Pilgrimage to Orwell
Monday, August 16, 2004
10. LOOKING FOR ORWELL AT ETON
After taking pictures of Orwell's White Horse we continued along the coastal road - with a couple of detours for sites along the way - until we came to the turn-off to Bournemouth which is actually another Orwell connection. I recalled reading that Orwell had an uncle who managed a golf-course near Bournemouth and Orwell and his family used to visit him on holidays. He was Orwell's mother's brother.
But instead of turning right into Bournemouth we turned left toward the major motorway that would take us north to London and Gatwick airport. For all intents and purposes we considered our holiday in England over. We were actually suffering a bit of "overawe" and were no longer feeling very touristy.
Our flight left at 7PM that evening and although it was now only noonish our plan was to get to Gatwick early, turn in the car, and spend a leisurely few hours browsing in airport shops and reading in the lounge. So we turned north and eventually got onto the major motorway leading to London.
Along the way we talked a bit about how much we'd accomplished on the Pilgrimage to Orwell, especially the visits to Jura and Wallington. The White Horse connection had been a bonus as we hadn't anticipated doing Orwell stuff while in Dorset, although much of what I recalled about Orwell's connections to Dorset had come from a biography I'd found in a bookstore in Weymouth during last summer's visit. It was the first biography about Orwell ever written and focused only on Eric Blair's life BEFORE he became George Orwell, ie from birth to 30 years old.
We'd been driving along for an hour or so when my husband said "The turn-off for Windsor Castle is coming up soon." I said something to the effect of "that's nice" and returned to whatever daydream I was in the midst of when he'd interrupted me. Then a few minutes later he said, "Windsor Castle is the next turn-off" and so I said "Well, are you interested in pulling over to see it?" and he said "No, I was just mentioning it" and then I said, "Well actually, maybe you better get in the turn-off lane because I just remembered that Eton is close to Windsor Castle and Orwell went to school at Eton and so take the turn-off and we'll go see Eton...Hurry up or you'll miss it!...Hurry, hurry, get in the right lane" to which he responded, "Okay, okay I'm getting in the lane, don't panic" to which I responded, "Well, when a person is in England they really MUST go see Windsor Castle" to which he replied, "...which you weren't in the least bit interested in seeing until you remembered it was near something to do with Orwell" to which I responded "Well, that just goes to show how important a person Orwell was that he's a bigger draw than the Queen of England" to which he made no comment.
Not long after taking the turn-off to Windsor Castle my husband pointed out that Ascot Race Track was on our right. I craned my neck to get a look through the hedges, remembering scenes from movies like My Fair Lady and of Princess Diana and Fergie getting in trouble for "goofing off" at Ascot and causing Royal embarrassment.
I was curious to see Windsor Castle because not that long ago I'd posted a story on Orwell Today about Prince William's 21st birthday party there. A deranged-looking man in a ballerina outfit had managed to get past all security and into the inner sanctum of the Castle where he jumped onto the stage and accosted Prince William who - dressed like Tarzan - was making a speech to the Queen. I felt at the time that Princess Diana would have been shocked at the seeming debauchery of it all and the danger her son had been exposed to.
As it turned out we somehow missed signs directing us to Windsor Castle and had to settle for seeing it from a distance - in its magnificent splendour - as we crossed the bridge leading to Eton. I craned my neck to get a long-view up the Thames because I'd remembered reading that Orwell's favourite swimming spot was in a bend of the river opposite the Castle's race track. But I couldn't see that far upstream and the Castle itself was quite a distraction.
Very soon after crossing the river we arrived in Eton town centre and parked the car, having learned from a pedestrian that the College was in the town.
I remarked to my husband how happy I was that he'd pointed out the Windsor Castle exit on the motorway because otherwise we would have missed this opportunity to see Eton. Also I was impressed with our planning which had given us a cushion of time to do something sponataneous like this. Usually, in all our years of traveling, we've headed to the airport with no extra time to spare.
It had been overcast but the sun was breaking through and I rummaged in my suitcase for something lady-like to wear for the day. We popped into a store that had interesting items in the window and the proprietor let me change clothes in the back storage-room. Then we browsed in the shop and I bought an old-fashioned perfume bottle (with squeeze-bulb atomizer) as a gift for a friend. Then we returned to the car, put our stuff in the boot, and walked the couple of blocks to Eton College, the oldest and most prestigious school in England, whose student body is comprised of boys from royal, aristocratic and wealthy families who register their sons at birth.
The 1st photo above shows the entrance gate with the east side of College Chapel on the left. We walked along to the back, where there was a kiosk in the corner. While paying the entrance fee I asked the cashier if she knew that George Orwell, when his name was Eric Blair, had gone to school here. She was aware that he had attended Eton but was not familiar with specific details.
I told her that in 1916 - when he was 13 years old - Orwell had written the Eton Scholarship Exams and scored 14th highest out of all the boys in England. That gained him entrance to Eton as a "King's Scholar" whose tuition and boarding fees were paid for by a bequeathement left by King Henry VI almost five hundred years ago. Every year 14 new boys enter as King's Scholars to replace the 14 boys who graduate. Altogether, at any one time, there are only 70 King's Scholars at Eton, out of a student body of over 1,000. Orwell attended Eton for six years until his graduation in June 1921 at the age of 18. For further information about Orwell I gave the kiosk lady an Orwell Today website card and she in turn handed me an Eton College brochure and we proceeded through the door in the brick wall.
This brought us into the completely enclosed School Yard surrounded by the Chapel on the left, the arched doorways on the top end and the Clock Tower and adjoining buildings on the bottom end. I'm standing in the middle of its dark archway and am camouflaged in my dark dress.
In the centre of the School Yard is a statue of King Henry VI who founded Eton College in 1440 with a first enrollment of 70 students. He needed bright, well-educated young men to serve the Empire.
Students, by tradition, are supposed to walk past King Henry's statue with their left-side (where their hearts are) closest to his body. The King's Scholars have additional responsibilities in that, in return for their scholarships, they are supposed to go to Chapel every day and pray for King Henry's soul.
Part of King Henry's original old College buildings surround the School Yard and it is in those buildings that the 70 King's Scholars live. The other 1,000 or so students live outside the College in houses throughout the town. The King's Scholars are called "Collegers" (because they live in the College) and the rest of the student body are called "Oppidans" (because they live "in the town" which is "oppidan" in Latin). But it being summer holidays there were no Collegers or Oppidans to be seen, or anyone else for that matter.
The 70 King's Scholars - the academic elite of Eton - had other rules that set them slightly apart from the rest of the students. Orwell, being a King's Scholar, would have written the initials "K.S." after his name to designate his special status. Also, Orwell being a "K.S." would have had to wear a black cape over his Eton uniform comprised of a "bumfreezer" jacket, stiff white collar, striped pants and top hat.
We walked through the passageways behind the windows and doorways of the lower School Yard buildings, starting at the Clock Tower and finishing at the top end under the arched doorways, as seen in the photos below:
In the photo on the left I am standing in front of the Memorial Wall where the names of the Etonians who died in War are etched. When Orwell entered Eton in 1916 the First World War was still raging. Many Eton boys, as soon as they turned 18, quit school and went off to war. In Chapel on Sundays the names of those killed in battle would be read from the pulpit. All his life Orwell remembered the WWI sacrifices made by Eton boys who died in greater proportions than any other segment of society. 5,687 Etonians served in the "Great War". Of these, 1,160 were killed and 1,467 were wounded.
Notice the sign behind me says TO THE CHAPEL which is where we went after turning right out of the passageway. Below is a photo of the Chapel taken from the vantage point of the house across the street which (as a workman told us) was where Princes William and Harry lived during their years at Eton. This is the view of the Chapel from their front door. If you look closely you can see me under the second tree from the left.
Inside the beautiful Chapel (where no cameras were allowed) I imagined Orwell saying his daily prayer for King Henry's soul. This is also where Orwell, a cynical Divinity student, was confirmed in the Anglican faith. There's a famous exchange - much quoted in the biographies - about the time Orwell, with paper and pencil in hand, went up to a new boy in the School Yard:
Blair: I'm collecting the religion of the new boys. Are you Cyrenaic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Cynic, Neoplatonist, Confucian or Zoroastrian?
New boy: I am Christian.
Blair (gravely): Oh we haven't had that before.
After leaving the Chapel we returned to the inner School Yard and I went and stood on the steps leading to the Chapel's side door. This is the entrance through which the Collegers would have entered. Ever since arriving at Eton I'd been wondering where I could find evidence of Orwell's having been here. I decided to read the Eton brochure to see if there was any mention of him. My husband snapped the photo below just as I'd found directions to the Eton museum and was telling him that no doubt we'd find evidence of Orwell there.
When we got back home to Canada - and developed the photos - I recognized something familiar about the cement banister on my left. It seemed to me I'd seen a picture of that before. I wondered about it for a day or so and then it dawned on me where I'd seen it and I went to the bookcase where I keep my Orwell biographies. There, on the front cover of the book I'd bought in Weymouth last year, was that very same banister! And beside it, in the very same place where I'd been standing, was a picture of Orwell sitting. I couldn't believe my eyes! It flashed through my mind that at the very same time that I had been looking for Orwell at Eton he had been right there with me - albeit 83 years before.
Following the brochure's map to the museum we walked the cobblestoned length of the School Yard back toward the Clock Tower. At the far right there was a doorway through a brick wall which led into a small courtyard surrounded by tall houses, with a sign on the left saying MUSEUM OF ETON LIFE. I hurried excitedly in feeling sure that there would be mention of Orwell in here. There was a glass display of Eton trinkets for sale like leather bookmarks, scissor cases, comb cases, postcards, booklets etc with a young man behind the counter. I asked him if he was aware that George Orwell had gone to school at Eton and he said that he was. I asked him if there was anything in the museum commemorating Orwell's time here and he said he didn't know. I told him I was quite surprised about that because Orwell was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and one would think that Eton would be wanting to make a big deal out of it. He didn't seem particularly surprised that there was no special mention and probably assumed that Orwell wasn't as important as I was making him out to be.
I went to where my husband was looking at wall displays and told him to be on the lookout for any reference to Orwell. Then I proceeded to walk around the museum looking at all the walls and displays in the cabinets and nothing Orwellian jumped out at me. There were a few ante-chamber rooms with special displays in them, one of them being a life-sized replica of the typical boys' room showing their desks, pull-down cots, little stove for cooking and two wax models of boys in their relaxation uniforms. Just outside of that room there was a wall display above a large cabinet that had examples of Eton newspapers and magazines. I wondered if those would have Orwell's name (Eric Blair) on them because he had been very involved with two Eton publications as both business manager and editor/contributor. But I didn't see his name anywhere.
Then I came to a display showing pictures of the infamous Eton Wall Game which was a game the King's Scholars (Collegers) played amongst themselves and against Oppidan teams. It was a game that made no sense to most people because it had a language of its own and was comprised of very few rules other than to get the ball into the other side's goal. It was called the Wall Game because it was played on a narrow patch of ground (full of mud when it rained) stretching the entire length of an old brick wall with goals at either end (one of which was a tree trunk). But because the playing field is so narrow there is heavy congestion of opposing team's players and it's hard to find an opening through which to run or throw the ball. Very few goals are ever scored in the Wall Game and years go by when no team manages to score. Players who are big and strong are at a distinct advantage and the King's Scholars (most of whom were more academic than athletic) had tough competition against teams chosen from the 1,000 other Eton students, many of whom were "jocks". In his final year at Eton Orwell made the Wall Game team and earned his colours. He even scored one of the very rare goals and was written up in the Collegers' Annual Report. I was hoping to see a copy of that edition but didn't see it anywhere.
I tore myself away from that interesting exhibit and went to see if my husband had found anything mentioning Orwell's stay at Eton but he'd come up empty as well. He told me that I was probably being a bit unrealistic to think that Eton would honour Orwell seeing as how the school had been around for over five hundred years and was attended by Princes who became Kings and millionaires who became Prime Ministers etc etc. I scoffed at that saying that Orwell, being one of England's greatest writers, definitely deserved inclusion in some display or at least honourable mention somewhere!
I told him about the room where there was the life-size display of a typical boys' room and took him there. Then I wandered again into the section with the display of magazines and Wall Game memorabilia and that's where I was when my husband came out and suggested that it was time to leave. I was just about to give up and follow him out when I turned around and looked at the wall behind me which somehow, in all the time I'd been in that ante-room, I hadn't really noticed. It was a wall of framed photos and there, in the top row, left-hand corner, taking prominent place, beside the bust of a King (probably Henry VI himself), was ORWELL!
I was so excited I shouted out to my husband "I FOUND HIM, I FOUND HIM" and ran out to bring him back so he could take a picture of me standing beside Orwell at Eton. He quickly followed me in whispering "ssssshhhhh, ssssshhhh, we're in a MUSEUM you know" and yet when he saw the framed photo he too was amazed. He couldn't understand how I could have missed seeing it and I accused him of missing it too. But in any event, we'd found what we'd been looking for, ie something commemorating Orwell at Eton and I must admit, it was even more than I expected. Of all the great people who have passed through Eton in its 500 years of history, it does seem quite an honour that George Orwell, alias Eric Blair, is given THE most prominent place on the Important People Wall.
I took a close up of the framed photo and then, before hurrying out, I told the young man at the counter that there WAS something special in the museum about Orwell. Then we happily bought Eton souvenirs - some bookmarks, a scissor case, some postcards - and then made our way back out to the main street of Eton and toward where we'd parked the car.
When we got home and developed the photos, that picture I'd taken of Orwell on the Wall, had a ghostlike look about it. I figured Orwell had been there the whole time watching me and getting a real chuckle out of hiding so well.
go back to index at PILGRIMAGE TO ORWELL
ORWELL'S ETON REPORT CARD and WHO CAN SPOT ORWELL AT ETON? and ORWELL TODAY ETON POEM DISCOVERY
ETON COLLEGERS REMEMBER ORWELL and ORWELL'S PUNISHING SCHOOL DAYS and ORWELL & HARRY AT ETON and THE LION AND THE LAMB and ORWELL GREATEST ETONIAN OF ALL and ORWELL TRULY A GLOBAL FIGURE and WHO'S THE GREATEST OLD ETONIAN?
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