An introduction to Down and Out in Paris and London

John Sutherland describes the biographical and historical events that produced George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which combines memoir with a study of poverty in two European cities in the late 1920s.

These three weeks were squalid and uncomfortable, and evidently there was worse coming, for my rent would be due before long. Nevertheless, things were not a quarter as bad as I had expected. For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that. You are bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, ‘I shall be starving in a day or two – shocking, isn’t it?’ And then the mind wanders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne. (Down and Out in Paris and London, ch. 3)

In November 2014 YouGov asked 2,000 members of the reading public which they thought were ‘the most valuable books to humanity’. Nineteen Eighty-Four came fourth.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was George Orwell’s last book, written as he was dying of TB, aged 47. Down and Out in Paris and London was his first book, published when he was 29, in January 1933. It was substantially written three years earlier, drawing on his experiences of four to five years before that.

The dates are important to a proper understanding of Down and Out. The years 1927 to 1933 were historically tumultuous. The jazz age ended with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Worldwide unemployment followed. Down and Out pivots on a transitional historical moment in the 20th century.

The man

He was not born ‘George Orwell’. ‘Eric Blair’ was born in 1903, as he sardonically put it, in the ‘lower upper middle class’ (The Road to Wigan Pier, ch. 8) in Bengal, India, where his father, Richard, was a civil servant in the government’s opium department (then a legal cash crop in the subcontinent).

Richard Blair retired to England a year after Eric was born. He was brought up by the Thames; he would always love rivers, and named himself after one. As the only boy in the family, he was sent to a ‘prep’ school, which he hated. The preparation was for public school, university and a ‘good’ profession.

'Awake! Young Men of England' by George Orwell

'Awake! Young Men of England' by George Orwell

Orwell’s first published work was a poem which appeared in a local newspaper when he was 11 years old.

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A gifted child, Eric won a top scholarship to Eton. But for Eric ‘the best school in England’ was an escalator taking him somewhere he had no intention of going. He methodically ‘slacked’ – while forming a network of friends who would aid him in later literary life.

He did not try for scholarships which would have eased him into Oxbridge. He said, in the 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, ‘from a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer’ (not an ‘author’; the distinction is important).

'The Slack-Bob' by George Orwell

'The Slack-Bob' by George Orwell

Orwell wrote the short story ‘The Slack-Bob’ for Eton College handwritten newspaper The Election Times.

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On leaving Eton he elected to join the Indian Imperial Police, based in Burma. Why is not clear. Even at this age he had no love of the British Empire. His famous essay, ‘On Shooting an Elephant’, records his conviction that it was a ‘racket’.

Blair’s five years in uniform supplied experience for his autobiographical novel, Burmese Days. He could have ‘stayed in’, but after five years, on the pretext of bad health, he resigned the service. His motive, as he informed his bemused parents (now living in Southwold), was to write full time.

The Paris period

Momentously, in February 1928, he decided to go to Paris. He would stay there 18 months, lodged most of the time in a cheap hotel in the Latin Quarter. He was a quarter French, spoke the language fluently, and had an aunt on his mother’s side in the city.

Apart from the 10 weeks chronicled in Down and Out we know virtually nothing of what Orwell did during his Parisian period, other than that he wrote a lot (only a tiny fraction of which saw print, or has survived) and got by tutoring in English.

Why did he choose to go to Paris? For the same reason that many other writers, artists and musicians went – freedom. The first piece of writing Orwell ever published was in Paris, in French, in October 1928: ‘La Censure en Angleterre’ (‘Censorship in England’).

England was notably censorious at this period. In 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s (innocuous) lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, was prosecuted and burned. D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses could only be published, unexpurgated, in Paris. When eventually published in Britain, Down and Out suffered censorship, at its publisher’s insistence – particularly as regards the realism of its street language.

It was not merely Parisian freedom to write as he wanted to write which attracted Orwell, as it had attracted the ‘lost generation’ of American writers – Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein and e e cummings. The weak franc meant a hard currency (sterling or the dollar) went a long way, longer than in London or New York.

Culturally, 1928 Paris was at its interwar zenith. The city was where writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce found a congenial resort at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop. Picasso was creating his mature style. Orwell, on the evidence of Down and Out, took little notice of the creative ferment around him in Paris. He may have distantly glimpsed James Joyce once, he records, but his interest was directed exclusively to how the Parisians lived, starved, and died. What was ‘underneath’ Paris. He was fascinated by underneath.

The long emergence of Down and Out

Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London

Extract from the first edition of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, in which the protagonist undergoes his transformation into a tramp.

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Before going to Paris, Orwell (Eric Blair as he then was) had made preliminary explorations of the East End London underworld. Donning ragged clothes he had slept overnight in ‘spikes’ (ch. 26) – the workhouse ‘casual ward’ for indigents – and ‘kip[s]’ (doss houses) (ch. 24). On one later occasion he even managed to get himself locked up in jail (the ‘clink’). A quantity of London fieldwork was done before he went to Paris (in the published book he makes London come after).

The Paris journey into the underworld begins with a disaster. Orwell was robbed, as he says, by an Italian fellow lodger at his seedy hotel. In later life he disclosed it was actually a ‘trollop’ called Suzanne. His small income from teaching dried up.[1] He became, in a very short time, a ‘down and out’. He did not, as he could have done, seek help from his Parisian aunt, or his parents: neither are mentioned in the book. He had escape routes, but his ulterior motive was fieldwork, as anthropologists call it. To understand the poor, one had to be poor. This was his opportunity.

