George Orwell mildly surprised me once by remarking, apropos of nothing, that Kipling's “Mandalay” was his favorite poem. He had little taste for poetry anyway, and enjoyed taking an exaggeratedly lowbrow attitude to Eliot, Pound, Auden and others who were then favorites among intellectuals. All the same, Kipling! I tried to pursue the matter further, but, as so often happened with Orwell, ran into a blank wall. He had in him a strain of almost insensate obstinacy behind which he would retreat and refuse to be dislodged.
Mandalay belonged to his Burmese memories, which were far from being as distasteful to him as has sometimes been suggested. Christopher Hollis, who was with Orwell at Eton, has described dining with him in Rangoon when he was serving with the Burma police. The impression Hollis formed was of a conscientious and reasonably contented officer. He certainly did not carry away a picture of someone girding abnormally against his association with British rule, and pining for the Left Bank and conversational evenings in the Cafe Royal.
It is important to keep all this in mind in considering Burmese Days. Though in his political attitudes Orwell was ardently anti-imperialist, he continued to cherish a romantic notion of empire builders valiantly bearing the white man's burden. They might be brutal and obtuse, but they had qualities of courage and endurance which Orwell greatly admired.
There were two Orwells. Or, rather, there was the original Eric Blair, and the George Orwell into whom he transformed himself after he adopted this pseudonym. Orwell tried hard to obliterate Blair, but he never quite succeeded in disposing of him. Blair, peeping out from behind Orwell's austerely critical countenance, loved England dearly: its countryside, its red pillar boxes, and its school-boy heroism in wars and in far off places drenched in monsoon rains, sweltering in tropical heat.
The two strains are clearly marked in Burmese Days. Orwell savagely attacks the shoddy way of life of the English in Burma, their fatuous insistence on their innate superiority to the “natives,” their arid isolation as sahibs in a land which they govern but never bother to understand. At the same time, he himself adopts many of the sahibs' characteristic assumptions. Thus, missionaries are contemptible, Eurasians pitiable; the Indian doctor, Veraswami, speaks and writes Babu English, and is altogether absurd in his fawning admiration of his sahib overlords; while the sahibs, with all their faults and deficiencies, prove courageous in the face of a rioting Burmese mob and go about their duties conscientiously. The only poltroon among them, significantly enough, has a foreign sounding name: Lackersteen.
Verrall, the military policeman who seduces Flory's girl, is an unspeakable cad, but also, in Orwell's eyes, a kind of hero. He is Orwell's version of the Brushwood Boy, Kipling's schoolboy athlete-hero — insolent, ill-mannered, selfish, but in a sort of way magnificent. Verrall is the standard English public school hero: an athlete, handsome, self-assured and commanding obedience in others. He is contrasted with Flory, with his hideous birthmark, his low taste for consorting with “natives” and his poor showing as a horseman. Flory is humbly content to have his girl back when Verrall has finished with her. While hating Verrall, Flory accepts his superiority.
Flory is, of course, Orwell himself, and the birthmark an image of Orwell's abiding feeling of being physically unattractive. This feeling was ridiculous, but it persisted. He was no more ill-favored than anyone else, though a bit bizarre: tall and lean and cadaverous, with a certain — how shall I put it? — lack of grace, which at schools like Eton gets noticed and is a decided handicap. I used to think of Orwell as being, like Don Quixote, a “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.”
In the course of the last conversation I had with him, in the hospital a day or so before he died, Orwell grew loudly vituperative about an advertisement which showed a sock suspender on the leg of a classical hero, perhaps Perseus. That kind of thing really shocked him, he said. He had no objection to religious blasphemies, but physical beauty was a sacred thing and should be shielded from the vile devices of advertisers.
Orwell, that is to say, was Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in one; an admirer of Kipling and his most devastating critic at one and the same time. The best written part of Burmese Days is the description of the hunting expedition, and yet Orwell would have been ready enough, I am sure, to append his signature to a petition calling for the abolition of blood sports. A similar duality of purpose led him to make the girl in Burmese Days, Elizabeth, seem enchantingly attractive, and, at the same time, to portray her mercilessly as commonplace, snobbish and in search of a husband at any price. This division in Orwell between the romantic lover and the wry realist made his relations with women difficult. It was not a matter he cared to speak about, but it may safely be assumed that Flory's torments over Elizabeth were described from personal experience.
