Eric Frank Seeley (1902-1972) and Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) first met at Eton College, then reconnected in Rangoon during the mid-1920s. This paper argues that a limited, problematic representation of Seeley and his ‘Indian lady’ in Orwell scholarship has resulted in significant contextual information being suppressed, overlooked or misunderstood. More detailed knowledge of Seeley’s life reveals a web of relationships that broaden our understanding of Orwell’s experiences in Burma and the shaping of his ideas about imperialism.
Like Eric Blair, Eric Seeley was a King’s Scholar at Eton College from a ‘lower-upper-middle class’ Anglo-Indian family. Seeley graduated in 1920 and departed for Rangoon to work as an insurance agent and later as a stockbroker. Blair left Eton in December 1921 and arrived in Rangoon, late in November 1922, as a Probationary Assistant Superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police. Blair was immediately dispatched for training in distant Mandalay but was later stationed close to Rangoon, for two years, where the pair were friends.
Seeley is briefly mentioned by name in two biographies of George Orwell. Bernard Crick (who listed incorrect birth and death dates) says Seeley told ‘two American scholars that Blair had frequented the waterfront brothels’. Gordon Bowker speculated that Orwell possibly ‘felt that he had something to learn from men like Seeley’ who had ‘married an Indian lady’. Crick and Bowker had the same two sources, Christopher Hollis’s, A Study of George Orwell: The Man and his Works (1956), and The Unknown Orwell (1972) by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. Neither of these two sources mentioned Seeley by name. None of these four books refer to the fact that that he was a King’s Scholar or identify his wife.
Hollis, who had been in Burma only briefly during the summer of 1925 after visiting the United States and several other countries with an Oxford Union debating tour, recounted his delight at learning from ‘a friend’ that Eric Blair was in Rangoon. He and Blair dined twice in the days that followed. Oddly, Hollis splits Seeley into two figures, apparently for narrative purposes. There is ‘a friend’ who reunites him with Blair and an unnamed ‘Englishman’:
It is also typical of him [Blair] at that same time, as I afterwards learnt, he insisted on befriending an Englishman who was greatly cold-shouldered by Rangoon society for having married an Indian lady, even though the marriage seemed to Orwell a folly.
Why did Christopher Hollis (1902-1977) choose to exclude the name of Seeley from his narrative? They were in the same Election at Eton (1914-1920), debated and played cricket together. Why did Hollis conceal that Blair already knew this ‘Englishman’ he ‘befriended’ especially as they were reunited at Seeley’s own residence in Rangoon? Crick assumed that Hollis was being discreet by concealing Seeley’s identity from his readers because of the ignominy of being ‘outcast’ due to his choice of wife. There is no mention of racism. Should Hollis’s lack of verisimilitude about this issue cast doubt on the rest of his testimony or is it just an unimportant detail in the larger narrative about Blair at this time? Did racism cause Hollis, a former Captain of School at Eton College, to almost completely erase his peer from the anecdote to protect the reputation of his alma mater?
Hollis’s memory and analysis of their conversation in 1925 makes Blair seem more like the racist, jingoistic character Ellis, in Burmese Days (1934), than it does Orwell:
We had a long talk and argument. In the side of him which he revealed to me at that time there was no trace of liberal opinions. He was at pains to be the imperial policeman, explaining that these theories of no punishment and no beating were all very well at public schools but that they did not work with the Burmese – in fact that
‘Libbaty’s a kind o’ thing Thet don’t agree with niggers.’
He had an especial hatred … for the Buddhist priests, against whom he thought violence especially desirable – and that not for any theological reason but because of their sniggering insolence. … If I had never heard or read of Orwell after that evening, I should certainly have dismissed him as an example of that common type which has a phase of liberal opinion at school, when life is as yet untouched by reality and responsibility, but relapses easily after into conventional reaction.
