…Saturday evenings in Paris, when we took turns about the dinner, and the hours of good talk later in my little cluttered place in rue de la Grande Chaumière. You showed me sketches of your experiences – some of the material I recognised when Down and Out in Paris and London came out. Perhaps I was your first critic? Ruth Graves (1884-1964)
Among the letters in Orwell’s possession at his death was one from a friend whom he had known twenty years earlier in Paris. Orwell’s biographers never identified Ruth Graves but assumed she was likely to have been a rich American tourist from the content of that one letter written to a dying man.
The letter revealed that Blair knew Graves well enough to discuss these ‘earliest sketches’ of what was to become Down and Out in Paris and London and for her to offer to procure and courier medicine, prohibited in England, when she discovered he was very ill with tuberculosis.
To my great satisfaction, I managed to answer the question, who was Ruth Graves?
She was an American artist who had arrived in Paris during 1924, after feeling disappointed with her lack of success in New York, with the object of studying art. Graves enjoyed reasonably immediate professional success, exhibiting three paintings at the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, known as ‘the Salon’ or ‘Salon de Paris’ in 1926.
Graves had lived on the Left Bank for 15 years, always a short distance from the famous Montparnasse cafes, until the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 forced her to return to New York City, where she came to see herself as ‘a rebel in a world that has become so regimented’ that she could ‘find no foothold’.
More evidence, revealing why Orwell may have found Graves to be a knowledgeable and sympathetic mentor has been uncovered since the original research was published. This includes information about her academic dissertation and an oral source who knew the artist as a teacher and friend.
Now Graves’s life story and philosophy is more apparent, it is very suggestive as to why Blair would have found the older woman’s company stimulating and useful to his goal of becoming a writer.
Graves was a gifted, insightful teacher. The concert pianist, Ruth Slenczynska (b. 1925) — a child prodigy now considered the last living student of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff — was tutored by ‘Miss Graves’ in Paris as young girl.
The 96-year-old credits her tutor with some of the most significant learning experiences of her life. Graves set the poem ‘Hiawatha’, by Robert Louis Stevenson, for study:
I memorised it rhythmically and had it ready to present to her by the date she specified. It went something like tum, te, tum, te tum tum tum te tum. I memorised my music rhythmically and it worked for me with words as well. Then Miss Graves said, ‘you memorised it but what do the words say? What is the meaning of this poem?’ I realised that I didn’t know. I started over again and I said the words slowly and found out what the poem was all about. Later that afternoon, I realised that my music also had meaning which was more important than the rhythm.
Her teacher was fair but had high academic and ethical standards. Slenczynska recounted that Miss Graves ‘always gave a report card to my parents and once she gave me a F for the grade of modesty’.
Slenczynska remembers that Graves advertised her services as a tutor by leaving a card with her telephone number on it at the American Library, on the rue de l’Elysée. ‘Miss Graves earned her keep by teaching American children in Paris’ and also tutored the children of violinist, Mischa Elman.
The library had been established in 1920 and most English-speaking expatriates made good use of what was on offer as it was free to read onsite if one could not afford a borrowing subscription. It is evident from a passage in Burmese Days that Blair must have sat at ‘the big shiny table’ browsing the latest issues of popular magazines such as Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, The Sketch and The Graphic. He possibly found his casual employment, also as an English tutor, by placing or responding to an advertisement displayed in the library.
Slenczynska continued to learn from Graves into adulthood; they regularly visited art galleries in New York City three decades later. Her childhood tutor’s knowledge of art was encyclopaedic, but Graves had not prospered and was ‘not well-off’; Slenczynska gave her a ‘warm coat’ to wear one winter.
Ruth Graves’s dissertation, titled ‘The True Artist’, suggests why Blair found her someone with whom he could share good conversation and to discuss his draft writing. She passionately argued in the dissertation, written as a young woman studying in Wichita, Kansas, that the greatest art is produced by those who ‘struggle with poverty to paint truth’ and that, ‘the artist’s wage is not comfort, but life’.
Orwell had many literary influences who had written about poverty – including Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Émile Zola, François Villon and Jack London – but Graves, like many others never mentioned by Orwell, were possibly more encouraging than previously recognised in his early development.
The American had managed to avoid humdrum work, studying in Wichita, Chicago and New York prior to living in Paris for a decade-and-a-half as an unmarried, independent woman who pursued her artistic inclinations.
Ruth Graves (1884-1964), born into a comfortable upper-middle class American background died, as an artist, buried in an unmarked grave.
SPECIAL THANKS to Ms Ruth Slenczynska, the liveliest, most switched-on nonagenarian one could ever hope to meet.
Bowker, Gordon (2004 ) George Orwell, London: Abacus
Graves, Ruth (1949) Letter 23rd July, Orwell Archive
Moore, Darcy (2019) “Orwell in Paris: Who was Ruth Graves?”, George Orwell Studies (2019) Vol. 3, No.2 pp. 55–70
Moore, Darcy (2019) Orwell in Paris: Ruth Graves
Orwell, George (1997 ) Down and Out in Paris and London, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 1, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1997 ) Burmese Days, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 2, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Our Job Is to Make Life Worth Living: 1949–1950, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 20, Secker & Warburg
Slenczynska, Ruth and Biancolli, Louis (1957) Forbidden Childhood, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.
Slenczynska, Ruth (2020) Interview via Zoom, 12th November
Slenczynska, Ruth (2021) Email correspondence
Wichita Eagle (1926) ‘A Girl Who Went From Wichita to Paris and Won Success’, Sunday Magazine, 13 June (Courtesy of Wichita Public Library)
Wichita Eagle (1964) ‘Ruth Eleanor Graves: – Obituary’, 29 May (Courtesy of Wichita Public Library)
Wichita Eagle (1903) ‘The College Year Ends’, 4 June (Courtesy of Wichita Public Library)
Wichita Eagle (1926) A girl who went from Wichita to Paris and won success, Sunday Magazine, 13 June (courtesy of Wichita Public Library)