Thursday, 15 March 2018

GEORGE ORWELL Burmese Days (1934)

Penguin Twentieth Century Classics UK, 1989

Time passed, and each year Flory found himself less at home in the world of the sahibs, more liable to get into trouble when he talked seriously on any subject whatever.  So he had learned to live inwardly, secretly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be uttered.  Even his talks with the doctor were a kind of talking to himself; for the doctor, good man, understood little of what was said to him.  But it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life in secret.  One should live with the stream of life, not against it.  It would be better to be the thickest-skulled pukka sahib who ever hiccuped over 'Forty years on,' than to live silent, alone, consoling oneself in secret, sterile words.

The Novel:  The British presence in India, which began in 1612 with the chartering of the British East India Company and ended in 1947 with the colony being granted its long-sought independence, has served as the background to many a fine novel.  A Passage to India (EM Forster, 1924), The Raj Quartet (Paul Scott, 1966–1974) and Heat and Dust (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1984) are just three of the more notable works of modern fiction which examine and criticize an unjust, sometimes savage imperial system which reduced the Indian people to the level of second-class citizens in their own country while raising their white rulers –– the 'pukka sahibs' and their wives the 'memsahibs' –– to the status of irreproachable demi-gods whose word was law and whose every whim was expected to be automatically satisfied.

Very little, on the other hand, has been written about the British presence in Burma, which became an imperial possession in 1886 following three 'minor' wars waged against its native population in order to gain the Empire unrestricted access to its teak forests, ruby mines and oil fields.  This changed in 1934 with the publication of Burmese Days, still regarded as one of the most damning exposés of imperialism ever published and one written, not by a member of the ruling elite, but by a man who had spent five years working as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police, doing the dirty work –– supervising hangings and floggings, violently suppressing native insurgencies –– without which the British Government could not have maintained its stranglehold on power.

Burmese Days tells the story of John Flory, a middle-aged teak merchant who, since leaving England for the subcontinent at the age of twenty, has divided his time between various jungle logging camps and, in recent years, the small backwater station (ie. town) of Kyauktada.  Flory's life in Burma is lonely, dull and, after fifteen years away from what no longer feels like 'Home,' utterly predictable.  When he's not in camp, he spends his time being fussed over by his doting if jealous servant Ko S'La, sharing his bed with his Burmese mistress Ma Hla May –– a woman apparently unrepulsed by the dark blue birthmark which covers a quarter of his face –– and attempting to drink away his ennui at the local, whites only Club where tradition demands that he socialize, with increasing reluctance, with his fellow sahibs.  Although Flory secretly despises the tedious, Latin-spouting Deputy Commissioner Macgregor, the lecherous manager Lackersteen and his sallow shrew of a wife and feels nothing but contempt for the obnoxious Mr Ellis –– a fellow teak merchant who makes no secret of his opinion that the best way to control the 'niggers' is to have the police randomly execute a few of them from time to time –– he's learned to keep his feelings about their lack of tolerance, erudition and culture hidden in the grand British tradition of keeping up appearances.  

Signet Classics USA, c 1970
Flory's only genuine companion, besides his black Cocker Spaniel Flo which follows him everywhere he goes, is the town's Indian physician Dr Veraswami –– a man who, while disagreeing with his negative attitudes towards the Empire and everything it stands for, is nevertheless delighted to welcome an Englishman into his home so they can engage in what he describes as 'cultured conversation.'  Only in the comparative safety of the doctor's home is Flory truly free to speak his mind, criticizing the atrocious behaviour of his countrymen and their greed-driven exploitation of a country and a people that, for all their drawbacks, he can't help finding enchanting and, at times, beautiful. 

The doctor, however, is facing a problem of his own.  The local Subdivisional Magistrate –– a grossly obese, thoroughly corrupt individual named U Po Kyin –– is determined to ruin his career to increase his own prestige and make himself the favourite of their pompous British overlords.  Veraswami's only hope of fighting this, he tells Flory, is to be elected a member of the Club.  'A nod and a wink,' he explains, 'will accomplish more than a thousand official reports.  And you do not know what prestige it gives to an Indian to be a member of the European Club… No calumny can touch him.  A Club member iss [sic] sacrosanct.'  Flory, who has long been embarrassed by his inability to repay his friend's hospitality by inviting him to the Club, answers that his wish may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, given the order Macgregor recently received to include a 'native' among its members.  But Flory draws the line at nominating Veraswami for membership himself, explaining that he can give him his vote should his name be put forward but this is all he can do, given the resistance that the idea of having a 'native' join the Club is likely to encounter from avowed racists like Ellis and his friends Westfield and Maxwell.  Veraswami understands and even apologizes for having implied that he expected the Englishman to assist him.  His greatest wish, he explains before they part, is that Flory should be as wary of the machinations of U Po Kyin as he himself has now become.  'It will be hiss policy,' he warns, 'to detach my friends from me.  Possibly he would even dare to spread hiss libels about you also.'