Orwell wrote about his guilt over actions undertaken during his Burmese police service in The Road to Wigan Pier and Hollis’s account feels as if it is reconstructed from Orwell’s writing as much as his actual personal experience in Rangoon. Hollis’s reporting of their conversation, three decades after these two meals with Blair, has always been considered problematic by biographers who have struggled to interpret the inconsistencies. Bernard Crick felt that:
Blair may have been partly playing a role and partly pulling Hollis’s leg, thinking him a glib and priggish liberal, Oxford Union to boot; so that he probably gave him the ‘realist’ line, half from the divided heart but half from the satiric tongue in cheek. Even at Eton Blair had shown an almost Dr Johnson-like pleasure in pugnaciously defending an improbable position in argument.
Crick’s oxymoronic description of Hollis as a ‘priggish liberal’ (or at least his insinuation that Orwell may have viewed him thus) is paradoxical for several reasons, not least that the conservative Hollis had recently converted to Catholicism and was considered by his Oxford contemporaries to have ‘occasionally stern principles’ (Sanger 1995: 47). Bowker was also dubious about Hollis’s interpretation of the young police officer’s spiel:
But, as Blair was well aware, it was unwise in Burma to voice disaffection towards the sahib-log, especially in public places such as restaurants. Probably what Hollis found was Blair in devil’s advocate mood, ironically assuming his old Socratic role. Although he half-admired the British Raj, as an imperial policeman he also found himself in a trap, and was turning strongly against the dirty work his duty required. If Hollis got the wrong impression, that no doubt was the impression he wanted to give him.
New research permits a deeper contextual understanding of Seeley, his ‘Indian lady’ and her family which make Hollis’s anecdote and analysis, always considered self-serving, even more questionable.
ETON COLLEGE, WORK AND MARRIAGE
Eric Seeley began as a King’s Scholar at Eton in 1914. He was later to boast, in a job application, that this scholarship was the ‘same as that won by the present Prime Minister’ who at that time was Harold Macmillan. Seeley flourished at Eton. He was in the Debating Society (as were Hollis and Blair), played cricket keenly, earned his Colours and played the Wall Game in 1919, although he did not score as Orwell famously managed to do, before he graduated.
Like Orwell, who was in the 1916 Election, Seeley followed family tradition, avoided tertiary education and moved to the sub-continent, where his brother had been born and his father served for many years as a chaplain. It is interesting to note, the year before graduation, his amusing line of argument when debating the proposition that ‘a university education is undesirable’. The report of the debate explains that ‘Mr Seeley’, the first speaker for the affirmative, argued it was certainly true that one attended university to benefit ‘educationally’ and ‘socially’. However, since one never met university students who actually did ‘any work’ – as they spent most of their time ‘pursuing athletics or wine and women’ – it was hardly a valid decision with educational ends in mind. Socially, he argued, one did not really meet many ‘fresh people’ anyway as one associated with ‘Old Etonian acquaintances’. Seeley, in his ironic, gently facetious tone, concluded with a flourish. He posited that by having the ‘the triple privilege’ of being ‘Etonians, Collegers and members of the (Debating) Society’ they had already ‘reached the very summit of social and intellectual development and were quite prepared without further ado to face the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil’ without resorting to wasting years at university.
The American biographers, Stansky and Abrahams, concealed Seeley’s identity by employing the alias, ‘Lawrence’. Christopher Hollis assisted with their research but they found and interviewed Seeley via Reverend Peter Pilkington, the Master in College (the housemaster for the seventy King’s Scholars at Eton) who ‘was very helpful in locating Orwell’s contemporaries’. Almost two decades after Hollis’s book was published it was still deemed inappropriate to identify Seeley. The Americans were unaware that Seeley was already listed in the Eton College Register, in 1932, as having married Leila Das (1904-1989), the daughter of a High Court judge in Rangoon.
In 1957, Seeley, applying for a government job at the Home Office, had prepared a curriculum vitae. The ‘History Sheet of Capt. Eric Frank Seeley’ reveals he began his working life in 1920 as an ‘assistant’ at the accountancy and insurance firm of H. V. Low & Co., in Rangoon. This job was almost certainly procured via his father’s contacts in the city. In July 1920, George Henry Seeley (1866-1935) was the newly appointed Archdeacon of Rangoon. Archdeacon Seeley had been transferred from Maymyo and the ecclesiastical pages of the Indian Civil List record his service, dating back to 1898, when he was appointed as a chaplain. Seeley joined his father in Rangoon, sometime in the second half of 1920, to take up this position with H. V. Low & Co. who advertised themselves as coal and rubber merchants and contractors for the Indian government (source: advertisement separated from an unidentified magazine). His father retired the following year but remained in Burma.
