Ruth-Pitter

In 1930, Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) wrote a comic poem parodying her relationship with the man who was to become George Orwell. “Eros with Chilblains”, Pitter’s ironic reaction to Eric Blair’s attempts at seduction, remained unpublished in her lifetime.

Ruth Pitter’s observations of Eric Blair’s struggle to become a writer, during the period 1927-33, make her an invaluable and rare eyewitness into this opaque period of his life prior to assuming that famous pseudonym. She knew his family, found him accommodation, read his first feeble attempts at writing, escorted him to literary soirées and they spent time together with her mother, siblings and friends. 

Pitter, who already had a book of poetry published by 1920, was the first literary figure to befriend Orwell. Her biographer, Don W. King, notes that Pitter’s friends and correspondents make for an impressive “Who’s Who” list of twentieth-century British literary luminaries. She was to become a staple of BBC talk programs and was the first woman awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, in 1955. King also discovered written evidence that Pitter was “going out” with Blair and spent a “fair amount” of time with him. 

The Blair Family

In 1917 Pitter had moved to Walberswick, bordering Southwold where the Blairs were to later reside for two decades. She worked at the Walberswick Peasant Pottery Company, a decorative furniture business. The founders were Guild Socialists (enamoured with the writings of A.R. Orage, William Cobbett, John Ruskin and William Morris) who believed that “the devaluation of the workman’s labour in a capitalist society could only be arrested by the creation of small, self-governing groups of craftsmen”.

In 1919, due to their success and with this goal in mind, the company opened a factory in London and Pitter moved to the city where she met her friend and co-worker, Kathleen O’Hara. Shortly afterwards they were residing near the flat where the Blair family lived, Mall Chambers, in Kensington. Pitter became friendly with Mrs Blair and Marjorie, Orwell’s oldest sister. It was around this time that Southwold was recommended to the Blair family as a retirement destination.

Orwell wrote to Ruth Pitter, in late 1927, asking for assistance to find a room in London as he was not returning to Burma. She was surprised to hear from him but remembered those ‘rather formidable’ blue eyes from when they briefly met in 1920. Pitter found him an unheated room ­– next door to where her employer had located the workshop on the Portobello Road in Notting Hill – an area of London he already knew well as it was near where his family had lived at the end of the war and not too distant from his Aunt Nellie’s Ladbroke Grove apartment that he had often visited in his youth.

It was a bitterly cold winter, especially for someone who had just sweated for five years in the tropics. Blair was not in good health and still in pain with what Pitter described as “a nasty foot” which his landlady was willing to dress for him. Ruth lent him an oil stove. He then wrote a story about being lent an oil stove which Pitter regarded with bemused hilarity, knowing she was being “cruel” – but it was terrible! Orwell was later to write about warming his hands over a candle before unfurling his fingers to write in that cramped little room where he stayed, until departing for Paris, in June the next year.

Pitter read some other early drafts of his work and was surprised that he was so unusually inept at writing. In fact, she laughed so hard that she cried, especially at his misspelling of swearing and profanity. She tried not to be discouraging but this “wrong-headed young man” had thrown over a good career in what would appear to be a vain attempt to do something he was highly unlikely to achieve.

From this base in Portobello Road, c. October 1927 until May 1928, Blair commenced his expeditions into the East End of London looking for writing subjects among the poor and destitute, as had Jack London, one of his literary heroes. He found common lodging houses to stay around Limehouse Causeway, London’s original Chinatown, before venturing further afield. These experiences would eventually find their way into Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and his first important essay, ‘The Spike’, published in The Adelphi during 1931.

Don W. King, Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter, 2008

Pitter knew Blair was looking for more than friendship as on several occasions he had made it clear that ‘he was after what no nice girl should ever give’.

Don W. King has identified Eric Blair as the subject of Pitter’s poem, “Eros with Chilblains”,  written in 1930 but unpublished until after her death. She satirises being propositioned by Blair, making an ironic comparison with Eros, God of Love and the man she knew who suffered terribly from chilblains

Eros with Chilblains

No longer blind
but of all glory forlorn
appeared the Imp, and blew on his raw hands.
I don’t want you particularly,
he said,
but you’d better have me
or you’ll get no sexlife,
you must have sexlife.
I cried Good God and eyed the waif again,
meeting the blue suspicious stare.
Mean modern vesture hid not wholly
the shape and port celestial;
the arrogance and the melancholy
veiled him in part but veiled not all,
the arrows of fire, the fiery hair
were chilled and dim, but fire was there.

