To Orwell Today,

If you look in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it is actually a geranium left after everything has been pawned.

Perhaps Orwell mis-remembered? Or has this aspidistra just flown in?

Yours on the dole, in deepest Mugsborough,
Deborah in Hastings

Greetings Deborah,

I don't have a copy, and haven't yet read THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS by Robert Tressell, and therefore didn't know that it was a geranium, not an aspidistra, that was left behind after the down-and-out hero of the story had pawned everything else he owned. But I definitely take your word for it - especially since you're from "Mugsborough", the town in the novel that was modelled after Hastings where Tressell himself lived.

I did some brush-up reading on the book and the author (and found a copy on the internet to order, which I plan to do):

THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS is a novel about a group of painters and decorators and their families at the beginning of the 20th century – a time when workers day-to-day existence was threatened by the whims of the employers. It vividly describes working class life at that time: the subjection, and destitution of the people whose labour created the glamour, glitter and luxury of the age. The setting of the story is the fictitious town of Mugsborough, a small town in the south of England....

ROBERT TRESSELL was the author of one of the great classics of socialism, the novel 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'.... He was in fact Robert Noonan, born in Dublin in 1871, son of Samuel Croker, a Resident Magistrate, and Mary Noonon. After his father's death, his mother re-married and at the age of 18 or 19 Robert left his Dublin home and emigrated to South Africa. He rejected his middle class background, chose the life of a skilled worker, and because of this, his family disowned him. Even without formal qualifications he found work as a painter and sign writer on the strength of his artistic talents....

He left South Africa in 1901 with his daughter Kathleen (his wife had died) and went to live in England. He chose to live in Hastings (the 'Mugsborough' of his book) which was an Edwardian seaside resort with neither factories nor industry, and at the time was in decline. Work was very scarce, the only major employers were painting and decorating firms, and workers were reduced to poverty to beg and fight each other for work. This is where Tressell spent the last decade of his short life; from where he drew the source of his book and his hero, Owen, whose life was similar to his own; the money grabbing, lying, cheating employers and capitalist politicians, the heartless, slave-driving foremen and his battered, bruised, sometimes courageous, sometimes blinded workmates. Tressell quickly became active in the growing labour and socialist movement....

Finally, he left Hastings in August 1910 and went to Liverpool to seek work and enough money to enable Kathleen and himself to emigrate to Canada. He was unable to hold down any job due to his chronic Tuberculosis; he was coughing up his own blood. Penniless, he was forced to enter the Royal Liverpool Infirmary – a new name for the workhouse, and after five weeks he died there on February 3rd, 1911. His daughter, at 16, never even got the chance to visit him before he died. Tressell was buried in a pauper's grave because no one claimed his body. His sisters knew of this and even in death disowned him. He had left the manuscript with Kathleen who minded it until it was first published in 1914....

I see, also, that there's a ROBERT TRESSELL MUSEUM in Hastings, and examples of some of the buildings he decorated and the signs he painted (great works of art actually).

Definitely, in KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING, Orwell gives acknowledgement to Tressell's book. But why he changed the plant to a geranium can only be conjectured.

Here's the pertinent excerpt from KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING:

"...It was about this time that he came across "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist" and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his "aspidistra". The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidstras in the windows...."

However, later in the book, Orwell DOES mention a geranium, when Gordon and Rosemary are arguing about what kind of plant to get for their flat - he wants an aspidistra and she wants a geranium:

"...'I tell you we've got to have an aspidistra.'.... 'But why?'.... 'It's the proper thing to have. It's the first thing one buys after one's married. In fact, it's practically part of the wedding ceremony.'.... 'Don't be so absurd! I simply couldn't bear to have one of those things in here. You shall have a geranium if you really must. But not an aspidistra.'.... 'A geranium's no good. It's an aspidistra we want.'...

At first I thought that maybe Orwell changed it from a geranium to an aspidistra because he had Gracie Field's song in mind, and he did love that kind of music:


But then I discoverd that the song didn't come out until 1938, and Orwell wrote KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING in 1935 (published in 1936). So maybe Gracie Fields chose an aspidistra because of Orwell. Who knows?

On second thought, perhaps Orwell, in his book, changed it from a geranium (which it had been in Tressell's book) because an aspidistra would look better as a symbol on England's flag. Or maybe he liked the way "aspidistra" rolled off the tongue. After all, it DOES sound better to say "keep the ASPIDISTRA flying" than "keep the GERANIUM flying".

