This desert inaccessible
Under the shade of melancholy boughs.
As You Like It
with an Introduction by Emma Larkin
and A Note on the Text by Peter Davison
INTRODUCTION TO BURMESE DAYS
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS
George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair) was born in 1903 in India and then went to Eton when his family moved back to England. From 1922 to 1927 he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). He lived in Paris before returning to England, and Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1936. After writing The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia (his account of fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War), Orwell was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938 and from then on was never fully fit. He spent six months in Morocco where he wrote Coming Up for Air. During the Second World War Orwell served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC. His political allegory Animal Farm was published in 1945 and it was this novel, together with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him worldwide fame. George Orwell was taken seriously ill in the winter of 1948-9 and died in London in 1950.
Peter Davison is Research Professor of English at De Montfort University, Leicester. He was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1926 and studied for a London External BA (1954) by correspondence course. He edited an Elizabethan text for a London MA (1957) and then taught at Sydney University, where he gained a Ph.D. He was awarded a D.Litt and an Hon. D. Arts by De Montfort University in 1999. He has written and edited fifteen books as well as the facsimile edition of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the twenty volumes of Orwell's Complete Works (with Ian Angus and Sheila Davison). He is a past president of the Bibliographical Society, whose journal he edited for twelve years. He was made an OBE in 1999 for services to literature. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Bibliographical Society in 2003 and appointed a Professor Emeritus of Glyndwr University in 2009.
Emma Larkin is the pseudonym for an American writer who was born and bred in Asia. She studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has been visiting Burma for over ten years. Larkin is the author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, and is currently working on her second book about Burma.
Key to a sketch-map of Kyauktada that was drawn by Orwell
Introduction to Burmese Days
In Katha, the remote town in northern Burma where George Orwell set Burmese Days, there stands a solitary, pale-orange chimney. The large British house that once stood around it is long gone. On either side of its base there is an empty brick fireplace. Halfway up the chimneystack are the remnants of the second storey - five weathered planks sticking out in all directions like signposts.
In Burmese Days, part of the grassy clearing around the chimney was once a sitting room decorated with ornamental tables and brassware trinkets from India. Orwell wrote that the room had smelled of chintz and dying flowers.
According to my reading of a sketch-map Orwell drew (reproduced on page ii of this edition) to show the real-life geographical setting of Burmese Days in Katha, this chimney is all that remains of the home of Mr Lackersteen, the lascivious gin-swilling sahib, and his wife, the indomitable memsahib forever making kit-kit with her servants and complaining about the heat of the tropics.
Ever since I first visited Katha, Burmese Days has been for me a heady blend of fact and fiction. Based on Orwell's time in Burma between 1922 and 1927, the novel provides a keen insight into his own experiences there as well as an intimate and damning critique of colonialism written from first hand experience. Though the colonial society that inspired Burmese Days has long-since vanished, all the novel's key buildings remain much as Orwell described them, and walking through the streets of Katha feels like walking onto an abandoned stage-set.
In my mind, the characters brought to life in Burmese Days are so vividly etched against the backdrop of Burma that it is easy to imagine them haunting the country still.
Before Orwell became a writer, he spent nearly five years working as a policeman for the British imperial police force in colonised Burma. Known then by his real name, Eric Blair, he was a distinctly un-Orwellian character. His background had groomed him to be the quintessential child of empire. His father had been an opium-tax collector in India and his mother, who was born into a prominent family of shipbuilders and teak traders, had had a grand upbringing in Burma tended to by a small army of servants. Orwell himself was born in India, returning to England with his mother before his second birthday. He went to Burma at the age of nineteen, fresh from Eton College. The young Orwell enjoyed the decadence of the ruling class in Burma; he later wrote, 'I habitually allowed myself to be dressed and undressed by my Burmese boy.'
Orwell's career in the colonies came to an abrupt end in June 1927 when he was granted six months home leave and sailed back to England. He joined his family on holiday in Cornwall and announced to them that he was going to give up his job as an imperial policeman and become a writer. They were horrified that he would throw away a respectable career for such an unpromising future. Disregarding their apprehensions, he took on the pen-name George Orwell and began to write. Through his essays and novels, especially Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he went on to become one of the most respected and oft-quoted writers of the twentieth century.
I have always thought that Orwell's time in Burma marks a key turning point in his life. It was during those years that he was transformed from a snobbish public-school boy to a writer of social conscience who sought out the underdogs of society. As a policeman in Burma, Orwell saw the underbelly of the empire; not the triumphant bugles or bejewelled maharajas, but the drunken sahibs pickled by heat and alcohol in mildewed clubs, the scarred and screaming Burmese in their prison cells. He witnessed first hand the devastating effects of repressive governance and it troubled him deeply. Unable to share his views with the enthusiastic empire builders around him, he retreated like John Flory, the main protagonist of Burmese Days, 'to live silent, alone, consoling oneself in secret, sterile worlds'.