Neither Flory nor Veraswami have to wait very long for their nemesis to strike.  U Po Kyin uses his connections to have a letter criticizing Macgregor's administration published in the local newspaper under the doctor's name, eliciting a typically outraged response from Ellis and his cronies.  With no intention of sitting still for such an insult, the white men write a letter of their own demanding that the election of a native member to the Club be indefinitely postponed.  Flory is a reluctant signatory to this incendiary document, preferring to sign rather than provoke another argument with people who disapprove of his friendship with the doctor and his relatively tolerant attitude toward the Burmese.  'He had done it for the same reason as he had done a thousand such things in his life; because he lacked the small spark of courage that was needed to refuse.'  It's this same lack of moral courage, this lifelong unwillingness to engage with the enemies of everything he holds dear, which has led Flory, at the age of thirty-five, to become haunted by guilt and to look, and feel, much older than his years. 

Unfortunately, the problem of U Po Kyin does not disappear.  A few days later Flory receives an allegedly anonymous letter from the magistrate, warning him not sully his good name by continuing to associate with Dr Veraswami.  Flory's first instinct is to show the letter to his friend, but he soon has a change of heart, deciding not to involve himself in what he deems to be no more than another ' "native" quarrel.'  There are, he hastens to remind himself, strict rules about what constitutes proper and improper conduct for an Englishman in this type of situation.  'With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship… intimacy is allowable, at the right moments.  But alliance, partisanship, never!  Even to know the rights and wrongs of a "native" quarrel is a loss of prestige.' 

Flory's train of thought is soon interrupted by the sound of a woman screaming for help –– not one of Ko S'la's endlessly bickering wives but, it transpires, a young white girl.  He rushes to her aid as a good sahib should, frightening off the harmless water buffalo whose calf she made the mistake of approaching too directly.  The girl –– who turns out to be the twenty-two year old niece of the Lackersteens recently arrived from, all of places, Paris –– is exceedingly grateful for his help, her embarrassment at needing to be rescued making her all the more attractive to Flory even as it makes him more than ordinarily conscious of his age and his unmissable birthmark.  Little persuasion is required to encourage the girl, whose name is Elizabeth, to accompany him to his house so she might rest upon its veranda before returning home.  To Flory's amazement, she seems keenly interested in everything he has to say, listening enthralled while he prattles on about books, art, life in the East and the rogue elephant he was once obliged to shoot at the insistence of some outraged villagers.  Nor does the newcomer's apparent fascination with him go unnoticed by his servants, one of whom dutifully notifies Ma Hla May of her arrival.  Flory's lover appears on the scene a few moments later, demanding to know who the interloper is –– a question which compels Flory to send her away after threatening to give her no more money unless she obeys his order instantly.  When Elizabeth, a little disturbed by her first face-to-face encounter with a Burmese woman, asks him who Ma Hla May was, Flory answers that she was one of the servant's wives who sometimes does his laundry for him.  Knowing no better, Elizabeth naïvely accepts this explanation and leaves, Flory sending Ko S'la and an umbrella with her so she won't succumb to sunstroke during the short walk back to her aunt’s house.

Flory soon finds himself smitten with the blue-eyed, short-haired Ingaleikma [English girl], someone he can't help but idealize given her youth, what he mistakenly perceives to have been the glamorous life she must have lived in the cafés of Paris and, most attractively of all, her remoteness from the isolated, gin-soaked, semi-debauched life he's lived since coming to Burma.  Here is someone, he tells himself, he can finally speak to freely about art and literature and ideas, a like-minded companion who will join him in privately condemning the behaviour of people like Ellis and roly-poly Mr Macgregor whose silly jokes no one even takes the trouble to laugh at anymore.  

But Elizabeth, it turns out, has come to Burma only because it represents her best chance of escaping the impoverished life she lived with her mother, a failed painter whose recent death in the French capital has left her penniless and wholly dependent on the charity of her aunt and her alcoholic, bottom-pinching uncle.  She despises art, artists and anything remotely literary or 'highbrow’, preferring shooting, riding and the company of people who share her disdain for all such 'beastly' activities.  Rather than being the perceptive and empathic creature Flory imagines her to be, she's vacuous, priggish and determined to find and marry the right sort of husband so can follow in her aunt's footsteps and become another in a long line of shrill, narrow-minded memsahibs.

Aware of none of this, Flory decides that his first order of business must be to send Ma Hla May away as soon as possible so as not to give Elizabeth an excuse to reject him as a suitor.  He does this the following day, writing his mistress a cheque for one hundred rupees in exchange for her promise to leave Kyauktada and return to her village –– an offer Ma Hla May accepts with equanimity until it's actually time to leave, when she clings to the gatepost and pleads to be allowed to stay, obliging Ko S'la to step in and move her on while Flory, ashamed of what he's done to her despite its unavoidable necessity, watches silently from the veranda.

Turkish edition, date unspecified
Believing himself to be free of Ma Hla May, Flory now turns his attention to the urgent task of sprucing himself up so he'll have the best possible chance of impressing Elizabeth and winning her love.  (It's already clear that someone in the town's small expatriate community will marry her and he's determined that this someone will be him.)  Thinking it will interest her, he takes the girl to a local festival where, moved by the sight of the native singing and dancing, he forgets his role as a sahib and begins to praise Burmese culture and the beauty of the villagers.  Elizabeth, however, does not share his enthusiasm.  In fact, she's appalled by the whole ghastly spectacle and soon insists on leaving, Flory making clumsy efforts to apologize as they trudge back to the Club together.  Elizabeth forgives him after reminding herself that it was he who saved her from the buffalo, but the pattern of their relationship has been established.  Although they see each other on a daily basis, playing tennis at the Club and socializing with the others in its bar afterwards, she only seems to warm to him, Flory realizes, when their conversations are restricted to banal subjects like shooting, riding or the weather.  And the situation is not improved by the sudden reappearance of Ma Hla May who, with nothing more to lose, demands more money from him as compensation for being driven from his bed, refusing to leave until he pays her another fifty rupees –– a sum he can scarcely afford to part with after spending so much on new clothes in an effort to distract Elizabeth from his birthmark and his other less obvious defects.

