malevolence fully revealed:
Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.
Whether or not the “sleek, estranging shield” is the first reference to a condom in English poetry, as has been suggested, it is surely one of the bleakest. Some Catholic thinkers have articulated the Church’s teaching by describing contraception as a kind of doublethink: While the body language of sex says, “I give myself to you completely,” birth control adds: “But on second thought, I won’t give this.” Strange as it may seem (given Orwell’s disdain for Catholicism), there is a similar intuition in that three-word phrase. A shield may offer “protection,” but it is also an object that one only takes to a fight. The word hints at a contest between man and woman, perhaps some hidden mutual exploitation. Without naming any specific wrong, the word “sleek” cannot be read as wholly innocent: It implies suspicion, an uncertain feeling that one is being deceived. By such means the money-god turns lovers into strangers.
These closing lines are well above the usual standard of Orwell’s generally forgettable poetry. Orwell was evidently pleased with them, since he gave them a major role in his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published the following year. Gordon Comstock, the main character, spends much of the novel composing the poem, but he finds the last two lines only after an argument with his girlfriend Rosemary. She won’t sleep with him because he won’t use contraception: “I can’t have a baby, can I?” she protests. Gordon bitterly blames “the money-god”: “You say you ‘can’t’ have a baby. . . . You mean you daren’t; because you’d lose your job and I’ve got no money and all of us would starve.” Contraception turns out to be the ultimate example of how capitalism ruins everything, by making the “estranging shield” seem normal and indispensable. Gordon concludes: “This birth-control business! It’s just another way they’ve found out of bullying us.”
“They” stands for Orwell’s collection of villains: Stalin and Hitler and Big Brother, but also newspaper proprietors and communist fellow travelers and prissy ideological literary critics and the bigots at the European Club in Burmese Days and the sadistic schoolmistress Mrs. Creevy in A Clergyman’s Daughter and . . . The breadth of Orwell’s prejudices, combined with his utter incapacity for systematic thought, can be one of his most maddening traits. But there was sometimes great wisdom in his prejudices, and “they” did have something in common. To understand what it was, we must first jettison a common image of Orwell as a purely political or activist writer. Cyril Connolly helped to establish this image with his celebrated joke that Orwell “could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.” Connolly thought that Orwell “reduced everything to politics”; but Orwell’s politics carried him far beyond ideologies, movements, wars, and elections. Even when talking about these things, he was defending something else.
n all of Evelyn Waugh’s novels up to Brideshead Revisited, Orwell detected a consistent theme: Waugh’s “private ideal” of “a middle-sized country house.” In each of Orwell’s novels, his own private ideal is voiced by his characters: It is what Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter calls “that mystical joy in the beauty of the earth and the very nature of things.” In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling gazes into a pond crowded with living creatures and is overcome by “the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It’s the only thing worth having, and we don’t want it.” Orwell’s essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” asks whether this delight in nature might distract us from the struggle for justice. He responds that there is not much point in political change if we lose “all pleasure in the actual process of life.” That process itself resists the money-god and the totalitarians: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
Orwell was drawn to remote places, to an existence close to the “process of life.” (In the thirties, for instance, he decamped to a tiny village where he tended a garden and kept goats.) His villains, “they,” are against it. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s last novel, O’Brien predicts that “the intoxication of power” will obliterate everything else: In the future there will be “no enjoyment of the process of life.” In Orwell’s debut novel, Burmese Days, Flory is impressed by “the whole life and spirit of Burma,” but to his racist fellow Brits he cannot say anything. “It is a corrupting thing to live one’s real life in secret,” he muses sadly. “One should live with the stream of life, not against it.” George Bowling recalls that his childhood home had a routine “like clockwork. Or no, not like clockwork, which suggests something mechanical. It was more like some kind of natural process. You knew that breakfast would be on the table to-morrow morning in much the same way as you knew the sun would rise.”
Humans can be reconciled to “the process of life”; the various forms of power worship try to separate them from it. Hence the Junior Anti-Sex League set up by the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and hence Gordon Comstock’s summing up of the inhumanity of modern civilization: “French letters and machine guns.”
These were provocative words in the era of Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, and their eugenicist followers, whom Orwell derided as “birth-control fanatics.” As Orwell remarked, in the 1920s “contraception and enlightenment were held to be almost synonymous.” Orwell turned that on its head. The most hopeful page in all his fiction comes two-thirds of the way through Nineteen Eighty-Four. Outside the window of his rented room, a hiding place from the authorities, Winston Smith has sometimes heard a woman singing. She is “a monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar,” doing the laundry for (Winston supposes) a vast number of children and grandchildren. Just before the Thought Police burst in and the novel descends into horror, Winston looks at her again as she hangs up diapers on the washing line:
It struck him for the first time that she was beautiful. It had never before occurred to him that the body of a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing, then hardened, roughened by work till it was coarse in the grain like an over-ripe turnip, could be beautiful, but it was so.
After thirty years of pregnancy and drudgery, “at the end of it she was still singing.” And so she becomes an icon of resistance against the Party—whose members never sing spontaneously. Winston feels a “mystical reverence” for the woman: She symbolizes all the unknown people who, one day, will overthrow the Party. “If there was hope, it lay in the proles!” This remarkable moment throws the eugenicists’ worst nightmare back at them. An impoverished woman who has a large number of children becomes the final, ineradicable sign that there is something in the world that is bigger than Big Brother.
Orwell thought the bourgeoisie, unlike the poor, had allowed the money-god to dictate the terms. In Coming Up for Air, the middle-class George Bowling complains that when his wife makes a cake “she’s not thinking about the cake, only about how to save butter and eggs. When I’m in bed with her all she thinks about is how not to have a baby.” Conversely, Gordon Comstock announces: “Hats off to the factory lad who with fourpence in the world puts his girl in the family way! At least he’s got blood and not money in his veins.”
At moments like this, you remember that Orwell was scarcely much of a moral theologian. Nor do his novels have all the answers for a couple who wonder how a decent life is possible without contraception. But he saw something in the factory lad’s recklessness: a rebellion against the brutal logic that would turn every activity—even those that are tinged with the sacred—into one financial transaction after another.
Dan Hitchens is a doctoral student in English at the University of Oxford.