Peter Davison: Introduction to Burmese Days preliminaries

      There are nineteen pages of manuscript that, though not drafts of Burmese Days, would seem to be sketches for the novel. Whether they were written in Burma or shortly after Orwell’s return from there, either in England or in France, is impossible to ascertain. Stansky and Abrahams speak of this material as ‘early drafts of Burmese Days,’ though it is doubtful if it has quite that status. They argue that Flory’s ‘Epitaph’ may have been written in 1927-28, and add, ‘there has even been a suggestion that it was written when Blair was still in Burma,’ but they are of the opinion that it is slightly later, ‘early in 1930 perhaps-after Blair’s return from Paris, where his literary apprenticeship had really got under way’ (I, 203). Crick thinks that, from handwriting and paper, this material was written either in the winter of 1927-28 in London or during 1928-29 in Paris.

      Crick suggests that the pages ‘are either part of a longer, missing manuscript or a trial run for sections of “The Tale of John Flory”. It is in the first person and “the author,” John Flory, seems to be writing his autobiography in prison, awaiting execution indeed, as a cautionary tale or final confession. It begins, in fine black humour, with “My Epitaph”…’ (195). It is not certain that Flory is in prison, awaiting execution. He might be in some remote part of the jungle where there is no one who could form letters of his epitaph. In prison, he might be denied an epitaph on a nearby peepul tree, but there would be plenty who could form letters. His end is, perhaps, more akin to what Lackersteen’s might have been were he to spend his days in the jungle without a wife to minister to him, limit his drink, and ward off women. Some support for this interpretation might come from the place name ‘Nyaunglebin’ (not ‘Nyauglebiu’, as in Crick, 196). This is a common village name in Burma and means ‘Four Banyan Trees.’ There is no prison connection.

      The surviving material, apart from the poems on Burmese subjects or with Burmese references, is in five sections: 1. My Epitaph (1 page); 2. ‘I said at the end of the last chapter…’ (1½ pages), which promises ‘ten thousand words about my childhood’; 3. Autobiography (4 pages), 600 words only and ending in mid-sentence; 4. Incident in Rangoon, beginning ‘Here for awhile I abandon autobiography…’ (10 pages), which seems complete and could almost be a short story; it mentions Kyauktada (of Burmese Days); 5. Rebuke by a superior officer for consorting with Eurasian (2 pages, numbered 19 and 20) which begins and ends in mid-sentence.

      It is extremely unlikely that these pages form ‘one draft.’ The handwriting, though recognisably Orwell’s, differs, and the order given above has no authority or certainty. Crick places 4 after the Epitaph and quotes its opening as being the ‘first paragraph of the rest of the manuscript’ (196). Orwell may have sketched an outline for ‘The Tale of John Flory,’ and these sections could represent the order for it, though written at different times. It is at least as probable that they are disjunct sketches. The handwriting of the Epitaph is not unlike that of the two poems written on official stationary (‘Dear Friend’ and ‘When the Franks have lost their sway’) and that of the rebuke not dissimilar to that of ‘My love & I.’ It is dangerous to hazard such guesses, but it is possible that at least ‘My Epitaph’ was written before Orwell left Burma, and not unlikely that 4 was written in Paris rather than in London. See Complete Works 63 for details on the paper used.

      A colleague of Orwell’s in Burma, George Stuart (see 63), in an interview, in the Orwell Archive, states that Orwell started to be interested in writing stories of Burma when they and Stuart’s wife were in Katha (or Quatar). Indeed, he says, ‘his original manuscript of Burmese Days were written up in Quatar…most of the people referred to were local government officers like the deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police.’

      Peter Davison edited The Complete Works of George Orwell, working on the 20 volumes for 17 years. He is Professor and Senior Research Fellow in English and Media, De Montfort University, Leicester. He has written and edited fourteen books and has also edited the Facsimile of the Manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four and written George Orwell: A Literary Life. From 1992 to 1994 he was President of the Bibliographical Society, whose journal he edited for twelve years.