George Orwell aka Eric Blair (1903-1950) died seventy years ago today, on the 21st January 1950. His favourite aunt, Nellie Limouzin (1870-1950), passed away five months later in tragically sad circumstances. While researching Orwell’s years in Paris it struck me how profoundly she influenced and shaped her nephew’s early experiences, especially his literary and political directions. Blair may never have travelled far down the path to becoming the writer Orwell without his Aunt Nellie’s encouragement, support and contacts.
In 1936, when Orwell was newly married to Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Aunt Nellie strained the relationship somewhat by staying in their tiny spare bedroom for months. Eileen wrote in a letter to a friend that it was “dreadful” and when she finally departed it felt like “all our troubles” were over. In fairness, Nellie had found their cottage in Wallington and a precedent was set some years earlier when the young Eric Blair had stayed in Paris with Limouzin and her partner, the writer and radical Esperantist, Eugène Adam. At that time, the 24-year-old Eric Blair was desperate to escape “five boring years within the sound of bugles” serving in the Indian Imperial Police. He departed Rangoon on leave in mid-July 1927 aboard the MV Shropshire and alighted at Marseilles before likely making his way to Paris by train to visit Aunt Nellie, who lived in the twelfth arrondissement.
Much later, Orwell wrote that Paris in the late 1920s swarmed with “artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen”. For Blair, this introduction to the radical, bohemian atmosphere that permeated the French capital during les Années folles (the Crazy Years) via this unusual couple, who were writing furiously in support of international revolution, must have been revelatory. He learned about the Esperanto splinter-group Adam had founded and perhaps, more significantly met writers with pseudonyms. Nellie was writing in Esperanto using the pseudonym E.K.L. and Adam wrote under the assumed name of “Lanti” (which can be translated as “he who is against the system”). Orwell was not merely staying in a cramped petit-bourgeois Parisian apartment but was inhabiting, albeit temporarily, the artistic space Nellie had created for their literary and political pretensions.
Eŭgeno Lanti or Eugène Lanti was the pseudonym used by Eugène Adam. 1910 (Creative Commons)
Blair was in no hurry to get home to see his parents after a five-year absence. This brief initial visit to France was the first time he had complete personal freedom from the strictures of family, school, college and an ill-chosen career as a police officer. Nellie and Adam’s lives as writers and revolutionaries must have appealed to the young Blair’s romantic nature as he returned the next year. There is no indication that he was intending to resign when he left Burma and later in his life he would write that a “sniff of English air” was enough of a reason to quit. However, one wonders what impact conversations with Aunt Nellie and Lanti had on this momentous decision.
Orwell’s resignation took effect on the 1st January 1928. He had resigned from a well-paid job and would never return to Burma. This was going to be a terrible shock and embarrassment to his family, especially to his father. Even worse, he had to explain that although unpublished, except for a boyhood poem printed in a local newspaper and a few pieces in his college magazine, he intended to become a writer. After a brief period in Southwold and then London, he returned to Paris where he spent the next eighteen months endeavouring to become that writer. Before departing London, he had changed the occupation listed on his passport from ‘policeman’ to ‘journalist’.
Blair returned to 14 Avenue de Corbéra in the spring of 1928 with his suitcase, caught the lift to an 8th floor apartment with central heating where he had two contacts, Limouzin and Adam, who could assist in furthering his literary ambitions. Although he did not live with the couple for long, and fought with Adam, their ongoing support was crucial. Orwell was soon introduced to radical editors and writers of the calibre of the communist Henri Barbusse who published EA Blair’s first paid article in the edition of Monde published on the 6th October 1928. If one reads “La Censure en Angleterre” closely it is evident that Nellie’s experiences of censorship on the London stage were drawn on extensively.
Who was Nellie Limouzin?
“Aunt Nellie” was the sister of Ida Blair (1875-1943), Orwell’s mother and was known by many names during her lifetime. Official records show she was christened Ellen Kate Limouzin on the 21st December 1870 in Moulmein, Burma and was Helene Kate Limouzin-Adam at her death in Wandsworth, London, aged 79. Theatre programmes reveal that her stage name was Elaine Limouzin. And least well-known of all, she wrote articles and letters in Esperanto under the pseudonym, E. K. L.. Occasionally she was known as Hélène in Paris. Mostly, she was just “Nellie”.