Orwell and I often discussed sahibs and their ways. It happened that I had been teaching at a college in south India when Orwell was in Burma. I wore Indian dress, tortured myself by trying to sit cross-legged on the ground, traveled third class, made myself ill with Indian food and was regarded by the few local sahibs as a crackpot, if not a subversive. Orwell disapproved of such behavior. To him, it was reminiscent of missionaries, who corrupted the “natives” with their condescending brotherliness and sanctimonious evangelizing. On the other hand, like Flory he looked back with remorse on his participation in the paltry arrogance of the English in Burma. He was, I recall, particularly contrite about having on occasion struck “natives,” though here again I suspect that he derived a certain satisfaction from the toughness implied, just as he was immensely proud of having spent a night in the police cells in Glasgow on a drunk and disorderly charge. In Orwell's eyes it was wrong to hit “natives”; in Blair's, whoever could not bring himself to administer physical chastisement as and when required was a milksop, a namby-pamby.
In actual fact, Orwell's efforts to masquerade as a tough were touchingly inadequate. He had much too sweet a disposition to want to hurt anyone, and much too tender a love for all living creatures to make an effective huntsman. It was Orwell's decidedly unsportsmanlike love of animals which makes Animal Farm so enchanting a work — one of the very few undoubted masterpieces of our time. Like Kipling, he found it easier to express his delight in the earth and its creatures through the medium of animals than of men, whose ways so often and so deeply appalled him. Despite his ostensible hunting ardor, there was far more of St. Francis of Assisi than of Jorrocks in him. His harmless vanity about being good with a shotgun was scarcely borne out by his handling of weapons during his service in the wartime Home Guard. A fellow member of his platoon told me that they were in greater danger of being blown up by Orwell than by the enemy. And the fishing rod that he insisted, during his final illness, should stand by his bed where he could see it was, an expert told me, in sad disarray.
* * *
British rule in India and Burma has left only a very meager literary deposit. There is E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, in my opinion a grotesquely overrated book; there is Kipling; and there is Orwell.
Events have moved so fast since Orwell's time in Burma that contemporary readers may regard his account of how the English lived and behaved there in the days of British rule as distorted and exaggerated. This is not so. Life in an upcountry station was just as Orwell described it, with the dreary little club, the silly talk about upholding white prestige, the buffoonery following long sessions of tedious drinking, the rows and absurd postures and faraway snobbishness of expatriates, many of whom enjoyed for the first time in their lives the sense of being somebodies, and behaved accordingly. Nowadays, these same people are as eager to ingratiate themselves with Pandit Nehru as once they were to have him shut up. Their arrogance toward “natives” disappeared with British rule, and they have found in the mystique of profit a substitute for the now defunct mystique of empire. Britain's Indian empire began with trade, and has ended with it too.
Burmese Days, in my opinion, is the most satisfactory of Orwell's novels. When he wrote it he was less concerned than subsequently with the various causes and ideological considerations which were increasingly to occupy his time and thought, making him, in the process, so superb an essayist. The narrative moves along fast and convincingly; the characters are people, not, as often happens in Orwell's novels, ideas. A lot of Orwell's future manias are already apparent in Burmese Days — tor instance, his excessive loathing of the way of life of the English lower-middle classes, with their domestic bric-a-brac, their aspidistras and brass trays and Betje-manesque decor; with their obsequious veneration for the rich and wellborn, and resolution at all costs to send their children to schools, however academically inferior, where they would pick up the right sort of accent and acquire the right sort of behavior. These social aspirants tended to take the road to Mandalay. East of Suez servants were available and cheap, and in the deep verandas of government bungalows on sultry nights the illusion of patrician living could be sustained.
* * *
In the first part of World War II Orwell worked at the British Broadcasting Corporation in the department responsible for broad-casting to India. He had, he told me, organized a series on great works of literature, ranging from Paradise Lost to Thomas Hardy. Were these, I asked, calculated to bank down the fires of subversion and bring India's teeming millions on to our side?
Perhaps not, he said, somewhat crestfallen. He added, more cheerfully, that anyway, no one could pick up the broadcasts except on short-wave sets which cost about the equivalent of an Indian laborer's earnings over 10 years. At this thought he began to chuckle: a dry, vibrant, somehow rusty chuckle, very characteristic and very endearing.