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three pairs of lovers with space



Eric Arthur Blair (1903-50), better known by his nom de plume of George Orwell, was a great English writer whose most famous novels were Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. From September 1911 to December 1916, so aged eight to thirteen, he went to St. Cyprian’s, a leading preparatory school at Eastbourne in Sussex.  The sarcastically-named Such, Such Were the Joys, was his account of his time at the school.

"George Orwell", 14, in September 1921

Though originally written around 1947, Orwell himself called it “Unprintable (libellous) until certain people are dead”,[1] and its publication in Great Britain had to await the death of “Flip”, the headmaster’s devastatingly-described wife, in 1967.[2]  The version from which the passages touching on schoolboy homosexuality have been taken here, is that published in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1970), iv. 379-422.

For a detailed analysis of how Orwell’s account compares to what may be ascertained from the historical evidence, including other’s boys’ accounts, see Robert Pearce’s “Truth and Falsehood: George Orwell's Prep School Woes” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 43, No. 171 (Oxford, Aug., 1992), pp. 367-386.  Pearce shows that while Such… was intended to be taken as a true account rather than as a short story, “St Cyprian's was not nearly as bad as it was portrayed” and Orwell’s account of it is “unconvincingly extreme” and “one-sided”, deliberately propagandist and the work of “an imaginative artist rather than a historian”, determined to be true to his feelings rather than to the facts. Unfortunately, Pearce did not include in his critical analysis what Orwell had to say about sex at the school.

Though Pearce says “Orwell himself, as the manuscript in the Orwell Archive makes clear, had used the correct names for the school, staff, and pupils,” they were not used in the first published version and have not all been restored in the one used here.



I am anxious to make it clear that I was not a rebel, except by force of circumstances. I accepted the codes that I found in being. Once, towards the end of my time, I even sneaked to Brown[3] about a suspected case of homosexuality. I did not know very well what homosexuality was, but I knew that it happened and was bad, and that this was one of the contexts in which it was proper to sneak. Brown told me I was ‘a good fellow’, which make me feel horribly ashamed. […]


I had learned early in my career that one can do wrong against one's will, and before long I also learned that one can do wrong without ever discovering what one has done or why it was wrong. There were sins that were too subtle to be explained, and there were others that were too terrible to be clearly mentioned. For example, there was sex, which was always smouldering just under the surface and which suddenly blew up into a tremendous row when I was about twelve.

A classroom at St. Cyprian's

At some preparatory schools homosexuality is not a problem but I think that St Cyprian's may have acquired a ‘bad tone’ thanks to the presence of the South American boys, who would perhaps mature a year or two earlier than an English boy. At that age I was not interested, so I so not actually know what went on, but I imagine it was group masturbation. At any rate, one day the storm suddenly burst over our heads. There were summonses, interrogations, confessions, floggings, repentances, solemn lectures of which one understood nothing except that some irredeemable sin known as ‘swinishness’ or ‘beastliness’ had been committed. One of the ringleaders a boy named Horne, was flogged, according to eye-witnesses, for a quarter of an hour continuously before being expelled. His yells rang through the house. But we were all implicated, more or less, or felt ourselves to be implicated. Guilt seemed to hang in the air like a pall or smoke. A solemn, black-haired imbecile of an assistant master, who was later to be a Member of Parliament took the older boys to a secluded room and delivered a talk on the Temple of the Body.

‘Don't you realize what a wonderful thing your body is?’ he said gravely. ‘You talk of your motor-car engines, your Rolls-Royces and Daimlers and so on. Don't you understand that no engine ever made is fit to be compared with your body? And then you go and wreck it, ruin it — for life!’

He turned his cavernous black eyes on me and added quite sadly:

‘And you, whom I'd always believed to be quite a decent person after your fashion — you, I hear, are one of the very worst.’

A feeling of doom descended upon me. So I was guilty too. I too had done the dreadful thing, whatever it was, that wrecked you for life, body and soul, and ended in suicide or the lunatic asylum. Till then I had hoped that I was innocent, and the conviction of sin which now took possession of me was perhaps all the stronger because I did not know what I had done. I was not among those who were interrogated and flogged, and it was not until the row was well over that I even learned about the trivial accident that had connected my name with it. Even then I understood nothing. It was not till about two years later that I fully grasped what that lecture on the Temple of the Body had referred to.