Assistant Superintendent Blair was often near enough to Rangoon to spend off-duty hours in the city and surrounds. For two years, from May 1924 until April 1926, he was stationed in either Twante, Syriam or Insein. This is the period when he and Seeley possibly continued to play ‘squash’ together as they had done while at Eton. It is conceivable that Blair attended the marriage ceremony (28 January 1925) when one considers Hollis’s commentary about their friendship.
THE DAS FAMILY
Leila Das’s father, Jyotish Ranjan (J. R.) Das (1874-1936), was a successful lawyer from Bengal who had established the legal firm, Cawasji and Das, in Rangoon. Bengali lawyers, already well-versed with British rules, regulations and systems, had been encouraged to migrate to Burma. Yoked to the same colonial master, Bengalis did not consider (nor did the British) Burma a separate land and there were few practical impediments to travel or business between Rangoon and Calcutta. Das had married Sushila Sen (?-1964), the second daughter of P. C. Sen, a renowned barrister in Rangoon who had encouraged his son-in-law to establish a firm. Her elder sister was already married to another of Das’s brothers, and the families were amongst the most affluent Bengalis in Rangoon. Das became extremely successful and reputedly ‘earned great honour and respect from the Burmese, British, and the Bengalis in Burma’. He was appointed to the High Court in March 1925, just two months after his daughter’s marriage to Seeley. Das was one of the first two Indians promoted from the Bar to the Bench in Burma.
J.R. Das’s immediate family in Bengal were extremely prominent lawyers, judges and activists. His father, Durga Mohan Das (1841–1897) was a social reformer who fought for female emancipation from restrictive political and social norms, advocating for improved education, literacy and widow remarriage. Other members of his immediate family included a sister, Sarala Roy (1859-1946), who founded the Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School at Calcutta (1920) and was one of the leaders of the ‘All India Women’s Conference’ in 1927. Another sister, Abala Bose (1865-1951), was an early feminist who published her ideas in the English magazine, Modern Review. A brother, Satish Ranjan Das (1870–1928), held the post of Advocate General of Bengal and was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. A niece, Anjana, also became a lawyer.
J.R. Das’s extended family (and there are many other prominent members who could be listed) included an uncle, ‘Deshbandu’ Chittaranjan Das (1870-1925), founder of the Swaraj (Independence) Party in Bengal, who campaigned for political emancipation from the British. He was a socially progressive advocate of intermarriage between castes as well as social justice for widows. A cousin, S. R. Das (1894-1977), was destined to become the fifth Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court.
Bengali immigrants occupied influential positions in Burma, particularly in Rangoon, and through their political activities played important roles in the development of Burmese nationalism during the 1920s. For example, J. R. Das assisted with the ‘polishing’ of a letter listing student grievances during the University Boycott of 1920 in Rangoon, the year Seeley started to work in the city. It is worth noting that ‘Swarajists’, including Chittaranjan Das, had established networks with Burmese political leaders, including students. J. R. Das was deeply connected to the Bengalis and Burmese who were at the very top of judicial, political and social ladders in Rangoon.
One of Blair’s first pieces of journalism, ‘How a nation Is exploited: The British Empire in Burma’ published in Le Progrès Civique, Paris, on 4 May 1929, reveals his awareness of how the system endeavoured to counter the rise of nationalism in Burma:
Recently, to appease public opinion and put a stop to nationalist agitation which was beginning to cause concern, it was even decided to accept the candidature of educated natives for several important posts.
The system of employing natives as civil servants has three advantages. First, natives will accept lower salaries than Europeans.
Secondly, they have a better idea of the workings of their fellow countrymen’s minds, and this helps them to settle legal disputes more easily.
Thirdly, it is to their own advantage to show their loyalty to a government which provides their livelihood.
