Burmese Days was the first full-length novel that Orwell wrote, using observations he made during his years with the Indian Police Service in Burma. He wrote the first draft while living in Paris in the late 1920s; then revised it in 1932, with its final version fully written by early 1934. However, it was rejected by Gollancz, who had published Down and Out in Paris and London the previous year, due to their fears of libel. It was clear that Orwell’s fictional location for his story – Kyauktada – was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had served in the Police Force. In fact, the European Club, the jail and the police station are still in existence today, and, if you needed any further clues, the map that Orwell reprints at the beginning of the book makes it all too clear that Kyauktada is indeed Katha. It was feared that the characters bore too great a similarity to people he met whilst stationed there, and Gollancz was not prepared to take the risk. Orwell offered the book to Jonathan Cape and Heinemann too, but they turned it down for the same reason. However, it was accepted by Harpers for publication in the United States, where it was finally published in October 1934. On the understanding that Orwell could demonstrate that he had not named real people, Gollancz finally accepted it for publication the following June.
When I started my George Orwell Challenge a short while ago, I decided that it would be both big-headed and redundant of me to try to add to the weight of literary criticism about any of his writing. I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any greater insights to brains much more accomplished than mine. So let me start by saying that I had no real expectation of what this book would be like. But you know the kind of book where you’re gripped from the first page, you resent time not spent reading it, and you can see the characters in your mind’s eye, and hear their voices and their accents, and see the locations, and feel the emotions of everyone involved in the book? This book is that book. I REALLY LOVED THIS BOOK!
So what is it about this book that made it stand out for me? I answer by directing you to the four things that most people would want from a first-rate novel. A strong, credible story; vibrant, memorable characters; eloquent use of language; and conveying truths and insights that makes your brain work. And Burmese Days has these four assets in spades. If you haven’t read the book yet, and don’t want to see any spoilers, please stop reading here, go and read the book this instant, and then come back! It’s going to be impossible to write about this book without giving away vast amounts of the plot – and its shocks and surprises.
Let’s start off with the strong, credible story. John Flory, thirty-five years old, English timber merchant and long-time resident of Burma, doesn’t fit in with the other Englishmen at the Club; primarily because his best friend in the country is the Indian Doctor Veraswami, and pukka sahibs in Burma are only meant to mix with other white people. A decree has gone out, that the club must elect one non-European Member, in an effort to improve relations with the local people. Subdivisional Magistrate U Po Kyin, corrupt and ambitious, has his sights set on being granted this honour; the thorn in his flesh is Veraswami, as the most likely other person to be elected.
Meanwhile, Flory is otherwise sad and alone, and can see no way out of his miserable lifestyle. Enter Elizabeth Lackersteen, twenty-two and a highly eligible Englishwoman, newly arrived in Burma from living in Paris. Flory sees his chance and does his best to arouse her romantic interest. But there are two problems; one – he is cultured, well-read and artistic, all characteristics that she loathes. And secondly, he has a large and unsightly birthmark on his face that he finds hard to cover up and which takes away a lot of his confidence; will the birthmark make a difference to how Elizabeth sees him? Not only that, but a rival appears on the scene – military policeman Verrall, a handsome but vain man who loves his polo. But does he also love Elizabeth? I don’t really need to outline any more of the story here; this just gives you a hint of the intrigues at play and the possible outcomes.
What about those characters? Looking at it from an old-fashioned moral standpoint, there’s one out-and-out good person, one irredeemably evil person, and everyone else falls somewhere between the two. Dr Veraswami is, maybe not goodness personified, but still a thoroughly decent and honest man, which makes the attempts to discredit him even more telling. He respects the authority of the British, he does everything he can to be a good friend and host, and when push comes to shove, he is there to support Flory in quelling the rebellion. In the opposite corner is U Po Kyin, an outright villain with no redeeming features, corrupt to the nth degree; a murderer and rapist, likened by Veraswami to a crocodile in that he’s always out for a kill and will always go for the weak spot to secure his evil wishes.
As those two characters occupy the end positions in the goodness/evil scale, although they are well drawn and entertaining to read about, perhaps they are slightly less interesting than the more complex characters. A case in point, and somewhere in between them, is Elizabeth Lackersteen, whose experiences in Paris have affected her detrimentally, so that when she arrives in Burma she is extremely vulnerable. She is pretty and presents herself well, and at first appears to be a charming young lady, but she has a very black-and-white view of what’s good and what’s not, and primarily it comes down to money – due to two terms at a very expensive and posh school. “Thereafter, her whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple one. It was that the Good (“lovely” was her name for it) is synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and the Bad (“beastly”) is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the laborious […] Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was classifiable as “lovely” or “beastly”.”