And, of course, for purposes of Orwell's story, a geranium does not have the physical attributes of an aspidistra. And Orwell - with his infamous knowledge of flora and fauna (and able to recognize the Latin and common names of insects, animals and plants) - would know the difference.

Here's the way Orwell described the plant in KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING:

"...As Gordon threw away the match his eye fell upon the aspidistra in its grass-green pot. It was a peculiarly mangy specimen. It had only seven leaves and never seemed to put forth any new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it — starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence. Gordon stood up and deliberately wiped his kerosiny fingers on the aspidistra leaves...."

Here's how it's officially described on a botanical website:

ASPIDISTRA THE CAST-IRON PLANT (The barroom plant - Aspidistra elatior Blume [as pi dis' tra e lay' te or] - seems indifferent to humans. Removed from its native Asia to the stuffy, gas lit houses of the Victorian Era, it simply decided to endure. The Aspidistra was so tolerant of the leaky gas fixtures that all proper Victorian homes had at least one. As a symbol of middle class respectability, the Victorians called it the cast-iron plant. The Aspidistra grows long strap-like leaves from a rhizome (underground stem). The leaves persist for years and tolerate light levels as low as 25 foot-candles. It forgives sporadic watering and poor potting soil which made it the ideal choice for barrooms. Fitting these plants into the décor of the bar, they were often potted in old spittoons. There was even a song written -- "The Biggest Aspidistra in the World" with emphasis on the first syllable of the third word...)

At the time he was writing KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING, Orwell was working in a bookstore in London's Hampstead, and this is probably where he first discovered THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS. Orwell does mention (through his character Gordon, in the excerpt from ASPIDISTRA previously quoted), that he had just recently read it.

When I was in England in 2003 I went to the bookstore where Orwell worked:

ORWELL'S BOOKLOVER'S CORNER (...Just this past winter I'd read Keep the Aspidistra Flying which Orwell wrote during his fourteen months in Hampstead. The book's main character, Gordon Comstock, is a struggling author working in a bookstore where "there were highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow books, new and second-hand all jostling together, as befitted this intellectual and social borderland". The book is so obviously autobiographical that a person reading it experiences a feeling of being a confidant of Orwell's in whom he shares his innermost thoughts and feelings. So I was really looking forward to seeing if the bookstore in real life had any resemblance to how I'd pictured it while reading Aspidistra....)

Orwell, by mentioning THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPIST in his own book (and indirectly referencing an aspect of it in his title) is perhaps implying that some of his inspiration and ideas came from Tressell.

Thank you very much for bringing the geranium/aspidistra discrepancy to my attention. It's renewed my interest in reading THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS - especially since it was obviously a book Orwell very much enjoyed; written by an author whose life had many parallels to Orwell's.

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - Years ago, when I first read KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING, and as a symbol of George Orwell, I got an aspidistra plant (at least that's what I think it is) which was very small at the time, but which has now grown very tall. It's not THE BIGGEST ASPIDISTRA IN THE WORLD, or even the biggest plant in my house (yet); but at the rate it's growing, it someday will be. One of these days I'll take a photo and show it to ORWELL TODAY readers.

PPS - As I write this, it's St George's Day in England in honour of England's patron saint. In KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING the hero (Orwell in disguise) makes the joke that "The aspidistra, flower of England, ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn". Actually, Orwell makes so many direct and indirect references to St George & The Dragon in his writings, that I suspect that's who Eric Blair had in mind when he chose "George" as part of his pseudonym. See SAINT GEORGE ORWELL DAY & GEORGE ORWELL'S PEN NAME

St George pageant returns to London after 425 years, BBC, Apr 23, 2010 (...The occasion was an annual feature of London life from the time of Edward III, but faded away in the aftermath of the Reformation and English Civil War.... "St George's Day is a great opportunity to recognise what binds us together and to celebrate England's rich culture, heritage and sporting traditions". The red cross of St George on its white background was adopted by Richard the Lionheart who brought it to England from the Crusades, and whose soldiers wore it on their tunics to avoid confusion in battle."...)

St George's Day: 10 things you need to know, Mirror, Apr 23, 2010 (...England's flag is the emblem that Saint George famously wore on his shield or banner....)



Reader says author Robert Trussell is similar to George Orwell


Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
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