Why I Write
You have to feel a little sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, or “Sambo” and “Flip” as they were known to their charges. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. It was no worse than many other such establishments: the food was bad, the building underheated, physical punishment the norm. Pupils learned “as fast as fear could teach us,” one alumnus later wrote. The day began with a frigid and fetid plungebath; boys denounced one another to the authorities for homosexual practices; and daily morale was dependent on whether a boy was in or out of favor with Flip. In some ways the school was better than many: it had a good academic record, Sambo nurtured contacts at the most important public schools, especially Eton, and clever boys from decent families of modest income were accepted on half fees. This was a calculated act of generosity: in return the boys were meant to reward the school by gaining academic distinction.
Often, this worked, and the Wilkeses might have had reason to congratulate themselves, in the early years of World War I, for having admitted on reduced terms the sons of Major Matthew Connolly, a retired army officer, and of Richard Blair, a former civil servant in the Opium Department of the government of India. The two boys, Cyril and Eric, each won the Harrow Prize (a nationwide history competition), and then took scholarships to Eton in successive years. The Wilkeses must have thought their investments had paid off, the accounts balanced and closed.
But Englishmen of a certain class—especially those sent away to boarding schools—tend toward obsessive memory, looking back on those immured years as either an expulsion from the familial Eden and a traumatic introduction to the concept of alien power, or else as the opposite, a golden and protected spell of time before life’s realities intrude. And so, just as World War II was about to begin, the Wilkeses, much to their distaste, became a matter of public discussion and argument.
Major Connolly’s boy, young Cyril—renamed “Tim” at St. Cyprian’s, and given the school character of an Irish rebel (if a tame one)—published Enemies of Promise in 1938. While describing in some detail the harshness and cruelty of the lightly disguised “St. Wulfric’s,” Connolly also admitted that as preparatory schools went, it had been “a well run and vigorous example which did me a world of good.” Flip was “able, ambitious, temperamental and energetic.” Connolly, who leaned toward Edenic memorializing (especially about Eton), recalled the vivid pleasures of reading, natural history, and homoerotic friendship. He devoted several wistful pages to the latter subject. Connolly’s book must have felt to the Wilkeses as damaging as the fire that burned St. Cyprian’s to the ground the following year. Flip wrote him a “Dear Tim” letter about the harm he had done to “two people who did a very great deal for you,” adding that the book had “hurt my husband a lot when he was ill and easily upset.”
For the next thirty years, the debate continued about the true nature of the Wilkeses—diligent pedagogues or manipulative sadists?—and more widely about the consequences of sending small boys away from home at the age of eight: character-building or character-deforming? The photographer Cecil Beaton had been at St. Cyprian’s at the same time as Connolly and Blair, surviving by charm and the ability to placate by singing “If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy.” He applauded Connolly for having “seen through all the futilities and snobbishness of Flip and her entourage.” Others joined in, like the naturalist Gavin Maxwell and the golf correspondent Henry Longhurst, a stout defender of Flip as “the most formidable, distinguished and unforgettable woman I am likely to meet in my lifetime.” Connolly later came to regret what he had written. When Flip died in August 1967 at the age of ninety-one, he turned up at her funeral, doubtless expecting sentimental reunion, the rheumy eye, and the forgiving handshake. Not a bit of it. The major’s boy had turned out a bad egg and a bounder, as literary types often do. Connolly self-pityingly noted that “nobody spoke to me.”
Yet Flip’s death merely led to the most savage and contentious contribution to the debate. Ten years after Enemies of Promise, Eric Blair, by then George Orwell, wrote his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” as a pendant to Connolly’s account. It was never published in Britain during his lifetime, or Flip’s, for fear of libel; but it did come out in the US, in Partisan Review, in 1952. Longhurst picked up a copy of the magazine in Honolulu and was “so shocked that I have never read it again.” Forty years after it was first published in Britain, sixty years after it was composed, and now almost a century after the events it describes, “Such, Such” retains immense force, its clarity of exposition matched by its animating rage.
Orwell does not try to backdate his understanding; he retains the inchoate, emotional responses of the young Eric Blair to the system into which he had been flung. But now, as George Orwell, he is in a position to anatomize the economic and class infrastructure of St. Cyprian’s, and those hierarchies of power that the pupil would later meet in grown-up, public, political form: in this respect those schools were truly named “preparatory.”