As we get to know Elizabeth more, we realise that she is appallingly and unashamedly racist; when Flory introduces her to some local people she quickly loses any sense of decency (“how revoltingly ugly these people are […] so coarse-looking; like some kind of animal […] what absolutely disgusting people”), and this sets her against Flory: “He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a “subject” people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant.” We also discover that she is romantically – even sexually – aroused by watching violence. She is desperate to kill anything that moves when Flory takes her on a hunt, and when he talks animatedly about shooting, “she really loved him when he talked like this”. When she shoots a pigeon, “he put it limp and warm into Elizabeth’s hand. She could hardly give it up, the feel of it so ravished her. She could have kissed it, hugged it to her breast […] She was conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms around Flory’s neck and kiss him; and in some way it was the killing of the pigeon that made her feel this.”
She’s also a cultural philistine, finding the local pwe dance “beastly” and wanting to leave early, thereby offending the local performers; “Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror […] Surely it was not right to be sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here, among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage spectacle?” She hates the word “Art”, because her mother was a martyr to Art in Paris, and she equates it with poverty and pretentiousness, dirt and foreigners. “Elizabeth had no friends in Paris […] Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners.” As a result she’s a truly bad romantic match for Flory, for whom culture is very important. She would have hated knowing that he likened her to Rosa Dartle, a character from David Copperfield, as she would find all literary allusions “beastly”.
Other notable characters include the drunken Mr Lackersteen, Elizabeth’s uncle, who perpetually makes lecherous approaches to her; his manipulative and shallow wife, whose only intention is to marry her off, so that they no longer have any responsibility for her; Ma Hla May, Flory’s vengeful ex-mistress; Ellis, the vindictive, cruel racist businessman who never misses an opportunity for violence against the locals; Verrall, the dismissive military policeman who is only happy on horseback; Deputy Commissioner Macgregor in charge of the Club; and Ko S’la, Flory’s devoted and long-suffering servant.
Which leaves the central character, Flory; a fascinatingly flawed anti-hero. Never comfortable with the other pukka sahibs, he despises their racism but is weak to call them out on it. When Ellis organises a petition against Veraswami joining the Club, Flory signs it despite acknowledging his disloyalty to his friend because he doesn’t want any confrontation. He treats Ma Hla May with total disrespect, using her only for sex; he gets so drunk he has to be undressed and put to bed by Ko S’la. He makes himself look foolish in comparison with Verrall with his lack of horsemanship. Nevertheless, it’s Flory who dares to swim the Irrawaddy to alert the police in the town that the Club is under siege, possibly saving lives in the process. It’s Flory who rescues Elizabeth when she fears attack from a water buffalo. It’s Flory who appreciates the Burmese culture and respects the local traditions. And it’s Flory who genuinely tries his hardest to court Elizabeth and do his best for her. The reader wholly identifies with Flory, so that you forgive him his flaws and misjudgements. And it’s those flaws and misjudgements that make him a supremely believable character.
Orwell constantly delights us with his immaculate use of language; his narrative style is clear and full of imagery, flashes of humour, surprises and sideswipes. He starts with an ironic but wholly appropriate epigraph from As You Like It – “this desert inaccessible Under the shade of melancholy boughs” – equating the Forest of Arden with the jungles of Burma. He relishes the opportunity for regular descriptions of jungle fauna and flora, evoking all the senses to convey the setting to the reader. Take, for example, these few lines from the scene where Flory escapes into the jungle because he cannot sleep at night. “It was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the size of plums […] there was a poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot, though the sun was losing his glaze and the slanting light was yellow […] at the edge of the stream there was a huge dead pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some wild lime bushes with white, waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated himself into a better mood.”
And there’s more. “Here a peepul tree grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish water bubbled […] a flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries […] the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it […] then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch, It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists use.”
It’s a barrage for the senses. The colours: yellow, white, green, pink; the smells: turpentiny, ivy-like, lime, bergamot; the liquid: the stream, stinging sweat, bubbling water; the fruits, trees and flowers: mangoes, plums, pyinkado, orchids, waxen flowers, peepul, berries. It overflows with lush description, almost too much to take in, overwhelming – just like the jungle would be. Orwell equates the vegetation with the Burmese people. On the first page of the book, he notes that “the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling.” With such regard for the flora and fauna, it comes as a shock to the reader when he describes Flory and Elizabeth on their hunting expeditions; with such an eye and ear for the sights and sounds of nature it’s grotesque when its animals are shot.