And so peace is maintained by ensuring the close collaboration of the educated or semi-educated classes, where discontent might otherwise produce rebel leaders.
THE ORIENT CLUB AND BURMESE DAYS
In any town in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in this case, for it was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership.
During the 1920s, ‘Rangoon society was wholly English’. There were three important Clubs for the British elite – the Boat; the Gymkhana; and the Pegu – none of which permitted non-European membership, regardless of status; the ‘judges of the High Court of Judicature’ needed to club together elsewhere. J. R. Das was one of the community leaders who established the Orient Club in Rangoon, on the banks of the Royal Lake, to promote understanding and fraternity between the Bengalis and Burmese. There were many illustrious members. Sir Maung Kin (1872-1924), appointed as the first Burmese Chief Justice of the High Court of Judicature in 1921, was the inaugural president of the Club. Another significant member, the second President of the Union of Burma, Sir Ba U, who also served on the High Court (and was to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) explained in his autobiography that:
… when Maung Kin was appointed a judge of the Chief Court of Lower Burma, some members of the Rangoon Gymkhana Club asked him to join it, saying that they would sponsor him. Maung Kin applied, but was blackballed; he thereupon founded the Orient Club with a cosmopolitan membership.
Orwell’s exploration of the racial politics of ‘the Club’ in Burmese Days (1934), set in 1926, describes the process by which potential members were elected – or ‘blackballed’:
‘Bring the ballot box and the balls. Now clear out!’ he added roughly when the butler had obeyed.
The air had gone very stagnant; for some reason the punkah had stopped working. Mr Macgregor stood up with a disapproving but judicial mien, taking the two drawers of black and white balls out of the ballot box.
‘We must proceed in order. Mr Flory proposes Dr Veraswami, the Civil Surgeon, as a member of this Club’.
The honest, educated and ethical Dr Veraswami, who believes in the superiority of European culture and British law, fails to be elected to the European Club and ultimately has no choice but to join ‘a second-rate one frequented by Indian pleaders’. There were six grades of legal practice – advocates: attorneys or solicitors; vakils; pleaders; mukhtars, with revenue agents at the bottom – Samuel, a Eurasian character in the novel, was employed as a clerk ‘to some of the pleaders’.
Das was elected President of the Orient Club during the time Eric Blair served in Burma. There was great respect in the community for Das’s professional achievements, honesty and generosity but one long-time local journalist, a Bengali Rotarian, believed his ‘private life’ was ‘not so happy’ due to his wife being an ‘ultra-modernist’. Considering the progressive leanings of his own extended family, this may not have been an issue for Das but the comment may possibly reflect how others viewed his wife. There was, however, suggestion by the journalist, that:
The high life by the wife and daughters cost a great deal in addition to running a hospitable home open to friends of all nationalities at all times caused much financial troubles to J. R..
It is probable this ‘high life’ included the Rangoon Turf Club, no longer exclusively a European space during the period Blair and Seeley were in Burma. Seeley, who lived in the city from 1920-1936, was the Assistant Secretary of the Turf Club and regularly wrote articles about the racing for the Rangoon Gazette. He was also a judge at the course, now an important meeting place for the British, Chinese, Burmese and Bengali elites. The Turf Club had been the preserve of Europeans until the early 1920s when Maung Kin had been admitted, a Burmese chairman elected, and Ba U became a director and a steward. Horse racing was a popular pastime for the local legal fraternity and membership was exclusive:
In my first year as Steward the way in which the admission of new members was manipulated by the Directors struck me as peculiar. As the sole power of electing new members was vested in them and as the election was done by secret ballot, the Directors could and did eject anyone they did not like by blackballing him. Only those who were likely to vote for the existing Directors at the annual election could become members. As the membership was limited to about 200, it was almost impossible for anybody not favoured by the Directors to become a member.
There were thirty race meetings each year on the social calendar and by 1926, when the course was relocated and facilities modernised at great expense, ‘three huge stands, each capable of holding 5,000 persons’ ensured burgeoning crowds.
