Burmese Days is a novel by British writer George Orwell. It was first published in the USA in 1934. It is a tale about the waning days of British imperialism after World War I.
Orwell spent five years from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma (now Myanmar). Burma had become part of the British Empire during the nineteenth century as an adjunct of British India. Migrant workers from India and China supplemented the native Burmese population. Although Burma was the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia under British rule, as a colony it was seen very much as a backwater. Among its exports, the country produced 75% of the world’s teak from up-country forests. Orwell served in a number of locations including Maymyo, Myaungmya, Twante Syriam, Insein, Moulmein and Kathar. Kathar with its luxuriant vegetation, described by Orwell with relish, provided the physical setting for the novel but not the plot.
Burmese Days was several years in creation. Orwell was drafting it in Paris during the eighteen months he spent there in 1928 to 1929. He was still working on it in 1932 at Southwold while doing up the family home in the summer holidays. By December 1933 he had typed the final version and in 1934 he delivered it by motorbike to his agent Leonard Moore for publication by Victor Gollancz, who had published his previous book. Gollancz, smarting from fears of prosecution with regard to another author’s work, turned it down because he was worried about libel action. Heinemann and Cape also turned it down for the same reasons. After demanding alterations, Harpers were prepared to publish it in the United States, where it made its debut in 1934. In the spring of 1935 Gollancz declared that he was prepared to publish Burmese Days provided Orwell was able to demonstrate it was not based on real people. Extensive checks were made in colonial lists that no British individuals could be confused with the characters. Many of the main European names have since been identified in the Rangoon Gazette and U Po Kyin was the name of a Burmese officer with him at the Police Training School in Mandalay. Gollancz published the work in July 1935.
Burmese Days is set in 1920s imperial Burma, in the fictional district of Kyauktada. As the story opens, U Po Kyin, a corrupt Burmese magistrate is planning to destroy the reputation of the Indian Dr. Veraswami. The Doctor’s main protection is his friendship with John Flory who, as a pukka sahib (European white man), has higher prestige. U Po Kyin begins his campaign by sending anonymous letters with false stories about the doctor, and he even sends a subtly threatening letter to Flory.
Flory has become disillusioned with his lifestyle, living in a tiresome expatriate community centred round the European Club in a remote part of the country. On the other hand he has become so embedded in Burma that it is impossible for him to leave and return to England. His dilemma seems to be answered when Elizabeth Lackersteen, the orphaned niece of Mr Lackersteen, the local timber firm manager, arrives. Flory saves her when she thinks she is being attacked by a small water buffalo. He is immediately taken with her and they spend some time getting close, culminating in a highly successful shooting expedition. Elizabeth scores a hit with almost her first shot, and Flory shoots a leopard, promising the skin to Elizabeth as a trophy. It seems a match made in heaven. Under the surface, however, Elizabeth is appalled by Flory’s relatively egalitarian attitude towards the natives, seeing them as ‘beastly’ while Flory extolls the virtues of their rich culture. Worse still are his interests in high art and literature which remind Elizabeth of her boondoggling mother who died in disgrace in Paris, poisoned by her painting materials whilst masquerading as a bohemian artist. Despite these reservations, of which Flory is entirely unaware, she is willing to marry him to escape poverty, spinsterhood and the unwelcome advances of her perpetually inebriated uncle.
Flory is about to ask her to marry him, when they are interrupted firstly by her aunt and secondly by an earthquake. Mrs. Lackersteen’s interruption is deliberate because she has discovered that a military police lieutenant named Verrall is arriving in Kyauktada. As he comes from an extremely good family, she sees him as a better prospect as a husband for Elizabeth. Mrs. Lackersteen tells Elizabeth that Flory is keeping a Burmese mistress as a deliberate ploy to send her to Verrall. Indeed, he had been keeping one but had dismissed her almost the moment Elizabeth had arrived. No matter, Elizabeth is appalled and falls at the first opportunity for Verrall, who is arrogant and ill-mannered to all but her. Flory is devastated and after a period of exile attempts to make amends by delivering to her the leopard skin but an inexpert curing process has left the skin mangy and stinking and the gesture merely compounds his status as a poor suitor.
