Starting as a schoolboy, Eric Blair quietly followed his own star. It was assumed that ‘Collegers’ (the King's Scholars, Eton's intellectual elite) would try for Oxford or Cambridge and probably succeed. But Eric didn't try. His family had forced him to work hard at a dreary prep school to win an Eton scholarship, and he was not interested in further mental exertion unrelated to his private ambition. At the beginning of ‘Why I Write’ (1947), he explains that from the age of five or six he knew he would be — must be — a writer. For those lucky enough thus to identify their star in childhood, the only indispensable training is to read, widely and attentively. But English literature was not a major subject at Eton, where most boys came from backgrounds either irremediably unliterary or so literary that formally to teach them ‘English literature’ would be absurd. Many years later Eric's tutor, Andrew Gow, declared that his by then famous pupil had done ‘absolutely no work for five years’. This was untrue; Eric had diligently apprenticed himself to those masters of English prose who most appealed to him — including, significantly, Swift, Sterne and Jack London. In The Road to Wigan Pier he tells us: ‘At the age of seventeen or eighteen ... I had read and reread the entire published works of Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy (at that time still regarded as dangerously “advanced” writers) ...’ However, he was supposed to have been studying History and Classics and in his final Eton July examinations he came 138th out of 167.
The disappointed Blair family would have been unimpressed had their only son then announced his ambition; in every generation thousands of youngsters ‘want to write’ and so far Eric had shown no trace of literary talent. Anyway, what could he write about? One's first eighteen years rarely provide either the material or the inspiration (at that stage) for saleable writing. And, having neglected to win a university scholarship, Eric had at once to earn his living. So off he went to Burma, to spend five lonely but profoundly educational years in the Indian Imperial Police. His mother's family had been settled in Burma for generations and his father, too, had served there as a middle-ranking officer in the ‘unposh’ Opium Department of the Government of India. (Despite ‘Victorian values’, the opium trade with China had been legalised in 1860 as a British Government monopoly.)
Readers of Burmese Days will know how strongly Orwell reacted against imperialism in action. He was never sentimental or starryeyed about the Burmese; that would have been totally out of character. But he could not accept that what he saw as Burmese racial weaknesses justified Burma's relentless exploitation by Britain. In 1927 he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police, much to his family's baffled exasperation. Nor were their feelings soothed by his admission that he intended to be a writer.
Orwell's savings proved that he had led an unusually solitary and frugal life in Burma, reading rather than boozing at ‘the Club’, yet they represented only a flimsy life-jacket when he plunged into the deep cold waters of the literary world. Where, for instance, was he to live? Eventually a family acquaintance found him a grotty bedroom in a mean street off the Portobello Road and there he settled down, at the age of twenty-four, to teach himself how to write. His neighbours were impressed by his determination. Week after week he remained in his cramped, unheated bedroom, thawing his hands over a candle when they became too numb to write. Clearly he was prepared to endure any amount of hardship for the sake of learning how to use the English language as effectively as he could.
Writers may be born not made — born, that is, with the will to write. But, for many, even modest success has to be worked for throughout long bleak years littered with rejection slips. In our day this fact is often obscured, to an extent that woutd have appalled Orwell, by the ease with which semi-literate but efficiently-hyped authors can become famous — and rich. Orwell never thought of his work primarily as a cash-source; many of his best essays were written for the Tribune, which always paid poorly and sometimes paid nothing. As his biographer Bernard Crick has noted, ‘He genuinely valued art more than success.’ In consequence, he was his own harshest critic. Sending the manuscript of A Clergyman's Daughter to his agent, he sadly remarked: ‘It was a good idea, but I am afraid I have made a muck of it.’ Another hallmark of the born writer was his conviction that those who habitually discuss their writing produce little of worth. And his early dedication to his craft never waned. Fame, when it belatedly came, did not tempt him to demand less of himself as a writer. In Orwell's case the style was indeed the man, as T. S. Eliot recognised when he referred to his ‘good writing of fundamental integrity’.
In the spring of 1928 Orwell moved to Paris, where the cost of living was then spectacularly low. He settled into a cheap hotel at 6 Rue du Pot de Fer, in the Latin Quarter, and within fifteen months had written two novels and several short stories, all repeatedly rejected and subsequently destroyed. Anxiously and humbly he sought constructive criticism from L. I. Bailey, his literary agent. Bailey condemned one short story as ‘immature and unsatisfactory’ and added, ‘I think too that you deal with sex too much in your writings.’ Another story brought the comment: ‘You have very good powers of description, but this power becomes tedious when a page of description could be much more effective in a few brief sentences.’ It seems the 25-year-old Orwell's faults were those common to many literary apprentices.
