Excerpt from Bernard Crick’s biography George Orwell: A Life.
Eric Arthur Blair was born at Motihari in Bengal on 25 June 1903, five years after his sister Marjorie, who was born at Tehta in Bihar. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was in the Opium Department of the Government of India. The opium trade with China had been legalized as a government monopoly from 1860. Richard had joined it at the age of 18 and The History of Services of Gazetted and other Officers Serving under the Government of Bengal showed in the bare lists of its subservient second volume, ‘Medical, Police, Educational and Miscellaneous Departments’ (The ‘also rans’), that the poor gentleman had been on the move nearly every year from post to post from when he joined the Service in 1875, first as Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, then as Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, until he retired at the age of 55. For nearly twenty years he moved posts annually, and they were not good postings. Once he did six years at Tehta in the 1890s, but the only other long spell in one place was at Monghyr, a posting that lasted from a year after his son’s birth until his retirement.
Life had not dealt Richard Blair, as he might have put it, particularly good cards. His great-grandfather Charles Blair (1743-1820) had been a rich man, an owner of plantations and slaves in Jamaica, who had married into the aristocracy; but his fortune had dwindled away by the time his tenth and last son was born. So Eric’s grandfather, though a godson and cousin of the Earl of Westmorland, was under the disagreeable obligation of having, as that last child, to earn his living. After one year only at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Eric Blair’s grandfather left for the Empire, being ordained a deacon in the Church of England in Calcutta in 1839 and a priest in Tasmania in 1843 — very much the period of Cobbett’s gibe that the Empire was a system of out-door relief for the indigent sons of the British aristocracy. There is a family tradition that he stopped off at the Cape on his way home to England on leave, got to know a family called Hare and actually became engaged to one of the older sisters. Returning from leave, he stopped off intending to marry the girl but found that she had already married someone else. ‘So he said,’ related Eric’s sister Avril, ‘“Oh well, if Emily’s married it doesn’t matter — I’ll have Fanny”, and Fanny at that time was 15. I believe they played with dolls after her marriage.’
In 1854 Eric’s grandfather returned to England to become Vicar of Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, probably the last aristocratic patronage that his branch of the family was to enjoy. Thus his son Richard had to fend for himself from the age of 18. He chose ‘the Service’ — as the alien administration of the huge Indian sub-continent called itself — and not the Church, but without public school or university advantages (one of twelve children, he had been educated at home for economy), he could not get into a favoured or fashionable branch of the Service, nor did he rise particularly fast in the humble Opium Department, to judge by those postings and gradings. He retired on his pension with no family inheritance beyond some monogrammed silver and a few pieces of furniture.
Perhaps the best bit of luck that Richard Blair had was his marriage. He married in 1896, at the age of 39, Ida Mabel Limouzin who was 21. She had been born in Penge near London, then a semi-rural, new residential suburb (as painted by Camille Pissarro). Her mother was English and her father French, and she had lived most other life until marriage in Moulmein, Burma, where her father kept up a business, founded by his father, as teak merchant and boat-builder, but later lost much of his money speculating in rice. Her mother, a woman of strong character and considerable intelligence, was still very much alive when her grandson, Eric Blair, went to Burma in 1922. Ida Blair, eighteen years younger than her husband, was a more lively, unconventional, widely read and in every way a more interesting person (all her grandchildren agree). Why did they marry? The evidence is lacking; no papers or letters of either of them survive relating to that period. The opportunities for marriage were very limited in the small British communities in the minor postings, or were somewhat now-or-never, frantic and hasty affairs (by home standards) in the summer hill stations. The situation and views of ‘Mrs Lakersteen’ and her daughter in Orwell’s Burmese Days may reflect something of his mother’s situation, perhaps even of two contrary poles in her character: the vaguely artistic, as in Mrs Lakersteen, trying to lead a Bohemian life in Paris; and the resignedly conventional, as in Elizabeth herself, hating poverty, her mother’s fads, set on marriage, respectability and security.