Desperate to win Elizabeth's love before she learns of his true relationship with Ma Hla May and spurns him forever, Flory agrees to take the English girl shooting for the day –– a decision which, given her obsession with all things pukka, reinstates him as a worthy suitor in her eyes.  Their trip to the jungle, accompanied by Flo, Ko S'la and several native beaters, proves more successful than anticipated, with both of them managing to kill several birds before Flory bags a leopard, the rarest prize of all.  Elizabeth, who takes naturally to hunting and finds that she adores it, happily accepts the gift of the animal's skin which Flory promises to have cured for her by one of the inmates locked inside the local jail, unaware that this same inmate is shortly due to escape with the unpublicized assistance of U Po Kyin who has devised a plan to make the prisoner the head of an imaginary rebellion, the blame for which he intends to lay on the head of the unwitting Dr Veraswami.

The doctor, unaware of this new plot to discredit him, still views admission to the Club as being his only chance of salvation.  'But there is one other matter, Mr Flory,' he tells his friend when next they meet, 'that I did not care to mention before.  It iss –– I hope this iss clearly understood –– that I have no intention of using the Club in any way.  Membership iss all I desire.  Even if I were elected, I should not, of course, presume to come to the Club… Simply I should pay my subscriptions.  That, for me, iss a privilege high enough.'  These statements, revealing as they are ridiculous, are enough to secure Flory’s promise to propose his friend for membership at the Club’s next general meeting –– a change of heart he puts down to the positive influence of having fallen in love with Elizabeth.  'Just by existing,' he tells himself, 'she had made it possible for him, she had even made it natural to him, to act decently.'  This also inspires him to summon up his courage and propose to the girl a few nights later, only to find his proposal interrupted first by Mrs Lackersteen, who's just heard that a new Military Police officer by the name of Verrall will be arriving in Kyauktada the following day, and then by an earthquake –– a relatively common occurrence in the northern part of Burma.  Confident that he's won Elizabeth's consent, but unable to confirm it because the earthquake leaves everyone too shaken to make it possible for them to speak privately again, Flory tumbles into bed that night a tired but happy man.

But his happiness, of course, does not and can not last.  The next day he meets Verrall while the young officer is practicing his polo strokes on horseback in the town square.  Verrall, whose semi-aristocratic lineage entitles him to use the title 'the Honourable,' treats him very rudely, setting a precedent which sees him snub the entire expatriate community until Mrs Lackersteen takes matters into her own hands by marching her niece out to the square one morning so they might be properly introduced –– an introduction she's eager to arrange after informing Elizabeth that Flory kept a native mistress prior to her arrival.  Horrified by her aunt's disgusting revelation, Elizabeth immediately drops Flory and throws herself at the more eligible Verrall, who takes her riding and appears at the Club each evening to dance with her, treating Macgregor, Ellis and the others with barely restrained contempt while he pursues what, to him, is no more than a convenient dalliance with the only attractive white girl he's come across for months.  Heartbroken, Flory attempts to justify himself to Elizabeth, bringing along the leopard skin he promised her which, to his consternation, has been improperly cured and is now a stinking mess.  Elizabeth behaves as though Flory never proposed to her, dismissing him as she might dismiss a servant so she can go riding again with her new paramour.  The moment her niece is out of the house, Mrs Lackersteen sends the offensive leopard skin away to be burned, an event which marks the symbolic severing of all ties between her niece and the man she patronizingly dismisses as 'the wholly unsuitable Mr Flory.'    

Harper and Brothers first US edition, 1934
Still heartbroken but resigned to waiting out his beloved's romance with Verrall after gaining confirmation that the new arrival is no more than a debt-dodging cad, Flory returns to the jungle, only to receive a letter from Dr Veraswami describing the rebellion that U Po Kyin, having arranged the whole charade in advance, is alleged to have singlehandedly suppressed.  'Also I should inform you,' the doctor dutifully writes, 'that there was most regrettably a death.  Mr Maxwell was I think too anxious to use his rifle and when one of the rebels try to run away he fired and shoot him in the abdomen, at which he died.  I think the villagers have some bad feeling towards Mr Maxwell because of it.'  This 'bad feeling' results in Maxwell being attacked and chopped to pieces by the dead man's relatives, his bloody corpse delivered to the Club at the same moment Flory, newly returned from camp and keen to show Elizabeth he holds nothing against her for snubbing him in favour of Verrall, is attempting to nominate Veraswami for membership as per his promise to the doctor.  The vote is cancelled and Ellis, driven into a state of apoplexy by the death of a fellow white man, viciously attacks a group of children in retaliation, blinding one for life and sparking a full-scale, anti-British riot which culminates in the villagers holding the sahibs hostage in the Club while they pelt its roof and walls with stones.

