Such, Such Was Eric Blair

Why I Write

by George Orwell
Penguin, 120 pp., $8.95 (paper)
Orwell Archive, UCL Library Services, Special Collections
George Orwell, Walberswick Beach, Suffolk, 1934

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…

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