FOR THE CHRISTMAS OF 1919, the future George Orwell gave his sweetheart a copy of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. That is, Eric Blair, a sixteen-year-old Eton boy, acquired a copy of the novel for the eighteen-year-old Jacintha Buddicom, and with this somewhat sacrilegious Christmas gift enclosed some garlic and an ornate crucifix, as if to ward off any vampiric suitors who might compete with his gothic audacity.
The young woman Eric was boldly courting was the eldest daughter of a wealthy Oxfordshire family who had warmly hosted him and his sister Avril during their school holidays, since 1914. In her book Eric & Us (1974), Jacintha recalled how the Blair children blended into the Buddicom family during the First World War and the even deadlier influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Things changed in 1922: in October of that year, Eric left for Burma to follow his father's career path in the imperial police. For many young people of their generation, it was normal to be separated from one or both parents for long stretches, to live with friends over school holidays, or to see their families break up and rearrange amid the aftershocks of death, divorce and imperial politics.
Eric was only eleven when he attracted the attention of the petite thirteen-year-old Jacintha by standing on his head in a field adjacent to where she and her siblings were playing. He soon learnt that she shared his fascination with English language and literature, especially children's fantasies by Beatrix Potter, the scientific romances and detective stories of H. G. Wells and G. K. Chesterton, the poetry of A. E. Housman and the drama of Shakespeare. Fast friends, Eric and Jacintha became almost inseparable during their holidays together.
But they would break up over what she described as a traumatic sexual assault, in a "rough copy" or "draft" of a letter to Eric dated September 4, 1921. After Jacintha's death in 1993, her sister Guiny discovered the manuscript filed away in a desk. Their cousin and Jacintha's literary executor, Dione Venables, published her own account of the assault gleaned from conversations with Guiny after the discovery of that letter--in her postscript to a new edition of Eric & Us published in 2006.
Perhaps unsent, the letter had expressed Jacintha's rage at Eric's attempt to "FORCE her to let him make love to her" near the end of that summer holiday. After Jacintha ran home with a ripped skirt and bruised shoulder and hip, she effectively severed herself from Eric, and he went to work in Burma instead of pursuing his dream of an education at nearby Oxford. Both Jacintha...