Called upon to do something by the terrified Elizabeth, who offers him unexpected encouragement by gently touching his arm, Flory sneaks out alone to summon help, swimming downriver with the aim of alerting both the Civil and the Military Police to what's happening in Kyauktada.  But the police, armed only with sticks because they've received no official order to arm themselves with rifles, have been repulsed by the rioters while attempting to surprise them from the rear.  Flory uncharacteristically takes charge of the situation, ordering the men to follow him to the Club where, to his amazement, he finds that Dr Veraswami, shaken but unwounded, has already ended the riot and guaranteed the safety of the expatriate community.  But it is U Po Kyin, emerging out of nowhere with a pistol in his belt, who attempts to claim credit for this feat, insisting that it was he, not the doctor, who calmed the rioting villagersBut no one, least of all Flory, is deceived by this tale.  The doctor is rightfully hailed as the true hero of the hour and seems assured of having his Club membership approved, even by the unrepentant Ellis.  Flory is also back in favour with Elizabeth and her aunt who once more begins to refer to him, as she did before Verrall arrived in town, as 'dear Mr Flory.'

The situation continues to improve with the sudden departure of Verrall, who vanishes one day without bothering to say goodbye to Elizabeth –– let alone proposing marriage to her –– while Flory is once more attending to business in the jungle.  He returns to Kyauktada to find himself reinstated as Elizabeth's suitor, gratefully accompanying her and her aunt to church one Sunday in full sight of Macgregor, Ellis and the other British-born members of the Club.  But Flory did not reckon on the wiliness of U Po Kyin who, in seeking revenge against him for foiling his plans to take credit for ending the riot, has paid the shameless Ha Mla May another fifty rupees to barge into the church in the middle of the service and accuse him of mistreating her.  'Look at me, you white men,' she rants while the British squirm and fidget on their hard wooden benches, 'and you women too, look at me!  Look how he has ruined me!  Look at these rags I am wearing!  And he sitting there, the liar, the coward, pretending not to see me!... Turn around and look at me!  Look at this body you have kissed a thousand times–look–look––'.  Her performance has the desired effect, ending any chance Flory has of marrying Elizabeth, who flees in horror only to tell him, when he runs after her, that they were never really engaged and that she has no intention of ever speaking to him again.

Flory is left with no choice, after this, but to return home in disgrace where he finds the jealous, ever watchful Ko S'la waiting to serve him dinner.  He dismisses the servant and skulks off to his room, trying to convince himself that he can return to his former life –– 'books, his garden, drink, work, whoring, shooting, conversations with the doctor' –– as though he never met Elizabeth, resume his old habits as though the girl never entered the sterile wasteland his life had been prior to her arrival.  But he soon sees that this will be impossible because Elizabeth, for all her shallowness, has become the only thing that gives his life any sense of purpose or meaning.  'Since Elizabeth's coming the power to suffer and above all to hope, which he had thought dead in him, had sprung to new life… And if he suffered now, there was far worse to come.  In a little while someone else would marry her.  How he could picture it, the moment where he heard the news!… And then her wedding day approaching, her bridal night –– ah, not that!  Obscene, obscene.  Keep your eyes fixed on that.  Obscene.'  His only alternative to waiting for this to happen is, as he sees it, obvious.  After calling Flo into his room and shooting the whimpering dog in the head, he re-cocks the weapon and turns it on himself.

His death proves to be disastrous for Dr Veraswami.  Without the friendship of a white man to bolster his reputation and protect him, the doctor becomes an easy target for U Po Kyin who, within a few weeks, has spread enough scandalous rumours about him to have him demoted and transferred to another district.  The magistrate then joins the Club in his place, becoming popular with his fellow members –– despite Ellis's continuing protests that he has no right to be there –– due to his willingness to stand everybody drinks and his unsuspected skill as a bridge player.  In time, U Po Kyin is promoted and transferred himself, only to die of stroke soon after he retires, his plan to build the pagodas that would have guaranteed his entrance to heaven left in abeyance (the implication being that he'll go to hell for not having built them and, according to Buddhist belief, return to earth reincarnated as some lowly creature like a frog or a rat).  Only Elizabeth, all thoughts of Flory and what she once meant to him conveniently expunged from her memory, emerges triumphant from the situation, marrying Macgregor –– who, it turns out, has been in love with her since the day of her arrival –– a few months after his funeral, becoming exactly the sort of servant beating 'burra memsahib’ she and her aunt intended she should become right from the beginning.

Penguin Books UK, c 1982
Burmese Days appeared at a time when the whole concept of Empire was beginning to be seriously questioned not only but Britain’s more strident left-wing intellectuals but also by those, like the young Orwell, who were or had recently served as its often unwilling functionaries.  Clearly influenced by EM Forster's A Passage To India (1924) and the work of W Somerset Maugham –– a writer Orwell greatly admired and possibly met when Maugham passed through Burma on his way to China in the early 1920s –– the book takes what were the standard criticisms of imperialism a step further by demonstrating the corrupting influence it had upon the very people it was designed to 'civilize' and, in the equally patronizing language of the time, 'improve,' 'educate' and 'elevate.'  Characters like Dr Veraswami and U Po Kyin are as much victims of their respective quests for prestige as the opportunistic Elizabeth Lackersteen and Flory, a tragic quadruple exile who feels as little connection with his fellow expatriates as he does with the lost 'paradise' of England, his servant, his Burmese mistress or, in the end, his adopted homeland.  

