St Cyprian’s School – Eastbourne

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

The school had many illustrious alumni, but a piece of writing by one of them is the first and only introduction many people have to the school. This makes it necessary to single out this teller of stories.

 

Eric Blair (1903-1950), as George Orwell, became one of the most significant writers of the 20th Century, through works including “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Much of this achievement is due to his time at St Cyprian’s and the contributions made by Mr and Mrs Vaughan Wilkes.

 

Thanks to his uncle’s friendship with Vaughan Wilkes, Blair was taken on at St Cyprian’s at significantly reduced fees. Without the generosity of the Wilkes’ in the first place, he would not have been able to attend as high quality school as St Cyprian’s. He is unlikely to have found more caring proprietors and conscientious staff at any other school.

 

Mum Wilkes’ was a gifted English teacher who used every opportunity to correct and improve the pupil’s written work. She emphasised the importance of writing good clear English and her gambit of taking the Authorised Bible as a model for good writing was used by Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”.  Old Boys have recognised her teaching in Orwell’s work.

 

The emphasis on literature was strong in the school, as both Cicely and Lewis Vaughan Wilkes had a love of books from their childhoods. Pupils received positive encouragement to read good books and even earned disfavour for reading the wrong sort of book.

 

Similarly Mrs Wilkes enthusiasm for history translated itself into Blair’s interest in the tide of history

 

Mrs Wilkes inculcated a sense of decency and fair play in her pupils and insisted on  good manners – characteristics that have been seen as particular strong qualities that Orwell possessed.

 

Blair made a school friend in Cyril Connolly who was to provide very concrete help to Orwell’s career

 

Thanks to the dedicated coaching of L C V Wilkes, Blair achieved scholarships at two leading public schools. Vaughan Wilkes judged that the collegiate intellectual atmosphere as a King’s Scholar of Eton would be more suitable for Blair and put in considerable efforts to make sure he got there.  

 

By his own account (if anything in it can be believed) Blair was invited to stay with the Wilkes in the holidays – a rare privilege. He was allowed to stay on at St Cyprians for an extra term (on reduced fees) when he should have been packed off to Wellington at the end of the previous summer term.

 

Blair got such a good grounding from his time at St Cyprian’s that he became a great writer even though he made little effort through his Eton years and as a result did not go on to University.

 

Arguably Blair never left St Cyprians - he spent his life writing feverishly and always sought approval from women for his work. The boy who enjoyed the nature rambles on the Downs, was happiest in his nature rambles as an adult; the bugler in the school Officer Training Corps played soldiers in Spain and in the Home Guard; the boy who read under the bedcovers in the school dormitory in the early morning, was reading incessantly on the rooftops in Barcelona; the boy who grew vegetables on his school allotment, loved planting and growing his own plot in Hertfordshire; the boy who swam, played cricket, fives and football at school, continued playing games as long as his health allowed him; the performer in the school play wrote the school play when he himself was a teacher; Orwell dressed like a prep school master, lived on a prep school diet and was firmly attached to traditional values; the good manners inculcated at St Cyprians, remained to impress strangers in all walks of life.

 

Vaughan Wilkes was a good golfer and in 1911 was captain of the Royal Eastbourne Golf Club which was situated opposite the school grounds. In 1904 most of the trophies at the club were won by Charles Limouzin who was the uncle of Eric Blair. It was Limouzin who arranged for his nephew to go to St Cyprians and claimed later to have paid for his education. Doubtless Limouzin drew on the friendship and respect of the headmaster, giving a good account of the boy’s abilities, and was able to negotiate the half-fees.  However Blair repaid the efforts that were put in for him in very poor coin.  “A very small boy, with a very large chip on his shoulder”, was how Mum Wilkes recalled young Eric Blair, although she had tremendous respect for his abilities. This perception might be confirmed by reading Orwell’s distorted description of the school in an introductory story he wrote for an extended essay.

