George Orwell in 1933

In a recent article (also available as a podcast), “The Brilliant but Confused Radicalism of George Orwell,” Jeff Riggenbach at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute alerts us to the early childhood experiences of Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) in an English prep school, St. Cyprian’s—events which Riggenbach and other commentators maintain ultimately led to the grim, blighted, and sadistic world of his magnum opus, Nineteen Eighty-four:     

But worse than the pedagogical limitations of the place — in Orwell’s memory, at least — were the cruelties and brutalities it employed and encouraged among its students. Orwell remembered his years at St. Cyprian’s as like “being locked up … in a hostile world,” a world in which you had “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 gold-fish into a tank full of pike.” …. Anthony West contended that if you read Nineteen Eighty-four closely, you would see — must see — that “the whole pattern of society [in the novel] shapes up along the lines of fear laid down in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ [Orwell’s memoir] until the final point of the dread summons to the headmaster’s study, for the inevitable beating. In 1984, the study becomes Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, and the torturers correspond closely to the schoolmasters.” In effect, West argued, “what [George Orwell] did in 1984 was to send everybody in England to an enormous [St. Cyprian’s] to be as miserable as he had been.”     

St. Cyprian’s playing fields

It almost makes Oliver Twist’s experiences seem sedate. From such happenings in their youth do artists fashion their fictions, as Orwell himself recognized:     

In one of the radio talks he wrote and presented for the BBC during World War II, Orwell said, “A  human being is what he is largely because he comes from certain surroundings, and no one ever fully  escapes from the things that have happened to him in early childhood.” The following year, in an essay  called “Why I Write,” he elaborated on this idea a bit. Before a writer “ever begins to write,” Orwell  asserted, “he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” For  “if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”    

Riggenbach’s article is still available on the Mises site.     


Further reading:     

A previous TAC article about Nineteen Eighty-four is here.     

Mike Gray