The idea of prestige –– gaining it, maintaining it, remaining ever mindful of one’s duty to do nothing that will impair or cause it to become in any way diminished –– dominates the book, influencing the behaviour of almost every character from the highest British official down to the poorest native villager.  (The revenge killing of Maxwell is another means of seeking prestige, a signal to the whites that the Burmese, the so-called 'inferior' race, also have their pride and will not allow themselves or their 'rulers' to forget it.)  The revelation that Britain's eastern colonies were being run by drunken incompetent racists was a profoundly shocking one to many British people in the early 1930s, one made all the more confronting, in Orwell's case, by his refusal to pull any punches when it came to describing the mindset and actions of bloodthirsty fanatics like Ellis and his kind.  The book was considered so controversial that its American publisher –– it was originally published in America because no English publisher would take the risk of printing it –– insisted that Orwell alter the names of many of its characters and re-locate it to an entirely fictional part of Burma so they could not be sued for libel by any of his former acquaintances who might recognize themselves and take offence at being portrayed in such an unflattering manner.

But what makes Burmese Days even more remarkable for its time was Orwell’s decision to describe certain key events of the novel from an exclusively native point of view.  Ko S’la and Ma Hla May are shown as people with functioning minds and genuine emotions, not as garish if picturesque puppets, while the chapters devoted to U Po Kyin and his scheming are perhaps the two most interesting sections in the book, shedding valuable light on what motivates his reprehensible behaviour as well as Burmese attitudes to imperialism and the always contentious issue of 'white supremacy.'  Dr Veraswami is perhaps the most important character in this respect, his polite, overly elaborate way of expressing himself serving to underscore the differences between him and Flory despite both being engaged in what they've convinced themselves, albeit for different reasons, is a sincere, mutually respectful friendship.  

While it may seem a minor point, it's necessary to remember that writing from a 'non-white' point of view was not a practice widely indulged in by novelists of Orwell’s generation, proving that he was a more experimental writer than he's generally regarded as being by critics who, for many years, were content to dismiss him as a polemicist.  Elements of this same Modernistic approach can also be seen in his handling of Flory and his refusal to make him mawkish and overtly sympathetic by attempting to downplay and justify his many flaws and weaknesses.  Flory is as much the victim of imperialism as his Burmese mistress or Dr Veraswami, a martyr to the idea that white people must be 'superior' simply because their skin is lighter than those of the people whose countries they invaded, colonized and so ruthlessly exploited.

The Writer (1903-1934):  Various reasons have been offered for Eric Blair’s decision to join the Indian Imperial Police service and apply for a post in what was considered to be the remote minor outpost of Burma.  Some biographers argue that the decision was prompted by his childhood sweetheart –– a raven-haired, poetry writing 'highbrow' named Jacintha Buddicom –– rejecting his marriage proposal, while others opt for the more prosaic explanations that he already had relatives living in the country and that joining the colonial police service may have been seen as the 'romantic' option by a young Eton graduate whose chances of winning a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge were judged by his tutors to be non-existent.  Whatever the reason, one fact can not be denied –– going to Burma was the event which transformed Blair into the writer who would later become known to the world as 'George Orwell,' author of Animal Farm (1945) and the Soviet-inspired dystopian satire Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Eric Arthur Blair, the middle child of thirty-nine year old Indian Civil Servant Richard Walmesley Blair and his twenty-eight year old half-French wife Ida (née Limouzin), was born in the town in Motihari, located in the Gaya province of what was then known as the Bengal Presidency, on 25 June 1903.  The boy had wealthy ancestors on both sides –– his paternal great-grandfather made enough from slavery and his Jamaican sugar plantation to marry into the aristocracy and produce an eccentric clergyman son, while his mother's French father became an important shipping contractor in the Burmese port city of Moulmein –– but both the paternal and maternal branches of the family had fallen on hard times by the time his parents married in June 1897.  In 1904 his mother took the one year old Eric and his elder sister Marjorie (born in April 1898) to live in the town of Henley-on-Thames in the English county of Oxfordshire.  Richard Blair did not accompany his young family to England and, with the exception of a brief 'Home leave' visit in 1907 which resulted in the birth of a second daughter named Avril in April 1908, did not live with them again until January 1912 when he retired from his lowly job as a Sub-Deputy Opium Agent on a small annual pension of £400.

Eric, who by his own admission had been rather spoiled by his female relatives up until this time, suddenly found himself obliged to live with 'a gruff elderly man forever saying "Don't"!' –– a situation not made easier by the family relocating at the end of the year to the nearby town of Shiplake three miles up the river.  Eric had also moved on from the tiny Catholic convent school where he had been its only male student –– an institution whose Ursuline nuns instilled in him what was to become a lifelong antipathy for Catholicism as well as a very Catholic sense of guilt, sin, damnation and atonement –– to a minor preparatory school called St Cyprian's located in the seaside town of Eastbourne.  Here, it was hoped, he would do well enough to earn himself a scholarship to Eton or some equally prestigious public school.

