Although he returned from Burma in 1927, George Orwell (still Eric Blair for part of the time) kept up his interest in both the Indian sub-continent and the wider Far East. It was part of the Blair family tradition.
His mother had extended family in Burma, while his father had spent most of his career in the Raj, only returning to Britain during rare leaves. The gap between the Blair children is explained by this rarity. When Mr Blair retired the family moved to Southwold, most likely (according to Bernard Crick’s biography, and more recently Ann Kronberg’s accounts of the town) to be near Craighurst, a ‘crammer’ which specialised in preparing youths for the Indian police and civil service exams. Eric was 18, and between his father and the Craighurst staff he was immersed in Indian law and practice as he studied.
Five years later, Eric Blair’s resignation from the Indian police and return in 1927, though, was not the end of his active interest. A decade later, at the beginning of 1938 there seemed to be the possibility of his taking a job with The Pioneer newspaper in Lucknow, which was prevented by illness, and again towards the end of the Second World War he investigated the same possibility. In the latter case he was concerned that the authorities might take his radical politics into account and deny him a visa. Again he did not go.
Orwell’s writings, though, show that he did not constrain his studies within the British Empire and we can describe the interest he expressed in the wider Far East, particularly if we do it in reverse chronological order. In his short essay ‘Good Bad Books’, published in Tribune in 1945, he writes of ‘Peter Blundell, who wrote in the W.W. Jacobs vein about Far Eastern seaport towns, and who seems to be rather unaccountably forgotten’, but in the previous paragraph he writes of even more specific geography: ‘Guy Boothby’s Tibetan thriller, Dr Nikola, a sort of schoolboy version of Huc’s Travels in Tartary which would probably make a real visit to Central Asia seem a dismal anticlimax.’
A recent re-printing of the 1928 Routledge edition
Orwell had read Huc’s book twelve years before. Signing himself ‘Eric’, he wrote to Brenda Salkeld in September 1934 saying ‘I have just been reading Huc’s Travels in Tartary and Thibet, which I can recommend’. He seems to suppose that she knew something of the book, for he says no more. It records the expedition of two French Catholic priests to cross northern China and enter Lhasa in Thibet, which they did between 1844 and 1846. ‘Huc’ was Evariste-Regis Huc, and he travelled with his superior Joseph Gabet, and a local guide Samdadchiemba. Their account was published in Paris in 1850 then quickly translated into English and published in 1851. A different translation appeared in New York in 1852. Orwell, though, need not have read a crumbling seventy-year old copy (it was so large it required printing in two volumes), as it had been reprinted in full as recently as 1928 by Routledge in their Broadway Travellers series. The date of Orwell’s letter makes it clear that he was not reading the 352 page abridgement published by Herbert Joseph in their Great Explorations series; Hugh J Schonfield’s edition in that series was published in 1937. (Herbert Joseph must have been disappointed to learn that interest in Huc had diminished: they had to re-price from book from five shillings to half that, two shillings and sixpence).
The 1937 abridged edition
Huc and Gabet travelled in local dress (as lamas, or Buddhist priests, for safety against attack) but the conditions in which they travelled and the conditions they found (little firewood for cooking, water barely drinkable, miserable peasant existence everywhere) reveal they had little social advantage. Orwell may have been most interested in the differing versions of Buddhism they encountered, particularly between that of Lhasa and that he had known in Burma. Paul Pelliot’s Introduction (presumably written for the Routledge reprint) shows that Huc uses a style of re-ordering events, most notably by writing ‘we’ or ‘our’ when only one of Huc or Gabet could have been present at an event, an approach which we know now Orwell himself adopted in his non-fiction.
Guy Boothby, who had prompted Orwell’s 1945 recollection of Huc, was an Australian who had spent a number of years in southern Asia, mainly struggling in badly paid but exotic jobs, experiences he later turned into mostly hack-work fiction when he finally reached Britain. Perhaps more reading for Orwell. And about the same time that Eric was writing to Brenda Salkeld he was also writing to a potential French translator about sponsorship of some sort from Andre Malraux, who had just spent years in French Indo-China in an anti-colonialist campaign.
A short reference by George Orwell, on examination, has a huge amount behind it. I suspect that even the many hyperlinks in the Orwell Foundation online printing of ‘Good Bad Books’ are only scratching the surface, mere hints as to the depth and complexity of one short piece. There are, of course, many thousand such entries in the Complete Works, edited by Peter Davison, each waiting for explication.
L J Hurst
Uploaded February 11th 2018