George Orwell’s America

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Presently an aged couple and a “village maiden”, described as “beautiful, petite”, get into the carriage. Quantities of cinders are flying about, and before long the student fellow gets one in his eye; the village maiden extracts it for him, to the scandal of the aged couple. Soon after this the train shoots into a long tunnel, “black as Egypt’s night”. When it emerges into the daylight again the maiden is covered with blushes, and the cause of her confusion is revealed when

There suddenly appeared A tiny little ear-ring In that horrid student’s beard!

I do not know the date of the song, but the primitiveness of the train (no lights in the carriage, and a cinder in one’s eye a normal accident) suggests that it belongs well back in the nineteenth century.

What connects this song with books like Helen’s Babies is first of all a sort of sweet innocence—the climax, the thing you are supposed to be slightly shocked at, is an episode with which any modern piece of naughty-naughty would start —and, secondly, a faint vulgarity of language mixed up with a certain cultural pretentiousness. Helen’s Babies is intended as a humorous, even a farcical book, but it is haunted all the way through by words like “tasteful” and “ladylike”, and it is funny chiefly because its tiny disasters happen against a background of conscious gentility. “Handsome, intelligent, composed, tastefully dressed, without a suspicion of the flirt or the languid woman of fashion about her, she awakened to the utmost my every admiring sentiment”—thus is the heroine described, figuring elsewhere as “erect, fresh, neat, composed, bright-eyed, fair-faced, smiling and observant”. One gets beautiful glimpses of a now-vanished world in such remarks as: “I believe you arranged the floral decorations at St. Zephaniah’s Fair last winter, Mr Burton? ’Twas the most tasteful display of the season”. But in spite of the occasional use of “’twas” and other archaisms—“parlour” for sitting-room, “chamber” for bedroom, “real” as an adverb, and so forth—the book does not “date” very markedly, and many of its admirers imagine it to have been written round about 1900. Actually it was written in 1875, a fact which one might infer from internal evidence, since the hero, aged twenty-eight, is a veteran of the civil war.

The book is very short and the story is a simple one. A young bachelor is prevailed on by his sister to look after her house and her two sons, aged five and three, while she and her husband go on a fortnight’s holiday. The children drive him almost mad by an endless succession of such acts as falling into ponds, swallowing poison, throwing keys down wells, cutting themselves with razors, and the like, but also facilitate his engagement to “a charming girl, whom, for about a year, I had been adoring from afar”. These events take place in an outer suburb of New York, in a society which now seems astonishingly sedate, formal, domesticated and, according to current conceptions, un-American. Every action is governed by etiquette. To pass a carriage full of ladies when your hat is crooked is an ordeal; to recognise an acquaintance in church is ill-bred; to become engaged after a ten days’ courtship is a severe social lapse. We are accustomed to thinking of American society as more crude, adventurous and, in a cultural sense, democratic than our own, and from writers like Mark Twain, Whitman and Bret Harte, not to mention the cowboy and Red Indian stories of the weekly papers, one draws a picture of a wild anarchic world peopled by eccentrics and desperadoes who have no traditions and no attachment to one place. That aspect of nineteenth-century America did of course exist, but in the more populous eastern States a society similar to Jane Austen’s seems to have survived longer than it did in England. And it is hard not to feel that it was a better kind of society than that which arose from the sudden industrialisation of the later part of the century. The people in Helen’s Babies or Little Women may be mildly ridiculous, but they are uncorrupted. They have something that is perhaps best described as integrity, or good morale, founded partly on an unthinking piety. It is a matter of course that everyone attends church on Sunday morning and says grace before meals and prayers at bedtime: to amuse the children one tells them Bible stories, and if they ask for a song it is probably “Glory, glory Hallelujah”. Perhaps it is also a sign of spiritual health in the light literature of this period that death is mentioned freely. “Baby Phil”, the brother of Budge and Toddie, has died shortly before Helen’s Babies opens, and there are various tear-jerking references to his “tiny coffin”. A modern writer attempting a story of this kind would have kept coffins out of it.