 

In the essay Orwell actually wrote “I believed in God …But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs.” With so much irrational hate inside him, what chance did mere mortals stand? In spite of or perhaps because of all they did for him, Orwell wrote about the Wilkes in a piece so libellous it could not be published while they were alive

 

Orwell’s writing is almost invariably a combination of narrative and critical writing – sometimes a brief story introduces a polemic essay and at other times a novel will veer off into pages of opinion. In his stories, he could only write settings based on the physical environments which he had actually experienced. He relied on real people as the basis for his characters, stole their identity and turned them into grotesque caricatures. He jumbled up incidents of his own experience and anecdotes that had been reported to him and re-arranged them in an order to fit the story. He stoked up the atmosphere with highly emotive linguistic tricks to drive home his message. His arguments relied on wild generalisations, unsupported statements, pseudo-precision and excessive exaggerations. This makes for effective and convincing writing but it fools the reader into believing  that things must be so because Orwell said so.

 

 

SUCH SUCH WERE THE LIES

 

Orwell wrote the essay “Such Such were the Joys” about childhood and used an account based on his prep school life to introduce it. He insisted the essay was about the absurd misunderstandings of childhood. Unfortunately his observations on childhood are overlooked by those who concentrate only on the story to search  for biographical details. There is not space to address all the inaccuracies and misinformation contained in Orwell’s account  on a line by line basis. Robert Pearce, has done just that in “Truth And Falsehood: George Orwell’s Prep School Woes”.   Pearce researched the school for biographical details of Robert Hepburn Wright, and found the facts did not stack up with Orwell’s account. He undertook a painstaking enquiry and found little or no truth in all Orwell’s allegations and identified several very definite lies. It is also worth quoting the Scottish hockey international Colin Kirkpatrick, who was an exact contemporary of Blair at St Cyprians. When making marginal comments on the essay, he was still on the first page when prompted to scrawl “NOT TRUE!, You sod!!!, LIBEL!”.

 

Throughout his life, Orwell rejected educational discipline, and found it difficult to relate to others, so a boarding school was inevitably never going to appeal to him. All institutions have their good and bad points, and it is easy to start by putting on a negative spin on everything from the hardness of the beds to the quality of washing up. Orwell’s simultaneous repugnance for and obsession with the “smelly side of life” provides a particular slant in a story punctuated with urine, snot and turds. In part VI of the essay, Orwell reports a case “not known to me personally” of a clergyman’s daughter who was publicly humiliated and punished for wetting her bed. He then wrote “I do not suggest that Flip and Sambo would actually have done a thing like this, but I doubt whether it would have much surprised them”. And yet Orwell does suggest precisely this when he opens his essay with a personalisation of the anecdote!  Orwell creates this  fictitious situation at the start to bring the reader to his level of hostility. Through this device, the reader will be on his side, seeing him as a poor child suffering unspeakable degradation, rather than just another preparatory school boy relating what were for at least half a century the normal experiences of boarding school life. A critical reader may wonder why Orwell left in the essay both his derivation and its obvious origin, except as a way of refutation.

 

Jacintha Buddicom, who knew young Blair well wrote a book about their childhood friendship in which she claimed that “he was a specially happy child”. “There was no harping on inferiority and poverty by Eric then... The picture painted of a wretched little neurotic, snivelling miserably before a swarm of swanking bullies, suspecting that he ‘smelt’, just was not Eric at all. He would imitate and mimic the masters at school, but she caught no note of bitterness, only of facetious rudeness, perhaps of a slightly cocky superiority. He used to tell hilarious anecdotes in the holidays,” she remarked, “and laughed at the school heads for being prune-and-prism snobs.” On being quoted as saying that the essay was “a pack of lies” she replied defensively “Such, Such Were the Joys is not a pack of lies! It is a story in the form of an autobiographical sketch written in the first person: a story so brilliantly told that it is popularly believed to have happened word for word — as some incidents undoubtedly did.”  - so brilliantly indeed that it leaves the reader wound-up and tutting tutting with indignation like a middle-aged reader of a middle-brow newspaper. Peter Davison, compiler of the Complete Works of Orwell wrote of Orwell’s essay “If one is looking for a factual account for life at St Cyprians, this is not the place to seek it.”