Nellie’s and Ida’s father, Francis “Frank” Limouzin, was a shipwright and businessmen but also a raconteur and Freemason. He was born in France but his family had been in Burma since the 1820s where his father had established a thriving shipbuilding business on the river at Moulmein where there was good access to timber. Frank’s second marriage to Thérèse Catherine Halliley, just a few months after the tragic deaths of his wife and two young children produced eight children who mostly did not remain in Burma but were educated in England. Moreover, after the boat-building industry collapsed at the end of the century, Frank moved into the rice business, losing most of his money in the process.
Nellie and Ida were sisters with wildly different life trajectories. Ellen Limouzin is recorded as a ‘scholar’ at a boarding school in Surrey on the 1881 census when she was ten and by thirty is an ‘actress’ according to the 1901 census. Nellie could have been described at different stages of her life as a feminist, suffragette, socialist, communist, writer, editor, teacher, vaudevillian and Esperantist. She was always a radical. She remained unmarried until she was well into her sixties. Ida married the 40-year-old Richard Blair on 15 June 1897 at Naini Tal, a popular hill station 345 km northeast of New Delhi when she was 22. Eric Arthur Blair, their second child, was born six years later in sight of the Himalaya Mountains at Motihari. In 1904, Ida left India for England with her two children while her husband continued his work as a sub-deputy opium agent until retirement in 1912.
Ida was mildly bohemian and approved of the many causes her sister championed but was busy raising three children alone. Aunt Nellie was always a presence in Eric’s and her sister’s life. Nellie was a suffragette who actively participated in highly influential, headline-grabbing demonstrations at the Houses of Parliament and sit-ins at railways. She was photographed with the Pankhurst sisters c. 1909 in London (who interestingly enough were members of the ILP). During this period, Nellie lived in a rented top-floor apartment at 195 Ladbroke Grove in Notting Hill with friends (from at least 1908). It became a literary salon of sorts and she came to know H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, Edith Nesbit and the “Red Vicar of Thaxted”, Conrad Noel. Nellie flirted with communism after the Russian Revolution, which is also when she began learning Esperanto.
Nellie’s acting career spanned three decades. She was a member of the Pioneer Players who performed banned plays and explored feminist issues, including women’s suffrage. They popularised the German-born Hrotsvitha (935-1002), considered to be the first female dramatist and significantly, a woman who spoke truth to power. The group cleverly formed as a private society or club enabling their productions to avoid censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. Nellie was a member of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) which was closely affiliated with the Pioneer Players and enthusiastically advocated against theatre censorship. The WFL aimed to revolutionise the relationship between women and men. This is also interesting, considering the nature of Nellie’s relationship with Lanti.
Nellie was a member of the Actresses’ Franchise League founded in 1908 to support the suffrage movement; members wrote and produced plays for the cause. Elaine Limouzin appeared during 1912 in Three Women staged at the Chelsea Town Hall and directed by Edith Craig (1869-1947) who was well-known for plays that publicised the women’s suffragette movement. Elaine also appeared in The Disciple at Wyndham‘s Theatre in June 1914 and it is highly likely Orwell, attending Eton at the time, would have been in the audience for her performance in At Mrs Beam’s during 1920 or 21 at Kingsway Theatre in Holborn. It appears that Limouzin only ever had minor roles but knew a great deal about how London theatre worked and how to circumvent censorship.
It is not surprising that Blair’s first published work, “La Censure de Angleterre” opens with a paragraph that sounds as if it were dictated by Aunt Nellie:
“In the theatre, each play, before it is staged, must be submitted for inspection by a censor nominated by the government, who can ban its performance or request alterations if he thinks it a danger to public morality. This censor is just like any other civil servant and is not selected for his literary talents. He has either forbidden or held up the production of half the significant modern plays which have been produced in England in the last fifty years. Ibsen’s Ghosts, Brieux’s Damaged Goods, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession—all strictly, even painfully moral plays—were kept off the English stage for many years. By contrast ordinary, and frankly pornographic, reviews and musical comedies have only suffered the minimum of alterations.”