The classics say, it is no error,
that a god’s presence induces terror.
Not ten big bandits in a row
had made my heart to hammer so.
Poor old static brought to bay—
Mind my dear in-er-ti-a!
Migaud! Something might happen! HELP!

Bluff for all you’re worth don’t let him in.
He looks mischievous
as original sin.
He’s been raking
in an ashbin.
Smuts on his face
a drip on his nose,
he must be scolded
wherever he goes.

O look! he’s going all haughty.
One has to live
by dustbins or other means.
Your potvaliant* insults
prompted by fear
are vain, for I am He.
Open the door!

There now, young gamecock,
lay down your hackles.
Your ginger hair
it snaps and crackles.
Come and see Psyche
who sits within;
she shall wash you clean
from the old ashbin;
pull you out
of the garbage can,
and you shall grow into
a fine young man.

He spat like a cat,
he swore like a whore.
If you patronise me
anymore
if you mention Psyche
again to me I will strike you with lightning
caterwauled he.
The trollop’s trailed me
three thousand years
and he blistered the earth with fiery tears.

If you really want me
and you are He,
the door stands open
and here I be;
blind no longer
you should know
to my bed and bosom
the way to go.

I’m damned if I do! It’s up to you!
You must pick me up and carry me too!
When I was blind the way was plain
but now I must learn all over again.
I don’t want you but you must have Me.
Take me in and be damned! said he.

Poor little blighter looks cold.
He’s only a child for all his bluster.
I can cook and I can scold
and I full well can wield a duster.
Pick him up and take him in,
never mind about the old dustbin.

WHOOPS! He’s an electric eel!
Hell! Wildcats and porcupines
battling panthers and barbed wire
ten bobsworth of squibs, hightension cables
and no insulation either.

I flung him out in the yard,
I hoped he damn well died.
To count the bites and scratches
for a long time I tried,
then gave it up and went to bed,
and listened in case he cried
there in the dark outside.

I could not hear a whimper
save from poor Psyche, whose
sweet holy saving simper
was always bound to lose,
but from the outer dark there rang
an ashbin-lid’s defiant clang.

*Potvaliant means “made bold or courageous by the influence of alcoholic drink”.

Courtesy of Win Murrell and published with permission from Don W. King

Daphne Patai argued – in The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology (1984) – that Orwell’s reputation for moral authority was undercut by his condescending attitude and behaviour towards women. Pitter knew from personal experience Eric Blair was a very flawed human being. She pointed out that many people viewed him detrimentally after he returned, first from Burma, then Paris. She noted the rape scene in Down and Out in Paris and London with particularly understandable distaste.

There is a lengthy list of intellectual and creative women to whom Orwell was attracted and treated poorly. The poem opens with Blair’s offhand and psychologically cruel approach to bedding her:

I don’t want you particularly,
he said,
but you’d better have me
or you’ll get no sexlife,
you must have sexlife.
I cried Good God and eyed the waif again,
meeting the blue suspicious stare.
Mean modern vesture hid not wholly
the shape and port celestial;
the arrogance and the melancholy
veiled him in part but veiled not all

Blair reportedly told Mabel Fierz, with whom he was having an adulterous affair, that he had picked-up ‘a little trollop’ in a Parisian café who robbed him. Fierz relayed the story a number of times in interviews:

“In fact on the question of girls he once said that of all the girls he’d known before he met his wife, the one he loved best was a little trollop he picked up in a cafe in Paris. She was beautiful, and had a figure like a boy, an Eton crop and was in every way desirable. Apparently he came back to his room, and this paragon had decamped with everything he possessed.”

It is hard not to mentally note Pitter’s “Eton bob” considering Fierz’s anecdote and the photographs of the other women Orwell pursued during these years.

It is worth knowing that Orwell, who probably never knew of the poem (or did he?), got his own back with the thinly-veiled character of “Old Mrs Pither” and her varicose-veined legs in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935).

Literary Success

From her humble beginnings as the daughter of East End school teachers, Ruth Pitter had an extraordinarily stellar career, publishing seventeen volumes of verse. She won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry in 1937. She went onto receive both the William Heinemann Award and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. During the 1950s she was a regular on the popular BBC radio program, The Brains Trust.