Ida Limouzin was a realist who could make light of, even be merry in, difficult circumstances. Incompatibilities of age and temperament were taken for granted in those days as part of the institution of holy matrimony. Eric’s parents can hardly have been actively happy together but if it had been asked of either of them in the language of the day, ‘Were they happily married?’, the genuine answer would have been ‘Yes’. He was plainly a tolerant and easy-going man, no martinet or domestic tyrant to crush a young girl’s spirit. A woman could have done far worse. Perhaps he did not approve of all her opinions, but then in the tradition of the Opium Department itself he would have extended to her the kind of official tolerance for indigenous deviations which he exercised in his administrative capacity — within, of course, the well-known institutional limits of matrimonial propriety and power.
Ida Blair took their two young children back to England, as was then quite common, some time in 1904. They settled temporarily in a house called Erindale in Vicarage Road, Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire, leaving it in April 1905 for another, slightly larger, rented home, The Nutshell, Western Road. Richard Blair did not see them again until 1907, when he was given three months’ leave on his final promotion from Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, second grade, to Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, first grade. Avril was conceived at this time. He returned to Monghyr before she was born and did not rejoin his family until his retirement, four years later. This arrangement would not have been thought of as anything extraordinary. Nearly all the ‘Anglo-Indians’ (the British in India) saw the advantages of bringing up even younger children in England despite, it was a commonplace to note, the inevitable fall in the standard of living and of services, the perennial servant problem. From now on Ida Blair kept house with a non-resident daily, neither a cook nor a parlour-maid even, thus doing much of the work herself, an arrangement that she perhaps thought a fair price to pay for the greater liberty of being ‘home’ (if nowhere in particular) at last. Such years of separation enabled Ida to prepare a good home for her husband’s eventual retirement. Perhaps there were also specific worries about Eric’s health that kept Mrs Blair in England.
No letters or papers of his mother’s survive from Eric’s early childhood, except her diary for 1905 when he was 2 years old. The entries consist of five or six-word notes, ten or a dozen at most, on what she did each day; though often there are none. It throws some light, none the less, on her character and on Eric’s health. She seems to have had a lot of visitors, both French and English relatives including her sister Nellie and her brother Charles, and new friends; and she went off on small visits frequently. She walked, played bridge and tennis, and took up photography and developed her own plates.
Monday, 6 February: Baby not at all well, so I sent for the doctor who said that he had bronchitis…
Thursday, 9 February: Baby improving every day now.
Saturday, 11 February: Baby much better. Calling things ‘beastly’.
Who, one may well ask, had been calling things ‘beastly’ so that a not-quite 2-year-old repeats it? Admittedly the weather was bad.
Sunday, 26 February: Horrid day, didn’t go out at all.
And only on 6 March, ‘Baby went out for the first time today for more than a month.’ In June Baby Eric was flexing his muscles, for his latest ‘feat’ was to climb into the garden from the drawing-room window. And his mother went off visiting friends, to play a round of bridge and tennis in Tunbridge Wells, but also ‘went to tea with Mrs Cruikshank at the prison’ at Winchester. Was she just playing the tourist, or possibly visiting a Suffragette friend other sister Nellie, who was active in the movement? Ida was no more than a sympathizer. In London she watched Wimbledon tennis, also heard a lecture by the Lord Chief Justice at the Mansion House, saw Sarah Bernhardt (‘“Angels”, simply splendid’), and went to ‘Paddington Baths’ (Porchester Hall, presumably) with her sister Nellie. But on 29 July ‘got a wire from Kate saying Baby was ill, got the wire at 8.30, while bathing and I was in the train at 9.10.’ All was well, but there was an undercurrent of nervousness about Baby’s health throughout. In August, at Frinton-on-Sea, he paddled for the first time and enjoyed it, but became ill and was taken to the doctor immediately on returning home. And again in November.
