By L. J. Hurst
What could explain friendly letters written late in life between Christianna Brand, the crime novelist who wrote Green For Danger, and Jacintha Buddicom, recently found by the bookseller Jamie Sturgeon? The autobiography of Brand’s cousin, the artist Edward Ardizzone, contains some clues and expands on Jacintha’s own remarks in her recollections of the young George Orwell.
Christianna Brand (born Mary Christianna Milne 1907) was the cousin of Edward (Ted) Ardizzone (born 1900), and Mary was taken in by Ardizzone’s family when she was orphaned at an early age. At that time the family lived in Ipswich, on the River Orwell. Ardizzone’s maternal grandmother moved to Shiplake on the Thames, and it was during visits to her there that Ardizzone mentions meeting the Buddicoms.
“Next to our (grandmother’s) house lived Lady Weldon … A little further away lived the Buddicombes (sic) and further still, Lady Warren”, Ardizzone wrote; his remark about meeting the Buddicoms so throw-away that it makes me wonder if he has not described it in more detail somewhere else. Jacintha Buddicom, in her memoir Eric And Us (Finlay: Rev. Ed. 2006) recalls them: “the exotic Ardizzones who often came to stay with their grandmother, fierce and forbidding Mrs Irving” and in addition to being exotic (due to Ardizzone senior’s Italian/French/Algerian/British nationality) she says they were “such a happy and interesting family”.
Separately, the Buddicoms (Jacintha – born 1901 – and her siblings) came to know another boy in the neighbourhood, Eric Blair (born 1903), and his sisters, their friendship lasting until Jacintha lost touch when Eric became a police officer in Burma in the early 1920s. Eric Blair, of course, was George Orwell.
Ardizzone’s father, like Eric’s, was away for long periods working in the Far East (further east than Eric’s, in fact, in Malaya), though unlike the Blair siblings, his mother left the children with their grandmother for some years while she joined her husband out there, while Ardizzone’s aunt also joined her husband. Mary was just one of the multiple children born to Mrs Ardizzone or her sister, Mrs Milne, at different times in Malaya.
This chapter of his autobiography, entitled “War-time holidays with Grandmamma”, begins “My parents being abroad, I and my two sisters spent most of the holidays with grandmother”, and goes on to describe more relatives visiting. Although Ardizzone does not mention a specific meeting, given the social activities of the time (which he does describe, though Jacintha Buddicom’s memory is qualified: she writes “this might have been in the days before we knew the Blairs”), there is a good chance that during school holidays the Blair children, the Ardizzone children and their cousin Mary, along with the Buddicoms, socialised at the same dances, at the entertainments for the troops they put on during the War of 1914-1918, and at parties (specifically mentioned by Jacintha). None of the friends were of the exact same age (Ardizzone was older than Jacintha, who was older than Eric) and Mary was the youngest by far. Mary’s friendship with Jacintha must have blossomed after the War, she being, according to Jacintha, “a small and sweet girl cousin”. Jacintha’s memoir goes on to say, confirming the Ardizzone connection from her side, “With Ted (Ardizzone) and Mary (Christianna Brand) I still have contact”.
Consider the names listed above of Grandmamma’s Shiplake neighbours (Lady this, Lady that, mentioned so casually), whom Eric must also have encountered and you can see why later, when he wrote as George Orwell, he thought that “there can hardly be a town in the South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop” (Road To Wigan Pier, chapter 7). Interesting as is Ardizzone’s own life, there is more in The Young Ardizzone: An Autobiographical Fragment (Studio Vista, 1970) that can make the Orwellian stop and ponder. Biographically there are parallels but there are equally interesting divergences.
In a letter to Cyril Connolly in 1938 Eric wrote “people are wrecked by those filthy private schools long before they get to public school age”. Late in life Orwell remembered with horror the pressures put on his Eric-years by his prep school headmaster drumming into him: “Either I won my scholarship [to public school], or I must leave school at fourteen and become, in Sambo’s favourite phrase ‘a little office boy at forty pounds a year’… ruined for life.” (“Such, Such Were The Joys”). Ardizzone provides a contrast, because he had had a minor public school education and on leaving at eighteen did become an office clerk: in Warminster and then in London. It was only after 1925 or so that he took evening classes at the Westminster School of Art and more years before he tried to make a living from his drawing. This would be about 1928 when Orwell himself was also beginning a faltering career in literature. Cousin Mary’s experience was similar to Ardizzone’s: she went to work in a shop, providing the background for her first crime novel, Death In High Heels (1941). That the Ardizzone cousins had come through their work notably not ruined for life suggests that Eric had been damaged by his headmaster’s dubious inspiration, nothing later, while the 1938 letter presaging “Such, Such Were The Joys” helps refute claims that the essay can be read with Nineteen Eighty-Four as symptoms of a final depression in his life.
“You lived, so to speak, at two levels simultaneously. Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to tip them, although in practice you had one, at most, two resident servants. Theoretically you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner, although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a decent restaurant” (Road To Wigan Pier, chapter 8). Orwell illustrated this problem in his novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, where Gordon Comstock has to choose a restaurant wine while unable to afford a good vintage, but Ardizzone’s experience shows it in another way: in 1939 he was selected as a war artist and sent to France with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). The army provided drivers and sent out cars filled with artists, reporters and photographers. Ardizzone reports of his excursion “we stopped again at Brussels … and had lunch in a small cafe-restaurant … I don’t know where our driver lunched” (in Baggage To The Enemy, 1941: pages 26-27); so his temporary stripe, and despite his years of clerkship, recalled those early OTC lessons as officer and other rank ate separately on active service, just as Orwell described his class learning to do.
I elide over the descriptions of school toilets, which confirm Orwell’s accounts of their horrors. And of Ardizzone’s own experiences of being bullied. For most interesting is that while none of the participants knew how they would develop, Shiplake, no more than a village on the river Thames even today, during the First World War was a repository of so many latent talents. Jacintha and Eric were to part while Jacintha’s statement and Mary/Christianna’s letters show that those women remained friends; perhaps as Eric and Jacintha would have re-established friendship had he lived.