Pitter became a well-known, public literary figure giving radio broadcasts on many themes: beauty, romance, leisure, children, literary figures and her experiences growing-up. This included some memories of Orwell and her brother staying in their small family-owned cottage:

“It was in the forest—there are considerable remnants of ancient forest in Essex, which of course are now piously preserved. The party consisted of Orwell, my brother, myself, and I think my mother. It was fine spring weather, and there were plenty of flowers; I think we were all happy. The place was very small, so the two men shared a room. My brother told me afterwards that he thought Orwell’s body very beautiful.”

In 1974, Pitter was awarded Companion of Literature, the highest honour the Royal Society of Literature could bestow. Her final honour was to be appointed Commander of the British Empire in 1979.

During the 1930s, Orwell was more than a little jealous of her success and literary connections. In 1934, George William Russell (1867-1935), who wrote employing the pseudonym Æ, endorsed Pitter’s latest publication, A Mad Lady’s Garland. Later this same year, Orwell wrote to Brenda Salkeld about the depression he was suffering due to his own stalled literary career.

In this letter it is evident that he continued to visit Pitter and through his friendship with her is invited to literary soirées. He jealously mentions that Pitter’s publishers have thrown her a cocktail party (and that his would never do that “in my honour”).

Orwell also mentions to Brenda that he “went to Ruth Pitter’s place and met another poetess – called Pamela Travers – rather nice but appallingly ugly”. P.L Travers, best known for Mary Poppins, also wrote erotic verse. She was hardly ugly and one assumes it is yet another example of Orwell’s teasing, or droll irony, in this case for Brenda’s amusement. He often employed this kind of doublethink, his best friends struggling to know if he was joking or deadly serious.

P.L. Travers, Publicity Shot, 1934.

The last time Pitter saw Orwell was in 1942, during the darkest days of World War II. She thought he looked so ghastly that he must be dying. Pitter was also suffering. She was working in a munitions factory and one evening, after work, considered suicide while atop the Battersea Bridge. She later credited C.S. Lewis’s radio program and writings as being fundamental to her overcoming her depression and becoming a Christian:

“As to my faith, I owe it to C. S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably “The Screwtape Letters”), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.”

Orwell, in his ‘As I Please’ column published in Tribune during October 1944, had a very different view of Lewis:

“One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people always get in the Press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr. C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look. Indeed they are an outflanking movement in the big counter-attack against the Left which Lord Elton, A. P. Herbert, G. M. Young, Alfred Noyes and various others have been conducting for two years past.”

Lewis and Pitter became friends. Their correspondence reveals a shared esteem, Lewis recognising her poetic talent requested she critique his poems. Much to Pitter’s satisfaction,  he was effusive in his praise of her work.

Concluding Remarks

Ruth Pitter’s insights into Orwell’s early years and work, via letters, television and radio interviews (and this poem) are essential primary sources. She was clearly “fond” of Orwell and thought him a most “sympathetic character”.

Back in 1927, she had not understood (although was conscious that class was part of the reason he could make such a reckless choice) why such a talentless young man would throw away a good job, thinking him “considerably wrong-headed”. She later came to admire that Orwell “had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition, until he became an acknowledged master of English prose”.

Pitter cared little for Orwell‘s “highbrow left-wing agnostic friends’ in the 1930s. Her insight though, is revealed in the imagery she employed to describe his paradoxical personality and social conservatism:

“How he did adore life! His nature was divided. There was something like a high wall right across the middle of it. A high wall with flowers and fruit and running water on one side, and the desert on the other. I think he was much more fastidious and conventional than one might think from his work – more than he knew himself.”

Although Pitter thought Blair was “considered detrimental by many people when we knew him; perhaps he really was” but also saw that “the best part of him was that which still lived in the old magic land of youth”. She was not the only friend who viewed him in this way. Comparing and contrasting the perspective of this successful, self-made poet with Jacintha Buddicom’s observations, not least because of the difference in class background, is a useful one.

In 1974, the year Buddicom published her memoir, Eric & Us: A Remembrance of George Orwell, Pitter was asked if she believed Orwell looked-up to her in the 1920s as someone who had already been published. She responded that he was “a bit snooty”. This appears to have been in both a literary and social sense. Pitter was just not interested in the contemporary vogue for modernist experiments with meter or verse form and saw herself as “an Establishment poet” who actively kept “away from the current literary scene”.

It appears her perception of Orwell, who she knew in the period between the wars, was very similar the view that Jacintha Buddicom reached from her experiences. Nearing the end of her life, and written with great sentimentality that some may find uncomfortable, Jacintha reflected that it “took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met”.