So worries about Eric Blair’s chest condition, which was to harry him all his days, began early. His mother appears to have been, in the very nicest sense, a bit of a gadabout. The diary gives the impression of a woman who could be very protective towards her children, but not ever present, perhaps over-compensating when at home. Certainly at that time, when Richard Blair must have been sending back much of his pay, they were not hard up, even if they were not well off. Orwell’s own monody in The Road to Wigan Pier on the horrors of genteel poverty will need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It cannot be accepted as primary evidence about his childhood feelings, only as evidence of how the writer could skilfully shape his memories for literary and polemical effect.
He claimed no memories whatever, of course, of life in India. The earliest memory he recalled or admitted to is in his essay Why I Write of 1946:
I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had ‘chair-like teeth’ — a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake’s ‘Tiger, Tiger’.
A good mother for a writer, indeed, to take dictation and to read William Blake to a child so early; but, of course, that is the kind of first memory one would have in writing such an essay. The essay went on, however, to take a more general view of his formative influences:
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my school-days. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feelings of being isolated and undervalued.
(The name of his ‘familiar’, his sister Avril remembered, was ‘Fronky’, and she was often told what he had said to Eric.) His next sentence, however, is much more obviously coloured by his experiences in the late 1920s and early 1930s: ‘I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.’ Whatever sense of failure, rather than simply of inadequacy, that he may have had as a small boy, was a very different thing from the acute sense of failure of the unsuccessful writer of the 1930s.
At the age of 5 he was sent, like his sister Marjorie before and sister Avril after him, to a small Anglican convent school in Henley. He never referred to it, but he must have done very well for them to recommend him for a scholarship to a crack prep school. Avril was taught to read and write by a Marjorie Dakin whose brother Humphrey was later to marry Marjorie Blair. The Dakins and the Blairs remained close to each other.
A few odd memories of early childhood appear incidentally in George Orwell’s essays. ‘The earliest song I can remember, which must have been in 1907 or 1908, was “Rhoda Had a Pagoda”. It was an inconceivably silly song, but it was certainly popular.’ Also he remembered searching in a cupboard at about that rime and finding a bustle; they had to tell him what it was, since it was already antique. And at 6, there was ‘the plumber’s daughter’, already lightly touched upon, recalled so fully in her erotic glory in his unpublished notebooks, but also more guardedly in Such, Such Were the Joys and in the autobiographical chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier where he relates that he was separated from her by his mother because she was ‘common’. Again this is a selective use of memory. In his notebooks he admits both charges, the sexual and the social — for the context seems to be that of making notes towards future novels; but in The Road to Wigan Pier the context is severely political, so only the social charge is mentioned. The account in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ is subtly different yet again.
At this time I was in an almost sexless state, which is normal, or at any rate common, in boys of that age; I was therefore in the position of simultaneously knowing and not knowing what used to be called the Facts of Life. At five or six, like many children I had passed through a phase of sexuality. My friends were the plumber’s children up the road, and we used sometimes to play games of a vaguely erotic kind. One was called ‘playing at doctors’, and I remember getting a faint but definitely pleasant thrill from holding a toy trumpet, which was supposed to be a stethoscope, against a little girl’s belly. About the same time I fell deeply in love, a far more worshipping kind of love than I have ever felt for anyone since, with a girl named Elsie at the convent school which I attended. She seemed to me grown up, so I suppose she must have been fifteen. After that, as so often happens, all sexual feelings seemed to go out of me for many years.
But if the advertisement for ‘Sunnylands’ in the local newspaper is to be relied upon, the Anglican nuns only took children from ‘five to eleven years old’. Children are not very good at estimating ages. She may have been more of the age of the village girl paid a few pence to take Eric for walks on holidays or weekend afternoons. On the other hand, the novelist George Orwell became adept, he thought, at disguising his use of real people by slight shifts of age, name or locale (as the minimum necessary for decency’s sake).
