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A ghost story – from George Orwell?

In 'George Orwell: A Life in Letters,' includes a letter from Orwell to a friend, offering a detailed account of an encounter in an English cemetery with what Orwell believed was a ghost.

By / October 30, 2013

'George Orwell: A Life in Letters' is edited by Peter Davison.

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This Halloween, as readers search for ghost stories, they can find one in an unlikely place: a new collection of letters written by George Orwell.

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Although Orwell was famous for forecasting the horrors of totalitarianism in groundbreaking novels such as “1984” and “Animal Farm,” he wasn’t known as a master of the macabre.

But in “George Orwell: A Life in Letters,” published earlier this year by Liveright in hardcover, editor Peter Davison reminds readers that Orwell once reported seeing a ghost. Orwell’s claim was especially surprising since he also claimed to have no belief in the afterlife.

In an Aug. 16, 1931 letter to friend Dennis Collings, Orwell said he’d seen a ghost in England’s Walberswick cemetery. Orwell was so shocked by the incident that he included a detailed diagram of his walking route in the letter, charting out the geographical impossibility that a figure he had just seen would have been able to walk away so quickly.

“I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass ... disappearing behind the masonry & presumably disappearing into the churchyard,” Orwell told Collings. “I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stooping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of the features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only two people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure.... The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination,” Orwell concluded.

But 82 years after Orwell’s curious experience near an English cemetery, what he saw – and how he saw it – remains a mystery.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon  at Oakley House.”   

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