Long before Animal Farm and 1984, which established George Orwell not only a household name, but a literary giant, he wrote a little known work of non-fiction called Down and Out in Paris and London. In fact, published before Burmese Days, Down and Out is Orwell’s first official novel.
Down and Out in Paris and London is Orwell’s part journalistic, part autobiographical account of his experiences living among and as a down and out, first in Paris, and then in London. In the early 1930’s after living in Burma (now Myanmar), Orwell returned to London in hopes of becoming a serious writer. Intrigued by poverty and its social implications, Orwell set out to live as an indigent in order to learn and understand more about the lives of the impoverished.
While in Paris, Orwell live in Pot de Fer, a working class neighborhood full of interesting and colorful personalities. Orwell recounted his impoverished days in Paris, living from hand to mouth, having to make ends meet in order pay his rent. In the early days of Paris, Orwell made enough money writing for newspapers, but when there weren’t any writing jobs, he had to resort to pawning his clothes little by little just to have enough money for food and the bare essentials. Orwell talked about the different people he had encountered while living in Paris, from his boisterous landlady, to sketchy individuals who he came to consider as good friends. He wrote about how he spent his days in Paris, mostly starving by day, and drinking at night with equally starving and impoverished individuals. In order to get a more stable source of income, Orwell worked in several Paris restaurants as a plongeur – a fancy name for a dishwasher and all around kitchen slave. Based on his experiences as a plongeur, Orwell wrote about the the dark and often disgusting truth about Parisian restaurant kitchens, as well as the cutthroat world of restaurant employment and hierarchy.
After Paris, Orwell returned to London, expecting to work as a caregiver to a dying man of consequence. Unfortunately, upon returning to England, Orwell was told that the man he was to care for had gone abroad and would not return until a month later. Practically penniless with nowhere to go, Orwell took to the road and fell in with the other tramps of London, travelling from city to city in search of cheap beds for the night and meals barely enough to sate their chronic hunger.
In the London part of Down and Out, Orwell recounts his days travelling from different lodging houses, charity and casual wards (prison cells for rent to non-criminals), describing the horrible condition of most, if not all of them, the horrible, inadequate food served to them, and the equally horrible and unequal treatment that tramps experience at the hands of authorities, religious groups, and charities. Orwell went on to list down the common misconceptions people had about tramps; that they were considered drunks, or criminals, or were grateful for handouts and charities. Living as one of them, Orwell knew that most tramps were decent men, who, for some reason or other could not find regular employment. Because begging was illegal in London, tramps and were forced to earn money any way they could and were forced by circumstances to move from place to place in order to find food and shelter. And, having just barely enough money to pay for that night’s bed, and his tea and two slices – the usual charity fare for the down and outs, tramps very rarely drank alcohol, and when they did, never enough to get themselves drunk.
Down and Out in Paris and London gives an interesting and revealing account of the lives of tramps, immigrants, members of the working class, and other impoverished souls trying to survive in big cities. According to biographers, though Down and Out is largely a work of non-fiction, Orwell took liberties in excluding important information in his novel, such as the existence of a well-to-do relative in Paris he often went to to borrow money from, and in the chronological order of his narrative. Though the book presented his account of living as a down and out in Paris before moving to London, in reality, he had first lived as a tramp in London, and wrote a successful essay about the casual wards or “spikes,” when he eventually moved to Paris. Orwell felt that living among the down and outs as one of them would help him best understand poverty and social inequality. And though he spent a great deal of time with tramps, living like them, and eating like them, it must still be different knowing that at the end of the day, when he tired of his journalistic pursuit and research, there was a nice, warm house waiting for him which he could return to anytime.
My story ends here. It is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless…
Before being published in 1933, Orwell received several rejection letters for Down and Out, one of which was from T.S. Eliot of Faber and Faber, who felt that the material was not up to par with the publishing house’s standards. It was not until much later, when Orwell asked a friend to destroy the manuscript of Down and Out, that it was sent to an up-and-coming publisher, unbeknownst to him at the time, to be published. Throughout its printing history, Down and Out sold relatively few copies, and it would take years before it received the recognition it deserved; it came when it was published by Penguin and mistakenly labeled it as “fiction.”
Down and Out is Paris and London is a short but compelling read. Though each chapter is more like an independent essay, than an ongoing story, the vignettes about life as a plongeur and secret world of Parisian restaurants, as well as his life as a tramp in London are quite revealing and riveting. Surely not to be missed by any George Orwell fan.
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) – George Orwell
Penguin Modern Classics; 230 pages
Personal rating: 3/5