“I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject-matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, or in some perverse mood: but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”
George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)
To understand George Orwell, one must understand Eric Blair, was the advice which Richard Rees (his friend, benefactor, editor and literary executor) gave biographers. I would add that to understand Orwell, one needs to understand his parents and their context in greater detail than we currently do.
Orwell rarely kept letters or wrote reflectively about his family context. Two notable exceptions, The Road to Wigan Pier (1938) and his essay, Why I Write (1946) provided highly original and perceptive analysis of childhood influences on his intellectual development. We have his mother’s brief diary (1905) but nothing at all from his father, just a few anecdotes from people who knew him in old age. There are less than a handful of photographs and just one letter that Orwell wrote to his father, from Morocco in 1938.
Understandably, this challenging dearth of primary sources has resulted in biographers leaving many stones unturned. This brief blog post (a rough draft of sorts for a longer academic piece) shares new information about Orwell’s parents until around the time of their only son’s birth and challenges previous conclusions drawn with little or no evidence to support them.
“Among the visitors to Naini Tal are many who come for a rest and for a change, and to whom a prolonged stay in the settlement itself may be monotonous; to these a short visit to the surrounding lakes, places of minor interest, would be a pleasant and a most welcome change.” A Guide to Naini Tal and Kumaun
Orwell’s parents almost certainly met in 1896 at Naini Tal, the summer capital for the Government of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. 21-year-old Ida Mabel Limouzin (1875-1943) worked at a local school and 39-year-old Richard Walmesley Blair (1857-1939) was enjoying a six-month furlough from the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. This fashionable hill station, 345 km northeast of New Delhi, provided a welcome diversion when the heat on the plains became unbearable during the middle of the year. The only non-Europeans here were servants or directly involved in the servicing of the township.
Naini Tal was one of the few hill stations blessed with a large natural body of water and ‘flats’. The level ground, courtesy of landslide in 1880 that filled up one end of the lake, made the town a popular, practical space for sport and fun. Opportunities for flirting at fancy dress balls, treasure hunts, dances, dog shows, theatrical events and shooting parties was extensive and continued while playing tennis or croquet, watching the polo, enjoying the rowing, boat races and gentlemen versus ladies cricket matches.
In Orwell and Religion (2017), Michael Brennan suggested that Ida’s family were practising Catholics and that she most likely taught at the Christian Brothers Boys School in Naini Tal, St Joseph’s. Brennan speculated that Theresa Catherine Halliley (1843–1925), Ida’s mother, had a very Catholic combination of names and that her father, Francis “Frank” Mathew Limouzin (1835-1915) was from Limoges, a devoutly Catholic region in France. Evidence does not support these assertions.
Halliley’s own parents married in an Anglican church in Colombo, St Peter’s and Frank hailed from Bordeaux, where the clergy were more well-known for their vineyards than devotion. However, there is evidence that Antoine Limouzin (1764-1841), Frank’s grandfather (who was also a shipwright like his grandson) was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church well over a hundred years before Ida’s birth.
There are no records suggesting Ida’s family considered themselves Roman Catholics and it is worth noting that several members of the Limouzin and Halliley clans were Freemasons (a secret society banned by the Catholic Church since the 18th century). It is also noteworthy that Frank Limouzin’s first wife (Eliza Fallon 1841-1865) and two of his children were buried in the Anglican cemetery at Moulmein in 1865.
Thacker’s Indian Directory (1897) lists Miss Limouzin as the “1st tchr, girls’ schl” in Naini Tal. There are only two possibilities. The early school records are not extant but there are some clear contextual clues that Ida was employed at All Saints Diocesan High School not St. Mary’s Convent High School.
Thacker’s also listed Orwell’s mother as living at “Fern Cottage”. This residence was owned at that time by Mr. R.J. Elliott, a former principal of the Diocesan School for Boys (now known as Sherwood College) which had been founded in 1869 to educate Anglo-Indian children and was originally co-educational. In 1871, the school underwent a division and the Diocesan Girls’ High School was established. This school was relocated to Ayarpatta Hill, its present location, in 1892. The opening to this documentary gives a good overview of the early history of the school where Orwell’s mother taught.
Ida had relatives, including her sister Nellie Limouzin, who worked at the Diocesan Girls’ High School in Rangoon and it seems probable that Elliott would rent his property to a new teacher. This charming cottage still stands and ironically, considering the above discussion, there is a small chapel that Robert Read, the original owner, built for “his Catholic wife”.
