A work admired by George Orwell,
whose plagiarism by W. A. Darlington he deplored
A Victorian author that George Orwell knew well was F. Anstey. In his essay on humourous writers, ‘Funny But Not Vulgar’ (July 1945), he praised Anstey’s Vice Versa (filmed several times). Anstey’s name, though, had come up years before. In January 1941 Orwell published a review of three novels: two of them remain outstanding, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon and John Mair’s Never Come Back. The third was Alf’s New Button by W A Darlington.
Orwell wrote ‘When Alf’s Button had its tremendous success, first as a novel and then as a film, it was astonishing that no one, as far as I remember, pointed out that it owed everything to F. Anstey’s book The Brass Bottle… Anstey’s Horace Ventimore merely wanted to get away from the wretched jinnee who kept presenting him with camel-loads of rubies, Alf’s imagination went no further than odalisques and pots of beer… I do not prophesy for this book the success of its forerunner.’ (CW741, New Statesmen 4 January 1941).
The Brass Bottle was originally published in 1900.
The first Penguin edition was in 1946
There were four film versions of Vice Versa (which was published in 1888), the last of them in 1988 scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Freaky Friday was a novel, since filmed repeatedly, which changed the sexes of Anstey’s characters:
There were silent versions of The Brass Bottle (first published 1900) in 1910 and 1923, but it was presented in colour in 1964, where the main character, played by Tony Randall, kept the name Ventimore.
Notice that Orwell talks of a ‘wretched jinnee’ not a ‘genie’. This was a distinction made by Anstey in his novel in which Horace Ventimore, an architect with no business and a desire to marry, was pedantically corrected by his fiancee’s father on the difference between ‘genie’ and ‘Jinnee’ (Penguin edition page 36) which Orwell had clearly remembered from some earlier edition.
Reading The Brass Bottle one cannot help but be struck by other elements that Orwell appreciated. Firstly, Ventimore’s position is that described later by Orwell in his 1948 essay on George Gissing: ‘Gissing makes what now seems the curious remark that it is difficult for an educated man who is not rich to get married’, which Orwell explained as ‘not having enough money to circumvent (the accepted code)’. Ventimore finds himself put in ridiculous situations by his beneficent Jinnee, which – unlike the world of Gissing, fortunately – can be corrected.
And secondly, one cannot read Anstey’s first paragraph: ‘”This day six weeks — just six weeks ago!” Horace Venimore said, half aloud to himself, and pulled out his watch. “Half-past twelve — what was I doing at half-past twelve”‘ and not hear an echo of:
The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon–Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already–lounged across the table, pushing a four-penny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb. (Keep The Aspidistra Flying)
or even of
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
For a comic novel, in which the reader spends a long time wishing to give the protagonist a good kicking, The Brass Bottle has a strange but strong connection to the work of George Orwell.
Connections remained after George Orwell’s death. In the USA the film The Brass Bottle inspired Sidney Sheldon to develop the TV series I Dream Of Jeannie. Fifteen years earlier, Sheldon had read Nineteen Eighty-Four as it was published and became the first person to acquire the dramatic rights. George Orwell’s letter explaining his political purpose in writing his novel is reprinted in Sheldon’s autobiography, along with Sheldon’s explanation that the rights expired before he could put a dramatization on stage.
L J Hurst
with assistance from Carol Biederstadt