François Villon had, I suppose, as rough a time as any poet in our own day, and the literary man starving in a garret was one of the characteristic figures of the eighteenth century
Orwell, Tribune, 8 September 1944
Three weeks after arriving in Paris, with the romantic goal of finding subjects and inspiration for his writing, Eric Blair moved to inexpensive, furnished accommodation at the Hôtel des Bons Amis, 6 rue du Pot de Fer, near rue Mouffetard in the fifth arrondissement (Archives 1928; Archives 1931; Orwell 2006: 155). The Latin Quarter, synonymous with artists, intellectuals, political unrest, criminality, and a bohemian way of life dating back to the Middle Ages, was to become his home for nearly eighteen months. His aunt, Nellie Limouzin, told an Esperantist friend that her nephew submerged into the Parisian ‘underground’ to meet criminals, debauchees, beggars and prostitutes (Westrope 1972 ). Five years later, Down and Out in Paris and London was in bookshops and his career, as a writer concerned about poverty and inequality, was launched.
Hôtel des Bons Amis
Many of the eclectic bunch of foreigners with whom he lodged at the Hôtel des Bons Amis arrived without luggage and left a week later but Blair was a long-term resident of the hotel, leased from Henri-Antoine Mons and his wife, Marie-Antoinette by the friendly Italian immigrant ‘restaurateurs’, Carlos and Clothilde Ferrari (Paris Archives 1926; Archives 1931: 446; Orwell 1997 : 2; Roberts 2021: 17). Orwell (who later fictionalised the establishment as the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux) described the hotel as ‘dirty’ but ‘homely’ and the neighbourhood, as ‘a slum’ (Orwell 1997 : 5). This was surely an exaggeration, possibly for literary effect but more likely betrayed Orwell’s own class background and inexperience.
Ernest Hemingway, the American writer who had lived just a three-minute walk away at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine during the early 1920s, viewed this area of Paris as unpretentious and fondly described it in a letter home to his parents:
The nicest part of the Latin quarter. Just back of the Pantheon and the École Polytechnique. It has a tennis court right across the street and a bus line ends in the square around the corner so that you can get anywhere in the city (Hemingway 2011: 335).
Hemingway, in the first flush of marriage, had just arrived in Paris – with letters of introduction to literary luminaries Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein – was in a different state of mind to the romantically bereft, unpublished and unemployed Blair whose proposal of marriage to Jacintha Buddicom had been rejected in August 1927 (Buddicom 1929; Orwell 2013: 10). However, Hemingway noted that when he had no money but was still permitted to join the lending library at Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., there was little reason for the proprietor to trust him as the address he had given her, ‘74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, could not have been a poorer one’ (Hemingway 2009: 31).
Blair had a significant personal literary rationale for choosing to reside in the Latin Quarter. He wanted to understand poverty and inequality from the inside and there is considerable evidence that François Villon (c.1431-1463), a student, poet, murderer and criminal, dying of hunger for three quarters of his life, who wrote, whored, starved, rollicked and died in the Latin Quarter half-a-millennia before, was an inspiration for the would-be-writer (Davison 1991: 139). Orwell told a friend that Villon was his greatest literary discovery before reading James Joyce’s, Ulysses (Orwell 2006: 95). The French rapscallion-poet’s themes of exile, debauchery, unrequited love, faithlessness and the cruelty of women had seduced Blair and appear to have become a component of his ever-imaginative, interior monologue (Davison 1991: 139).
Villon is largely neglected in Orwell Studies but was an important literary and philosophic influence, although it is not clear when Blair first read the poet’s work (Davison 1991: 137-139). It may have been the short story, ‘A lodging for the night’, written by Robert Louis Stevenson, that alerted him to Villon in his youth (Stevenson 1900 ). Orwell certainly knew that the ‘puritanical’ Stevenson was ‘at his very worst in his essay on Villon, where thoroughly bad writing and hypocritical indignation are combined’ (Orwell 1998 : 389).
One biographer speculated that a fellow-officer’s wife, Elisa-Maria Langford Rae, with whom he was having an adulterous affair in Burma, possibly introduced Blair to the medieval French poet (Bowker 2004 : 90). It is worth noting that Jacintha Buddicom, Blair’s childhood friend, published a faux-medieval collection of poetry, The Compleat Workes of Cini Willoughby Dering, anonymously in the United States while he lived in Paris (Buddicom 1929). ‘Cini’ was Jacintha’s family nickname, and the pair shared a passion for poetry and word games (Wadhams 1984: 12). Possibly Blair originally discovered Villon in the Buddicom family library.
François Villon was the adoptive name of François des Loges, also known as François de Montcorbier (Pascolini-Campbell 2018: 3). Verifiable details of his life are scant but those who read him – especially ‘Le Grande Testament’ (1461) which takes the form of a will in verse form – relate intimately to the poet’s personal travails (ibid: 5). The creation of such an authentic persona, partially achieved by the graphic, vernacular depictions of people and poverty, make the poem a significant landmark in French literature. The narrator, also named Villon, cannot offer what women are primarily interested in – money; a theme Orwell explored extensively in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Orwell 1997 ).
Villon inhabits a world of seedy taverns where he carouses with defrocked priests, thieves and revolutionary students. His poetry was popular with his criminal associates because he employed their slang with amusing and pointed jests aimed at the Establishment (ibid: 20). He wrote primarily for his friends and acquaintances, often making in-jokes and punning in a manner that was challenging to understand contextually, even for contemporaries (ibid: 6; 12; 18-21). His contradictory personality, unconventional and colourful life is artful, literary artifice but has been read as autobiography by generations of readers (ibid: 28). Ironically the un-named narrator, of Down and Out in Paris and London, created by a pseudonymous author, may be viewed similarly.
