About – Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

Down and Out in Paris and London is the first full-length work by the English author George Orwell, published in 1933. It is a story in two parts on the theme of poverty in the two cities. The first part is a picaresque account of living on the breadline in Paris and the experience of casual labour in restaurant kitchens. The second part is a travelogue of life on the road in and around London from the tramp’s perspective, with descriptions of the types of hostel accommodation available and some of the characters to be found living on the margins. Orwell gives it an autobiographical feel by interposing chapters presenting his personal opinions.

Background

After giving up his post as a policeman in Burma to become a writer, Orwell moved to rooms in Portobello Road, London at the end of 1927. While contributing to various journals, he undertook investigative tramping expeditions in and around London, collecting material for use in The Spike, his first published essay, and the latter half of Down and Out in Paris and London. In spring of 1928, he moved to Paris, where the comparatively low cost of living and bohemian lifestyle attracted many aspiring writers. He lived in the Rue du Pot de Fer in a bohemian quarter with a cosmopolitan flavour. American writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived in the same area. Following the Russian Revolution there was a large Russian emigre community in Paris. Orwell’s Aunt Nellie Limouzin also lived in Paris and gave him social and, when necessary, financial support. He led an active social life, worked on his novels and had several articles published in avant-garde journals.

Orwell fell seriously ill in March 1929 and shortly afterwards had money stolen from the lodging house. In a later account he said the theft was the work of a young trollop that he had picked up and brought back with him. Whether through necessity or just to collect material, he undertook casual work as a dishwasher in restaurants. In August 1929 he sent a copy of “The Spike” to the Adelphi magazine in London. It was accepted for publication and on the strength of the prospects Orwell returned to England in December 1929. He went straight home to his parents’ house in Southwold. Later he acted as a private tutor to a handicapped child there and also undertook further tramping expeditions culminating with a stint working in the Kent hop fields in August and September 1931. After this adventure, he ended up in the Tooley Street kip, which he found so unpleasant that he wrote home for money and moved to more comfortable lodgings.

Publication

Orwell’s first version of Down and Out was called “A Scullion’s Diary” which he offered to Jonathan Cape in the summer of 1931. Cape rejected it in the autumn. He then offered it to Faber & Faber where T. S. Eliot, then an editorial director, also rejected it. In June 1932 Orwell’s agent Leonard Moore announced that Victor Gollancz was prepared to publish the work subject to the removal of bad language and some identifiable names. Gollancz offered an advance of £40. The work was renamed Down and Out in Paris and London and the author renamed “George Orwell”. Orwell did not wish to publish under his own name Eric Blair, and Orwell was the name he used from then on for his main works—although many periodical articles were still published under the name Eric Blair. Down and Out in Paris and London was published on 9 January 1933 and received favourable reviews. It was subsequently published by Harper & Brothers in New York. Sales however were low until 1940 when Penguin Books printed 55,000 copies for sale at sixpence.

It was printed in France as La Vache Enragée by Éditions Gallimard with an exclusive introduction by Orwell.

Summary

Chapters I–XXIII (Paris)

Two verbless sentences introduce the scene-setting opening chapters which describe the atmosphere in the Paris quarter and introduce various characters who appear later in the book. From chapters III to chapter X, where Orwell obtains a job at ‘Hotel X’, he describes his descent into poverty, often in tragi-comic terms. An Italian compositor forges room keys and steals his savings and his scant income vanishes when the English lessons he was giving stop. He begins to pawn his possessions and search for restaurant work with a Russian waiter named Boris. He recounts his two-day experience without any food and tells of meeting Russian ‘Communists’ who, he later concludes, must be confidence tricksters who exact membership dues for a ‘secret’ revolutionary group and then disappear.

After the various ordeals of unemployment and hunger Orwell obtains a job as a plongeur (dishwasher) in the ‘Hotel X’ and begins working long hours. In chapter XIV he describes the frantic and seemingly chaotic workings of the hotel as he understands it. He goes on to talk of his routine life as one of the working poor in Paris: slaving and sleeping, then drinking on Saturday night until the early hours of Sunday morning—the ‘one thing that made life worth living’ for some of the unmarried men of the quarter. In chapter XVI Orwell characterises the semi-autonomous existence by referencing a murder that was committed outside the hotel where he stays ‘just beneath my window’. ‘[T]he thing that strikes me in looking back’, he says, ‘is that I was in bed and asleep within three minutes of the murder… We were working people and where was the sense of wasting sleep over murder?’