 

Interpreters have not been privy to all the background, and here are interesting examples that show how Orwell changed and distorted events. In his essay he creates an absurd situation when he suffers terrors because he is spotted by a school “spy” when buying sweets. In reality, the schoolboy Blair built up an enormous collection of saucy seaside postcards, recalled by Buddicom as being in his possession when he was a child and which were to feature in the essay “The Art of Donald MacGill”. These were sold at newsagents in Eastbourne. It is these that Blair would have been terrified of being caught buying, and he would have hidden them in a wall rather than risk bringing them into the school. Blair’s final encounter with Mrs Wilkes was almost certainly not as described on his last day at the school but many years later. Blair regularly attended the annual Eton Harrow cricket match with his Harrow friend Prosper Buddicom. Mrs Wilkes always attended the match to support Old Boys playing for the schools. From independent reports, both were at Lords for the match in 1922, and that summer’s edition of the St Cyprian’s Chronicle congratulates E Blair for passing the exams for the Indian Police. Blair would only just have received the news and given that he would have been out of touch for some time it can only have been through direct contact that the news reached the Chronicle. In such an encounter, Mrs Wilkes may have found it hard to hide her understandable disappointment that one of her most promising protégés was disappearing into the jungle instead of entering Cambridge on a scholarship. Their actual parting at St Cyprians for a boy who had “basked in Mrs Wilkes favour for considerable periods” would have been very different from Orwell’s description.

 

The Eric Blair that turned up at St Cyprian’s came with baggage. His mother had turned him into a snobbish prig, banning his friendship with the plumber’s daughter and her disparaging conversational comments about men as beasts may have affected his self-esteem. His earlier education in the convent from nuns had given him a hatred of religion. He was a child that could be rude and offensive to strangers, and happy to kill animals. His future brother in law recalled him before St Cyprians as “A rather nasty fat little boy with a constant grievance”, and as “stinking little Eric, full of “Nobody loves me” and torrents of tears”.

 

When Eric Blair first arrived at St Cyprian’s Mum Wilkes tried to comfort him but received no reaction. She concluded he was not an affectionate little boy –“there was no warmth in him”.  Another boy recalled of him “There wasn’t any loophole where I could get in and make friends. He wasn’t forthcoming – unlike the other Anglo-Indian boys at the school, who were very easy to make friends with and very attractive people. I thought he was deadly dull.  By his own account Blair resented authority, and was given to bouts of unwillingness to study. The process of knocking the rough edges off him, as well as keeping him up to the mark in his studies was clearly painful for both sides. Even after Blair had been  through the St Cyprians  experience, his tutor at Eton said of him  that he ”made himself as big a nuisance as he could” and was “a very unattractive boy”.

 

Orwell’s one-sided little piece has blighted the reputation of a fine school and two worthy individuals. Cyril Connolly’s regret that he had “caricatured [the Wilkes’] mannerisms... and read mercenary motives into much that was just enthusiasm” may have been more an apology for Orwell than himself.

 

WHY?

 

Orwell’s essay was clearly written for personal consumption. It was too untruthful to have withstood the challenge had the original version been published when there were plenty around to condemn it. Orwell’s wishes were that it should not be published until all concerned were dead -  which would have kept it hidden until at least 1984. Any polemic intent of the time was likely to have lost its relevance by then. Orwell’s wishes were overridden when, against the advice of his literary executor, a version was published in America within three years of his death with proper names changed. This allowed misunderstandings to arise in an American readership that was largely ill-equipped to understand and judge the English private education system or English schoolboy humour. Orwell’s was seen as an exceptional experience and the account believed to be an accurate autobiography. At the same time the account escaped challenge because real names were not used. These factors also allowed the narrative to overshadow the important conclusions of the essay which are directly Orwell’s personal and very idiosyncratic observations on childhood and indirectly an insight into his inner life..