Another little-known autobiographical fragment also refers to himself at 6 years old and again shows the pointed use he made of memory. In a review of Arturo Barea’s The Forge, he wrote:
When I read that last phrase, ‘the civil guards never attack the gentry’, there came back to me a memory which is perhaps out of place in a review, but which illustrates the difference of social atmosphere in a country like England and a country like Spain. I am 6 years old, and I am walking along a street in our little town with my mother and a wealthy local brewer, who is also a magistrate. The tarred fence is covered with chalk drawings, some of which I have made myself. The magistrate stops, points disapprovingly with his stick and says, ‘We are going to catch the boys who draw on these walls, and we are going to order them Six Strokes of the Birch Rod.’ (It was all in capitals in my mind.) My knees knock together, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and at the earliest possible moment I sneak away to spread the dreadful intelligence. In a little while, all the way down the fence, there is a long line of terror-stricken children, all spitting on their handkerchiefs and trying to rub out the drawings. But the interesting thing is that not till many years later, perhaps 20 years, did it occur to me that my fears had been groundless. No magistrate would have condemned me to Six Strokes of the Birch Rod, even if I had been caught drawing on the wall. Such punishment was reserved for the Lower Orders. The Civil Guards charge, but they never attack the gentry.
The ‘long line of terror-stricken children’ sounds like stretching a good tale too far. But there was indeed a brewer, called Simmons, who was a magistrate and also a friend of his mother’s; Ida Blair’s diary has his girls coming to tea and Avril remembered them too. Such a tale was not likely to be pure invention and had probably been told or retold to him by his mother, before his subsequent national and class-comparative literary embellishments.
In The Road to Wigan Pier (which was his road) he gave an account of the class prejudices instilled into a middle-class child: that the working classes were stupid, coarse, crude, violent and ‘… it is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.’ His account of the special peculiarity of the ‘lower-upper-middle’ class rings true:
People in this class owned no land, but they felt that they were landowners in the sight of God and kept up a semi-aristocratic outlook by going into the professions and the fighting services rather than into trade… Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to tip them, although in practice you had one, or at most two, resident servants. Theoretically, you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner, although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a decent restaurant. Theoretically, you knew how to shoot and ride, although in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot over.
However, while it may have been sociologically true for him to say ‘In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole’, yet ‘shabby-genteel’ was not an accurate description of his own home in the 1910s and 1920s with his father on a pension of £438 10s per annum. And the famous ‘a shabby-genteel family is in much the same position as a family of “poor whites” living in a street where everyone else is a negro’ would be ludicrous if he were talking about the Blairs. His identification with the shabby-genteel was an imaginative device by the writer of a documentary, those years later, intended to convince working-class readers that he too could feel, equally authentically, class-consciousness, indeed could perceive through it the grim comedy of false-consciousness. Not to be rich enough to be a landowner or to adopt an aristocratic way of life was not to imply a necessary shabby-gentility (unless everything else was shabby by way of contrast and relative deprivation): the Blairs were comfortably in the middle. Mrs Blair did not seem to mind, but perhaps Mr Blair had lingering aristocratic pretensions noticeable by his son.
Eric’s basic memories were real and intense but the use he made of them should not deter us from taking a commonsensical view of what his early childhood, while still going to the local school, was probably like. Generally it was more ordinary and pleasant than he would later allow. In 1940 he reported that the earliest political slogan he could remember was ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’ (eight Dreadnoughts) and that at ‘seven years old I was a member of the Navy League and wore a sailor suit with “H.M.S. Invincible” on my cap.’ Being a ‘member’ may have meant no more than putting pennies in a collection-tin and wearing a flag; and middle-class children wore sailor suits simply as a convenient and hard-wearing fashion. Some connections with a pride about sea power, certainly; but to associate every child who ever wore a sailor suit with the Navy League may only be what was called in those times ‘artistic licence’.