During this period of essential but apparently unrewarded hard work, Orwell sold only a few articles to obscure journals. Later he recalled, ‘My literary efforts in the first year barely brought me in twenty pounds.’ Then came the theft of the meagre remains of his savings, which had been irregularly augmented by giving English lessons. Probably the thief was not the young Italian described in Down and Out. Orwell subsequently confided to his friend Mabel Fierz that he had been stripped of all his money and most of his possessions by ‘a little trollop he'd picked up in a cafe’, a girl with whom he had had a relationship for some time. But consideration for his parents’ sensibilities would have required the suppression of this misadventure.
Whoever reduced Orwell to destitution did him a good turn; his final ten weeks in Paris sowed the seed of his first published book.
Most writers who share for a time in the lives of the poor are not genuinely down and out, though they may choose to appear so to their new neighbours. What gives the Paris chapters of Down and Out such pungent immediacy is the fact that Orwell was not then ‘playing a game’. True, he could at once have retreated to his parents’ modestly comfortable home in Southwold and admitted defeat; but after so obstinately quitting a secure career in the Indian Imperial Police that was not an attractive escape route. Also, he could have appealed for help to his favourite (because only) bohemian relative. Aunt Nellie. She was then living in Paris with her mildly dotty lover, Eugène Adam — who had recently founded the Workers’ Esperanto Association of the World — though for obvious reasons her proximity does not emerge in Down and Out. However, Aunt Nellie's own circumstances were then too straitened for a proud nephew to batten on her. So there really was no alternative to working in the foul kitchens of the fashionable Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli.
When Orwell left Paris in December 1929 he did not, in fact, immediately live as a down-and-out in London. Instead, he spent Christmas with his family, whose joy was confined when their penniless son — now aged twenty-six and seemingly an unqualified failure — suddenly reappeared. Defensively he announced to all and sundry that he was working on a book about his time in Paris. But meanwhile he had somehow to earn something and tutoring jobs were found for him near Southwold. Also, he soon began to establish a reputation as a courageously independent-minded reviewer who was not overawed by such ‘Big Names’ as Edith Sitwell or J. B. Priestley.
One of Orwell's pupils (Richard Peters, later Professor of Philosophy at the Institute of Education, London) has drawn a vivid pen-portrait of his engagingly eccentric tutor:
... a tall spindly young man with a great mop of hair waving on top of a huge head, swinging along with loose, effortless strides ... He had a slow disarming sort of smile which made us feel that he was interested in us yet amused by us in a detached impersonal sort of way ... He never condescended; he never preached; he never intruded ... He was never noisy and lacked the dogmatism of the insecure.
The original version of Down and Out, entitled A Scullion's Diary, was completed in October 1930 and came to no more than 35,000 words; evidently Orwell had used only his Paris material. When Jonathan Cape rejected it, as being too short and scrappy, he expanded it and tried Cape again — only to be rejected again. A year later he submitted a fatter typescript (the London chapters had been added) to Faber and Faber, whose rejection letter came from T. S. Eliot: ‘We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.’ At that stage Orwell lost heart, a reaction hardly justified by only two rejections — and those from London's foremost literary publishing houses. But by 1932 he may have been feeling hostile to Down and Out, an emotion many writers experience when a book has been too long on their mental plate. He was then absorbed in Burmese Days and very likely regarded the much-revised Down and Out as not only a disappointment but an irritating distraction, something he knew he should do more about but preferred to forget.
We owe the rescue and publication of Down and Out to Mabel Fierz, in whose home Orwell discarded the typescript, requesting his hostess to destroy it but save the paperclips. Instead, she took it to a reputable literary agent, Leonard Moore, and bullied him into reading it without delay. At once he recognised it as a ‘natural’ for the bold new house of Gollancz, and very soon it had been accepted — on condition that certain names were changed and all swearwords deleted. Having swiftly completed this last easy revision, Orwell wrote to Victor Gollancz: ‘I think if it is all the same to everybody I would prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.’ Gollancz agreed and so Eric Blair became George Orwell.
Three years after his ignominious return from Paris, Orwell again joined his parents for Christmas, clutching advance copies of Down and Out. It was a handsomely produced volume of 288 pages with the luxuriously wide margins of the day and a running title on the pages — ‘Confessions of a Down and Out’ — that betrayed how late Down and Out in Paris and London had been adopted as the title. Orwell's mother commented primly that the author was not the Eric she knew, and his sister Avril later recalled that their parents were ‘rather surprised at the out-spokenness of the language’. The family gave thanks that a pseudonym had been used; in Southwold the originality of Mr and Mrs Blair's son might not have been generally appreciated.
On 9 January 1933 Down and Out was published at 8s. 6d., which reminds us that hardback books were no less expensive then than now. Generous praise came from C. Day Lewis, W. H. Davies, Compton Mackenzie, J. B. Priestley and many other reviewers. Some 3,000 copies were sold — a reasonable achievement for a first book by an unknown young man — and Orwell made between £150 and £200, spread over two years. He had to wait until 1940, when Penguin printed 55,000 sixpenny copies (accidentally but perhaps fortunately misclassified as ‘fiction’), for Down and Out to become famous.