U Po Kyin’s campaign against Dr. Veraswami turns out to be intended simply to further his aim of becoming a member of the European Club in Kyauktada. The club has been put under pressure to elect a native member and Dr. Veraswami is the most likely candidate. U Po Kyin arranges the escape of a prisoner and plans a rebellion for which he intends that Dr. Veraswami should get the blame. The rebellion begins and is quickly put down, but a native rebel is killed by acting Divisional Forest Officer, Maxwell. A few days later, the body of Maxwell is brought back to the town. This creates a tension between the Burmese and the Europeans, exacerbated by a vicious attack on native children by the spiteful Ellis. A large riot begins and Flory becomes the hero for bringing it under control with some support by Dr. Veraswami. U Po Kyin tries to claim credit but is disbelieved and Dr. Veraswami’s prestige is restored.
Verrall leaves Kyauktada without even saying goodbye to Elizabeth and she falls for Flory again. Flory is happy and plans to marry Elizabeth. However, U Po Kyin has not given up; he hires Flory’s former Burmese mistress to create a scene in front of Elizabeth during the sermon at Sunday church. Flory is disgraced and Elizabeth refuses to have anything more to do with him. Overcome by the loss and seeing no future for himself, Flory kills himself and his dog.
Dr. Veraswami is demoted and sent to a different district and U Po Kyin is elected to the Club. U Po Kyin’s plans have succeeded and he plans to redeem his life and cleanse his sins by financing pagodas. He dies of apoplexy before he can even start on building the first pagoda and his wife envisages him returning to life as a frog or rat. Elizabeth eventually marries Macgregor, the Deputy Commissioner and lives happily in contempt of the natives, who in turn live in fear of her.
- John (in some editions, James) Flory: The central character is a timber merchant in his mid-thirties. He is acutely conscious of a large, dark blue birthmark on the left side of his face, which he tries to hide from everyone he meets. He is very friendly with the Indian Dr Veraswami, and appreciates Burmese culture. This brings him into conflict with members of the club, who dislike his slightly radical views. He does, however, see many natives as beasts. He is often the target of argument even though he dislikes quarrels. He suffers a great deal because all he can think about is Elizabeth and this causes him pain because she does not love him and refuses to listen to him and what he has to say about her. After getting hurt from her the final time, he commits suicide.
- Elizabeth Lackersteen: An unmarried English girl who has lost both her parents and comes to stay with her sole relations, the Lackersteens, in Burma. Before her flighty mother died, they had lived together in Paris. Her mother fancied herself an artist, and Elizabeth grew to hate the bohemian lifestyle and cultural connections. Elizabeth is thin with short hair and wears glasses. After leaving Flory for the first time, she courts Verrall, who leaves abruptly without saying goodbye. After leaving Flory the second time (and following his suicide), she marries the Deputy Commissioner, Macgregor.
- Mr. and Mrs. Lackersteen: Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt. Mr. Lackersteen is the manager of a timber firm. He is a heavy drinker whose main object in life is to have a “good time”. However his activities are curtailed by his wife who is ever watching “like a cat over a bloody mousehole”. Mr. Lackersteen’s lechery extends to making sexual advances towards his niece Elizabeth. Mrs. Lackersteen is an imaginative woman, thin and serpent-like, who plays the part of the memsahib and has not taken to the alien country or its culture. She strongly believes that a young woman should get married to anyone, literally anyone, that can provide her with a home and accompanying riches. She pesters Elizabeth into finding a husband: first she wants her to wed Verrall, then after he leaves, Flory.
- Dr. Veraswami: An Indian doctor and a friend of Flory’s. He has nothing but respect for the British colonists and often refers to his own kind as being lesser humans than the English. Veraswami and Flory often discuss various topics, with Veraswami presenting the British point of view and Flory taking the side of the Burmese. Veraswami is targeted by U Po Kyin in pursuit of membership of the European club and he loses his status when his friend Flory commits suicide. He goes away to work in another run-down hospital.
- U Po Kyin: A corrupt and cunning magistrate who is hideously overweight but groomed perfectly, as he can afford anything. He feels he can commit whatever wicked acts he wants, because he will later expiate his sins by financing the building of pagodas. He carries out his vendetta against Flory and Veraswami, instigating a rebellion as part of the exercise. He loses pre-eminence when it is Flory and Vereswami who suppress a riot. When Flory dies, Kyin becomes a member of the European Club. Shortly after, he dies, unredeemed, before the building of the pagodas.
