"Such, Such Were the Joys"
is a long autobiographical essay
writer George Orwell
, written in the 1940's, but not published until 1952, after the author's death. It tells a story based on Orwell's experiences, between the ages of eight and thirteen in the years before and during World War I
, at St Cyprian's preparatory school
for boys in Eastbourne
According to Orwell's correspondence, he wrote the essay partly as a response to the publication in 1938 of Enemies of Promise, an autobiographical work by Cyril Connolly, who had been Orwell's companion at St Cyprian's and later at Eton. Connolly's account of St Cyprian's, though cynical, was fairly appreciative compared to Orwell's. In his letter Orwell wrote that he thought his essay too libellous to print, but added that it should be printed "when the people most concerned are dead". Nevertheless, a version appeared in the USA in 1952 within two years of Orwell's own death, being published in the Partisan Review, . In this version the school was identified as "Crossgates" and the names of the headmaster and his wife altered to Mr and Mrs Simpson ("Sim" and his wife "Bingo"). Following Mrs Wilkes' death in 1967, "Such, Such Were the Joys" was published in the UK, but with only the name of the school and the proprietors in original form - the real names of his fellow pupils were still disguised.
Most biographers have to a greater or lesser extent concluded that "Such, Such Were the Joys" significantly exaggerates Orwell's suffering at St Cyprian's, as well as the extent of the abuse to which he was subjected. David Farrer, partner of Orwell's publishers considered it a "gross distortion of what took place, Jacintha Buddicom, Orwell's childhood friend, wrote
"I can guarantee that the "I" of "Such Such were the Joys" is quite unrecognisable as Eric when we knew him then" and various contemporaries at the school described matters in a very different light. Robert Pearce makes the most thorough analysis refuting the allegations that Orwell makes.
Summary and analysis
The title of the essay is borrowed from William Blake:
The allusion is never explained in Orwell's text, but it is obviously meant to be ironic, since Orwell describes his early schooling with almost unrelieved bitterness. St Cyprian's was, according to him, a "world of force and fraud and secrecy," in which the young Orwell, a shy, sickly and unattractive boy surrounded by pupils from families much richer than his own, was "like a gold-fish" thrown "into a tank full of pike." Bernard Crick notes the allusion to echoes and suggests a significance in that echoes distort and fade over time.
Orwell attacks the cruelty and snobbery of both his fellow pupils and of his teachers (particularly the headmaster of St Cyprian's, Mr. Vaughan Wilkes, nicknamed "Sambo," and his wife, nicknamed "Flip"). He also describes the education he received there as "a preparation for a sort of confidence trick," geared entirely towards maximizing his future performance in the admissions exams to leading English public schools such as Eton and Harrow, without any concern for actual knowledge or understanding.
In the essay, Orwell makes many observations about the contradictions of the Edwardian middle and upper class world-view, about the psychology of children, and about the experience of oppression and class-conflict that shaped his later left-wing political views. The essay is an interesting and effective piece of autobiographical writing and takes its place in the canon of boarding school literature.
- The real question is whether it is still normal for a schoolchild to live for years amid irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings. And here one is up against the very real difficulty of knowing what a child really feels and thinks. A child which appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien under-world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people seem to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood entirely. Think for instance of the unnecessary torments that people will inflict by sending a child back to school with clothes of the wrong pattern, and refusing to see that this matters! Over things of this kind a child will sometimes utter a protest, but a great deal of the time its attitude is one of simple concealment. Not to expose your true feelings to an adult seems to be instinctive from the age of seven or eight upwards. Even the affection that one feels for a child, the desire to protect and cherish it, is a cause of misunderstanding. One can love a child, perhaps more deeply than one can love another adult, but it is rash to assume that the child feels any love in return. Looking back on my own childhood, after the infant years were over, I do not believe that I ever felt love for any mature person, except my mother, and even her I did not trust, in the sense that shyness made me conceal most of my real feelings from her. Love, the spontaneous, unqualified emotion of love was something I could only feel for people who were young.
- Always at the centre of my heart the inner self seemed to be awake, pointing out the difference between the moral obligation and the psychological fact. It was the same in all matters, worldly or other-worldly. Take religion for instance. You were supposed to love God, and I did not question this. Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs. If I had any sympathetic feelings towards any character in the Old Testament, it was towards such people as Cain, Jezebel, Haman, Agag, Sisera: in the New Testament my friends, if any, were Ananias, Caiaphas, Judas and Pontius Pilate.
- I knew the bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you [... This] was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good. And the double beating was a turning-point, for it brought home to me for the first time the harshness of the environment into which I had been flung [... As] I sat snivelling on the edge of a chair in Sambo's study, with not even the self-possession to stand up while he stormed at me, I had a conviction of sin and folly and weakness, such as I do not remember to have felt before.
- The various codes which were presented to you at St Cyprian's — religious, moral, social and intellectual — contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for 'braininess,' and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible.
- Football, it seemed to me, is not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting. The lovers of football are large boisterous, nobbly boys who are good at knocking down and trampling on slightly smaller boys. That was the pattern of school life — a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people — in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.
- If I had to pass through Eastbourne I would not make a detour to avoid the school: and if I happened to pass the school itself I might even stop for a moment by the low brick wall, with the steep bank running down from it, and look across the flat playing field at the ugly building with the square of asphalt in front of it. And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself! But it is a fact that for many years I could hardly have borne to look at it again [...] Now, however, the place is out of my system for good. Its magic works no longer, and I have not even enough animosity left to make me hope that Flip and Sambo are dead or that the story of the school being burnt down was true.
- It will have been seen that my own main trouble was an utter lack of any sense of proportion or probability. This led me to accept outrages and believe absurdities, and to suffer torments over things that were in fact of no importance. It is not enough to say that I was silly and ought to have known better. Look back into your own childhood and think of the nonsense you used to believe and the trivialities which could make you suffer. Of course my own case had its individual variations, but essentially it was that of countless other boys.
- Full text
- Hugh Kenner "The Politics of the Plain Style" New York Times, New York, N.Y.: Sep 15, 1985. p. BR1