Homage to Orwell
Sunday, July 13, 2003
3. ORWELL'S BOYHOOD HOMES
Eric Blair was born in India on June 25th, 1903 but left for England at the age of one with his mother and six-year-old sister, Marjorie. His mother had been born in London but raised in Burma where her French father was in the teak and boat building business. He had made and lost a fortune and so she had at one time lived a luxurious life. She met Orwell's father in India when she was twenty and he was thirty-nine. He had been a civil servant in the Opium Department of the Imperial Government for twenty years by that time and she married him on the rebound. Children born to fathers working for the Imperial Government were usually brought home and educated in England, seeing their father only when he came home on leave every few years. This was the case for Eric. They moved to the village of Henley-on-Thames which was an hour by train from London.
The diary Eric's mother kept when Eric was two years old says that he had lots of colds that winter, and describes him calling things "beastly". When he was four or five years old he made up a poem and his mother wrote it down. In 1907 his father came home on leave and nine months later a baby sister, Avril, was born. He didn't see his father again until he came home for good in 1912, having retired after forty years with the Government. By that time Eric was nine years old and attending boarding school at St. Cyprian's in Eastbourne, Suffolk and coming home only on holidays and summer vacations.
When he was eleven years old, at the outbreak of World War One, Eric sent a poem to the Henley newspaper and it was published. A second poem was published two years later in the same paper. Later in his life Orwell said that he had always wanted to be a writer. He said he used to look at things and practice writing about them in his head. He used to say to his friend Jacintha "...when I am a FAMOUS writer..."
The Blairs lived in two different houses in Henley, and one in Shiplake. The first one in Henley was on Vicarage Road which they lived in until 1912 when Eric's father came home. Then they moved to a bigger house in Shiplake which was two miles away. They lived there until a year after the outbreak of World War One when it became too difficult to keep it up. So in 1915 they moved back to Henley into a smaller house on St Mark's Road. By this time Eric was twelve years old and in his final year at boarding school preparing to qualify for a scholarship to Eton.
When Zoe and I arrived in Henley we looked for the house on Vicarage Road but we didn't have the exact address other than that it was called "Ermadale" (after the first two letters in ERic's and MArjorie's names). People we met on the street knew Orwell had lived on Vicarage Road but weren't sure of the number either. But they DID know that the number on St Mark's Road was 36 and told us how to walk there. It was just around the corner more or less. Here's a photo of me standing in front of that house, a "semi-detached", as they say in England:
Looking at the house I tried to imagine what it would have been like when Orwell lived there. Orwell's niece Jane (his sister Marjorie's daughter) described the Blairs' house to Bernard Crick for his biography, Orwell: A Life:
"My impressions of my Grandmother Blair's house are of an extremely comfortable, well-run establishment. Quite small but rather exotic. The furniture was mostly mahogany, perhaps second hand but everything blended. Rainbow silky curtains, masses of embroidered stools, bags, cushions, pin cushions done by my grandmother, interesting mahogany or ivory boxes full of sequins, beads, miniature tracts, wooden needle-cases, amber beads, cornelian and ivory, small boxes from India and Burma. Fascinating for children."
Looking toward the upper windows I wondered which bedroom was Orwell's. He'd moved back to this house in 1915 when he was twelve years old. At that time he was in his last year of prep school at St Cyprian's and hoping to earn a scholarship to Eton - the best school in England for boys ages thirteen to eighteen.
After leaving Henley we drove toward Shiplake to look for the house named "Roselawn" on Station Road. But somehow we got off the beaten track and ended up on a country road down by the river (the Thames that is) and turned around in a big meadow where lots of cars were parked and people were carrying picnic baskets. We wondered if there was a Regatta going on, having read in the biographies that one was held every year in July and that Eric and the Buddicoms sometimes attended.
For every holiday and summer vacation Orwell came home to Shiplake and Henley, in between visiting relatives in Cornwall. And when he was home he always spent time with Jacintha and Prosper Buddicom whom he'd met in Shiplake when he was eleven and they were thirteen and ten. He'd attracted their attention by standing on his head in the field behind their house. When they asked him why he was standing on his head, he responded, "You're noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up". After that they were inseparable. With Jacintha he discussed books and wrote poetry and made up word games; and with Prosper he fished and made gun-powder and shot hedgehogs.
Crick, in Orwell: A Life, says: "And all together they played many different pencil-and-paper word-games like 'Ladders' and 'Hangman', and lots of card-games, particularly Rummy and Cheat, as well as the tireless, timeless Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and Halma. Chess was thought too serious. Of all indoor pastimes and educative games typical of that time, nothing musical is mentioned. Eric seems to have been as good as tone-deaf and like the rest of the family to have had neither ability nor interest in music."
Eric, Jacintha and Prosper roamed the countryside either walking, riding their bikes or travelling by train to the Buddicom's aunt in Church Stretton, Shropshire near Wales. Their friendship continued until at eighteen years old Eric graduated from Eton and then left for Burma in 1922.
They didn't communicate again until 1949 when Jacintha sent a letter to him in the sanatarium after learning that the George Orwell of Animal Farm was Eric Blair of Shiplake and Henley days. He was thrilled and astonished to hear from her and wrote right back telling her his childhood memories and about how difficult it had been for him to become a writer and that he regretted having torn up a whole novel once, saying "An w'en I sor wot 'e'd bin an' gorn an' done, I sed coo lor, wot 'ave you bin an' gorn an' done?".
These were the stories I was recalling as we drove the road between Henley and Shiplake. When we went over a narrow bridge spanning a stream I could totally picture Orwell playing here as a boy, just the way he'd described it in many of his writings and culminating in "the golden country" of 1984. By the time we left the tree-canopied country road, we'd bypassed Shiplake and were heading toward a "round-about" to London.
go next to 4.ORWELL'S LONDON DAYS or back to HOMAGE INDEX
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