Both women, largely unnoticed at the back of the congregation, attended Orwell’s funeral in 1950. Pitter wrote of the profound sadness she experienced:

“Today I went to the funeral service for ‘George Orwell’ (Eric A. Blair). I have known him & his family for almost 30 years. He was a very interesting but I think ill-fated man. . . . I really feel quite oppressed with grief about it: I didn’t know I could still feel so much. . . . For years past I’ve always said ‘I don’t mind people dying, if it amuses them. It’s the ones who won’t die that get my goat.’ But I minded this death.”

REFERENCES

Coppard, Audrey & Crick, Bernard, Orwell Remembered, Ariel Books, 1984

Crick, Bernard, George Orwell: A Life, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1992, second edition

Jennings, Humprey, Pandaemonium, 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, New York: The Free Press, 1985

King, Don W., Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter, The Kent State University Press, 2008

King, Don W., Plain to the Inward Eye: Selected Essays on C.S. Lewis, Abilene Christian University Press, 2013

King, Don W., Email Correspondence, 2020

Orwell, George, ‘As I Please,’ 46 Tribune, 27 October 1944

Orwell, George, A Clergyman’s Daughter, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 3, Secker & Warburg, 1997

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 9, Secker & Warburg, 1997

Patai, Daphne, The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male IdeologyUniversity of Massachusetts Press, 1984

Pitter, Ruth, First Poems, London: Cecil Palmer, 1920

Pitter, Ruth, A Mad Lady’s Garland, The Cresset Press, 1934

Pitter, Ruth, Ruth Pitter’s Personal Memories of George Orwell, Transcript, London Calling Asia, BBC Radio, 3 September, 1956

Pitter, Ruth, Sudden Heaven: The Collected Poems of Ruth Pitter: A Critical Edition, King, Don W. (ed.) The Kent State University Press, 2018

Pitter, Ruth, The Letters of Ruth Pitter: Silent Music, King, Don W. (ed.) Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014

Orwell, George, Letter to Brenda Salkeld, 14th November, 1934

Taylor, D.J., Orwell – The New Life, London: Constable, 2023

Wadhams, Stephen, Remembering Orwell, Penguin, 1984.

Acknowledgments

Don King has been unstintingly generous since we first corresponded about Ruth Pitter some years ago. I appreciate his generosity in permitting me to re-publish the photo of Ruth and her poem. I highly recommend his excellent biography of Pitter. My copy, beautifully inscribed by the author, is well-thumbed.
Share

Comments(6)

    • Guy Loftus

    • 5 months ago

    Thanks Darcy – another important contribution from you – an illustration of what you can see when you peek behind the curtains shrouding Eric’s life. As adolescents, Eric Blair and Jacintha Buddicom pledged each other to study at Oxford University and both were thwarted by over-bearing parents who had other plans for their futures. But Eric’s and Jancintha’s intents were never switched off, which forced them both to become autodidacts. Not in the way of Satre in “La Nausée”, directionless and comprehensive, but focused and deliberate – thick with purpose: to become “a writer” and “a poet” (respectively). Denied the opportunity for formal tertiary education themselves, they were forced to draw on the knowledge and experience of those who weren’t denied and your description of Ruth Pitter is a powerful illustration of that process in action.

    What I find fascinating is that Eric always chose partners who were at least his equal intellectually to spar with and who had the strength (and the affection or love) to correct him, to improve him (Jacintha, Ruth, Eileen, Sonia…&?). It was a scrappy business because it came down to a contest of wills but the process was manifestly effective. His partners each gave something of themselves to him making him a better person, which to me is an act of love, not the misogyny that many perceive. His transition from a “talentless young man” to “acknowledged master of English prose” was not easy, but can be navigated in his sometimes difficult relationships with others, whom he treated poorly whilst arguably treating himself even worse. I begin to understand how difficult it was for Jacintha to admit that “we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met”. How many more can you add to that “lengthy list of intellectual and creative women to whom Orwell was attracted and treated poorly”?

      • Darcy Moore

      • 2 months ago

      My apologies that it has taken so long to respond, Guy. I have been reflecting on your point and considering if the quote you list is hyperbolic. I have decided that it is. I would acknowledge that “lengthy list” and “treated poorly” is pretty subjective but here goes: Jacintha Buddicom; Ruth Pitter; Brenda Salkeld (see his letters to her); Eileen O’Shaughnessy (he says so himself); Lydia Jackson (complex); Anne Popham and Celia Goodman (much milder but odd); Susan Watson (not confirmed); and, I think he could have done better in acknowledging his Aunt Nellie’s support and influence.