He fell in with a series of lowlifes. His meagre funds melted away, and he came close to starvation with his irrepressible comrade, Boris. Finally, he found enough work to keep body and soul together as a restaurant ‘plongeur’ (dishwasher); first at a good hotel, then an inferior restaurant. There was a failed attempt at getting rich by cocaine smuggling and, finally, a mysterious offer of employment in England from ‘B’, which brings the narrator-hero back home. The ‘B’ business was almost certainly a fictional invention, devised to link the two halves of the book together. Orwell, in real life was, of course, free to return to England and middle-class comfort whenever he wanted.

He returned to England, almost simultaneously with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the worldwide ‘slump’. Poverty is the theme of the Parisian half of the book; unemployment the British half. He became, for the best part of a year, a ‘tramp’. He had, as in Paris, English friends and family. But he wanted raw material. And he wanted to feel it – in his empty belly, in unwashed clothes, in the daily humiliations heaped on tramps and beggars. Initially, what he had in mind was a series of articles (a disjointedness reflected in the book). His principal literary models were Jack London’s Into the Abyss and W H Davies’s Autobiography of a Super Tramp.

W H Davies' review of 'Confessions of a Down and Out', from the New Statesman and Nation, 18 March 1933

W H Davies' Confessions of a Down and Out, from New Statesman and Nation, 18 March 1933

The Welsh writer and Super-Tramp author W H Davies enthusiastically reviewed Down and Out in Paris and London for the New Statesman.

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No magazine wanted his articles. He persisted, expanding the French section into a short book. It too was rejected. Finally he put everything together into what was a first draft of Down and Out called ‘Days in London and Paris’. It was turned down by Jonathan Cape and by T S Eliot, at Faber and Faber. The book was, one suspects, too strong for the genteel London literary world. Brothel scenes (a rape, narrated by ‘Charlie’, is particularly brutal) and frank use of actual ‘street’ language made potential takers nervous, as did possible libel. Throughout his life Orwell thought British publishers a ‘gutless’ crew. It is only very recently that publishers of the text have felt gutsy enough to print such observations in Chapter 32 as: 'The current London adjective, now tacked onto every noun, is ‘f**king’. No doubt in time ‘f**king’, like ‘bloody’, will find its way into the drawing-room and be replaced by some other word.'

Paris and London

Down and Out is a tale of two cities. For the down and out Paris is more fun. Wine and baguette are more palatable than a ‘cup of tea and two slices of bread and marg’ (Keep the Aspidistra Flying, ch. 9). But, one notes, in Paris the narrator’s closest companions were once as upper class in origin as he, under his rags, still is. Boris was a former officer in the Czarist army and Charlie a high-born Frenchman who has come down in the world. In London the narrator’s tramping companions were what he would call, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘proles’. Illiterates like the amiable Irishman Paddy, and Bozo, the ‘screever’ (pavement artist, cripple and amateur astronomer). British law, unlike French, is less tolerant of down and outs. They were forced, by law, and the police to ‘move on’ (Dickens’s phrase, in Bleak House, ch. 19). Legally they are always ‘vagrants’. Always ‘tramping’ nowhere.

Money

Hardly a page goes by without a reference to money – usually coinage. Lack of it, combined with hunger, was, Orwell believed, at the root of the underclass problem. Without money you are hungry: ‘You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs’ (ch. 3). Orwell hints that after 1926 when, with the General Strike, Britain teetered on the brink of revolution, the authorities were not sorry to have an unmanned docile working class.

Orwell’s ambivalence about the lower classes

Orwell was fascinated and, we may suspect, disgusted by the squalor the poor had to endure and that people of his class were spared. An Etonian in rags, there was a kind of nostalgie de la boue (a yearning for mud) in his voluntary submersion into lowest level of society’s working class. But always fastidious. He is starving: a bed bug falls into the milk he is eating. He throws the milk away. He is sleeping in a doss house and wakes to find a sailor’s stinking feet in his face. But he sleeps there the next night. Foul smells are everywhere – only tobacco masks them. No work of literature is more odoriferous.

At the end of Down and Out Orwell confesses that he has only scraped the ‘fringe’ (ch. 38) of what it is to be poor. But what comes through strongly is his generosity of spirit. The poor are not parasites, not ‘scroungers’ – they are victims. The book ends, movingly, with a defence of the human dignity of the tramp and beggar. Down and Out, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a book which is ‘valuable to humanity’.

Publication

Orwell eventually gave up on the project, leaving the manuscript as a lost cause with a friend of his family. She resourcefully contacted an agent who managed to place the book with the new (socialist) publisher Victor Gollancz. To shield his family’s possible embarrassment Eric Blair at this point took on the pen name ‘George Orwell’ – a ‘round English name’. Down and Out was published in January 1933, well reviewed, and Orwell was not merely a writer, but a published writer, and on his way to world fame.

Footnotes

[1] The British pound, worth 30 times then what it is worth now, was worth 120 francs in 1928.

 

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© John Sutherland

  • John Sutherland
  • John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL. He has taught principally in the UK, at the University of Edinburgh and UCL, and in the US at the California Institute of Technology. He has written over thirty books. Among his fields of special interest are Victorian Literature and Publishing History. He is a well known writer and reviewer in the British and American press.

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