Like so many other cultural experiences, Orwell was introduced to musical comedy by his vaudevillian aunt. It is worth noting that Eric Blair’s second article, “A Farthing Newspaper”, published in G.K.’s Weekly in late December, was likely commissioned with Nellie’s support as G.K. Chesterton was another literary contact. The short stories that were rejected when he was in Paris were also from an agent who hand wrote: “Give my best regards to Miss Limouzin” on the typewritten letter. Nellie, although spending more and more time on the continent with Eugène Adam at Esperanto conferences after 1923, rather than on the stage in London, maintained her lease at Ladbroke Grove apartment until April 1928. She was now completely committed to both Lanti and the Esperantist cause. She lived in Paris for a decade.
Lanti and the Esperantists
In 1887 Ludwik Zamenhof, employing the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto, published Unua Libro (First Book) in what he called lingvo internacia (the international language). The Polish? ophthalmologist had been developing his own language since 1873 while he was still at school. By 1889, speakers started referring to it as Esperanto (which translates as “one who hopes”) which soon became the official name. Eugène Adam, a life-long autodidact, commenced learning the language during World War One when he was an ambulance driver. His war experiences made Zamenhof’s goal, to create a language that would foster world peace and international understanding, appealing to Adam who had a reputation for providing medical aid to German soldiers too. By 1920 Adam, who had initially been attracted to anarchism in his youth, became a founding member of the French Communist Party but soon became disillusioned. He was a committed Esperantist but held extreme anti-nationalist beliefs insisting that nation states fundamentally disempowered working people.
Lanti wanted Esperanto to become the shared language of all revolutionaries believing that national languages prevented international cooperation To this end, he founded the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (SAT) in 1921. Adam was a charismatic speaker, energetic and a skilful, prolific writer. He was also a brilliant publicist. In late 1921, a press release announcing the suicide of Eugène Adam, the editor of Sennacieca Revuo was issued (by Adam). A new editor, it was announced, E. Lanti was to take the helm. This metamorphosis into Lanti was amazingly successful as not all realised it was a hoax and a genuine obituary was published sadly reporting that:
“E. Adam, editor of Sennacieca Revuo, killed himself in October 1921”.
SAT grew rapidly under Lanti’s leadership and was at its zenith in the late twenties when Orwell lived in Paris. What’s more, it had grown to be easily the largest Esperanto organisation with nearly seven thousand members in 42 countries.
Nellie, who was already learning Esperanto, joined SAT shortly after its founding. She met Lanti at the Third SAT Congress held in Kassel, Germany in mid-August 1923. There were around 300 delegates, including Albert Einstein. She agreed with his views and Lanti was impressed with her intellect; a unique partnership developed. Lanti wrote about the conference and noted:
“…there were few women present at the Congress, and even fewer took part in our business meetings. Such a lack will need to be eliminated from our movement. We must encourage our female comrades. And instead of arguing whether ‘a Frenchman’ or ‘a German’ ought to be on the executive committee, perhaps it would be more to the point to elect one woman.”
They attended other conferences together and in late 1925, Nellie wrote to Lanti requesting that they live together in Paris where she would assist with secretarial duties and editorial work on the SAT journal. He agreed. They lived together, perhaps unhappily and married in 1934. But the relationship soon ended as Lanti left for a world-wide tour in 1936 (never to return to France). Nellie moved back to England and lived with the newly married Blairs. In Eileen’s correspondence one can see that Esperantists were the source of some mirth: “I think I may be doing what the Esperantists call sleeping on straw – and as they are Esperantists they mean sleeping on straw”. Eileen likely felt compassion at first for Nellie as it became clear that Lanti had deserted her to travel overseas. The truth of the matter is that they always had a progressive marital arrangement that did not oblige either to remain for longer than they wanted or needed. Interestingly enough, Eileen had her own traditional Anglican marriage vows re-written so that she did not have to honour or obey Eric. In 1947, Lanti committed suicide in Mexico acknowledging in his last note that E.K.L. was his legal wife and heir. Sadly, Nellie was never able to successfully claim this inheritance.
