George Orwell’s Childhood Recollections

On the 25th of June 1903, English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic Eric Arthur Blair, known by the pen name George Orwell, was born in Motihari, Bengal Presidency, British India. Regarded as one of the most influential English writers of the twentieth century, he is best known for the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), in which he described a totalitarian dystopia characterised by government control and subjugation of the people, and the novella Animal Farm (1945), an allegory of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequently to the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. Popular all over the world and translated into sixty-odd languages these two books have sold almost forty million copies. But Orwell is also acclaimed for his numerous essays on politics, literature, language, and culture. 

One of his less known, rather controversial, pieces of writing is Such, Such Were the Joys, a long autobiographical essay describing the author’s experiences between the ages of eight and thirteen, while a pupil at St Cyprian’s preparatory school in the seaside town of Eastbourne, Sussex. The essay was first drafted at the dawn of World War II, sometime between 1939-40, revised in 1945-46, and completed in May or June 1948. Following Orwell’s wish, who claimed that Such, Such Were the Joys was “Unprintable (libellous) until certain people are dead, but should be printed some time.” (Orwell papers, University College, London, box.10), the essay was first published by the Partisan Review in 1952, two years after his death. The fact that Orwell did not want to confront the public – and most likely his ex school fellows – with reminiscences of his childhood, should reassure the reader that  the 515vu8fI3dL._SY445_essay was based on facts. His piece offers “… an unusual guide to childhood. Whereas some men never seem to grow old (or should it be up?), it takes a real imaginative effort to think of his ever being young. The photographs of the moon-faced boy that was Eric Blair are no help: they bear no resemblance to the familiar, craggy, middle-aged Orwell. (In one photo, surely unique, in Miriam Gross’s World of George Orwell, the boy is even smiling!) Cyril Connolly recalled that Blair ‘was one of those boys who seem born old’. Orwell’s memoir of St Cyprian’s does not help much either: the young Eric, despite uncharacteristically personal revelations, is elusive. He seems an isolated figure, repelled by his surroundings, musing on injustice and sin – almost the mature Orwell in fact, though prey to childish misconceptions that magnify his woes. The memoir should be revealing. Orwell tells us that he was made to feel inadequate from an early age because his parents were relatively poor. His double-beating for bed-wetting and then the revelation that he was taken on at half-fees should together constitute a turning-point in his life, transforming him into a rebel who would react not only against the ‘money-god’ and the pervasive ‘money-stink’ of capitalist society but against all repressive authority-thus transforming Blair into Orwell. His struggle against Mrs Wilkes may be seen as a microcosm of his own later struggles and of those of his fictional characters – and of their failures, mirroring his own failure when he succeeded in winning a scholarship to Eton. He had been moulded by the system he wished to reject. Even Nineteen Eighty-Four, as West and others have shown, may be seen to spring from prep school days.” (Robert Pearce, Truth And Falsehood: George Orwell’s Prep School Woes, The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 43, No. 171, August, 1992)

Some doubted the authenticity of Orwell’s recollections. After all, the described cruelty and snobbery of both pupils and adults associated with the school, particularly the headmaster, Mr. Vaughan Wilkes, and his wife, Mrs. Wilkes, portray the place as an abusive and emotionally destroying institution. Orwell describes the “pattern of school life” as a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people — in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.” Shocking are also descriptions of corporal punishments for wetting one’s bed or acts of disobedience. “Not that Orwell believed all the boys were punished. Those whose fathers’ income was much above Ł 2,000 a year were exempt. Richer boys were in fact given all sorts of privileges, and so were those belonging to the nobility.” (Pearce). Could all of it it be true?

Even though all of the names used in the essay seem to be real, after thorough research of the school in question, Robert Pearce concluded that, “St Cyprian’s was not nearly as bad as it was portrayed. Not that it was perfect. It shared many of the defects of the time. But it was highly successful in turning out the desired products. It gave a good academic education and in many ways a well-balanced education. … Judgements on St Cyprian’s are relatively easy to make. The same cannot be said of Orwell and his reasons for producing this highly partial and blinkered account. Clearly he disliked the school: this can be seen not only from the memoir but from other writings as well. Perhaps bullying there affected him more than he admitted: certainly he later revealed a contempt for bullying as the most atrocious activity he could think of.” (Pearce)