I’ve just started A Collection of Essays by George Orwell and finished the first one, “Such, Such Were the Joys…” which relates some of Orwell’s misery between the ages of eight and fourteen at Crossgates, a somewhat prestigious boarding school. Rather than be yet another insufferable chronicle of childhood angst, Orwell instead uses the essay to describe what he sees as the cause of difficult childhoods: ignorance and innocence. The inability to see the world accurately leads to confusion and incorrect suspicions and theories about how things work—see Orwell’s confusion of “The Sixth Form,” a group of boys well-respected by the school and therefore given the task of beating naughty boys, with “Mrs. Form,” an “improbable name” (2) young Orwell assigned to a stranger who was nearby when he misheard the original threat of the Sixth Form—which is compounded in the atmosphere of a boarding school, where the flow of all information is rigidly controlled by the institution.
Also constantly remarked on by Orwell is the distinction between how he perceived things as a student at Crossgates and how he perceived them as an adult, when writing the essay. The examples are innumerable, but take this instance, concerning the school’s staff’s refusal to allow him to have a cricket bat due to the fact that his is a student at Crossgates on scholarship:
I have mentioned already that I never had a cricket bat of my own. I had been told this was because “your parents couldn’t afford it.” One day in the holidays, by some casual remark, it came out that they had provided ten shillings to buy me one: yet no cricket bat appeared. I did not protest to my parents, let along raise the subject with [Mr. Simpsons, headmaster of the school]. How could I? I was dependent on him, and the ten shillings was merely a fragment of what I owed him. I realize now, of course, that it is immensely unlikely that Sim had simply stuck to the money. No doubt the matter had slipped his mind. But the point is that I assumed that he had stuck to it, and that he had the right to do so if he chose. (24)
The insight provided by adulthood is constantly alluded to or mentioned specifically, including poking fun at ways that children think that I myself remember from childhood. Young Orwell, on an errand away from school, visits a candy shop and exiting sees a man staring at his school cap intently. Paranoid and sure that every adult is in cahoots to enforce the strict rules—absurd overhead from paying such a network of spies aside—Orwell runs off in a panic. But when a child is in that position, smaller than the world is built for, and alone in their own head, such leaps of logic not only make perfect sense, they’re almost too obvious to mention.
Other areas of note:
- “…a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.” (4-5)
- “It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.” (5)
- On methods of education and students’ responsibilities: “Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.” (8) aka, Teaching to the test, No Child Left Behind circa 1910, Juking the stats, and How to Make the Most Boring Young Adults in One Easy Step.
- “Indeed, it was universally taken for granted at Crossgates that unless you went to a ‘good’ public school (and only about fifteen schools came under this heading) you were ruined for life.” (12)
- “About the same time [ages five or six] I fell deeply in love, a far more worshipping kind of love than I have ever felt for anyone since…” (27)
- On an inherent contradiction in the school’s ideals: “The essential conflict was between the tradition of nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age.” — The Christian ideals of hard work and humbleness vs. the old-money ideals of wealth making social betters, especially if it were unearned.
- Religious questions at a young age: How can you love an authority—God, father, schoolmaster, etc.—if you fear them? (37)
- After sucker-punching a larger boy and then refusing the fight him out of cowardice, but claiming the matter settled and a further fight superfluous: “I did not see that in that case the weak have the right to make a different set of rules for themselves…” (40)
- “The question s not whether boys are still buckled into Eton collars on Sunday…. The real question is whether it is still normal for a school child to live for years amid irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings.” (44)
- “The weakness of the child is that it starts with a blank sheet.” (47)
I hope to post a new entry every day that I finish a new essay, so we’ll just have to see how long this little series will last.