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Orwell and the Rats
An extract from 'Orwell: The New Life' by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (Constable)
‘Of all the horrors in the world – a rat!’
Julia to Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell’s obsession with rats is widely attested. Rats are everywhere in his life, from the practical jokes of his adolescence to the macabre fantasies of his middle age. Some of the roots of this fixation must have lain in literature. We know that the youthful Orwell was a fan of Beatrix Potter, the creator of Samuel Whiskers, and that he was addicted to the ghost stories of M. R. James, a prime specimen of which is called simply ‘Rats’. There is a suspicion, too, that at an early age he came across W. H. Davies’s grisly poem ‘The Rat’. Orwell’s 1943 Observer review of Davies’s Collected Poems displays what looks like a long-standing familiarity with his work and specifically mentions ‘The Rat’, whose subject sits eyeing up a dying woman, left alone in her house by a negligent family, with the thought that
Now with these teeth that powder stones, I’ll pick out all of her cheek-bones When husband, son and daughter come They’ll soon see who was left at home.
Davies’s rat is clearly first cousin to the grey, furry tide that flows through Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the poem betrays characteristic Orwellian elements: human vulnerability in the face of vicious animal expertise (‘They also attack sick or dying people,’ O’Brien tells Winston. ‘They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless’); above all the idea of rats biting their victims in the face. By this stage in a long career of rat-observation, Orwell would have needed no lessons in how the animals went about their business. He had obviously studied them close at hand. Writing about his time in Spain in 1937, hunting for firewood in the shadow of the Fascist lookout posts, he notes that ‘If their machine-gunners spotted you, you had to flatten yourself out like a rat when it squirms under a door.’ Clearly at some point in his past life Orwell had watched a rat squirming under a door and the image had stayed with him to provide a neat little metaphor for life on the Huesca Front.
Subsequently, the rodent cavalcade runs endlessly through his work, an unappeasable, yellow-fanged brood piped in and out of the darkest reaches of his consciousness. Rats are all around him, dancing across the surface of his life like the two outsize specimens he saw first thing one morning at the Auberge de Jehan Cotard, eating a ham that had been left out on the kitchen table overnight. There is an exultant letter to Prosper Buddicom from early 1921, sent from a Christmas holiday in Suffolk, about ‘one of those big cage-rat traps’ Orwell has bought, and the pleasure to be had in letting a rat out and shooting it. ‘It is also rather sport to go at night to a corn-stack with an acetylene bicycle lamp, & you can dazzle the rats that are running along the side & whack at them, – or shoot at them with a rifle.’ Rats crawled everywhere in Burma, carriers of plague and disease and regarded as a public enemy by the colonial authorities. Local districts were required to file statistics of rat mortality and there were carefully documented annual culls. Between 1922 and 1923, for example, nearly two million were exterminated in the province. It would have been impossible to walk down the average Burmese street at certain times of the year without passing a pile of rat corpses.
Neither, too, would it have been possible to avoid the presence of rats on more solemn occasions. There is a rather ghastly moment in Burmese Days where, in the middle of a description of the funeral of Maxwell, the murdered acting Divisional Forest Officer, the narrative pauses to consider the state of the cemetery: ‘Among the jasmine, large rat-holes led down into the graves.’ There is no doubt at all what will happen to Maxwell’s body the moment his coffin is lowered into the earth. From the East, too, came the most dreadful of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s many horrors. Starving rats, kept for days in a cage and then released on victims in a confined space, were an ancient Chinese torture. By the time he came back from Burma, Orwell was a rat specialist, a connoisseur of rat foibles, an observer of rat habitats and rat chronology. The rats in O’Brien’s cage are ‘at the age when a rat’s muzzle grows blunt and fierce and his fur brown instead of grey’. All this gives the scene a terrible sense of conviction: Orwell may not have witnessed it, but he clearly knows what he is writing about.
Thereafter, rats wander in and out of Orwell’s 1930s life. Significantly, they are there at the very start of his attempt to connect with the submerged parts of England he was to make his special subject: going into the dark doorway of the Limehouse kip ‘seemed to me like going down into some dreadful subterranean place – a sewer full of rats, for instance’. Terrified of going underground, Orwell is even more alarmed by what he might find there. Staying in the Southwark Bridge Road in 1931, he notes that the rats are so bad that several cats have to be kept exclusively to deal with them. Out on his hopping trip to Kent later in the year he is fascinated to meet a ‘vermin man’ from one of the big London hotels. The rats were so numerous at one branch, Orwell’s informant told him, that it was not safe to venture into the kitchen without a loaded revolver.
If this sounds like something out of a novel by James Herbert – the seething grey brood out for vengeance on trapped humanity – then it was Spain that cemented Orwell’s alliance with the rat, so much so that it can sometimes seem that his chief interest in Homage to Catalonia is not so much his Fascist opponents as the baleful eye glinting up from beneath the straw. At La Granja, for instance, he saw ‘great bloated brutes that waddled over the beds of mud, too impudent even to run away unless you shot at them’. A barn which his unit occupied was ‘alive with rats. The filthy brutes came swarming out of the ground on every side.’ If there was one thing he hated, Orwell remarked, it was a rat running over him in the dark. On other occasions he listens to rats splashing along a ditch, ‘making as much noise as if they were otters’. What one fellow-comrade called Orwell’s ‘phobia’ could have serious military consequences. Irked beyond measure by one venturesome beast that had invaded his trench, Orwell pulled out his revolver and shot it. Spreading out from the enclosed space, the reverberations were sufficient to prompt both sides into action. The ensuing conflict left the cookhouse in ruins and destroyed two of the buses used to ferry reserve troops up to the front.
Davies’s poem. The dead rat sent to Mr Hurst, the Southwold borough surveyor. The revolver brandished in the Spanish trench. All this is too big to be ignored, too continuous, too integral to the way in which Orwell went about his life. On Jura, hard at work on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his usual forensic interest in the local rodent population. In June 1946 he noted that ‘rats, hitherto non-existent, are bound to come after the corn has been put into the byre’. A buzzard, seen from afar, seemed to be carrying a rat in its claws. In April 1947, a dog borrowed from his neighbour ‘killed an enormous rat in the byre’. Two months later, five more (‘2 enormous’) went to their deaths in the same locale in the space of a fortnight, with their despatcher wondering at the ease with which they allowed themselves to be caught. ‘The traps are simply set in the runs,’ he noted, ‘unbaited and unconcealed . . . I hear recently that two children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face as usual.)’ At almost exactly the same time, he was working away at Nineteen Eighty-Four, perhaps even writing this crucial exchange between Winston and Julia:
‘Rats!’ murmured Winston. ‘In this room!’
‘They’re all over the place,’ said Julia indifferently as she lay down again. ‘We’ve even got them in the kitchen of the hostel. Some parts of London are swarming with them. Did you know they attack children? Yes, they do. In some of these streets a woman daren’t leave a baby alone for two minutes. It’s the great huge brown ones that do it. And the thing is that the brutes always—’
‘Don’t go on!’ said Winston, with his eyes tightly shut.
Exclusive extract from Orwell: The New Life by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (£30, Constable) | Available to pre-order here.
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