It is unknown how much time Orwell spent with Seeley or his friend’s Das and Sen in-laws but it is likely he gained insights into a Rangoon society that was not ‘wholly English’ via the cosmopolitan, judicial world his friend was connected to by marriage. Sir Ba U’s autobiography mentions J. R. Das several times and includes stories about riots, corrupt magistrates (the machinations of U Po Kyin, in Burmese Days, spring readily to mind) with unexpectedly colourful anecdotes about senior police figures, like Major Wellborne, the officer who publicly stated at ‘the Club’ Eric Blair was a ‘disgrace to Eton College’.
THE TRAVELLING TONGUES
Context is critical to understanding Hollis’s representation of Orwell during their Burmese reunion in 1925. It is important to note that Stansky and Abrahams made an error:
It was at Lawrence’s house that Blair and Hollis had a brief reunion in the summer of 1925. Hollis, Malcolm MacDonald and Christopher Woodruff had been on the world tour as debaters for the Oxford Union, and Woodruff and Hollis had come on to Rangoon from Australia and Indonesia.
It was not ‘Christopher’ but Douglas Woodruff who was on the homeward leg of the debating tour. From August 1924 until June 1925, the three-man debating team from Oxford (‘the travelling tongues’) Christopher Hollis, Douglas Woodruff and Malcom MacDonald, toured the United States, Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. It is a pity that MacDonald (1901-1981), the second son of the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who like Hollis, also became a Member of Parliament, did not detour to Rangoon with his fellow debaters. MacDonald described his companions, in an unpublished memoir, as the ‘intellectually brilliant and witty Douglas Woodruff and Christopher Hollis’. When Macdonald departed his father was Prime Minister but before his son returned to Britain, he was back on the Opposition benches having been defeated by Stanley Baldwin at the General Election in October 1924.
Seeley knew Hollis very well and it is hardly surprising these former members of the Debating Society and cricketing teammates would be keen for a reunion. It must have been an odd experience for the newly married Seeley (who had had just avoided a traditional church wedding) and Blair, who was now frequenting the ‘waterfront brothels’ to suddenly face the prospect of answering queries about their lives in Rangoon with those who would shortly be back home in England, potentially gossiping with peers. Blair and Seeley must have known that Hollis and Woodruff were ‘not mild-mannered religious dilettantes but rather singularly militant Catholics, uncompromising in their political views, and pugnacious propagandists’. Woodruff was described as a ‘Roman Catholic of the proselytising kind’ while still an undergraduate. One can only speculate about the content of the conversation (or how developed the life-long friends’ intellectual positions were in 1925) but this pair of ‘young lions’ were to share similar views on what they considered ‘the baleful errors of the Renaissance … the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment’. The experience, of dining with this pair of emerging Catholic intellectuals, fresh from their debating triumphs, appears to have been one Blair approached cautiously and with ironic detachment for his own amusement (if Crick and Bowker are correct in their summations).
In 2017, John Rodden asserted that Hollis’s memories of Eton and Burma were correctly considered ‘the most comprehensive eyewitness account of Eric Blair’ before the publication of the first Orwell biographies. Rodden applauded the style with which Hollis wove ‘intellectual biography and personal reminiscence’. Rodden, always nuanced in his analysis, acknowledged A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works was flawed and reads like ‘a dual biography’ at times. He emphasised Kingsley Amis’s perception, published in a contemporaneous review of the book, that Hollis just ‘cannot resist drawing Orwell in his own image’. In 1980, Bernard Crick, political scientist and democratic socialist, as well as a biographer, damned Hollis for having written:
… a poor book, hasty, inaccurate, pretentious and claiming special knowledge of Orwell, though Hollis … scarcely knew him. As a prominent Catholic intellectual as well as a Conservative Member of Parliament, he argued that Orwell’s thought could be turned towards God and away from socialism.