It was in Shiplake that Eric met Jacintha Buddicom, a neighbour two years his senior who shared his passions for poetry and what would remain his lifelong love of nature.  Nature, in fact, was to become a key theme of his work as a writer, with all of his novels and many of his essays and journalistic pieces containing lyrical descriptions of the English countryside which, in his mind, was forever associated with his vanished Edwardian youth and represented, for many of his characters, their lost ideal of heaven-on-earth.  Jacintha was the second girl he fell in love with –– the first had been a young woman named Elsie who had been a teaching assistant to the nuns –– and one who would play a defining role in his development as a man and an artist, commenting on his poetry and providing the support and literary encouragement routinely denied him by his family.  It was the knowledge that he was going to spend the holidays with Jacintha and her brother Prosper, with whom he regularly went shooting and fishing, that helped him survive what became the nightmare of his life as a student at St Cyprian’s.

ERIC BLAIR at Eton, c 1918
Although he hated the school and despised the typically snobbish and pretentious couple who ran it –– people named Wilkes whose personalities and teaching methods he derided in a posthumously published 1952 essay titled Such, Such Were the Days –– he did well enough in his studies to earn scholarships to both Eton and Wellington, entering the latter preparatory school in January 1917 before transferring to the former when a place became available there four months later.  He would remain at Eton until December 1921, earning a reputation as a talented if erratic student and a cynical troublemaker –– a 'real stinker' in the words of one member of staff.  He further alienated the staff and his fellow students by announcing that he no longer believed in God and indulging in the unspeakable practice of criticizing the backward-looking attitudes of his parents and their entire royalty-revering, Empire-building generation.  Although he co-founded and helped to run a college magazine called The Election Times, he generally held himself aloof from his schoolmates, forming few close friendships because he preferred to spend what little free time he had reading the works of HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Butler and dreaming of the day when he too would hailed as 'a GREAT AUTHOR.'  (Ironically, he was taught French for a time by a young Aldous Huxley whose own 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World was viewed by many critics as the model for Nineteen Eighty-Four.)  There's little doubt that his school experiences, both at St Cyprian's and in the slightly more relaxed atmosphere of Eton, solidified his hatred of privilege, class consciousness and totalitarianism in whatever form he found them.  If school taught Eric Blair to fear and resent authority it also taught him how to undermine and subvert it by using the powerful literary weapons of ridicule and satire.

It was surprising to many at Eton, if perhaps not entirely unforeseen given his fondness for confounding expectations, that Blair would choose to become the servant of imperialism –– a system of government he loathed and considered doomed –– over attending university or seeking a job in England as, say, a teacher or a clerk.  (He would work in both professions following his return from Burma in 1927.)  While part of his motivation for doing this may have been the sheer absurdity of pursuing a career for which he was so obviously unsuited, another part of him probably saw it as a way to escape the stultifying lower middle class world epitomized by people like his parents and his newly-married older sister.  Determined to become a poet, he was also eager to experience, at first hand, some of the 'romance' the East allegedly had to offer –– a desire that becomes more understandable in light of the fact that World War One had recently ended and that, to boys of his generation who had been too young to take part in it, it still seemed like a glorious adventure rather than the excuse for four miserable years of absurd and mindless slaughter.

His relationship with Jacintha Buddicom was also a factor in his decision to forsake what had been his safe English existence for the unknown perils of life as a colonial policeman.  He was now eighteen and a half –– no longer a callow schoolboy but someone who thought of himself as a man even if his lack of experience, particularly sexual experience, tended to contradict that belief.  Had he done well enough at Eton to earn a scholarship to Cambridge or Oxford (or had parents rich enough to send him on to university without one), then Jacintha, who had academic ambitions of her own, may have been willing to take his burgeoning love (and self-confessed lust) for her more seriously than she did.  There's some evidence to suggest that she may have been unaware of Blair’s true feelings about her –– evidence difficult to accept, given the number of poems he wrote (and showed to her) during their relationship in which those feelings are made explicitly clear in almost every line.  

Blair further complicated matters by proposing to Jacintha in 1922, hoping she would agree to accompany him to Burma, only to have his proposal immediately rejected –– something his masochistic temperament may have needed him to do in order to reinforce the idea that he was an outsider 'forced' to abandon himself to a life of physical, emotional and sexual exile.  While they would remain friendly enough to correspond for a few more months, any thoughts he had of one day marrying Jacintha were thereafter excluded from his mind.  (He did not hear from her again until Animal Farm was published in 1945 and her aunt informed her that George Orwell was, in fact, the same Eric Blair she and Prosper had played with as children.)  In October, after comfortably passing his police exam, he boarded the SS Herefordshire and sailed to Rangoon via the Suez Canal and Ceylon, taking with him £150 worth of clothing and equipment –– a sum that, in those days, would have covered the cost of a year’s tuition at Oxford or any other British university.