We know also that he was greatly fond of animals and that dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs abounded. Wherever he settled in later life small menageries appeared, though rationalized, as it were, by utilitarian function. The 1905 diary makes clear, by the social comings and goings for teas, walks and parties of his then 7-year-old sister Marjorie, that he would not have lacked for human company either when he reached her age, even if he was, as some evidence suggests, of a shy and solitary disposition long before going to prep school. The Blairs were a family for outings. If his mother dashed off for short visits, the daily help, his mother’s relatives or friends, his older sister, or a local girl, would take him out for walks, rough walks, veritable expeditions of exploration through woods or down the riverbank. When his mother returned, she would arrange more ambitious outings: everything by the season, blackberrying, hazelnut-gathering, picking wild fruits and flowers for wine-making and preserves; or boating on the River Thames. And at some epochal moment, the Dakin boys (whose father was the family doctor) began to take him fishing with them. They were older than him, but they did it for Marjorie’s sake: no Eric, no Marjorie. All his life he retained the boyish pleasure and skill of coarse fishing, and the symbolisms of fish and fishing were to surface in his novel Coming Up For Air. The nostalgia of George Bowling for a happy Edwardian childhood in the opening pages of Part II of Coming Up For Air can be seen as very much George Orwell’s own. ‘Lower Binfield’ is recognizably Henley. ‘If I shut my eyes and think of Lower Binfield any time before I was, say, eight, it’s always in summer weather that I remember it… Most sweets were four ounces a penny, and there was even some stuff called Paradise Mixture, mostly broken sweets from other bottles, which was six. There were Farthing Everlastings, which were a yard long and couldn’t be finished inside half an hour. Sugar mice and sugar pigs were eight a penny… A whole lot of the kinds of sweets we had in those days have gone out.’ And, thinking of sugar and spice and all things nice, could ‘Katie’ in the same book, whom ‘when we were very small mother used to pay… eighteen pence a week to take us out for walks in the afternoon’ have been ‘Elsie’ of the convent school with whom ‘I fell deeply in love’? He calls her ‘Katie Simmons’ in the book, saying indeed that her father worked at a brewery. The name of the real owner of the brewery in Henley in the 1900s had been Simmons — whose close friendship with their mother, Avril hinted much later, neither she nor Eric liked. Some infant intuition or jealousy? Orwell’s memory of Lower Binfield/Henley before the age of 8 ‘always in summer weather’ was almost as much a symbol of the good society or ‘the golden country’ as was that one day that Rousseau tells us of in his Confessions (the only perfect day) when he picked apples in complete contentment and innocence with two young girls.
Orwell attributed his feelings of being lonely and out of it, despite all the other children and the outings, because of the five-year gaps between himself and the other two children, to being ‘the middle child’. Five years is a big gap, indeed, between children, especially an older boy and a younger sister; even though an older sister tends to cross the gap by playing Mother vigorously, sometimes whether the young boy wants it or not. Marjorie seems to have done no more but no less than was usual. Note that he spoke of ‘two children’ rather than (more precisely and concretely as became his style) ‘two girls’. He did grow up until 8 entirely among women, having seen his father only for three months when he was 4. He remained deeply fond, if very undemonstratively, of his mother and his two sisters all his life; but there may have been some ambivalence in his attitude. In appearance and manners he might seem a military or colonial gentleman-bachelor, but all his life he made friends more readily with women than with men; and the friendships were usually returned, although there is some lack of perceptiveness in his treatment of women, both as novelist and person. There may have been a feeling of some smothering of the very boyish boy at home; and then a sense of betrayal when pitched out so young to the brutal male world of boarding school.
