Orwell at Eton

In the summer of 1917 Eric Arthur Blair signed the entrance book for Eton College. The volume is just one of the treasures on display in Eton College Library to mark the 101st anniversary since Blair – now better known as George Orwell – crossed School Yard for the first time as a King’s

Eton College entrance book

Eton College entrance book for 1917, with Eric Blair’s signature

The display was assembled to complement the Orwell101 school conference and the unveiling of the bust of George Orwell in School Library. While Orwell probably never laid eyes on the inside of College Library himself, on 3 May this year his son, grandson and great-grandson all came to see the display that covers Orwell’s life from his Eton days to his journalism and writing career.

Starting with a mark-book, where we find Blair coming second to bottom in Classics (a subject you feel he would have happily placed in Room 101), it moves on to records of a Wall Game in his final year where Blair was one of a few in the game’s history to score a goal.

College mark-book for 1917

College mark-book for 1917 showing Eric Blair second from the bottom of the class

Further highlights of the display include items relating to Orwell’s investigative journalism, among them first editions of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and examples of his literary journalism which cover a broad range of subjects. There are also personal letters from Orwell and his wife Eileen, written while they were in Marrakesh and touching on Orwell’s ill health that he would suffer from for the rest of his life.

Orwell's early essays displayed in College Library

Orwell’s early essays displayed in College Library

Finally, the better-known role of Orwell the novelist is presented through multiple editions of his familiar works of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949), including a number of foreign translations, as well as his lesser-known novels such as Coming Up for Air.

Throughout the display, Orwell’s popularity and impact can also be seen, for example through the editions of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Lion and the Unicorn that Alun Lewis and Sidney Keyes respectively took with them to the First World War.

His academic reputation at Eton was somewhat mixed, but his reputation as a writer is never in doubt. After the publication of Animal Farm his Eton tutor, A.F. Gow, asked Orwell for a copy of the book. Orwell duly obliged, but rather than sign the copy ‘Eric Blair’, as Gow would have known him, he signed it ‘Geo. Orwell’ and left his Eton days behind.

College Library with Orwell101 banners

The Orwell101 display in College Library

By Ceri Sugg, Project Archivist

The display will be on show to visitors to College Library on the Fourth of June. Orwell’s time at Eton is also the subject of an article by our Archives Assistant Georgina Robinson in the Collections Journal.  Please contact us to request a copy of the Journal.

 

Aiming at the highest peaks: Wilfred Thesiger rewrites his first book

The explorer Wilfred Thesiger never intended to write a book about his travels, but in 1956 he was persuaded, and he began work on Arabian Sands.  Thesiger’s old Eton friend Valentine ffrench Blake commented on the first draft, calling certain paragraphs ‘clumsy’ or simply ‘no good’.  Thesiger was grateful for his friend’s advice and during the next three years the work was subjected to constant revision and proofing.

However, the meticulous revisions of the work took their toll and Thesiger became disillusioned with the whole thing.  Thesiger’s literary agent Graham Watson of Curtis Brown had to persuade him not to throw in the towel, writing in a telegram that ‘those who aim at the highest peaks must be judged by the highest standards’.  Watson was sympathetic but stern, insisting Thesiger labour through a steady working day even if redrafting was ‘darned discouraging work’ — good advice for any writer.

The words had the desired effect and Thesiger went on to complete Arabian Sands and a further eleven books.  Thesiger maintained that Arabian Sands was his finest work.

By Ceri Brough, Project Archivist