Considering Orwell’s lifelong distaste for the Roman Catholic Church, it is hard to imagine that he would have warmed to news of Hollis’s conversion to that religion (in 1924) just before their reunion in Rangoon. Ironically, as Rodden notes, Hollis’s study of Orwell is easily his best-known work and received ‘an enthusiastic reception in English Catholic circles, within which it exerted a significant shaping influence on the Catholic intelligentsia’. Orwell would certainly have been greatly displeased that Hollis was shaping his reception, in any context, during the decades that followed his death. In March 1944, Orwell wrote to his literary agent, Leonard Moore, refusing to permit Animal Farm be published by Hollis’s press:
We must on no account take this book to either Eyre & Spottiswoode or Hollis & Carter. They are both Catholic publishers and Hollis, in particular, has published some most poisonous stuff since he set up in business. It would do me permanent harm to be published by either of these.
Hollis and Woodruff’s worldview were in stark contrast with the progressive opinions of the extended Das family – and the literary Orwell that emerged in the 1930s. Woodruff had ‘deep affection for the institution of medieval monarchy’ and thought the world vastly less civilised since its demise, ‘a death he attributed in part to the rise of liberalism and participatory politics’. Woodruff was to profess admiration for Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and its condemnation of ‘the dark side of nineteenth-century freedom’. As editor of The Tablet, 1936-1967, he was to transform that periodical into the leading voice of English Catholicism. Woodruff felt that ‘the loss of imagination in thought for Catholic writers was a small price to pay for the preservation of orthodoxy’. His beliefs were the mirror image of the sentiments about intellectual freedom and creativity that Orwell continually espoused, notably in essays such as The Prevention of Literature (1946). Orwell despised intellectuals who chose dogma over freedom of thought:
I have never attacked ‘the intellectuals’ or ‘the intelligentsia’ en bloc. I have used a lot of ink and done myself a lot of harm by attacking the successive literary cliques which have infested this country, not because they were intellectuals but precisely because they were not what I mean by true intellectuals. The life of a clique is about five years and I have been writing long enough to see three of them come and two go – the Catholic gang, the Stalinist gang, and the present Pacifist or, as they are sometimes nicknamed, Fascifist gang. My case against all of them is that they write mentally dishonest propaganda and degrade literary criticism to mutual arse-licking.
Woodruff and Hollis were to later be considered among the most influential, along with Arnold Lunn and Douglas Jerrold, of the clique who would infuse the ideas of earlier Catholic intellectuals, like Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, with new energy – effectively becoming ‘the brains of the English Right’. In the year Orwell published his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Woodruff, ‘a conserving traditionalist’, married Marie Immaculeé Antoinette Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, the daughter of the Second Lord Acton. Woodruff’s obituary, in The Times, described him as a ‘scholar, wit and journalist whose talents were all put to the service of the Roman Catholic Church’. Orwell always wrote provocatively and amusingly about those who he felt were ‘mentally unfree’:
In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree.
The veracity of Hollis’s recollections of 1925, published in 1956, are challenging to evaluate with the above paragraphs in mind. It is difficult to believe that Hollis did not know that Orwell had ‘befriended’ Seeley until well after his departure from Rangoon but conceivably this was something that Seeley himself later told Hollis. Considering Seeley’s young wife’s social, political and intellectual lineage it also seems unlikely she would have permitted him to secrete her away from Hollis and Woodruff – but it is not possible to know with certainty what happened. It seems probable that she was actually present, and that Hollis consciously chose not to mention either her, or Seeley, in his account for other reasons. Whatever the truth of the matter, Hollis, who visited Seeley’s home in Rangoon, chose not to mention his fellow Etonian.
THE FOG OF THE PAST
After more than fifteen years living in Rangoon, there were significant life changes for Seeley (and his extended family) during the mid-1930s. His father passed away in 1935 and J. R. Das, who retired from the Bench and moved back to Bengal in 1934, died a year later. Eric Seeley returned to England, suffering from malaria, in time to visit his brother (who was chaplain at St John’s College, Cambridge) for Christmas 1936. Leila Das did not accompany him and Seeley never returned to Burma.
During the 1930s, Seeley had been working for Mahoney & Co. – exchange, share and general brokers – located just metres from the Strand Hotel but it is unclear if he was still employed by the firm when he departed Burma. Seeley was well-connected. His curriculum vitae indicates that the Burmese period of his professional life was ‘covered by manuscript letters from the late Frank Fearnley-Whittingstall C.I.E. and King’s Police Medallist, Commissioner of Police, Rangoon and Private Secretary to Sir Harcourt Butler when he was Governor of Burma’. These letters have not been located.