Orwell tells us of a time when Flory was trying to impress Elizabeth with tales of shoots he had been on before. “She was quite thrilled when he described the murder of an elephant which he had perpetrated some years earlier.” The word murder, an act he perpetrated, is normally only used of human beings, but here Orwell raises the sense of crime involved – which I’m guessing would have been very forward-looking at the time. During Flory’s erroneous attempt to impress Elizabeth with his horse-riding skills, Orwell affirms that “he knew that, like nearly everyone, he looked his best on horseback”. Association between people and animals is shown positively unless it involves the animal’s death. When Elizabeth wounds and then Flory kills the leopard, “they stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s”; but after the pelt has been cured and prepared as a gift for Elizabeth, “the skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches, It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.”
Elsewhere, Orwell’s style just captures the reader, with originality and imagination, always truthful and insightful. “Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on a Monday morning.” “Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work.” “On board ship everyone behaves as though he were rich.” “He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.” “There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways.” “Is there anything in the world more graceless, more dishonouring, than to desire a woman whom you will never have?”
There’s frequent, almost random use of the N word, by characters such as Ellis, for whom the Burmese and Indians are nothing but scum beneath his feet, but also by Flory and Orwell as the narrator, imbued with irony and exposing the racism of others. “When a man has a black face” says U Po Kyin, “suspicion is proof”, encapsulating the idea that there’s one law for one and one for the other. This lack of fairness is why Flory doesn’t fit in with his white colleagues; and Orwell’s narrative subtly switches between simply giving an account of Flory’s life and commenting on the morality and decency of those who make a living from the British Empire. “There is a prevalent idea that the men at the “outposts of Empire” are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside the scientific services – the Forest Department, the Public Works Department and the like – there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently […] it is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.”
I was strongly reminded of a theme that Orwell had written about in both Down and Out in Paris and London, and in his essay on Common Lodging Houses – that of profiteering from the misfortunes of others, at their expense. The prisoners’ food is prepared by the wife of a constable, “a stout Burmese woman”, who Orwell describes as “kneeling outside the cage ladling rice and watery dahl into tin pannikins.” He explains: “the Government provided for the prisoners’ food at the rate of two annas and a half per meal per man, out of which the constable’s wife looked to make a profit of one anna”. Just like the meal ticket swindle, for those staying in lodgings, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food, it’s a scandal that is still found everywhere today. Elizabeth’s observations about her mother’s poverty-stricken life in Paris were doubtlessly based on Orwell’s own observations whilst living there in the 1920s.
But it’s not all heartache and savagery. Orwell has a lightness of touch that turns to gentle humour with delicate ease. From colonial jokes: “Reminds me of the old colonel who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant why and the servant said: “At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master””; learned jokes: “at least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.” “Pox Britannica, doctor. Pox Britannica is its proper name”; pricking pomposity jokes: “How slow you are! I should have thought even a fool would have seen that I am raising this rebellion merely in order to crush it. I am – what is that expression Mr Macgregor uses? Agent provocateur – Latin, you would not understand”; irony jokes: “the editor will get six months’ imprisonment for this,” he said finally. “He does not mind. He says that the only time when his creditors leave him alone is when he is prison.” And so on. Reading Orwell is always full of unexpected pleasures!
It’s not a perfect book by any means. There are a couple of dubious plot devices that make you think of Thomas Hardy at his worst – like the earthquake that just so happens to coincide with Flory attempting to say something very important to Elizabeth, and a kind of fatalism overshadows the ending that suggests that it was never going to be end happily for our hero. But then, Orwell did state that he wasn’t that kind of writer. From the essay Why I Write: “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…is rather that kind of book.”
Orwell ends the book with a lively round-up of what the characters are all up to now. It feels like an extremely modern tactic, such as would end a TV reality/documentary series. “Ethel is now back at home and getting to grips with her new hip” or “Fingers Dolittle was given a ten year prison sentence”; except that here the loose ends of all the major characters are tied up, largely to the satisfaction of the reader – except that, of course, Orwell would never give it a happy ending.
Despite those couple of minor quibbles, I think this is a terrific book. A subtle – or maybe not so subtle, you choose – indictment of the British Empire, from one who worked there and decided that life in Blighty was best. I don’t think this book is anything like as well known as it deserves to be, and I am currently pestering all my friends to give it a read. I think you should too! I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, so please add them in the comments below. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter. I have no idea what to expect, so I’m looking forward to reading it over the next month or so and then I’ll put pen to paper and write something about it. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.