In Burma, Orwell acquired a reputation as someone who didn't fit in. Unlike his contemporaries, who prided themselves in being pukka sahibs, Orwell preferred to spend most of his time alone, reading or pursuing non-pukka activities such as attending the churches of the ethnic Karen group or befriending an English opium addict who was a disgraced captain of the British Indian army. Reading Burmese Days, it is easy to see how Orwell's hatred towards colonialism must have festered in the solitude and heat, growing like a hothouse flower. Orwell later wrote that he felt guilty for his role in the great despotic machine of empire and became haunted by the 'faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my stick
Tormented by these Burmese ghosts when he returned to England, Orwell began to look more closely at his own country and saw that England also had its oppressed masses in the working class. The working class, he wrote, became the symbolic victims of the injustice he had seen in Burma. He wrote that he was compelled into the world of London's homeless and the destitute of Paris (experiences that would, a few years later, be collated in his book Down and Out in Paris and London): 'I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.'
Down and Out in Paris and London was Orwell's first published book and it was not until some years after he had left Burma that Burmese Days was ready for publication. Orwell's publisher was initially reluctant to publish Burmese Days as he was concerned that Katha had been described too realistically and that some of his characters might be based on real people, making the novel potentially libellous. As a result, Burmese Days was first published further afield in the United States in 1934. A carefully censored British edition came out a year later, but only after Orwell altered the characters' names and tried to disguise the setting. The Indian doctor, Veraswami, had his name changed to Murkhaswami (thus losing his derogatory nickname, 'Dr Very-slimy') and the Lackersteens became the Latimers. The town is called Kyauktada in the book and all references to its location in Upper Burma were removed. (The modern-day edition has been restored, with a few later editorial changes, to its original form.)
To facilitate some of the geographical disguises, Orwell drew a sketch-map of Katha for his publisher. On the map are roughly drawn boxes marking the location of Flory's house, the church, the bazaar, the jail and the British club - the physical and spiritual centerpiece of Burmese Days. According to Orwell, the real seat of British power lay, not in the commissioner's mansion or the police station, but in this sad, dusty little building.
The club building still stands today, though it has since been turned into a government-owned co-operative. Where the garden used to be a riot of English flowers - larkspur, hollyhock and petunia - there are now large warehouses holding stores of rice, oil and sugar. The low tin roof of the club still hangs over a wooden verandah at the entrance, but the main room has been divided by a wall and is filled with desks and mismatched chairs. In Flory's time, the interior boasted a mangy billiard table, a library of mildewed novels, months-old copies of Punch magazine and the dusty skull of a sambar deer on one wall. Members of Katha's British community whiled away interminable evenings with tepid gin and tonics and inane club chatter about dogs, gramophones, tennis racquets, the infernal heat and, inevitably, the insolence of the Burmese (older club members recalled the good old days of the colony when you could send a servant to the jail with a note reading, 'Please give the bearer fifteen lashes').
Most colonial memoirs I have read paint a jolly picture of life in Burma; making affectionate references to the butlers from Madras who prepared ice-cold shandy on river flotillas, ribald drinking songs around the club piano, shooting expeditions, dances. Burmese Days, however, is something very different. It is a portrait of the dark side of the Raj, chronicling sordid and shameful episodes of empire life.
Few of the characters in Burmese Days have any redeemable features; both British and Burmese alike are tarnished by the colonial system in which they live. As far as fictional heroes go, John Flory is painfully inadequate. He is cowardly, self-pitying, and carelessly cruel. In nearly every chapter he does something to debase himself, something for the reader to cringe at. But he is, like most of Orwell's leading men, uncomfortably and almost unbearably human.
There are hints throughout Burmese Days of the future themes for which Orwell would later become so well known. Flory is the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature. Like Flory, Orwell was surrounded during his time in Burma by people he felt he had nothing in common with and to whom he could not fully reveal himself. When Flory muses on the constraints of colonial society, he could just as well be in the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
'It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored... even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.'
When Burmese Days was first published in the 1930s it came as a surprise to some old Burma hands. A colleague of Orwell's who had received training with him at the Mandalay Police Training School felt that Orwell had 'rather let the side down'. The training school's burly principal was reportedly livid and threatened to horsewhip Orwell if he ever saw him again.
In defence of his harsh portrayal of colonial society, Orwell wrote simply, 'I dare say it's unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen.'
It is a curious twist of fate that Orwell's later novels have mirrored Burma's recent history. In Burma today, there is a joke that Orwell didn't write just one novel about the country, but three; a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The link begins with Burmese Days as it chronicles the country's period under British colonialism. Not long after Burma became independent from Britain, a military dictator who took power in 1962 sealed off the country from the outside world, launched 'The Burmese Way to Socialism' and turned Burma into one of the poorest countries in Asia. The same story is told in Orwell's Animal Farm, an allegorical tale about a socialist revolution gone wrong in which a group of pigs overthrow the human farmers and run the farm into ruin. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell's description of a horrifying and soulless dystopia, paints a chillingly evocative picture of Burma today, a country ruled by one of the world's most tenacious military dictatorships.