ERIC BLAIR in Mandalay, 1923
From Rangoon Blair travelled to the police training school in Mandalay, located within the walls of Fort Dufferin, spending nearly a year there before being sent to Maymyo and then to the southern port town of Myaugmya.  In December 1924, still keeping to himself much as he'd done at school, he was promoted and transferred again, this time to supervise security for the Scottish-owned Burmah Oil Company in Syriam.  (What he experienced here was probably the cause of his later disdain for Scots and everything Scottish, including so-called delicacies like haggis.)  He would stay in Syriam for nearly a year, the awful conditions –– including the stench of chemicals in the air which aggravated the lung condition he'd developed as the result of chronic childhood bronchitis and would lead to the tuberculosis that would kill him in January 1950 –– bearable only because the town was located close to Rangoon where it was possible to re-connect with civilization by browsing in its bookshops, eating decent English food in its clubs and restaurants and visiting its plentiful supply of both native and foreign-born prostitutes.  It was also in the Burmese capital, in December of that same year, that he experienced what was to serve as the catalyst for his transformation from a 'pukka sahib' Assistant Superintendent into a diehard enemy of imperialism.  Waiting on a railway platform, he was jostled by some schoolboys, causing him to retaliate by beating one of them across the back with his stick.  As they followed him on to the train, jeering and shouting nationalistic slogans at him, he realized that he could no longer countenance his own behaviour or the farcical role of 'lawgiver' he was obliged to play each day as a servant of the King.

By April 1926 he was stationed in Moulmein, source of his family's now vanished wealth and the town where his maternal grandmother still resided.  It was in Moulmein that two other incidents occurred –– his attendance at a hanging and his shooting, spurred on by a crowd of excited Burmese, of a rogue elephant which had gone rampaging through their village –– that would cause him to further question his role as a servant of Empire and, indeed, the future direction of his life.  The latter incident, which he recreated in his magnificent 1936 essay Shooting An Elephant, led to him being packed off to the isolated northern province of Katha as 'punishment' for having wantonly murdered the private property of the Steel Brothers, the country's most prosperous and influential timber merchants.  

But this may not have been the only reason for his banishment to what was both figuratively and literally the end of the line.  Blair, it seems, was as unpopular with some of his imperial superiors as he'd been with some (but not all) of his former instructors at Eton, expressing what were considered to be dangerous opinions for someone of his race, class and gender living in a closely knit, rule dominated society where the very British ideas of 'sticking together' and 'not letting one's own side down' were held to be sacrosanct.  It’s possible that his reassignment to Katha, where he soon became ill with dengue fever, had been arranged for the purpose of driving him out of the police service if not out of Burma altogether.  (This may have been true despite the fact the transfer was accompanied by a promotion to the job of District Commissioner for Katha province.)  Nor was it a coincidence that 1927 marked the end of his first five years of imperial service, entitling him to return to England for his first extended period of 'Home leave.'  Granted permission to leave the country early due to ill health, he arrived in the southern French city of Marseilles in mid-August, travelling on to England –– specifically, to his family's new home in Southwold –– overland via Paris.  

It was in Southwold, a seaside town in Suffolk to which his increasingly impoverished parents had now relocated, that Eric Blair decided to resign from the Indian Imperial Police and reinvent himself as the writer he had always been certain, deep down, he was one day destined to become.  His parents were horrified to learn that he planned to quit his job and particularly so his father, whose failure to rise to position of prominence in the colonies had left him a bitter and deeply disappointed man.  While the decision created a rift between father and son which never fully healed, the twenty-four year old Blair would not be dissuaded from pursuing his uncertain new career path.  'I was already half determined to throw up my job,' he would write a decade later in The Road to Wigan Pier, his damning portrait of Depression-ravaged England, 'and one sniff of English air decided me.  I was not going back to be part of that evil despotism.'

ERIC BLAIR, c 1928
Blair was living in London by the end of 1927, occupying rooms on the Portobello Road where he worked on an early draft of the novel that would eventually become Burmese Days and tried to decide exactly what sort of writer he wanted to become.  Inspired by The People of the Abyss, Jack London's blistering 1903 exposé of the lives of the London poor, he began disguising himself as a tramp and paying regular visits to the East End, experiencing for himself what it was like to be one of the downtrodden poor forced to seek shelter in the British capital's brutal 'spikes' and filthy, overcrowded lodging houses.  He discontinued these experiments (which had a disastrous effect on his lungs) shortly before moving to Paris in the spring of 1928, living first with his left-wing aunt Nellie Limouzin before moving to a cheap hotel on the Rue du Pot de Fer in the city’s Latin Quarter where he was able to eke out a living as an English teacher.  Paris became, in a sense, his university, with his aunt and her husband, a former Anarchist turned Communist named Eugène Adam who ran an Esperanto association, becoming his unofficial tutors in matters of politics and particularly socialist politics.  It was also in Paris that he became a published author, with his article La Censure en Angleterre [Censorship in England] appearing in the left-wing periodical Monde on 6 October 1928.  His English debut came in December of that year with the publication of another article entitled A Farthing Newspaper in the magazine GK’s Weekly.