Although Orwell claimed that everything in the book had really taken place at one time or another, it is clearly not reportage like his other books written during the 1930s, The Road the Wigan Pier or Homage to Catalonia. Text on the original Gollancz dust jacket positioned readers to expect a book that held their ‘attention far more closely than 90% of novels’ and Penguin first published the paperback with ‘fiction’ emblazoned across the familiar orange and white cover design (Orwell 1933; Orwell 1940).
His book, with its unnamed narrator – although correctly considered a prime example of the social documentary realism (prevalent in the 1930s) that had moved away from the aesthetic concerns of the previous decade – it is in some ways quite a modernist text experimenting with narrative style and voice (Orwell 2021 : xxiii). The long and torturous publication history resulted in the cobbling together of various disconnected episodes significantly impacted on the final shape of the book (Orwell 1998 [1903-1936]: 242-243, 299-300; Orwell 1997  217-221).
Blair reportedly told his literary agent and a friend that he hoped his first publication would be a novel and expressed uncertainty if ‘Down and Out was literature or documentary’ but eventually, he decided, it was actually a ‘travel book’ (Crick 1992 : 225; Bowker 2004 : 143). Neither of these two comments, quoted by Bowker and Crick, are referenced. However, there was no doubt in the mind of Gerald Gould, Victor Gollancz’s manuscript reader, who found the book held his ‘attention far more closely than the ordinary novel…’ (Crick 1992 : 223). Gould understood immediately that this was ‘an extraordinarily forceful and socially important document’ commenting that:
Nobody could have made up the experiences which he describes. He may, of course, have embroidered a little here and there, but substantially this is a true picture of conditions which most people ignore and ought not to be allowed to ignore… (ibid)
Villon is referenced by Orwell in his letters and books for nearly two decades suggesting the importance of the French poet to his reading life (Davison 1991: 137-139). Peter Davison speculated that a lost ballade, submitted to Pierre Yrondy’s, le Mon T-Parnasse, may have been a parody of Villon (ibid: 138). Villon was the first name listed in a 1931 letter requesting books for review from the editor of The Adelphi, and Blair casually quoted from the poet in French, when writing letters to friends (Orwell 1998 [1903-1936]: 399).
Orwell is still mentioning Villon in As I Please articles during 1944 (Orwell 1998 [1943-1944]: 92; 385-386) and reviews for The Observer in 1945 (Orwell 1998 : 213). In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where the protagonist, Gordon Comstock, an impoverished poet not adverse to carousing with prostitutes, muses that he should be thankful for small mercies in his life as ‘Villon at the same age was poxed’ (Orwell 1997 : 21). In a letter to T. S. Eliot (1931), Orwell offers his services to translate a French novel about a prostitute, A la Belle de Nuit:
I don’t pretend to have a scholarly knowledge of French, but I am used to mixing in the kind of French society described in the novel, & I know French slang, if not well, better than the majority of Englishmen (Orwell 1998 [1903-1936]: 235).
In this way, he further confirmed he mingled with the society that Villon championed.
Villon amused and stimulated Orwell’s own literary playfulness. In Down and Out in Paris and London, work as a plongeur eventually becomes available at a restaurant Orwell renames the ‘Auberge de Jehan Cottard’:
It was a smallish place, consisting of a bar, a dining-room, and a kitchen no bigger than the average bathroom. The patron was decorating it in a trumpery ‘picturesque’ style (he called it ‘normand’; it was a matter of sham beams stuck on the plaster, and the like) and proposed to call it the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, to give a medieval effect. He had had a leaflet printed, full of lies about the historical associations of the quarter, and this leaflet actually claimed, among other things, that there had once been an inn on the site of the restaurant which was frequented by Charlemagne.Orwell 1997 : 50-51
The historical Villon, who had been defended in court against the charge of ‘cursing’ by Master Jehan Cottard, fondly celebrated this drunken, gently cynical, ironical buffoon in his poetry (Lewis 1928: 258). Described as a ‘Pantagruelist’ by one critic (a reference to Rabelais’s 16th century, Gargantua and Pantagruel), Villon’s Cottard approaches serious matters with broad and somewhat cynical good humour (ibid: 258; Rabelais 1999: 425). Orwell’s own sardonic sense of humour, tempered by subtle word play and irony in his bitterly cynical, satirical novels, is often under-appreciated.
Although Down and Out in Paris and London opens with a quotation from the English medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer – ‘O scathful harm, condicion of poverte!’ – Orwell, whose audience were readers from the same social class as himself who had not normally experienced poverty or the working class, acknowledges his intellectual and philosophical debt to Villon:
The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty? In my copy of Villon’s poems the editor has actually thought it necessary to explain the line ‘Ne pain ne voyent qu’aux fenȇtres’ tres’ by a footnote; so remote is even hunger from the educated man’s experience. From this ignorance a superstitious fear of the mob results quite naturally.
Orwell 1997 : 121
George Orwell claimed he moved to Paris to ‘learn French’, ‘live cheaply’ and, because in London during 1927-1928, he ‘knew nobody and at first could get no footing’ for his new career as a journalist (Orwell 1998 : 278-279; Orwell 1998 [1903-1936]: 353). The day-by-day details of his life in Paris during the late 1920s, when he was still Eric Blair, are largely unknown. However, it is evident that his love French literature and François Villon enticed him to the Latin Quarter with the romantic ambition of becoming a writer.
*This blog post is adapted from my 10 000 word paper, “The True Artist: Poverty, Networking and Literary Artifice”, George Orwell Studies (2021) Vol. 6, No. 1 pp. 7-31
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