Having introduced us to the East Anglian town of Southwold, home of the Blair family, Ann Kronbergs continues her description of its place in the life of Eric Blair, yet to become George Orwell.
George Orwell in Southwold continued: Part 2
The importance of Southwold people and places in Eric Blair’s early writing life should not be underestimated. In late 1929 his return from Paris to his elderly parents’ home at No 3 Queen Street gave cause for further paternal anxiety; it was disappointing for Eric’s father Richard to learn that his son’s writing to date had earned him a mere £20, whereas the profits from his sister Avril’s Copper Kettle Tea Room next door had enabled her to buy a car! Getting words down on the page was Eric’s main solution to domestic tension in the five years that followed. With material gathered over the past eighteen months for A Scullion’s Diary, he worked on the manuscript that eventually became Down and Out in Paris and London. Additionally, he generated book reviews, journalistic pieces and two novels.
Whilst he may have loathed the petty snobbery of Southwold, Eric found it was a fertile ground for several friendships. One of these was with Brenda Salkeld, gym mistress at St Felix School and daughter of a vicar in Bedford. In 1930 Eric proposed marriage to her, but was rejected. Brenda was the source for the character of Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter, in which Dorothy was put off by the aggressive physical advances of Mr Warburton. The town of “Knype Hill” is a fictionalised Southwold, where small-minded provincialism is the target for satirical attack. Nevertheless, Eric maintained a correspondence with Brenda and continued to see her from time to time up to the end of his life.
Two old friends also became important at this time: Dennis Collings, son of the family doctor, and Eleanor Jaques, the girl from Stradbroke Road. Dennis was two years younger than Eric and while Eric had been in Burma, Dennis had spent time in Mozambique working on a sisal farm before going up to Cambridge to study archaeology and anthropology. In later years he remembered how Eric followed a regular daily routine: breakfast followed by writing at a table in a small back room until midday. Then he would go out for a pint followed by lunch, after which he roamed the countryside with his friends or on his own. Dennis particularly remembered these long walks in the coastal area and the talk they shared, not about politics but about the natural world around them. Nevertheless Dennis and other Southwold inhabitants knew about Eric’s tramping expeditions at this time; working on the manuscript for A Scullion’s Diary he dressed in tramp’s clothing and visited the casual ward in nearby Blythburgh. Dennis took the view that:
“His tramping was like his hop-picking, it was an anthropological experience he wanted to go through, in the end leading to something that could be written about…I think he was trying to atone for something.”
The beach at Southwold as it appears today
A few photographs taken on Southwold beach in 1932 show Eric Blair dressed, even in the height of summer, in a suit made by the local tailor Jack Denny. He cuts the figure of a young, upper-class gentleman who is a far cry from the down-and-outs he reported on in his writing at this time. In one picture he is shown in a group of three, holding on to his mother’s dachshund while Dennis Collings is stretched out between him and Eleanor Jaques who is laughing. DJ Taylor has written about the “curious Jules et Jim style relationship” that existed between the three of them. Letters exchanged between Eleanor and Eric show the unfolding of the intimacy between them and, afterwards, his longing for it to continue. Writing to her in July 1933, he says: “…try and keep some days free for me, & it would be so nice if we could go & bathe & make our tea like we used to do last year along the W’wick shore. Let me know.” The result was another romantic disappointment for Eric: Eleanor must have decided that Dennis would make a better husband for her, since she married Dennis early in 1934 and they left immediately for Singapore where Dennis had been appointed to the role of curator of the Raffles Museum.
Uploaded 20 November 2017