 

On one level, the essay is simply a schoolboy spoof, resembling the joking parodies that Connolly wrote while at school. Orwell’s description of the physical surroundings, claimed by shutting his eyes and thinking “school”, is in fact a crude inversion of the school brochure which Orwell may have had before him, as his text follows it almost line for line. For example, the “airy” dormitories become “draughty”, the public “Devonshire” baths which are praised in the brochure interrupt the essay at an equivalent point rather incongruously, and to match the photograph of the gleaming kitchen Orwell introduces the dirty cutlery. Teachers are introduced as buffoons or cane-toting bogeymen and fellow pupils as snobs, bullies or weeds – but Orwell is smart enough to disguise lies in the truth by giving a generous account of Sillar and listing many of the pleasures of his school days. The satire sees the school as a money making racket. On this knockabout level the essay was recognised by Cecil Beaton as “Hilarious but exaggerated”, and read as such it is indeed very funny. Commentators have pointed out the comic element in the stock semi-pornographic images of the whip and woman in a riding coat in the opening chapter. Did such a figure appear in his postcard collection? But even Beaton missed some of the in-jokes and word-play that would not be understood by those who did not know the background. Orwell had an impish sense of humour and wrote this for his own amusement. He would have been particularly amused by those fools who see it as a mordantly grim memoire.

 

Orwell claims to have written “Such Such were the Joys” in response to his school friend Cyril Connolly. In his classic book “Enemies of Promise”, Connolly had written St [Cyprian’s] where I now went was a well run and vigorous example [of a preparatory school] which did me a world of good”. While mocking the Wilkes and the prevailing ethos, he presents a witty and almost affectionate recollection of his time at St Cyprian’s against a horrific account of his early days at Eton. Orwell disagreed and claimed that it was prep schools that caused the damage. This was a recent opinion of his as it contradicts many earlier writings. In “The Road to Wigan Pier” he was referring to Eton when he wrote “I suppose there is no place in the world where snobbery is quite so ever-present or where it is cultivated in such refined and subtle forms as in an English public school”. Of the quality of prep school education he wrote in “A Clergyman’s Daughter”  “The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark.” In “The Road to Wigan Pier” he wrote “When I was a small boy at school a lecturer used to come once a term and deliver excellent lectures on famous battles of the past…” In  contrast, he wrote  “A recurrent terror of my holidays, when I was a small boy, was “the gangs of ‘cads’ who were liable to set upon you five or ten to one”. (pike in a goldfish bowl?) In writing the essay Orwell was unable to avoid banging on with his well worn themes of class, money and oppression. Unconfined by any publication pressure he was able to explore these themes projecting back his speculative interpretations onto his life as a schoolboy. Some of his conclusions are odd. Seeing football as a form of oppression is in marked contrast to the letters home about jolly games of “footer”. He enjoyed playing football and in “Shooting an Elephant” he says “When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter” - here the oppressed were the oppressors. His claim that it was impossible to be both a social success and a Christian is contradicted by the lives of many other St Cyprian’s boys, whereas for Orwell it seems to have been impossible to be either.

 

“Such Such were the Joys“ contains a succession of wild and unsubstantiated assumptions about the Wilkes in which every good or generous act is given a cynical interpretation. These demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of intentions. The essay describes a child with poor or inappropriate behaviour in social interactions, physical awkwardness, low self esteem, apparent victimisation, bouts of reluctance to work and violent and angry outbursts. Interestingly, problem behaviour for pupils on the autistic scale includes, along with certain intellectual brilliance, very poor social skills, inability to interpret other people’s intentions correctly, clumsiness, one-sided verbosity, and low tolerance for tasks such as homework. Consequences can be violent and angry outbursts and withdrawal, and sufferers tend to mask their feelings. Child psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald has suggested that Orwell may have suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. 

 

Orwell considered the work important and spent much time reworking it. However he describes a school experience that none of his contemporaries experienced and which does not accord with Buddicom’s perceptions of the child she knew. He made many general assertions about childhood which a reader who stopped to think about honestly would ask “What is he talking about?” Is childhood really an “age of disgust”, for example? He concludes his essay referring to the misunderstanding of childhood.  Perhaps the eccentric social misfit that was Orwell saw the essay as a way of describing the inner landscape of his life, explaining the behaviour which he himself knew to be odd. If this is so, then perhaps “Such Such were the Joys” is important than it at first appears as it gives a window pane onto the world of Orwell’s inner life.

