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The occult ‘murder’ that haunted Orwell

London, May 19: George Orwell spent his life believing that he had killed a fellow pupil at Eton using voodoo, according to a new biography.

The late Sir Steven Runciman, the medieval historian, revealed in a letter written shortly before his death that he and Orwell practised black magic on a wax effigy of Philip Yorke, an older boy who had been threatening and offensive.

They were horrified, however, when Yorke first broke his leg and then, months later, developed leukaemia and died.

The incident was uncovered by Gordon Bowker, whose biography of Orwell has been published by Little, Brown. In the course of his researches, Bowker interviewed Runciman, who had befriended Orwell when he was sent to Eton in May 1917.

Orwell, who had entered Eton on a scholarship, was bullied on a number of occasions. Rather than accept it, however, he appeared set on revenge and was happy to accept Runciman’s suggestion that they do so by using the occult.

Orwell — whose real name was Eric Blair — was fascinated with the subject after reading several volumes of ghost stories. These including The Leech of Folkestone, from The Ingoldsby Legends by R.H. Barham, about a maid making a wax image of her mistress and skewering it with a pin — to lethal effect.

Runciman said: “Our making a wax effigy of an older boy whom we disliked for being unkind to his juniors was, I am ashamed to say, my idea... Blair found that interesting and willingly collaborated. It was he who moulded the melted candle into a very crude human body.

“He wanted to stick a pin into the heart of our image, but that frightened me, so we compromised by breaking off his right leg — and he did break his leg a few days later playing football — and he died young.”

Although Runciman was unclear how quickly the voodoo apparently struck, records show that Yorke died of acute lymphatic leukaemia in July 1917, only three months after Orwell had entered Eton.

Prior to this confession, Runciman had never mentioned the incident, which left him with a terror of the supernatural.

Orwell, too, seemed profoundly affected. He never wrote or spoke about his experience or Yorke’s death; however, he did tell friends that he changed his name from Eric Blair because he thought that his enemies might use his real name to work magic against him.

Although magic and mysticism do not feature in his best-known novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, in Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up For Air the lead character discovers that the pretty market town of his youth is reduced to a suburban sprawl and rants: “I’ll be a ghost... Maybe I can work a bit of black magic on some of these bastards.”

owker said Runciman had contained his feelings of guilt at Yorke’s death all his life and had never spoken to anyone about it. The voodoo incident only came to light when the biographer, who had gone to interview Runciman because he was a schoolfriend of Orwell, became intrigued at a throwaway comment that he made about the incident.

A year later, two months before he died, Runciman unburdened himself in a confessional letter to Bowker. The historian, who came from a aristocratic family, had lost contact with Orwell after they left Eton. He later became one of the pre-eminent medieval historians of all time at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was knighted in 1958 for his contributions to historical research.

“I suspect many people will pooh-pooh black magic,” said Bowker, who has written a number of acclaimed biographies, including those of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, “but they will have to accept Runciman’s version of events”.

Orwell, who died in 1950, remained interested in magic and mysticism throughout his life.

Although they do not feature in his best-known novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, in Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air the lead character discovers that the pretty market town of his youth is reduced to a suburban sprawl and rants: “I’ll be a ghost... Maybe I can work a bit of black magic on some of these bastards.”

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