In the last year of his life he was to write an isolated passage in a notebook, which could be simple reminiscence or it could be drawing from memory towards some story shaping in his mind:
The conversations he overheard as a small boy, between his Mother, his aunt, his elder sister and their feminist friends. The way in which, without ever hearing any direct statement to that effect, and without having more than a very dim idea of the relationship between the sexes, he derived a firm impression that women did not like men, that they looked upon them as a sort of large, ugly, smelly and ridiculous animal, who maltreated women in every way, above all by forcing their attentions upon them. It was pressed deep into his consciousness, to remain there until he was about 20, that sexual intercourse gives pleasure only to the man, not to the woman. He knew that sexual intercourse has something to do with the man getting on top of the woman, and the picture of it in his mind was of a man pursuing a woman, forcing her down and jumping on top of her, as he had often seen a cock do to a hen. All this was derived, not from any remark having direct sexual reference — or what he recognized as a sexual reference — but from such overheard remarks as ‘It just shows what beasts men are.’ ‘My dear, I think she’s behaving like a perfect fool, the way she gives in to him.’ ‘Of course, she’s far too good for him.’ And the like. Somehow, by the mere tone of these conversations — the hatefulness — above all the physical unattractiveness — of men in women’s eyes seemed to be established. It was not till he was about 30 that it struck him that he had in fact been his mother’s favourite child. It had seemed natural to him that, as he was a boy, the two girls should be preferred.
The least this passage suggests is that some of his guilt feelings and complex about being an ugly and smelly child pre-date his experiences at prep school; and that there may have been some basic ambivalence towards his mother, feeling over-protected and smothered but also, as man child, unwanted.
Certainly one of his nieces saw something that may have been a little worrying, at least to a boy, in her grandmother Ida Blair, as well as something good. She talks of Ida in Southwold in the late 1920s but it is recognizably the same woman, half emancipated, half artistic, and the same kind of household as in Henley in the 1910s:
We [Blairs and Dakins] always feel rather up in arms about this image of Eric living his early life under ‘shabby genteel’ conditions. Shabby, perhaps, genteel, never.
My impressions of my Grandmother Blair’s house in Southwold are of an extremely comfortable, well-run establishment. Quite small but rather exotic. The furniture was mostly mahogany, perhaps second hand but everything blended. Rainbow silky curtains, masses of embroidered stools, bags, cushions, pin cushions done by my grandmother, interesting mahogany or ivory boxes full of sequins, beads, miniature tracts, wooden needle-cases, amber beads, cornelian and ivory, small boxes from India and Burma. Fascinating for children.
Most of the work of the house was done by my grandmother with the able assistance of Mrs May, a tiny Suffolk woman… Mrs May arrived after breakfast which my grandmother and Aunt Avril took in bed, one at the head, one at the foot. Earl Grey tea, toast and Patum Peperium. The dachshunds usually sat on the bed, which delighted and scandalized us… Mrs Blair was so very much younger than her husband, and was so very much more intelligent and on the spot, that she more or less discounted him, at any rate when he was at Southwold. They had separate rooms and separate interests but got along quite amiably. He was always considered at meals and his favourite foods, especially puddings, were provided. Otherwise he was rather out of things. He was a very sweet-tempered man but not a patch on Mrs B.
She usually referred to men as ‘those brutes’. ‘Do you know what those brutes have done?’ re dustmen, butchers, etc.
So that the children were rather self-reliant and undemonstrative emotionally, with a boarding-school term and a fairly reserved holiday. Of course I only knew Mrs B. as a grandmother and she may have been different as a young woman.
There is little doubt from whom Baby Eric learned his first recorded word, ‘beastly’. ‘Those brutes’ is mainly a contemporary façon de parler, yet there is some ground for thinking that in his early childhood he might have suffered some tension from being pulled two ways between the over-protectiveness of a conventional mother and the up-and-away over-practicality of the woman on her own who might have quite liked to have been almost a femme libre. Some balance seems wanting which may perhaps account both for his ambivalence towards his childhood and for his odd mixture of aloofness and gregariousness. Always we have to allow that, for the purposes of mature writing in adult life, he skilfully stressed and polarized idyllic or oppressive images as the subject matter demanded. His niece made another remark that fortifies the belief that social, not sexual, guilt, the desertion of ‘Elsie’, dominates the childhood reminiscences of his notebooks.
Class was a greater problem… I think a lot of Eric’s hang-ups came from the fact that he thought he ought to love all his fellow-men; and he couldn’t even talk to them easily. My father was the same sort of age and background and he could never speak of anyone without first placing them classwise …
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See also: George Orwell’s death on 21 January 1950.