E.K.L., Lanti and Orwell
The influence of Aunt Nellie and Eugène Adam on Orwell’s political and literary development should not be under-estimated. There was scant evidence in 1927 that Blair would ever metamorphosise into the omniscient “Orwell”. The pseudonym emerged six years later when his first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London, appeared in bookstores during January 1933, the month Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. This book was written from experiences in the last ten weeks of Eric Blair’s time in Paris. There is no mention of the relative he could have stayed with or sought sustenance from any time he wished. Obviously this would not have assisted in the construction of his tale of poverty and dissolution but it is also rare for Orwell to mention his relatives, in any context, anywhere in his writing.
The usual reading of the relationship between the three is that Adam and Orwell disliked each other and quarrelled but he did assist his literary career. Nellie was ever-reliable, providing literary contacts and money whenever her nephew needed succour. Most see Esperanto as less of an influence on Newspeak, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, compared to other artificial languages, particularly Basic. Gordon Bowker (2003) and Jeffrey Meyers (2000) are the best of the biographers for understanding the impact of Paris, Limouzin and Lanti on Orwell’s personal, literary and political development. The former sees Lanti as important in shaping Orwell’s non-communist, left-leaning politics as a democratic socialist and Meyers posits that the writer’s Englishness was confirmed by these formative experiences in France. This is all true enough.
There is often emphasis placed on his Eric Blair’s failure to really make a mark as a writer during this period in Paris or to establish his career. Perhaps this is because no fiction was published (Orwell burnt two novel manuscripts and had all his short stories rejected by editors). It is not just Orwell who viewed journalism as a lesser pursuit. Orwell’s resilience was certainly strengthened and he remained determined to make a career, as it turns out, largely informed and framed by these experiences in Paris. His secretiveness, poor health and most of all, ceaseless toil writing and seeking publishers for his work became a way of life until his premature death in 1950. Most importantly of all, Orwell learned to change his mind and admit he was wrong. A rare trait in a human being, especially a writer.
Stephen Wadhams interviewed friends, family and acquaintances of Orwell for a Canadian radio programme to mark the coming of the year in which Nineteen Eighty-Four is set. One of his producers conducted a phone interview in French with Lucien Bannier (1893-1986), an important Esperantist who knew Orwell. Somehow, the name was recorded as “Louis” Bannier and every Orwell scholar since has made the same error. Bannier was always important as he is a primary source, actually spending time with Nellie and Adam together and observing their relationship with Orwell. Bannier’s eyewitness account of an argument between Orwell and Adam posits the young Blair proclaimed “the Soviet system was the definitive socialism”. No wonder they quarrelled. Lanti was an experienced writer and activist well-versed in the realpolitik of the world. He visited Russia in 1922 which confirmed this was not the kind of revolution he supported. Shortly before he died, Orwell wrote: “I could never be disappointed by the Stalin regime, because I never expected any good to come of it … Of course, one develops and modifies one’s views, but I have never fundamentally altered my attitude towards the Soviet regime since I first began to pay attention to it some time in the nineteen-twenties.” Lanti was almost certainly the modifier. He was also a good model having changed his own mind about a range of issues, especially during the early-1920s.
Many of the significant themes in Orwell’s life and writing are sown during this period in the late 1920s but language, writing, ideology and the drive to publish deserve more emphasis. The professional and ideological challenges were many. Orwell’s association with radical journal editors led to state surveillance and he witnessed the internecine squabbles of those on the left, particularly intellectuals which did not benefit ordinary working people. In 1944, Orwell wrote:
“For sheer dirtiness of fighting the feuds between the inventors of various of the international languages would take some beating.”
Lanti, above all, was a writer prepared to work hard at his craft. Like Orwell, writing came above everything else, including his relationships and health. Lanti’s motto: “the writer must strive to avoid effort by the reader” (without castrating his thought) resulted in an “outstanding” prose style which is approvingly described as “simple”, “accurate” and “elegant”. Orwell’s famous dictum, “Good prose is like a window pane” comes rapidly to mind. While researching Lanti’s life, it struck me that he and Orwell shared a respect for artisans who made things with their hands and a genuine love of woodworking. Lanti was skilled at designing and making faux antique furniture. Orwell’s level of expertise was more that of an enthusiastic amateur. They were both self-deprecating and capable of ironical laughter whilst ostensibly to many eyes, austere and dour. Both despaired at ‘the system’ and were good at recognising the challenge of living a decent life in a corrupt society. Gordon Comstock, in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, sees what Lanti effectively lived his life trying to change:
“The mistake you make, don’t you see, is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself. After all, what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You’re trying to behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system. But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing.”