None of this answers adequately the question: why was Ida working in Naini Tal?
There has been suggestion she was jilted by a lover who left her stranded in the town or possibly she was adventurous and happily snatched the opportunity for a job away from her family in Moulmein. There are no sources, only speculation.
Contemporary photos of Fern Cottage and the chapel (2013) SOURCE
Richard and Ida married in Naini Tal on the 15th June 1897 at St John’s Church in the Wilderness. The marriage certificate reveals that one of Ida’s sisters was present and that Richard had a lawyer friend from Lucknow in attendance. It is highly unlikely that an employee of a Catholic School would marry in a local Anglican church.
Eric Arthur Blair
The Blair’s only son, Eric Arthur, was born six years later in sight of the Himalaya Mountains at Motihari, in Bihar. The photos below were probably taken on the 30th October, the day Orwell was baptised in 1903 at the Protestant, Regions Beyond Missionary Union. One photo is with an un-named ayah (nursemaid or nanny). Often, when one scans the passengers lists from India to England around this period, ayahs are listed with the family who employed them. Not once have I seen the ayah’s actual name on the list.
The threads of Orwell’s life, from long before his birth, were deeply woven into the fabric of empire. A stone’s throw from the house where Orwell was born in Motihari, is the warehouse that stored the opium his father was responsible for managing. His Blair, Halliley, Fane, Hare and Limouzin ancestors were all servants of empire in a variety of capacities. One relative worthy of more investigation is his maternal great-grandfather, William Agar Halliley (1816-1886) who rose in the Ceylon Civil Service to become the principal Collector of Customs.
In 1904, Ida left India for England with her two children (Eric had a sister named Marjorie who was born in 1898). It was not unusual for the wives and children of civil servants to return home to be educated while the male continued to work on the sub-continent. Orwell’s father continued his work as a sub-deputy opium agent until his retirement in 1912. Ida’s diary for 1905 reveals that she had an active social life, enjoyed photography and the company of her siblings, especially Orwell’s Aunt Nellie. She raised her children without their father until 1912. Blair had just one furlough, 8 months and 7 days, to visit his family in 1907. A second daughter, Avril, was born in 1908.
Although her father was French, Ida was also bound to the lifestyle of the Anglo-Indians during this period; she made her home between two continents. The timeline of her movements is sketchy but she was born during a family holiday to the Halliley home, in Penge, on the southern outskirts of London in 1875. Ida spent her early childhood years in Burma but had been educated, along with at least two of her sisters, at Bedford High School in England from 1886, aged 11. She travelled on a French passport until married. Mostly, Orwell’s mother’s French ancestry is emphasised without reflection on the reality that her mother’s family hailed from Yorkshire and had deep connections to imperial service and empire.
Orwell’s biographers have always been bemused by her choice of husband and portray Richard as a poor match for his considerably younger, intelligent, more sophisticated and mildly bohemian wife. As he aged, there is anecdotal evidence that Blair was thought to be snobbish and conservative by some acquaintances. This parental mismatch has oft been employed to explain their son’s paradoxical, somewhat quixotic and contradictory personality; a radical, half in love with what he was rebelling against. For example, Orwell’s attitude towards British imperialism is more complex than it may appear to the casual reader of his work (see Douglas Kerr’s forthcoming book).
George Orwell first came to prominence writing about hunger, poverty and imperialism in books such as Down and Out in Paris and London (1933); Burmese Days (1934); The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and in personal essays (although they are more like short stories), like The Spike (1931) and A Hanging (1931) which were written under his own name, Eric Blair. His experiences of being ‘down and out’, after five years of service in the Indian Imperial Police as a young man, shaped his views. Not often discussed is how Orwell’s ancestors gained wealth and privilege from the slave trade and that his father worked his entire career distributing opium for the British empire. Orwell never mentioned either of these issues in his own writing on imperialism or his formative years.
There is virtually no evidence about the content of discussions with his father but surely tales from Richard W. Blair’s experiences in India were told to his son after his retirement in 1912. If so, what impact did they have on Orwell’s intellectual development, if any? What should be made of his father’s influence on Orwell’s own career as an Indian Imperial Police, alighting on the sub-continent as a teenager in 1922 (just as his father had done nearly a half-century before him)? The work of a sub-deputy opium agent was far from glamorous but after nearly four decades on the sub-continent, his father must have had a wealth of stories.