Misled by Boris’s optimism, Orwell is briefly penniless again after he and Boris quit their hotel jobs in the expectation of work at a new restaurant, the ‘Auberge de Jehan Cottard’, where Boris feels sure he will be a waiter again. (At the hotel he had been doing lower grade work.) Boris explains that the “patron”, ‘an ex-colonel of the Russian Army,’ seems to have financial difficulties—Orwell is not paid for ten days and spends a night on a bench rather than face his landlady over rent. ‘It was very uncomfortable—the arm of the seat cuts into your back—and much colder than I had expected.’

At the restaurant Orwell finds himself working ‘seventeen and a half hours’ a day ‘almost without a break’ and looking back wistfully at his relatively leisured and orderly life at the Hotel X. Boris works even longer: ‘eighteen hours a day, seven days a week’. ‘Such hours’, he explains, ‘though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in Paris.’ He falls into a routine again and talks of literally fighting for a place on the Paris Métro to reach the ‘cold, filthy kitchen’ of the restaurant by seven. In spite of the filth and incompetence, the restaurant turns out to be a success.

The narrative is interspersed with recounted anecdotes told by some of the minor characters such as Valenti, an Italian waiter at Hotel ‘X’, and Charlie, ‘one of the local curiosities’ who is ‘a youth of family and education who had run away from home’.

In chapter XXII, Orwell considers the life of a “plongeur”:

[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack… [they have] been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labor union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.

Because of the stress of the long hours he mails to a friend back in London asking if he could get him a job that gave him more than 5 hours sleep a night. His friend replied saying that he could get him a job taking care of a retard and sends him some money to get his possessions from the pawn. He then quits his job as a plongeur and leaves for London.

Chapters XXIV–XXXVIII (London)

Orwell arrives in London expecting to have a job waiting for him: he was told by a friend, to whom he refers as ‘B.’, that he would get paid to mind an ‘imbecile’. Unfortunately the would-be employer has gone abroad.

Until his employer returns, Orwell lives as a tramp, sleeping in an assortment of venues. Under law, vagrants could not stay at the same place more than once a month and were required to keep on the move, with the result that long hours were spent tramping or waiting for hostels to open. Chapters XXV to XXXV describe the journeys, the different forms of accommodation, a selection of the people he met, and the tramps’ reaction to Christian charity. Characters in this section of the book include the Irish tramp called Paddy – “a good fellow”, but whose “ignorance was limitless and appalling”, and the pavement artist Bozo who had a good literary background, was an amateur astronomer, but had suffered a succession of misfortunes that brought him down.

The final chapters provide a catalogue of different types of accommodation, and offer Orwell’s general remarks, concluding

At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

Reactions

If Orwell intended to provoke and tease, he succeeded, as within a month of publication a restaurateur had written to The Times complaining that the book was unfairly disparaging to the restaurant trade. The Times Literary Supplement had previously reviewed Down and Out in Paris and London, calling it “a vivid picture of an apparently mad world”. In Adelphi, C Day Lewis wrote “Orwell’s book is a tour of the underworld, conducted without hysteria or prejudice … a model of clarity and good sense.” J. B. Priestley considered it “Uncommonly good reading. An excellent book and a valuable social document. The best book of its kind I have read in a long time.” Compton Mackenzie said “A clearly genuine human document which at the same time is written with so much simple force that in spite of the squalor and degradation thus unfolded, the result is curiously beautiful with the beauty of an accomplished etching on copper”. In contrast the reviewer in New English Weekly wrote “This book … is forcefully written and is very readable, Yet it fails to carry conviction. We wonder if the author was really down and out. Down certainly, but out?” Cyril Connolly later wrote “I don’t think Down and Out in London and Paris is more than agreeable journalism; it was all better done by his friend Henry Miller. Orwell found his true form a few years later.” Henry Miller’s controversial work Tropic of Cancer (1934) is based on Miller’ own experiences in Paris around the time Orwell was there.

Some measure of the work’s veracity can be gleaned from a marked-up copy containing sixteen annotations on certain sections which Orwell gave Brenda Salkeld. Many major points have no comment, and for the descent into poverty from Chapter III, he wrote “Succeeding chapters are not actually autobiography but drawn from what I have seen”. However, for Chapter VII he wrote “This all happened”, on Hotel “X” “All as exact as I could make it” and on the Russian restaurant “All the following is an entirely accurate description of the restaurant”. On the personalities, Orwell’s own introduction to the French edition stated that the characters are individuals, but “intended more as representative types”.

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2 Responses to About – Down and Out in Paris and London

  1. Heebie Jeebie on September 22, 2013 at 6:00 am

    A really well thought out analysis, thank-you for sharing.

  2. owen martin on January 18, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    After 80 years l can solve the riddle of screever. Orwell should have asked an Irishman. Sciobh is Irish for write so screever means writer.

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