In The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell analysed his state of mind in 1927, on the eve of his down-and-out phase:
I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same ... I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to ‘succeed’ in life to the extent of making a few hundred a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying.
Thus, on his own evidence, the young man who wrote Down and Out was confused and uncertain, trapped in an emotional and intellectual whirlpool from which he escaped only when ‘the Spanish war and other events in 1936-7 turned the scales and thereafter I knew where I stood’. Yet this very whirlpool uncertainty gives Down and Out a naive power. It is the white-hot reaction of a sensitive, observant, compassionate young man to poverty, injustice and the callousness of the rich. It offers insights, rather than solutions; but always insights have to precede solutions.
No one has ever claimed that Down and Out is its author's best book, yet many of his admirers describe it as their favourite Orwell. Its flaws are numerous, but oddly endearing. Often we witness Orwell losing his nerve, as at the end of that clumsily inserted and hackneyed account of Charlie's rape of a prostitute when he lamely explains, ‘I describe him [Charlie] just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq. d'Or quarter.’ Again, reflecting on his plongeur experiences, he defiantly argues that ‘the mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit ... Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well.’ Then, on the next page, he becomes characteristically self-doubting (with good reason, in this case) and ends his dissertation on ‘the equality of man’ by wondering if it is ‘largely platitudes’.
Mixing on equal terms with the poor was not easy for Orwell — an extremely fastidious man who, even when starving, felt constrained to throw away a saucepan of milk merely because a bed-bug had fallen into it. Moreover, no one of his generation could have outgrown their ‘lower-upper-middle-class’ conditioning, however sincere their longing ‘to get right down among the oppressed’, and Orwell was too honest to affect the sort of camaraderie with tramps that could never come naturally to him. The peculiar flavour of English class-consciousness-at once more ruthless and more muted than Continental variants — comes across most aromatically when he is down and out in London. Yet this handicap did not prevent him from brilliantly documenting an area of human experience that his readers could never have glimpsed, or even begun to imagine, without his guidance. It was an area in which most middle-class readers were then uninterested; and indeed we still have with us a threatening percentage of the well-heeled who prefer not to think about inner-city and kindred problems. What Orwell wrote in 1930 applies to too many nearly sixty years later: ‘Foreseeing some dismal Marxian Utopia as the alternative, the educated man prefers to keep things as they are.’ However, the uncaring percentage has been steadily dwindling since the 1930s and Orwell was in the vanguard of those who brought about this change. Although Down and Out had no great immediate effect on public opinion, it marked the beginning of his ‘water dripping on stone’ influence.
To modern readers, one of the debates provoked by Down and Out — was it a slice of factual autobiography or part fiction? — may seem trivial. Yet Orwell took it seriously and in a somewhat muddled Introduction to the 1935 French edition (entitled La Vache enragée) he tried to be frank about his evolution as a documentary writer and about the tricks of that trade: ‘I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another ...’ This contradicts what he was soon to write about Down and Out in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘Nearly all [sic] the incidents described there actually happened.’ And he then went on to assert; ‘All the characters ... in both parts of the book are intended more as representative types than as individuals.’ Yet Down and Out's colourful characters seem the very reverse of ‘representative types’; they interest and entertain precisely because they are such skilfully depicted individuals. Although the then thwarted novelist in Orwell may have tempted him to accentuate the idiosyncrasies of Charlie or Henri or Boris, one never doubts that those men existed. However, the dilemma that prompted Orwell's self-contradictions is familiar to every writer of documentaries; one feels in honour bound to protect those who served as raw material, while avoiding any distortion off facts.
Only in Chapter XXIV is it clear that Orwell did distort facts by claiming that on his return from Paris he found himself down and out in London and had not ‘the slightest notion of how to get a cheap bed’. This of course heightens the tension and may be seen as a harmless literary device, like the omission of Aunt Nellie from his Paris social scene. But the truth is that in Paris he had already written his first substantial published essay, ‘The Spike’, describing a night spent in a Netting Hill tramps' hostel. Before his departure from England he had voluntarily lived among tramps for some time because ‘I knew nothing about working-class conditions. I had read the unemployment figures but I had no notion of what they implied ...’ Had Orwell recorded his adventures among the poor chronologically, Down and Out might have been a more coherent and shapely book-if rather less dramatic.
What Orwell has to say in Chapter XXII about ‘fear of the mob’ seems, at first glance, outdated. Post-war affluence has greatly reduced the size of'the mob’ and in Britain the Welfare State has, apparently, placated what remains of it. Physically it is much less gruelling to be down and out now than it was fifty years ago. But psychologically is ‘the mob’ any better off? Orwell's fellow-tramps existed within an isolated subculture and were only vaguely aware of how the more fortunate lived. Now television makes the unemployed tormentingly aware of the unattainable — by them — affluence that is within reach of the majority of their compatriots. So far Big Sister is winning and ‘the mob’ remains docile. But if Orwell were still around he might well feel uneasy about his country's futureless because of ‘the mob's’ potential for destruction than because of the techniques being devised to control it.