Orwell also writes with the unhealed pain of an abused child, a pain that occasionally leaks into his prose. He describes a younger pupil—aristocratic and thus entitled to privileges denied to half-fees Blair—like this:
a wretched, drivelling little creature, almost an albino, peering upwards out of weak eyes, with a long nose at the end of which a dewdrop always seemed to be trembling.
When this boy had a choking fit at dinner,
a stream of snot ran out of his nose onto his plate in a way horrible to see. Any lesser person would have been called a dirty little beast and ordered out of the room instantly.
Orwell’s denunciatory fervor is almost counterproductive; readers may well feel sorry for the little chap whose hair color, nasal explosions, and accident of birth were none of his doing.
If Connolly was by his own admission a tame rebel at St. Cyprian’s, Orwell was a true one: Connolly wrote that Blair “alone among the boys was an intellectual and not a parrot.” And if the child is father to the man, the writer’s account of his own childhood is often a sure guide to his adult mentality. (At St. Cyprian’s Blair denounced boys for homosexuality—“one of the contexts in which it was proper to sneak.” Decades later, during the cold war, Orwell sneaked on the politically unreliable to the British Foreign Office.) “Such, Such Were the Joys” is about life in an English preparatory school; but it is also about politics, class, empire, and adult psychology. And the writer’s mature views on these subjects feed into his corrective vehemence:
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.
The same typist who produced the final, fair copy of “Such, Such” also typed a draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four ; both the cadences and the message of those two sentences must have made her feel the overlap.
The Queen of England, advised by her government, appoints knights and peers; the nation at large, by more informal means, appoints national treasures. To achieve this status, it is not sufficient to be outstanding in your profession; you must reflect back some aspect of how the country imagines itself to be. (You also need to be seen not to be chasing the title too hard.) Typically, national treasures tend to be actors or sportsfolk or, increasingly, those made famous by television. It is hard for living writers to become NTs, but not impossible. Charm is important; so is the capacity not to threaten, not to be obviously clever; you should be perceptive but not too intellectual.
A most successful national treasure of the last century was John Betjeman, whose genial, bumbly appearances on television overcame the handicap of his being a poet. Someone like Betjeman’s contemporary Evelyn Waugh could never have become a treasure: too rude, too openly contemptuous of those whose opinions he despised. Postulants for treasuredom are allowed to have political views, but must never appear angry, or self-righteous, or superior. In recent times the two writers to attain unarguable NT status have been Alan Bennett and the recently deceased John Mortimer: both old-fashioned liberals, but managing to exude the sense that if confronted by a rabid crypto- fascist Little Englander, they would offer a glass of champagne (in Mortimer’s case) or a steaming mug of cocoa (in Bennett’s) and then search for common ground in uncontentious topics.
When it comes to the dead, it is hard to retain, or posthumously acquire, treasuredom. Being a great writer in itself has little to do with the matter. The important factors are: (1) an ambassadorial quality, an ability to present the nation to itself, and represent it abroad, in a way it wishes to be presented and represented. (2) An element of malleability and interpretability. The malleability allows the writer to be given a more appealing, if not entirely untruthful, image; the interpretability means that we can find in him or her more or less whatever we require. (3) The writer, even if critical of his or her country, must have a patriotic core, or what appears to be one.
Thus Dickens, as Orwell observed, is “one of those writers who are well worth stealing” (by “Marxists, by Catholics, and, above all, by Conservatives”). He also fulfills criterion 3:
Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.
Something similar has happened with Trollope, who—partly through relentless TV adaptations, but also because he invented the pillar-box—hovers on the edge of being a national treasure. This near status has been greatly helped by the public support of two Trollope-reading Tory prime ministers, Harold Macmillan and John Major—despite the fact that Trollope hated Tories.
And George Orwell? It would surprise, and doubtless irritate, him to discover that since his death in 1950 he has moved implacably toward NT status. He is interpretable, malleable, ambassadorial, and patriotic. He denounced the Empire, which pleases the left; he denounced communism, which pleases the right. He warned us against the corrupting effect on politics and public life of the misuse of language, which pleases almost everyone. He said that “good prose is like a window pane,” which pleases those who, despite living in the land of Shakespeare and Dickens, mistrust “fancy” writing. He distrusted anyone who was too “clever.” (This is a key English suspicion, most famously voiced in 1961 when Lord Salisbury, a stalwart of the imperialist Tory right, denounced Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies and member of the new reforming Tory left, as “too clever by half.”)