I Do Not Want an Orwell


In 1947, as Orwell was writing and rewriting drafts of 1984, he took time to turn out the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” an autobiographical reflection on his years in English boarding school. Its description of his school’s filth, snobbery, and intellectual fraudulence were so raw that Orwell held it back from publication. He knew it would invite scandal and, probably, recrimination.

The essay did precisely this when it came out after Orwell’s death. Several of Orwell’s peers thought he had exaggerated for literary effect and came to the old school’s defense.

Controversy aside, Orwell’s interpreters generally take “Such, Such Were the Joys” as a peroration of the major themes that would appear in his masterpiece, 1984.

This says something about boarding school, doesn’t it?

It’s true, the big ideas of 1984 are all there in outline in Orwell’s essay–the concept of thought crime, the use of violence to cow and control the individual, the material poverty imposed by authoritarian rule, the willful mass forgetting of history, and, overarching all of it, the despot’s blind need to abolish privacy.

I could easily write an essay about these themes, and it would please myself.

But why? For the life of me I don’t understand how, as a nearly 55-year old man, I still enjoy the academic exercise of matching up bits of text in one piece of literature to corresponding bits in another piece. The outcome usually manages to be both shallow and pompous. (Here we have Orwell anticipating Big Brother in the person of his former schoolmaster, Sambo.) I suppose it’s like the pleasure of fishing; simply going through the motions is always rejuvenating even if the motions are old and worn. The experience remains deep and vital. It touches something timeless. I do not care that I am such a poor literary critic. It’s the only thing I care to be in my down time.

What remains fascinating about reading “Such, Such Were the Joys,” (which I have probably read a dozen times) is that we can see in high definition how Orwell became the author who was about to write 1984, and consequently was to become one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th century. Orwell’s school experience crystallized the two big ideas whose contraposition framed 1984: on the one hand a ruling system that is set up to erase individual conscience and, on the other, a thinking individual who is unable to surrender to the system’s demands.

“Such, Such Were the Joys” is full of reminders that the process of becoming Orwell was not much fun. One bald testament: “But at any rate, this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.”

The narrative opens with a bleak reminiscence on the eight-year old Blair’s bedwetting, which he had earlier outgrown but which recurred under the stress of school life. Eric Blair the eight-year old child prayed to God for the bedwetting to end, because he found that he had no control over it despite his most desperate efforts. It mortified him, naturally. The schoolmasters told him he was to blame for it, and they beat, harangued and intimidated him. It was, as he said, impossible for him to do the right thing, but he nonetheless felt himself to be in the wrong.

Okay, that was the situation, as Vivian Gornick might put it, but what was the story? What was it like inside young Eric Blair’s head? “All through my boyhood I had the profound conviction that I was no good, that I was wasting my time, wrecking my talents, behaving with monstrous folly and wickedness and ingratitude . . . .”

If we have doubts that the child is the father of the man, Orwell reports that this attitude stayed with him past childhood. He recalls,

The conviction that is was not possible for me to be a success went deep enough to influence my actions till far into adult life. Until I was about thirty, I always planned my life on the assumption that not only was any major undertaking bound to fail, but that I could only expect to live a few years longer.

Despite the pessimism that darkened his emotional life for so long, though, Orwell–or, better to say, Blair–found the very thing in school that steeled him to struggle on toward hope and light and a decent, happy existence. A child cannot go on for years opposing his adult authorities at every turn, and young Blair made the necessary compromises to please and placate his teachers and even seek the warmth of their approval. He occasionally even fawned on them, as prisoners will fawn on their jailers. But, as he said,

all the while, at the middle of one’s heart, there seemed to stand an incorruptible inner self who knew that whatever one did–whether one laughed or snivelled or went into frenzies of gratitude for small favors–one’s only true feeling was hatred.

Why hadn’t young Blair known that there was such a thing as the “middle of one’s heart” a place where he was his inviolable self? Because, as he recalls, beliefs in early childhood are underwritten by pure authority and not necessarily the light of reason. “A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness,” he writes, “but it has no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgments. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and power of the adults surrounding it.”

Twice in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Orwell characterizes the inner life of the young child in boarding school as a mass of “irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings.” And adults choose this life for children and administer it, make it a reality. Or at least they used to, before this kind of school experience began to be abolished by law, enlightenment, and common decency.

“Dad, would you ever send me to a boarding school?”

This was the question, posed to me a week ago, which became a topic of conversation and, eventually, the occasion for these present scribblings.

My answer came straight from my heart, and in a way, straight from Orwell. The abiding sin of sending young children off to boarding school is that it removes them–arbitrarily, as they must see it–from the sanctuary of the home, which is a better place for them than any other place on earth. The great contrast between home and early 20th century English boarding school, Orwell wrote in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is that

Your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than fear, where you did not have to be perpetually on your guard against the people surrounding you. At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a goldfish into a tankful of pike.

Orwell became the leading public intellectual of the 20th century because of discoveries forced on him at boarding school. Eventually he would conclude that (1) politics was the only thing that could improve humanity, but (2) all of politics, even the “good” side, is a realm of “force and fraud and secrecy.” It was a lesson that enlightened a half-century of thought about–and struggle for–the survival of democracy. But it cost him his childhood.

So my answer to the question, “Dad, would you send me to boarding school?” was the same answer Orwell gave, a clear and resounding no. Orwell adopted an infant orphaned during World War Two and named him Richard. He took every measure he could to ensure Richard’s childhood would happen in a place ruled by love, not fear.

Orwell with Richard in 1946 or 1947

Orwell probably never had a full grasp of his own approaching greatness; widespread appreciation of his thought was just building as he began actively to die, of tuberculosis, in 1948. But what he did know from early in his career was that he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” He must have known, too, that this power sprang from his childhood experience being flung, a small goldfish, into a tankful of pike.

The life Orwell gave young Richard, while he could, was the opposite of this Darwinian nightmare; he kept Richard in a place ruled by love. Orwell wanted an everyman for a son; he did not want another Orwell. And neither would I. The young will find their own trials in life, the things that steel their minds, heighten their senses, and build up their resilience. We need not force these things on them and call it an education.