Life and Art
By JEFFREY MEYERS
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Orwell's Painful Childhood
This essay compared Orwell's early years to those of Thackeray, Kipling and Durrell in India, and to Dickens and Joyce in Britain. It argued that his work was rooted in his childhood, and in the themespoverty, fear, guilt, masochism and sicknessthat were expressed in his posthumously published essay about the cruelty in his prep school, "Such, Such Were the Joys." I might have added that Orwell also felt intensely guilty about his father's job in the Indian Opium Department. The production, collection and transportation of opium to China was the most vicious and indefensible kind of imperialistic exploitation.
Orwell was always extremely reticent about his personal affairs, so we know virtually nothing about how his character was formed in his earliest years. He was born in 1903 in Motihari, situated on the bank of a lake in the state of Bihar, between Patna and Katmandu. His father was a sub-deputy agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, and Orwell's family was part of that "upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the eighties and nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, and was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded."
Thackeray, Kipling and Durrell spent their first years in India before being sent to England to begin school. Orwell's mother took him to England when he was one year old. Kipling's Something of Myself gives a lyrical description of a secure Indian childhood, protected by the gentleness and affection of bearer and ayah; and Fraser writes of Durrell that "the Indian childhood, the heat, the colour, the Kiplingesque social atmosphere, deeply affected his childish imagination." But both Thackeray and Kipling stress the wrenching trauma of leaving India at five years old. In The Newcombes, Thackeray writes: "What a strange pathos seems to me to accompany all our Indian story! ... The family must be broken up... . In America it is from the breast of a poor slave that a child is taken; in India it is from the wife." Kipling's "Baa Baa, Black Sheep" describes his sudden and painful departure from servants and parents ("through no fault of their own, they had lost all their world"), and the horrors of an alien family that engulfs him with meanness and cruelty. Like Orwell, Kipling endured inexplicable accusations of crimes, constant fear of punishment, unjust beatings, terrifying threats of hell and utter despair, and he concludes that "when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge."
Orwell attended the local grammar school at Henley-on-Thames and lived in that strangely artificial atmosphere that Anglo-Indian families recreated for themselves "at home." George Bowling, the hero of Coming Up for Air, married into one of these families and describes it with satiric wit: "As soon as you set foot inside the front door you're in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you're expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes of the tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in '87. It's a sort of little world of their own that they've created, like a kind of cyst."
Orwell writes in "Such, Such Were the Joys" that, even while at home, "my early childhood had not been altogether happy.... One ought to love one's father, but I knew very well that I merely disliked my own father, whom I had barely seen before I was eight and who appeared to me simply as a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying 'Don't.' ... Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight onwards.... I do not believe that I ever felt love for any mature person, except my mother, and even her I did not trust."
An archetypal image of a warm and secure family hearth, which Orwell never had and always wanted, appears again and again in his works as an idealized domestic portrait that reflects his deprivation: "In a working-class home ... you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which is not so easy to find elsewhere.... On winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking-chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing." Orwell states that at eight years old he was suddenly separated from his family and "flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a gold-fish into a tank full of pike."
Like Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell won a scholarship to a mediocre prep school that intended to exploit his intelligence. His family, who made financial sacrifices for his education, counted on him to succeed and retrieve their diminishing fortunes. He spent the crucial adolescent years from eight to fourteen in Eastbourne at St. Cyprian's school, which he anatomized, condemned and attempted to exorcize in "Such, Such Were the Joys."
This essay, Orwell's most poignant and (after Animal Farm) his most perfect work, is of the greatest value for an understanding of his character, life and works. Just as Nineteen Eighty-Four is a final synthesis of all Orwell's major themes, so "Such, Such" (which was written at the same time) reveals the impetus and genesis of these ideas. Its central themespoverty, fear, guilt, masochism and sicknessare manifested in the pattern of his life and developed in all his books.
Orwell confesses that he was "lonely, and soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays"; and he states that one of the school codes (which he accepted) was "an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and, above all, the assumption ... that money and privilege are the things that matter." In school, Orwell felt guilty because he did not have money and also because he wanted it. (When Orwell doubles his father's income, a Russian boy calculates that his father has more than two hundred times as much money.)
The experiences Orwell describes in Down and Out in Paris and London are a direct reaction against and refutation of this privileged school ethos, just as his use of a pseudonym (George is the patron saint of England, Orwell an East Anglian river) beginning with that book is an attempt to abandon that hateful part of his life he associated with St. Cyprian's, Eton and Burma. "People always grow up like their names. It took me nearly thirty years to work off the effects of being called Eric," he writes; and when he gave up the family name of Blair, he rejected the Scottish birth of both parents and the odious cult of Scotland that pervaded his snobbish school. The hero of Keep the Aspidistra Flying admits that "'Gordon Comstock' was a pretty bloody name, but then Gordon came of a pretty bloody family. The 'Gordon' part of it was Scotch, of course." Comstock's experience at a school where nearly all the boys were richer than himself and tormented him because of it has led to his renunciation of ambition and the world of money. As Comstock says, "Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to a school among children richer than itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown-up person can scarcely even imagine." In this respect, Orwell's childhood was like that of Dickens, who "had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it," for they both came from a middle-class family going into decline. Orwell's painful treatment at school was the emotional equivalent of Dickens' servitude in the blacking factory (which occurred at the same age), and both men bore the scars of early poverty throughout their entire lives. Dickens "prayed when I went to bed at night to be lifted out of the humiliation and neglect in which I was. I never had suffered so much before," and Orwell writes of "suffering horrors which [he] cannot or will not reveal."
The hideous birthmark of Flory in Burmese Days is the symbolic equivalent of Orwell's feeling that he was an ugly failure, and Flory also suffers agonies of humiliation at school. Certain aspects of St. Cyprian's ("The school still had a faint suggestion of the Victorian 'private academy' with its 'parlour boarders'") reappear significantly in Ringwood Academy where Dorothy teaches in A Clergyman's Daughter. And its psychological atmosphere is reproduced and intensified in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the guilt is familial as well as political. Winston feels regret about stealing his sister's food and feels responsible for the tragic disappearance of his family in the purges, and this guilt is expressed in his recurrent nightmare about his drowning mother and sister. The overwhelming doom that threatens Orwell at school also threatens Bowling in Coming Up for Air; and the fearful oppression by one's fellows recurs in Animal Farm. The lonely Orwell's desperate need for human sympathy, comradeship and solidarity is at the emotional core of Homage to Catalonia; and a deep sympathy for the oppressed underdog sent Orwell to Spain and put him on the road to Wigan Pier. At school Orwell learned "the good and the possible never seemed to coincide," and in an important sense, his whole life was an attempt to bring them together. Oppression and humiliation formed the dominant pattern of his personal life at the time when Europe was being dominated by Communism and Fascism.
In his essay on Dalm, Orwell states: "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats." Orwell's feelings in "Such, Such" were so intense, his revelations so personal, that he never published the essay during his lifetime. Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise gives a rather different and more promising picture of their prep school, and when his book was published Orwell wrote to him, "I wonder how you can write abt St Cyprian's. It's all like an awful nightmare to me."
Excerpted from ORWELL by JEFFREY MEYERS Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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