Posted on Monday 6 November 2023
Air stewardess, miniaturist and controversial founder of the Orwell Society.
Dione Venables’s revelation that George Orwell had tried to rape her cousin Jacintha Buddicom caused a stir when it emerged in 2006.
Venables had inherited the copyright to Eric & Us, Buddicom’s 1974 account of her teenage friendship with the author, whose real name was Eric Blair. She republished it with a postscript describing how in 1921, Blair and Buddicom’s respective families were sharing a holiday home in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. “During the course of one of their almost daily walks, Eric, it seems, had attempted to take things further, and make serious love to Jacintha,” Venables wrote. “He had held her down and although she struggled, yelling at him to stop, he had torn her skirt and badly bruised a shoulder and her left hip.”
Buddicom, a poet who bore similarities to Julia in Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, had grown up knowing Blair, who was two years her junior, though of bigger build. “He wanted to be betrothed to Jacintha,” Venables wrote. “But because he had too big a dollop of testosterone one day, he jumped on her.” Her account was based on conversations with Buddicom and her sister Guiny, who recalled Jacintha’s “very frightened, sad little face” when she came home that day.
Blair joined the Burmese police but when he returned on leave he interpreted Buddicom’s absence as evidence that she was still angry with him. It appears that both gave up any hope of a relationship. Blair turned to Burmese prostitutes while Buddicom embarked on a 30-year affair with a Labour peer.
It was not until 1949 that Buddicom realised Blair and Orwell were the same person. She wrote to him, but by then he was seriously ill with tuberculosis. He replied twice and managed a wheezy phone call, but they did not meet. He married his second wife, Sonia, in 1949 but died three months later.
Buddicom died in 1993 and a few years later Venables began preparing her postscript. Some of Orwell’s champions were dismayed by the claims, insisting that the “attempted rape” was no more than a botched seduction. Others were unsurprised. “He tried the same thing later on a woman in Southwold, but she was a strapping PE teacher and fought him off,” Gordon Bowker, Orwell’s biographer, said.
Venables described the novelist as a normal, clumsy teenager, adding: “I hope I emphasised in the postscript that he had got overexcited and had to be shouted at to stop. And he did stop. He felt very bad about it.”
In 2006 she used money inherited from the Buddicom sisters to create the Orwell Direct website, paying writers and academics to submit essays about his work that she published every two months. Despite the existence of an Orwell Foundation, which runs the annual Orwell prize, many readers wondered why there was no membership organisation. Venables, who had no academic or literary background, took their question to heart. In 2010 she started the Orwell Society with support from the author’s son, Richard Blair, but was soon encountering resistance from Orwell scholars. “I’d take them out for a lovely lunch and then they’d tell me that if I really must insist on organising anything, maybe I ought to go and organise another Women’s Institute … some of them were just dead rude,” she said. Today the society has more than 600 members worldwide.
Her next venture was to publish the first collected edition of Orwell’s poetry, expanding the list of his known poems from 26 to 42. Although Orwell’s poetry is not widely acclaimed, Venables’s point was that it had been unjustly neglected. “Some of it is absolutely wonderful, some of it is pretty average, and some of his schoolboy efforts are dreadful, but the whole point of writing poetry is that it expresses emotion,” she said. Reviewing the collection, the Orwell biographer DJ Taylor wrote: “To say that Dione Venables’s edition of Orwell’s poetry is essentially an amateur production is one of the highest compliments you can pay it.”
Dione Patricia Mary Gordon-Finlay was born in 1930, the younger of two daughters of Captain Alan Gordon-Finlay MC and Bar, an Australian-born engineer, and his wife Florence (née Gallagher), a society hostess. She arrived prematurely, while her parents were at a hotel in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and the drama of the evening was compounded when another guest hanged himself in the adjoining room. Her sister June, a Wren who served at Bletchley Park, predeceased her.
Their father developed a system for simultaneous translation used at the League of Nations in Geneva. The day after war broke out in 1939 his commission was reinstated and he too was posted to Bletchley Park. Dione, who had been a boarder at St Leonards School, East Sussex, from age three, was booked on the City of Benares, a children’s evacuation ship bound for Canada due to leave Liverpool on September 13, 1940. Two days before it sailed she pleaded with her parents to be allowed to remain with them. They relented and four days into the crossing the ship was torpedoed and sank, taking with it the lives of 77 children as well as her luggage, which had been sent ahead. A month later the family’s apartment in Kensington Court, west London, was destroyed in a bombing raid as they huddled in a nearby Underground station. Dione was then evacuated to Shiplake, in Oxfordshire, where Buddicom’s mother had built five houses. One of them was occupied by Arthur Ransome, the Swallows and Amazons author, who knitted a hot-water bottle cover for her and presented her with a set of his books. He encouraged her to write and she created Edward Wigg, a hedgehog who was adapted by Buddicom into a mascot with rhymes encouraging children to invest their pocket money in the war effort.
In June 1944 Dione and her mother were living in Beckenham, Kent, when their three-storey home was destroyed by a German bomb. They fell from the kitchen into the cellar and were buried under the rubble for several hours before being rescued. Her Ransome books were destroyed. While recuperating she met Geoffrey Loftus, a management consultant. They were married in 1949 and had three children, Nicky, Sally and Guy. Meanwhile her father, who owned a Gipsy Moth aircraft, taught her to fly and by 1950 she had clocked up 546 flying hours.
Within a decade her marriage was failing, though her love of the skies was soaring. With her parents on childcare duty she became an airline stewardess, working on refugee relief flights operated by the airlines Pegasus and Overseas Aviation.
Joining British United Airways, she became senior steward and was among a crew who were captured in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (later Zaire) by rebels led by a young Colonel Mobutu, whom she berated for separating the men and women. He showed sympathy for their plight and the incident ended peacefully. Mobutu went on to seize power in a coup, serving as president from 1965 to 1997.
While flying in and out of Singapore she met John Venables, a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy. They were married in 1964 and adopted a daughter, Juliet, who predeceased her. She now became an expat naval wife, living in Singapore, Malaysia, Paxos and Malta, where she was a presenter for BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service. Using the pen name DG Finlay she wrote Once Around the Sun (1978), a historical novel with mystical undertones, publishing six more with similar themes over the next 11 years.
In the mid-1980s the couple took on the Red Lion pub in Wardington, Oxfordshire, but lost everything when it failed. As they rebuilt their lives her husband became bursar of St Mary’s Convent, Chiswick. After his death in 1996 she took up painting miniatures.
She retired from the Orwell Society committee seven years ago, by which time those who doubted her had largely been won over. She remained a valuable source of information, with one scholar describing her as “a courteous old lady who was always very helpful to Orwell writers”.
Dione Venables, founder of the Orwell Society, was born on October 20, 1930. She died on September 12, 2023, aged 92
The Times, 4 November 2023