Ruth Pitter’s name appears in the biographies of George Orwell as the Southwold friend who found him lodgings in London, when the would-be writer decided to place himself closer to the contacts and possible contracts that would make life as writer possible.
Ruth Pitter was born in 1897 and had been a friend of the Blair family – initially of Mrs Blair and later with Orwell’s older sister Marjorie, though she was only six years older than Eric Blair, later to become George Orwell. She was fortunate and recognised early: Hillaire Belloc admired her work from the start.
Orwell was not using his nom-de-plume, and it was as Eric Blair that his review of Ruth Pitter’s long poem Persephone in Hades appeared in Adelphi magazine in September 1932. His review began “This is something slightly out of the common; a poem done in classical style but a genuine classical style, not the mincing archaism which sometimes goes by that name.” Biographer D J Taylor calls this a “back-scratching review” but one can find Orwell’s voice even in so early a piece.
“In its most vital periods classicism is always accompanied by, perhaps springs from, an earthy and even blackguardly outlook which is not natural to modern men. There is hardly an eighteenth century author whom one can read without feeling instinctively that he had a family of natural children, and was intriguing for a sinecure.”
In those sentences one reads first the analysis that reappeared in Orwell’s review of The Vicar of Wakefield and his essay on Tobias Smollett. One can note, too, the self-restraint he still had to show in his vocabulary, conscious of his family in Southwold: “natural children”, not “bastards” – the word that would appear in A Clergyman’s Daughter.
Ruth Pitter found Orwell a room in London, later recalled in one of his war-time As I Please articles: a landlady who was so snobbish that she had never spoken to her neighbours, and had to send her husband and Orwell miles to collect a ladder when they had locked themselves out of the house exemplified all that Orwell found wrong with English, perhaps British, social life.
Even after Orwell had moved across London and out to Hayes, where he was a schoolmaster, he kept in touch with Ruth Pitter. It was Hayes that inspired his poem “On a ruined farm near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory“, which, after appearing in Adelphi, was chosen for Best Poems of 1934, but as he wrote to Brenda Salkeld, “there are several dozen of these anthologies of the so-called best poems of the year, & Ruth Pitter writes to tell me that she is in 4 of this year’s batch, including one called Twenty Deathless Poems.”
Biographer Gordon Bowker thinks that this information from Pitter discouraged Orwell’s attempts at poetry, but she did support him – or was not unduly negative – in his early attempts at stories and articles, reading, criticising and correcting them, even though, as she later put it, he was like a “cow with a musket”.
As late as 1940 Orwell reviewed her latest collection, “The Spirit Watches” in Adelphi. She survived Orwell by more than forty years and died in 1992.
L. J. Hurst
A Kind of Compulsion 1903-1936: The Collected Works of George Orwell Volume 10, edited by Peter Davison.
Orwell: The Life, by D J Taylor
George Orwell, by Gordon Bowker
It has not been possible to trace a copy of Twenty Deathless Poems.
Photographs of books by Ruth Pitter courtesy of Scarthin Books.
Uploaded 30th September 2018