Intellectuals in Burma laughingly refer to Orwell as 'the prophet'. And, just as Orwell's shadow continued to fall across Burma, so Burma never really relinquished its hold on Orwell either.
There are physical affectations that Orwell picked up in Burma which remained with him throughout his life. While in Burma, he acquired a moustache similar to those worn by officers of the British regiments stationed there. Orwell also acquired some tattoos while he was there; on each knuckle he had a small untidy blue circle. Many Burmese living in rural areas still sport tattoos like this - they are believed to protect against bullets and snake bites.
A decade after Orwell had returned to England, he slipped the following paragraph into a book review he wrote:
'For an average Englishman in India [Burma was then ruled as part of the Indian empire] the basic fact, more important even than the loneliness or the heat of the sun, is the strangeness of the scenery. In the beginning the foreign landscape bores him, later he hates it, in the end he comes to love it, but it is never quite out of his consciousness and all his beliefs are in a mysterious way affected by it.'
When Orwell wrote about Burma in Burmese Days he produced his most elaborate descriptive writing and the novel is given a supremely exotic backdrop, drenched in mist and tropical flowers. Orwell's other books seem to lack the fervour of Burmese Days. Neither his writing on Spain, nor England, produced such vivid 'purple passages', as he deridingly called them. The scenery of the East clearly got under Orwell's skin.
Two of Orwell's most powerful essays, 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging', are based on his time in Burma. And, on his deathbed, it was to this setting that Orwell's mind wandered once again as he sought inspiration for another novel. Though doctors at the Cotswolds' sanatorium where Orwell was being treated for pulmonary tuberculosis had confiscated his typewriter and advised him to stop writing, he stubbornly continued. He scribbled letters, composed essays, reviewed books, and corrected the proofs of his soon-to-be-published novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Also simmering in his fevered mind was an idea for another book entitled 'A Smok
'A Smoking Room Story' was planned as a novella of thirty to forty thousand words that would tell the story of how a fresh-faced young British man was irrevocably changed after living in the humid jungles of colonial Burma.
Orwell didn't have a chance to make much headway on this; he died shortly after beginning, and left behind only an outline for the tale and a short vignette written in an inky scrawl. Burmese Days remains the only major piece of writing which charts the compelling and long-standing connection - part reality, part fiction - between George Orwell and Burma.
Among the documents in the archive where Orwell's papers are stored at the University of London is a poem written on Government of Burma writing paper. The poem is an unpublished epitaph for the main character in Burmese Days, John Flory. Orwell imagined the poem carved in the bark of a peepul tree above the place where Flory is buried in Burma:
Died of Drink 1927
Here lie the bones of poor John Flory;
His story was the old, old story.
Money, women, cards and gin
Were the four things that did him in.
He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.
Oh stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the simple gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.
A Note on the Text
Burmese Days poses difficult editorial problems. The book was published first in the United States by Harper & Brothers on 25 October 1934; 2,000 copies were printed and, probably on 11 December, a second impression was issued. The number of copies printed in the second impression is not known, but 976 copies were remaindered. Victor Gollancz was keen to publish Burmese Days in England but, having had his fingers burnt following the publication of Rosalind Wade's Children Be Happy in 1931, he was apprehensive that publication might lead to actions for libel or defamation. A meeting between Orwell, Gollancz and his solicitor was arranged for 22 February 1935 to discuss publication in England. Orwell had recently received a letter of praise for his novel from John R. Hall, Book Editor of the Democrat-News Publishing Co. of Marshall, Missouri, Ohio, dated 5 February 1935. It seems certain that Orwell took that letter with him to the meeting to demonstrate the kind of interest his novel had aroused in America. Two of the proposals put forward at the meeting were that Orwell should delocalise the story and that he should change some of the names in order to make identification more difficult and so reduce the chances of legal action. On the back of Hall's letter Orwell drew a sketch-map of Kyauktada, the scene of the events of Burmese Days, to facilitate revisions, and in one corner he listed pages where topographical changes were to be made (keyed to the American edition) and he noted pages where certain name changes were required. Among the name changes, Dr Veraswami was changed to Dr Murkhaswami, Lackersteen to Latimer, and, incongruously, the newspaper, Burmese Patriot, to Burmese Sinn Feiner. An additional authorial note was added stating that the characters were all fictitious and pointing out that the magistrate (properly, U Po Kyin), called U Po Sing in the Gollancz edition, did not even have a genuine Burmese name. The key to Orwell's sketch-map appears as a frontispiece. Full identifications will be found in the Complete Works edition, II, pages 305-8 (Secker & Warburg, 1986).