    • John Rodden

    • 2 months ago

    on the basis of what criteria does Don King identify George Orwell as the subject of the poem? this is certainly a most interesting article…. I myself would find it helpful to know in some detail the rationale, and I have not yet read his biography of Ruth Pitter:

      • Darcy Moore

      • 2 months ago

      Thanks John. It is an important point that you raise. I am neither keen to damn Orwell nor exonerate him but certainly wish to explore all the nooks and crannies of his life and writing (without prejudice, malice aforethought or naiveté). I made a small mental list of interesting points when I first read the poem to cross-reference some of the lines/ideas/themes with sources where Pitter had made commentary about Eric Blair (See Wadhams, Crick & Coppard; the BBC interview from the 1950s & her letters). None of the following points are the kind of evidence that is overwhelmingly convincing but I feel that King is correct:
      1. Blair’s “blue eyes” which Pitter instantly noticed on meeting him were “rather formidable, and an exact pair” are mentioned
      2. “He had a cruel streak, he could be spiteful. He could be very spiteful. He might give one a cruel pinch and he could say very cutting things too at times…” is how Pitter described Orwell on more than one occasion.
      3. His bad feet, the contrast in weather and chilblains: “That winter was very cold. Orwell had very little money indeed. I think he must have suffered in that unheated room, after the climate of Burma, though we did, rather belatedly, lend him an oil-stove…”
      4. Pitter indicates that she was “going out” with Eric Blair for a time.
      5. Orwell was positively reviewing her work for “The Adelphi” in 1932 but there is a strange edge in what he chooses to quote from an entire collection of her poetry (“bloodless” and barren fields”) and his references to the poet who wrote “The Rape of the Lock”. It feels like he is talking to Pitter as much, if not more, than the reader (but this is just my musings rather than anything I would pin to the wall as hard evidence):
      “unreconciled
      To winter, all the stricken forest lies
      Sodden with weeping, and with frenzy torn:
      The fields lie barren, the dishevelled vine
      Scourges the propping elm.
      This is perfectly in the spirit of surtout point de zèle, with all the adjectives deliberately chosen to avoid cheap effect; yet it is not an imitation, but rather a development—a descendant, as it were, in the direct line from Pope. Such a poem arouses mixed feelings. One is bound to admire its metrical accomplishment, and yet one cannot help feeling that nowadays there is something altogether too refined, something bloodless, about the classical style.”
      6. It is neither here nor there but “sexlife” is an unusual compound word which made me think of “sexcrime” in Nineteen Eighty-Four
      7. A general point to be considered that Pitter thought Blair was “considered detrimental by many people when we knew him…”
      8. The date 1930 is significant. We know that Orwell is still spending time with her in 1934:”The other evening I went to Ruth Pitter’s place and her met another poetess – called Pamela Travers – rather nice but appallingly ugly” (this line in a letter to Brenda Salkeld seems to be some kind of tease).
      9. Orwell’s reputation with women is now so extensively documented this did not feel out of character at all.
      BTW I asked Don King the very same question that you raise. The biography is very matter-of-fact about Blair wanting what no “nice girl” would ever give and that the unpublished poem was about Eric Blair but does not provide the evidence that would make it watertight. He emphasises that they were “going out” and this was her ironic response to his “goatishness”.

    • Darcy Moore

    • 2 months ago

    @John Rodden I have delved more deeply into the evidence and have inconvertible proof that Pitter was writing about Orwell. During the 1980s, Thomas McKean interviewed Pitter many times. During those sessions she told him that she had written a poem about Orwell and quoted from it:
    “[. . . ] he’s an electric eel!
    Hell! wildcats and porcupines
    battling panthers and barbed wire
    ten bobsworth of squibs, high tension cables
    and no insulation either.”
    Don King was confident but this is conclusive!

  1. […] Eros with Chilblains was not the only poem Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) wrote about George Orwell. “The Crow”, published in The Bridge (1945), was scribed at her lowest ebb during World War II. She crossed the Battersea Bridge each day to work long hours at the Morgan Crucible Munitions Factory while the Luftwaffe terrorised London. In happier days, this was where Orwell had fished from the canal-bank and told her that the trees in Battersea Park looked “very like the Burmese jungle”.  Even back then, she felt that he sometimes looked “well, young and gay, sometimes quite grey and desperate”.  […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *