The obvious connection between George Orwell and Suffolk is the surname the aspiring author Eric Blair adopted as a pseudonym in 1932: the River Orwell is the tidal estuary that links Ipswich to the sea. But his Suffolk connections go further than that.
As a 17-year-old schoolboy at Eton, he spent much of the Xmas holiday of 1920-21 with cousins of his father in Burstall, a small village just west of Ipswich, where – as we know from a letter written to a friend – he picked up a large cage rat-trap, which several biographers suggest was the prototype for the cage full of rats that finally breaks Winston Smith’s resistance to torture in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
A year later, after he left Eton, he and his family – his father Richard, a retired colonial administrator then in his early 60s, his mother Ida, nearly 18 years younger than her husband, and his younger sister Avril – moved from the home counties to the small Suffolk coastal town of Southwold, to a rented house in Stradbroke Road near the lighthouse. (His elder sister Marjorie, five years his senior, had married and left home the previous year.)
The young Eric spent six months at a crammer in the town swotting up for imperial police service exams which he took and passed before going off to Burma as a colonial policeman. Not much is known about this time in Southwold apart from the fact that he got into trouble for sending a dead rat to the borough surveyor as a joke birthday present.
He came back from Burma on leave in 1927 and after a couple of months announced to his parents, who had by this point moved to another rented house, in Queen Street, right in the centre of town and near South Green, that he had decided to quit his job in Burma and become a writer. For the next eight years, Southwold was his main base – though he spent a lot of time away.
In late 1927 he moved to lodgings in London, where he experienced for the first time the poverty of the East End, then the next year went to Paris, where his aunt lived, in an attempt to make it as a freelance. But he ran out of money and turned to working as a washer-up to try to make ends meet – an experience that eventually made its way into Down and Out in Paris and London – before admitting defeat and returning to Southwold just before Xmas 1929. Feeling a failure, he took a job looking after what he called “an imbecile boy” in the nearby village of Walberswick.
The job did not last, but he didn’t leave the town for good until late 1934 – though he often went off in 1930-31, dressed as a tramp, to do the research for what became Down and Out; and in 1932-33 he worked in suburban west London as a teacher, an occupation he was forced to give up by illness. Not only Down and Out (published in 1933) but also the novels Burmese Days (1934) and A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) were written largely in Southwold. A Clergyman’s Daughter starts and ends in a Suffolk town, Knype Hill, at least partially based on Southwold.
His family had been living in genteel poverty until the early 1930s, but an inheritance and Avril’s success at running a tea room made them comfortably off. They bought a house in the High Street and became pillars of respectable society – Orwell’s father a familiar figure in the posher of the local golf clubs and his mother a doyenne of the ladies’ bridge circuit.
Orwell said he didn’t like Southwold, and the best bits of A Clergyman’s Daughter – a novel he later dismissed as “tripe” – are a vicious satire on the parochialism of provincial small-town life, including tea rooms. The chief protagonist of the novel, Dorothy Hare, is the dutiful daughter of a rector, and her reputation is destroyed by a malicious gossip.
But he had lots of friends there, including one woman, Eleanor Jaques, with whom he had an affair, and another, Brenda Salkeld, the gym mistress at St Felix girl’s school, whom he wooed unsuccessfully for several years and on whom Dorothy Hare was loosely based. And his distaste for the place did not prevent him visiting it regularly after he left, the last time in early 1944 after the death of his mother. (His father died in 1939.)
People apart, there was something about the bleakness of “the low, barely undulating East Anglian landscape” that Orwell liked. Although it was “intolerably dull in summer”, it was “redeemed in winter by the recurring patterns of the elms, naked and fanshaped against leaden skies”. Seventy years later, I feel much the same way. It's just a pity all the elms have died.