Awake! Young Man of England

Following from last week, we begin by considering the young Blair’s early development. I want to expose how he ineffectually attempted to shun his conservative and elitist upbringing as his politics developed along contrary lines. As Orwell himself stated, ‘I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development’ (Orwell, 2000a: 3).

Born in India in 1903, the christened Eric Arthur Blair was brought up in what he described as the ‘lower-upper-middle class’ (1987: 106). He was educated at the prep school St. Cyprians in Sussex where he gained a Kings Scholarship to Eton and later rejected as having had any influence on him. Viewed in isolation one may expect the natural progression from this elitist upbringing to have been upper/middle class respectability and a natural conservatism. Yet representing the unquestionable influence, but also fundamental contradiction which would characterise the man, both friends and scholars have continually noted that Orwell was conservative about almost everything but politics (Hitchens, 2003). D.J. Taylor suggests that how Orwell developed through his attempts to absolve himself from his privileged upbringing and natural class habitat ‘is perhaps the chief emotional panorama of his life’ (2004: 13). It is therefore imperative if to understand how, and perhaps more importantly why Orwell’s politics evolved as they did, to begin in a period, which after closer scrutiny, is almost absolutely apolitical.

At first glance one is struck at how little Orwell wrote on his childhood in comparison to the reams he produced on seemingly insignificant topics, perhaps suggesting an inconvenience to his more developed politics. With the exception of Such, Such were the Joys and minor passing reminisces, the only sources to examine of this period are those of the retrospective words of friends and sketchy biographies. Such, Such were the Joys is an extended (supposedly autobiographical) essay about the five years he spent at St. Cyprians, revolving around class and cruel authority, with a subtext of snobbishness and fear.

Although Orwell does state that the observations he makes are retrospective and did not form fully at the time, The Joys is written explicitly from the perspective of factual experience. The problem with this is that the only extended first hand piece of his writing on his childhood is if not entirely fictitious, then certainly exaggerated beyond all factual recognition or use for examining this period politically. The vicious essay was most probably influenced by the concerns which fuelled his writing at the time of composition, which itself is unclear. It has been suggested by some Orwell scholars that Nineteen-Eighty Four is in fact based solely on his authoritarian prep school experiences, and although this might be a convenient and concise conclusion it is far more likely that the obverse is true; i.e. St. Cyprian’s is moulded into Oceania, in keeping with totalitarian concerns of the time.

The working manuscript of the essay seems to have had several drafts compiled over a decade. As such the powerful image of the young bedwetting Blair discovering the ability to ‘commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it’ (2000a: 419), is merely an emotional tool one may use to define ‘thoughtcrime’, as reportedly Blair never wet the bed nor was beaten (Taylor, 2004). Fundamentally, Such, Such were the Joys is more useful as a means to consider how the dystopia of Airstrip One developed in Orwell’s adult mind rather than in his adolescent past, and certainly does not represent the fundamental foundation of his future politics. In this vein D.J. Taylor suggests:

‘What [Orwell] thought about St. Cyprians during the five years he spent there is not recorded. What he thought about it as a grown man is one of the most damning indictments of an educational system ever committed to paper’ (2004: 29).

Orwell’s negative memories, his supposed rejection by peers, his ineligibility in the system – as well as his failure in it – are all essentially false and politically motivated. Through The Joys Orwell attempts to disregard and reject his past as having had any positive influence on him and how his own personal experience proves that such an upbringing is of no value, only breeding the class distinction and elitism his politically matured self was so elementally opposed to. Indeed Ingle states: ‘One might say he was rewriting history to give an autobiographical authenticity to an ideology of power’ (1993: 14).

It may have been that in his mind to allow any concessions to his past would be the height of hypocrisy and reduce his beliefs to nil worth. As such St. Cyprians cannot be seriously suggested as the ideological birthplace for ‘George Orwell’, nor where his famous dystopia was first conceived. Rather, that in tandem with his academic education Blair received a class education, even if only from one distinctive side of the looking glass. From this he would draw heavily in his future personal conception of socialism, characterised by a fundamental belief in equality. One may therefore suggest Blair’s development before Eton to be one of an unconscious discovery of class.

Continuing the educational progression to Eton, one discovers a similar, if slightly more genuine retrospective attitude. After a term at Wellington College in Berkshire, Blair was offered a Kings Scholarship at Eton, which granted an exemption from fees. D.J. Taylor notes Orwell’s attitude on this period as seen through his fiction. As with Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the young Blair:

‘[…] did no work at school […] but managed to develop his brain along the lines which suited it. He read books the headmaster denounced from the pulpit, and developed unorthodox opinions about the C. of E., patriotism and the old boy’s tie.’ (2000f: 45)

This condenses his time at Eton quite precisely. Eton was a place where Blair furthered his developing individuality, and despite the irony of being in a bastion of the upper classes, began form the foundations for the path which would see him exit orthodox privileged and middle class opinions. Friends such as Christopher Hollis diagnosed Blair as a bit of a ‘Bolshie’ (Taylor, 2004), yet adding this was quite standard of the time. From the lack of political awareness Blair demonstrated at Eton, it may be concluded that this attitude was more adopted with an anti-establishment character than any serious left wing conviction, exemplified by absolute indifference to the Russian Revolution in 1917 (at the time) and the First World War (except when needing ideas for poetry).

It is perhaps indicative of the young Blair’s growing individualism that the beginning of his self-education was leading him away from society’s expectations of an intelligent boy of relative privilege, showing no interest in working hard to go to Oxford, of which he was certainly capable. Analogous to his adult musings on St. Cyprians, Orwell’s retrospective opinion of Eton was politically and not factually considered. In the few places he mentions something of his early biography, he invariably dismisses Eton as a positive influence on him, and endeavours to make clear his absolute unsuitability as a pupil there, exemplifying the consciousness of an outsider. The mature Orwell does not seem to appreciate or perhaps want to concede the ability Eton gave him to develop as he wished, and into the outsider who would later attack that which helped form him. Yet as with his privileged prep school it is possible that Orwell felt that he could hardly make exceptions in his call for the abolition of private schooling and the overthrow of an inherently unequal class system, and remain credible. As such, an uncompromising ‘opinion’ on this period is conceivably to be expected.

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