In March 1929 he became seriously ill with bronchitis and, when he began to cough up blood, had himself admitted to the Hôpital Cochin, a pauper's facility near the city's Santé prison which doubled as a training hospital.  In addition to confirming what had been his long-held fear of hospitals, his experiences here –– living in a cramped, overcrowded ward filled with the dying and the dead, insufficient food and virtually non-existent sanitation, nurses and doctors who treated its working class patients like so much expendable cattle –– would go on to inspire How The Poor Die (1946), one of his most confronting if enlightening essays.  Thankfully, he was released within a few weeks and was well enough, after a little more rest, to take a job as a plongeur [dishwasher] in a restaurant serving haute cuisine on the fashionable Rue Rivoli.  (Some sources claim it was the Hôtel Crillon near the Palais Royale, others that it was the Hôtel Lotti which employed him.)  Like his hospital experiences, what Blair witnessed as a plongeur –– dirt, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation –– would also find its way into his work, forming the basis for the first half of what, in 1933, became his first published book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Blair returned to England in December 1929 where he once again stayed with his disapproving family in Southwold –– living arrangements that were to endure, on and off, for the next five years as he continued to write and publish articles, some based on his resumed 'secret life' as a tramp, in publications including the Adelphi and The New Statesman.  He also visited the north of England, where his sister Marjorie was now living with her husband (a man who shared Richard Blair's entirely negative view of his brother-in-law's outrageous choice of career), and spent time as a hop-picker in rural Kent, an experience he recreated in his second novel A Clergyman's Daughter (1935).  So great was his need to immerse himself in the lives of the poor –– a need some critics have described as his masochistic, self-destructive way of atoning for the sin of having been on the side of the oppressors during his time in Burma –– that he succeeded in getting himself arrested in December 1931 with the aim of learning what it was like to spend Christmas in prison.  In the end, he only spent two days in a cell, the judge deciding that his drunk and disorderly behaviour did not qualify him to receive a longer sentence.  Luckily, his conviction did not prevent him from being hired, in April 1932, as the only full-time teacher at a small boys day school called The Hawthorns or from putting the finishing touches to the book he was still referring to as A Scullion’s Diary
in letters to his friends.

Penguin Books UK, 2013
This book, now retitled Down and Out in Paris and London, was accepted for publication in June 1932 by the newly created firm of Victor Gollancz Limited, earning its author a £40 advance.  In a characteristically unpredictable move, Blair is alleged to have told Gollancz than he would prefer the book to be published under a pseudonym so as to avoid embarrassing his family who would not, he was sure, want their friends to know their son had been roaming the countryside disguised as a tramp.  There are various versions of how he came to select the name 'George Orwell,' with the most likely explanation being that he simply combined the name of Britain’s ruling monarch with the name of the River Orwell, located in what was then his home county of Suffolk.  (There is also a town named Orwell in Cambridgeshire which he was known to have visited in his tramping days.)  However he came upon his pseudonym, there's little doubt that he approved of it, as he confided to a friend, as being 'a good round English name.'  It was also a more memorable name than plain old 'Eric Blair' and became the one by which he would be known for the rest of his career.

While mostly well-received by the critics, the book did not make its thirty year old author either rich or succeed in making 'George Orwell' the 'GREAT AUTHOR' he'd dreamed of becoming as a boy.  In June 1933, finding himself unable to live on his royalties, Blair left The Hawthorns and accepted a new teaching post at Frays College in West London, buying himself a motorcycle –– a machine he had originally learned to ride in Burma –– that he often rode in the countryside without taking what, for someone of his susceptible constitution, was the essential precaution of wearing warm clothing.  After catching a chill which quickly developed into pneumonia, he was hospitalized again in December, bringing an end to his teaching career and, with only his parents to lean on for support, emphasizing his need to earn some sort of steady living from his writing.  

1934 proved to be the year he was at last able to do this, with the American publication of Burmese Days by the US firm of Harper and Brothers in October followed by its English publication by the firm of Gollancz in early 1935.  But this did not mean that Blair/Orwell was satisfied.  'I would have rewritten large chunks of it,' he confessed to a friend shortly after receiving his copy of the book, 'only that costs money and means delay as well.'  He was even less satisfied with his second novel, going so far as to contemplate banning it from being re-published after his death –– a decision he later reversed on the grounds that a cheap paperback edition might 'earn a few pennies' for his relatives.  He need not have worried about this because he remains, even today, one of the most widely read and frequently studied British writers of the twentieth century, his name a byword for honesty and integrity in a world where both continue to remain in very short supply.


Click HERE to visit the website of THE ORWELL PRIZE, which consists of three annual awards designed to recognise 'work which comes closest to George Orwell's ambition to "make political writing into an art".'  The website also contains useful biographical and bibliographical information about GEORGE ORWELL and features links to many other websites.  

You can also click HERE to read GEORGE ORWELL's complete diaries, written between 1938 and 1942 when he was living and working in London as a journalist and, during the war years, as a writer of political broadcasts for the BBC. 

Like all of ORWELL's other fiction and non-fiction work, Burmese Days has seldom been out of print since it was first published in 1934 and should be easily obtainable via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.  The book was also adapted as a play by the English AYA Theatre Company, who performed it in New York in late 2011 Click HERE to view photographs from the production and to read some brief reviews of it.

Many GEORGE ORWELL biographies have been published over the years, including The Unknown Orwell (1972) by PETER STANSKY and WILLIAM ABRAHAMS, George Orwell: A Life by BERNARD CRICK, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1983) by MICHAEL SHELDEN, Inside George Orwell (2003) by GORDON BOWKER, and George Orwell: English Rebel (2014) by ROBERT COLLS. There are a similar number of studies, appreciations and treatises covering everything from ORWELL's politics to his love of nature to his iconic status as the 'quintessential Englishman' and his ongoing importance as a novelist, journalist, visionary and unflinchingly honest social critic and astute political commentator.  Why Orwell Matters (2003) by CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is a good place to start for anyone interested in exploring his enduring literary, political and cultural legacy.  

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #39: George Orwell
WRITERS ON WRITING #22: George Orwell
WRITERS ON WRITING #47: W Somerset Maugham 

No comments:

Post a Comment