How ‘cold-shouldered’ or ‘outcast’ was Eric Seeley for marrying an ‘Indian lady’ and why did Hollis choose not to mention Seeley in his narrative? Hollis’s assertion is supported in a general sense by Maurice Collis (1889-1973), a long-time colonial administrator who wrote prolifically about his Burmese experiences. Like Orwell, he believed that the British empire was a ‘vast racket’ and was sympathetic to the plight of colonised peoples. Collis’s independent judgements, as a magistrate in Rangoon, were viewed dimly when they did not favour the British establishment and as a consequence, impacted negatively on his career. He wrote:
The Burmese were treated as an inferior race; though the law was supposed to be the same for all, it was interpreted to favour the British.
Collis specifically recalled that an English academic in Rangoon, who married a Burmese woman, was reprimanded by the British Governor of Burma for ‘lowering British prestige’. His lengthy recollections about the sedition trial of the ‘Lion of Bengal’ J. M. Sen Gupta (1885-1933), who had replaced Chittaranjan Das as leader of the Swaraj Party, are particularly interesting as they reveal this ‘lieutenant’ of Gandhi was another significant Bengali nationalist connected with the Sen family in Rangoon. Collis believed Sen Gupta was partially targeted by the British authorities, while visiting Rangoon to make a speech, as he was a ‘celebrity’ and noted he was also married to ‘an Englishwoman’.
Seeley’s family were Anglican establishment in Rangoon but he married at J. R. Das’s residence rather than in the local church (Marriage Register Book 1925). There is no clear reason why (and the extended Das family had many members who were Christian) but it does suggest being ‘outcast’ as Hollis posits. Stansky and Abrahams’s reticence to name him, like Hollis’s before them, was almost certainly due to the fact that Eric Frank Seeley had remarried with children. Seeley’s eldest daughter confirmed that neither she nor her sister were aware of his first marriage, nor did they know whether their mother, who Seeley married in 1942, five years after leaving Burma, had been told or not. This daughter only learned of her father’s marriage to Das last year while conducting genealogical research and was surprised to discover that the marriage ceremony took place at the bride’s father’s residence in Rangoon. It is not clear if Seeley’s own parents and siblings knew of the marriage, but since his father and sister were in Burma at this time one would assume that they did. Neither relative signed the register and one would imagine the son of the former Archdeacon of Rangoon, not marrying in the local Anglican church, to be a clear sign of disapproval.
Seeley and Das’s marriage did not conform to the pattern Hollis described in his memoir, Along the Road to Frome (1958):
In, say, Java or Burma in the 1920s there were few white women. Those that there were were almost without exception married. Young men came out as bachelors to their various posts straight from the Universities or even straight from school. The climate was obviously not one which made continence attractive. Many of the native girls were pleasing and not at all fussy, and under such circumstances there was a good deal of promiscuous intercourse. It was most generally agreed that differences of background were so great as to make intermarriage undesirable, and, after a tour of duty, the European went home on leave and returned with a European wife, but that did not prevent intercourse in earlier years before marriage.
‘Leila Seeley’ remarried, to an English businessman, Harry Bruce Trinder (1904-1978), in London during 1951. Sushila, her ‘ultra-modernist’ mother resided with the couple in London until she died in 1964.
No divorce or newspaper records have yet been discovered to shed light on the period prior to 1950, although there are indications from shipping records of Das’s volunteer work for the Indian Red Cross during the war.
Hollis’s claim that Orwell thought Seeley and Das’s marriage ‘folly’ brings to mind W. Somerset Maugham’s travel narrative about an Englishman he met in Burma:
I’ll tell you. If I married her I’d have to stay in Burma for the rest of my life.