For Eugène Adam, like Henri Barbusse and Lucien Bannier, the horror of WWI led to a lifelong commitment to build a different system. The challenge, as Orwell knew only too well from his experience of imperialism in Burma and the corruption of an ideal witnessed during the Spanish Civil War, was one of telling the truth.
Only one letter (3 June 1933) written by Nellie to Orwell has survived. It provides a fascinating intellectual and literary insight into their relationship. Nellie is reading Machiavelli and Les Dogmes Sexuels, commenting that it is “a refutation of the generally accepted ideas on sex as regards the contrast between the male and female and is based on biology…the authoress is a serious scientist”. The letter includes money, plus a subscription to a journal. Nellie wonders if there’s “any likelihood of your being able to come to Paris”. It is a tantalising glimpse into the intellectual world aunt and nephew shared and one senses there must have been many letters exchanged that are now lost. Recently, a very interesting letter, unknown to Orwell scholars from the SAT Archive reveals the ongoing assistance Nellie provided to Orwell’s literary pursuits (literally when he was on his deathbed).
In early December 1949 she wrote to her Esperantist friend, Lucien Bannier, concerned that her “Eriko” was too unwell to make the trip to Switzerland with his new wife. Orwell was intending to convalesce at a Swiss sanatorium in a last-ditch attempt to treat the pulmonary tuberculosis which threatened his life. What is interesting about this letter is that Nellie, unlike many of Orwell’s friends and family, wholeheartedly approved of the “very intelligent” Sonia Brownell as “certainly a most suitable companion for Eric”. Undoubtedly, Nellie would have met Sonia at the hospital in University College London. She goes on to explain that his latest novel “1984” has not yet been published in French but mentions it will be soon and asks for assistance in advertising it with “serious bookshops”. Nellie reminds Bannier:
“His pen-name is George Orwell.”
Bannier had been assisting Nellie, unsuccessfully since Lanti’s suicide, with matters pertaining to her husband’s estate. Nellie had not been re-united with Lanti since 1936 and he had often spoken cruelly about her to others suggesting she had he had no character, was soft and without backbone or willpower. He rarely wrote but there is one caring letter from Lanti to Bannier, in 1941, expressing dismay that he had not heard from E.K.L. and worried she had been killed during the Blitz in London by the Luftwaffe. Sadly, Aunt Nellie, who attended her nephew’s funeral just a few months before, attempted suicide by opening the veins in her wrists. There are letters to Bannier from a solicitor explaining that she had died. He explained that she had a nervous breakdown due to financial worries and was committed to Springfield (Mental) Hospital where she died, as recorded on the death certificate, on 22nd June 1950 from a “haemorrhage into a malignant glioma of the brain”. The solicitor was surprised that she had passed away as he had visited a few days before and she seemed weakened but well enough. There is no record of a cremation, burial plot or memorial at Wandsworth Cemetery or Putney Vale Crematorium, close to the hospital where she died. Her niece, Orwell’s sister Avril Blair, was named as her heir. Only one newspaper reported her death:
“Adam, Nellie (née Limouzin), aunt of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell)”.
FEATURED IMAGE: Brian Robert Marshall, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12577437
My formal paper discussing the importance of “Orwell’s Aunt Nellie” is in the next edition of George Orwell Studies, Volume 4 No. 2 (2020)
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NB Much email correspondence with Esperantists and long-suffering archivists plus Skype interviews assisted my understanding of the period. A formal paper is currently being prepared (which will have detailed references) as I continue to write and research for my book, Orwell in Paris.
A special thanks to Vinko for his generosity in sharing his knowledge and David for his hard work, going well above and beyond, translating Esperanto.
UPDATE: “Orwell’s Aunt Nellie”, George Orwell Studies (2020) Vol. 4, No.2 pp. 30-44