- Ma Hla May: Flory’s Burmese mistress. After he throws her out to clear the decks for Elizabeth, she repeatedly blackmails him. Encouraged by U Po Kyin, she breaks up Flory and Elizabeth by creating a scene in front of the Europeans. Eventually she goes to work in a brothel elsewhere. The only reason she wants Flory to take her back is because she wants to live the life of a white man’s mistress again.
- Ko S’la: Flory’s servant. Though he serves Flory well, he does not approve of many of his activities. He strongly opposes Flory’s relationship with Ma Hla May and further protests when Flory hurts himself falling from a horse when trying to show off in front of Elizabeth.
- Lieutenant Verrall: A military policeman who has a temporary posting in the town. He is the youngest son of a peer and looks down on everyone, making no concessions to civility and good manners. His only concern is playing polo and being athletically fit. Whether you’re a white man or a native, does not matter to him. He is somewhat smug and self-centered. He uses Elizabeth for entertainment and ultimately leaves the town in a hurry without saying goodbye.
- Mr MacGregor: Deputy Commissioner and Secretary of the Club. He is pompous and self-important but good-hearted, and ends up marrying Elizabeth.
- Ellis: Another manager in a timber company and a vulgar and spiteful member of the Club who likes stirring up scandals. He expounds strong racist views and dislikes Flory because he is friendly with the native community.
Orwell’s biographer, D. J. Taylor, notes that “the most striking thing about the novel is the extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand.”
Another of Orwell’s biographers, Michael Shelden, notes that Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and E. M. Forster have been suggested as possible influences, but believes “the ghost of A. E. Housman hangs heavily over the book.
Orwell himself was to note in Why I Write (1946) that “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…. is rather that kind of book.”
On its publication in Britain, Burmese Days earned a review in the New Statesman from Cyril Connolly as follows:
Burmese Days is an admirable novel. It is a crisp fierce and almost boisterous attack on the Anglo-Indian. The author loves Burma, he goes to great length to describe the vices of the Burmese and the horror of the climate, but he loves it, and nothing can palliate for him, the presence of a handful of inefficient complacent public school types who make their living there….I liked it and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a spate of efficient indignation, graphic description, excellent narrative, excitement and irony tempered with vitriol.
Orwell received a letter from the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer as follows:
Will you allow me to tell you how very much indeed I admire your novel Burmese Days: it seems to me an absolutely admirable statement of fact told as vividly and with as little bitterness as possible.
It was as a result of these responses that Orwell renewed his friendship with Connolly, which was to give him useful literary connections, a positive evaluation in Enemies of Promise and an outlet on Horizon. He also became a close friend of Gorer.
It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them—honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge.
Living and working among Orientals would try the patience of a saint. All of them, the officials particularly knew what it was to be baited and insulted. Almost every day, when Westfield or Mr McGregor or even Maxwell went down the street, the High School boys, with their young, yellow faces—faces smooth as gold coins, full of that maddening contempt that sits so naturally on the Mongolian face—sneered at them as they went past, sometimes hooted after them with hyena-like laughter. The life of the Anglo-Indian officials is not all jam. In comfortless camps, in sweltering offices, in gloomy dakbungalows smelling of dust and earth-oil, they earn, perhaps, the right to be a little disagreeable.
‘My dear doctor’, said Flory, ‘how can you make out that we are in this country for any reason but to steal? It’s so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets. Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British? Or the other timber firms, or the oil companies, or the miners and planters and traders? How could the Rice Ring go on skinning the unfortunate peasant if it hadn’t the Government behind it? The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English—or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen.’
‘My friend, it iss pathetic to me to hear you talk so. It iss truly pathetic. You say you are here to trade? Of course you are. Could the Burmese trade for themselves? Can they make machinery, ships, railways, roads? They are helpless without you. What would happen to the Burmese forests if the English were not here? They would be sold immediately to the Japanese, who would gut them and ruin them. In your hands, actually they are improved. And while your businessmen develop the resources of our country, your officials are civilizing us, elevating us to their level, from pure public spirit. It is a magnificent record of self-sacrifice’.
The canoes, each hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, glided swiftly, hardly rippling the dark brown water. Water hyacinth with profuse spongy foliage and blue flowers had choked the stream so that the channel was only a winding ribbon four feet wide. The light filtered, greenish, through interlacing boughs. Sometimes one could hear parrots scream overhead, but no wild creatures showed themselves, except once a snake that swam hurriedly away and disappeared among the water hyacinth.