In the summer of 1917 Eric Arthur Blair signed the entrance book for Eton College. The volume is just one of the treasures on display in Eton College Library to mark the 101st anniversary since Blair – now better known as George Orwell – crossed School Yard for the first time as a King’s Scholar.
The display was assembled to complement the Orwell101 school conference and the unveiling of the bust of George Orwell in School Library. While Orwell probably never laid eyes on the inside of College Library himself, on 3 May this year his son, grandson and great-grandson all came to see the display that covers Orwell’s life from his Eton days to his journalism and writing career.
Starting with a mark-book, where we find Blair coming second to bottom in Classics (a subject you feel he would have happily placed in Room 101), it moves on to records of a Wall Game in his final year where Blair was one of a few in the game’s history to score a goal.
Further highlights of the display include items relating to Orwell’s investigative journalism, among them first editions of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and examples of his literary journalism which cover a broad range of subjects. There are also personal letters from Orwell and his wife Eileen, written while they were in Marrakesh and touching on Orwell’s ill health that he would suffer from for the rest of his life.
Finally, the better-known role of Orwell the novelist is presented through multiple editions of his familiar works of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949), including a number of foreign translations, as well as his lesser-known novels such as Coming Up for Air.
Throughout the display, Orwell’s popularity and impact can also be seen, for example through the editions of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Lion and the Unicorn that Alun Lewis and Sidney Keyes respectively took with them to the First World War.
His academic reputation at Eton was somewhat mixed, but his reputation as a writer is never in doubt. After the publication of Animal Farm his Eton tutor, A.F. Gow, asked Orwell for a copy of the book. Orwell duly obliged, but rather than sign the copy ‘Eric Blair’, as Gow would have known him, he signed it ‘Geo. Orwell’ and left his Eton days behind.
By Ceri Sugg, Project Archivist
The display will be on show to visitors to College Library on the Fourth of June. Orwell’s time at Eton is also the subject of an article by our Archives Assistant Georgina Robinson in the Collections Journal.