On deputation from the Opium Department for five months at the height of the famine (11th Aug 1878–11th Jan 1879), Blair was just 21 years of age. He must have witnessed the terrible suffering which directly influenced a generation of Indian nationalists. Did this impact on the way he saw empire? His only son, who spent five years doing “the dirty work of empire” in Burma, resigned, realising he had chosen a career for which he was ill-suited and could not stomach. Richard W. Blair, the youngest of ten siblings, would not have had that option.
It is worth noting that in the one surviving letter from Orwell to his father, written during 1938, just six months before Richard W. Blair died from cancer of the rectum, he described his experiences in Morocco and Burma with a descriptive, sociological eye:
“The weather here has got a lot cooler and is rather like the cold weather in Upper Burma, generally fine and sunny but not hot. We have a fire most days, which one doesn’t actually need till the evening, but it is nice to have it. There is no coal in this country, all the fires are wood and they use charcoal to cook on. We have tried to do a bit of gardening but not been very successful because it’s hard to get seed to germinate, I suppose because it is generally so dry. Most English flowers do pretty well here once they are established, and at the same time there are tropical plants like Bougainvillea. The peasants are just getting in their crops of chilis, like the ones they used to grow in Burma. The people here live in villages which are surrounded by mud walls about ten feet high, I suppose as a protection against robbers, and inside they have miserable little straw huts about ten feet wide which they live in. It is a very bare country, parts of it almost desert, though it’s not what is considered true desert. The people take their flocks of sheep, goats, camels and so forth out to graze on places where there seems nothing to eat at all, and the wretched brutes nose about and find little dried up weeds under the stones. The children seem to start work when they are five or six. They are extraordinarily obedient, and stay out all day herding the goats and keeping the birds off the olive trees.”
One could reasonably speculate that at least some significant conversations about India had taken place between father and son. The relationship with his father, “the best of the Blairs” according to Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, was certainly one where the son sought approval after disappointing Richard by resigning from his imperial career which should have been his destiny:
“I was with the poor old man for the last week of his life, and then there was the funeral etc., etc., all terribly upsetting and depressing. However, he was 82 and had been very active till he was over 80, so he had had a good life, and I am very glad that latterly he had not been so disappointed in me as before. Curiously enough his last moment of consciousness was hearing that review I had in the Sunday Times. He heard about it and wanted to see it, and my sister took it in and read it to him, and a little later he lost consciousness for the last time.”
In a ritual from antiquity, Orwell placed pennies on his dead father’s eyes, which he later threw into the sea at Southwold.
Ida died just four years later, in 1943.
Special thanks to Phillipe Maudet for his collaboration in our endeavours to understand the Limouzin family history in Bordeaux, Moulmein and Calcutta.
REFERENCES (footnotes available on request)
Bowker, Gordon (2004 ) George Orwell, London: Abacus
Brennan, Michael G. (2017) George Orwell and Religion, London: Bloomsbury Academic
Buddicom, Jacintha (2006 ) Eric and Us, Finlay Publishers, postscript edition
Crick, Bernard (1992) George Orwell: A Life, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, second edition
Gilmour, David (2018) The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, London: Penguin. Kindle edition
Hall-Matthews, David (2008), “Inaccurate Conceptions: Disputed Measures of Nutritional Needs and Famine Deaths in Colonial India”, Modern Asian Studies, 42 (1): 1–24, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X07002892
Larkin, Emma (2008) Finding George Orwell in Burma, London: Granta
MacMillan, Margaret (2018) Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India, London: Thames Hudson Ltd. Kindle edition
Moore, Darcy (2021) “Orwell in Burma: The Two Erics”, George Orwell Studies (2021) Vol. 5, No. 2 pp. 6-24
Moore, Darcy (2020) “Orwell’s Scottish Ancestry and Slavery”, George Orwell Studies (2020) Vol. 5, No. 1 pp. 6-19
Moore, Darcy (2018) ‘Orwell and the Appeal of Opium’, George Orwell Studies, Vol. 3, No.1, Bury St. Edmunds: Abramis Academic pp 83-102
Murphy, C.W. (1906) A Guide to Naini Tal and Kumaun, Allahabad, Pioneer Press
Orwell, George (1997 ) Burmese Days, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 2, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1997 ) The Road to Wigan Pier, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 5, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Facing Unpleasant Facts: 1937–1939, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 11, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 18, Secker & Warburg
Rees, Richard (1961) Fugitive from the Camp of Victory, London: Secker & Warburg
Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William (1972) The Unknown Orwell, New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William (1979) Orwell: The Transformation, New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Thacker, Spink and Co. (1897) Thacker”s Indian Directory, East India Company