 

Such Such were the Joys is one of three notable works that Orwell, a sick and dying man, produced in his final years. Most obviously Orwell was working on Nineteen Eighty-Four and the direction of influence between the two works has been a long-standing topic of interest. There are at least surface similarities between the works - the victim status of the hero, the total control exercised over the inhabitants, an authority figure referred to as a member of the family, a soulless environment, spies and informers, and the backdrop of warring superpowers. Orwell was developing another document at the same  time  - an infamous notebook of people he considered communists and crypto-communists, containing very poisonous remarks about some well-known individuals. This formed the basis of a blacklist he supplied to the government’s anti-communist propaganda unit, the Information Research Department. The list contained coincidently Mrs Wilkes second cousin, the Nobel prize-winner Patrick, later Lord Blackett (who after brilliant war work was denied any part in the post war Labour government) and the boy who virtually stepped into Orwell’s shoes at St Cyprians, Alaric Jacob (who was denied pension rights when he joined the BBC). One of Orwell’s other targets on the list noted “Tubercular people often could get very strange towards the end”.

 

Taken literally, however, the work has had a particular appeal for two audiences. Sour socialists of the sixties and seventies, seeing Orwell as their left-wing guru, delightedly picked up Orwell’s polemic as part of their campaign of social envy. And naiive teenagers have lined it up with Catcher in the Rye and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” as a classic piece of anti-authoritarianism in an uncritical worship of Orwell that often extends into their days of post-graduate study. The above observations may be disconcerting to college students who hang faithfully onto every word that Orwell wrote, but are intended to provide a useful perspective from which evaluate  his work and  life.

 

Postscript

 

St Cyprian’s has been ill-served by Orwell’s biographers, whose failures to establish the facts have led to even greater outrages. The pretty despicable  Bernard Crick in his highly speculative biography (“he must have” appears on almost every page) clouds his account with an extreme prejudice against private education and invents even greater untruths than Orwell. He insists, for example, without any justification, that Blair endured  “long hours spent in the classroom”.  In fact lessons were less than five hours in a day which was largely given over to recreation, sport, reading, and other extra-curricular activities. Other such misinformation permeates a chapter based on prejudice rather than honest research.  Crick’s chapter on St Cyprian’s raised a “storm of correspondence, mainly indignant old gentlemen defending the old school” but instead of quoting from these he quoted a malicious fabrication by a teacher from a rival prep school that accorded with Crick’s own distorted perceptions. Crick left his papers to Birkbeck College but unsurprisingly none of the letters he received from the old gentlemen of St Cyprians have survived, useful though they would have been to an impartial researcher. One document that has survived however is the original letter from Colin Kirkpatrick, written with generous and helpful intent. Crick did not take up the suggestion that he could contact the Wilkes’ son Rev. John Wilkes or Lord Fraser, the war-blinded chairman of St Dunstans who became an MP and governor of the BBC.  Instead he seized on Kirkpatrick’s mention of an only instance of bedwetting which concerned a child Bobby Foote who later won a VC. (Foote was homed with the Wilkes after the early death of his mother, being there by 1911 when he was aged only six). Without any justification Crick turned this comment into a public beating. This human turd Crick was a disgrace to the scholastic establishment. His invention of facts has misled every subsequent biographer. Shelden, who created  his own share of fatuous conclusions, went scurrying off to see this septuagenarian general and returned only with the quote that “Mum Wilkes was like a mother” to him. And even Peter Davison, in his introductory notes in 2001, made the foolish claim that Orwell was writing his essay through the eyes of Bobby Foote.   As Flip would say “It’s pathetic, isn’t it!”

      

Cecil Beaton            Beaton in the Sixties

Jacintha Buddicom   Eric and Us   including postscript by Venables         2006

Jacintha Buddicom   The Young Eric" in 

Miriam Gross “The World of George Orwell                       1971

W H J Christie          St Cyprians Days  Blackwoods Magazine May  1971

Cyril Connolly           Enemies of Promise                                              1938

Bernard Crick            George Orwell: A Life

Michael Fitzgerald     Genesis of Artistic Creativity:

Asperger’s Syndrome and the Arts”                        2005

Robert Pearce         Truth And Falsehood: George Orwell’s Prep School Woes

            The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol.43, No. 171          1992 Aug

 

Last Updated September 2011

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