One suspects, like the rest of Hollis’s analysis of that week in Rangoon during the summer of 1925, he read history backwards, already knowing how the story had unfolded. There is no evidence that Seeley, a ‘staunch conservative’ according to his daughter, communicated with Hollis again but it would seem likely. Seeley did frequent the ‘Wig and Pen Club’ located on The Strand, in London, across from the Royal Courts of Justice and was still attending Old Etonian dinners there until 1969. This ongoing personal connection may be the reason why Hollis did not mention Seeley, in his 1956 book, but is challenging not to see racism and sexism at play.
CONCLUDING REMARKS (AND A LITTLE SPECULATION)
Did Blair, on departing Rangoon in July 1927, say farewell to his peer? Seeley had a dog named ‘Major’ and a pet monkey called ‘Raj’ which would have encouraged his animal-loving friend to visit before embarking for home. Blair, now aged 24, was suffering from dengue fever, had an infected foot and was badly in need of time to rest and recuperate. Seeley, a reflective and thoughtful man, composed a poem towards the end of his life revealing his appreciation of the need for ‘allies in strife’:
We’re born and we die, though we cannot tell when;
The Psalmist in years gives us three score and ten.
We eat and we drink and we lust a short while;
Is it God or the Devil who has the last smile?
We create, we destroy, and we love and we hate;
We learn, we forget, ‘til we realise too late
We’re being blown to our dust, as the wind blows the chaff.
Is it God or the Devil who has the last laugh?
So, let’s pull together like allies in strife
And try to evolve a fair pattern of life’
Together to sojourn, together to die;
And let God and the Devil both have the last cry (Seeley c.1967).
It is also worth speculating (albeit briefly) on the late Gerry Abbott’s suggestion that Eric Blair may have been ‘the Poet’ in a memoir written by Captain H.R. Robinson, and reviewed by Orwell, about his experiences of opium addiction in Burma during the mid-1920s. It is possible that Seeley is the other figure provided with an alias by Robinson – ‘the Padre’ – considering his father had been the Archdeacon of Rangoon. It is interesting that Robinson, a former military policeman, mentions his connection with judicial figures, including a ‘High Court Judge’, who knew him well enough to be ‘responsible’ for his ‘fare to Rangoon’ when he was in danger of imprisonment and needed help.
Contextual information about Seeley, Leila Das, her family, Bengali politics, the Burmese High Court, Eton College, debating, Hollis and Woodruff may not tell us any more for certain about the writer who emerged in the years that followed Blair’s resignation from the Indian Imperial Police, but it does lead to greater understanding of the network of friends and acquaintances who likely impacted on his thinking and work during this Burmese period of his life (which has so few primary sources).
Douglas Kerr makes the important point that Assistant Superintendent Blair ‘was a lawman’ and that his ‘experience of Burma as an officer in the Imperial Police was crucially formative of the subsequent career of George Orwell. … Burmese Days … is a policeman’s novel, very much concerned with the law, its agents and its discontents’.
This experience as an imperial policeman contributed significantly to Orwell’s uncanny ability to reconstruct imaginatively, from the inside, the mechanics of oppression. The fundamental argument – justifying British government over Oriental peoples who ‘had known nothing but the rule of arbitrary despots’ – was, supposedly, ‘rule of law’. Collis noted the paradox, as did Eric Blair. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch maintained a file on Orwell, from 1929 until his death, which recorded he told ‘intimate friends that he could not bring himself to arrest persons for committing acts which he did not think were wrong’ making it impossible to continue as a police officer. Peering into the fog of the past, one wonders what influence, if any, the perspectives of the Das and Sen families (and their associates) had on his thinking and the themes in Burmese Days (1934).
Blair did, as some biographers suspected, have much to ‘learn from men like Seeley’. Orwell’s understanding of the judiciary, corruption, nationalism, racism and imperialism may have broadened significantly via the connection to the experiences of these intelligent, non-British, Rangoon insiders that his friendship with Eric Seeley provided.
- Special thanks to Erica Goulea, E. Seeley’s daughter, for her generosity providing photographs, poems, documents and advice.
- References and citations available on request (I removed them to make the blog post more readable).
*This paper was originally published in George Orwell Studies, Volume 5 No. 2 (2021). You can subscribe to the journal here.
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