The swimming bath at St. Cyprian's

At this time I was in an almost sexless state, which is normal, or at any rate common, in boys of that age; I was therefore in the position of simultaneously knowing and not knowing what used to be called the Facts of Life. At five or six, like many children, I had passed though a phase of sexuality. My friends were the plumber's children up the road, and we used sometimes to play games of a vaguely erotic kind. One was called ‘playing at doctors’, and I remember getting a faint but definitely pleasant thrill from holding a toy trumpet, which was supposed to be a stethoscope, against a little girl's belly. About the same time I fell deeply in love, a far more worshipping kind of love than I have ever felt for anyone since, with a girl named Elsie at the convent school which I attended. She seemed to me grown up, so I suppose she must have been fifteen. After that, as so often happens, all sexual feelings seemed to go out of me for many years. At twelve I knew more than I had known as a young child, but I understood less, because I no longer knew the essential fact that there is something pleasant in sexual activity. Between roughly seven and fourteen, the whole subject seemed to me uninteresting and, when for some reason I was forced to think of it, disgusting. My knowledge of the so-called Facts of Life was derived from animals, and was therefore distorted, and in any case was only intermittent. I knew that animals copulated and that human beings had bodies resembling those of animals: but that human beings also copulated I only knew as it were, reluctantly, when something, a phrase in the Bible, perhaps, compelled me to remember it. Not having desire, I had no curiosity, and was willing to leave many questions unanswered. Thus, I knew in principle how the baby gets into the woman, but I did not know how it gets out again, because I had never followed the subject up. I knew all the dirty words, and in my bad moments I would repeat them to myself, but I did not know what the worst of them meant, nor want to know. They were abstractly wicked, a sort of verbal charm. While I remained in this state, it was easy for me to remain ignorant of any sexual misdeeds that went on about me, and to be hardly wiser even when the row broke. At most, through the veiled and terrible warnings of Flip, Sambo[4] and all the rest of them, I grasped that the crime of which we were all guiltily was somehow connected with the sexual organs. I had noticed, without feeling much interest, that one's penis sometimes stands up of its own accord (this starts happening to a boy long before he has any conscious sexual desires), and I was inclined to believe, or half-believe, that that must be the crime. At any rate, it was something to do with the penis — so much I understood. Many other boys, I have no doubt, were equally in the dark.

"Sambo" Vaughan Wilkes, founder and headmaster of St. Cyprian's

After the talk on the Temple of the Body (days later, it seems in retrospect: the row seemed to continue for days), a dozen of us were seated at a long shiny table which Sambo used for the scholarship class, under Flip's lowering eye. A long desolate wail rang out from a room somewhere above. A very small boy named Ronalds, aged no more than about ten, who was implicated in some way, was being flogged, or was recovering from a flogging. At the sound, Flip's eyes searched our faces, and settled upon me.

You see,’ she said.

I will not swear that she said ‘You see what you have done,’ but that was the sense of it. We were all bowed down with shame. It was our fault. Somehow or other we had led poor Ronalds astray: we were responsible for his agony and his ruin. Then Flip turned upon another boy named Heath. It is thirty years ago, and I cannot remember for certain whether she merely quoted a verse from the Bible, or whether she actually brought out a Bible and made Heath read it; but at any rate the text indicated was: ‘Who so shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.’

That, too, was terrible. Ronalds was one of these little ones, we had offended him; it were better that millstone were hanged about our necks and that we were drowned in the depth of the sea.

"Flip", the headmaster's wife and dominant personality at St. Cyprian's

‘Have you thought about that, Heath — have you thought what it means?’ Flip said. And Heath broke down into snivelling tears.

Another boy, Beacham, whom I have mentioned already, was similarly overwhelmed with shame by the accusation that he ‘had black rings round his eyes’.

‘Have you looked in the glass lately, Beacham?’ said Flip. ‘Aren't you ashamed to go about with a face like that? Do you think everyone doesn't know what it means when a boy has black rings round his eyes?’

Once again the load of guilt and fear seemed to settle down upon me. Had I got black rings round my eyes? A couple of years later I realized that these were supposed to be a symptom by which masturbators could be detected. But already, without knowing this, I accepted the black rings as a sure sign of depravity, some kind of depravity. And many times, even before I grasped the supposed meaning, I have gazed anxiously into the glass, looking for the first hint of that dreaded stigma, the confession which the secret sinner writes upon his own face.

These terrors wore off, or became merely intermittent, without affecting what one might call my official beliefs. It was still true about the madhouse and the suicide's grave, but it was no longer acutely frightening. Some months later it happened that I once again saw Horne, the ringleader who had been flogged and expelled. Horne was one of the outcasts, the son of poor middle-class parents, which was no doubt part of the reason why Sambo had handled him so roughly. The term after his expulsion he went on to Eastbourne College, the small local public school, which was hideously despised at St Cyprian's and looked on as ‘not really’ a public school at all. Only a very few boys from St Cyprian's went there, and Sambo always spoke of them with a sort of contemptuous pity. You had no chance if you went to a school like that: at the best your destiny would be a clerkship. I thought of Horne as a person who at thirteen had already forfeited all hope of any decent future. Physically, morally and socially he was finished. Moreover I assumed that his parents had only sent him to Eastbourne College because after his disgrace no ‘good’ school would have him.

During the following term, when we were out for a walk, we passed Horne in the street. He looked completely normal. He was a strongly-built, rather good-looking boy with black hair. I immediately noticed that he looked better than when I had last seen him — his complexion, previously rather pale, was pinker — and that he did not seem embarrassed at meeting us. Apparently he was not ashamed either of having been expelled, or of being at Eastbourne College. If one could gather anything form the way he looked at us as we filed past, it was that he was glad to have escaped from St Cyprian's. But the encounter made very little impression on me. I drew no inference from the fact that Horne, ruined in body and soul, appeared to be happy and in good health. I still believed in the sexual mythology that had been taught me by Sambo and Flip. The mysterious, terrible dangers were still there. Any morning the black rings might appear round your eyes and you would know that you too were among the lost ones. Only it no longer seemed to matter very much. These contradictions can exist easily in the mind of a child, because of its own vitality. It accepts — how can it do otherwise? — the nonsense that its elders tell it, but its youthful body, and the sweetness of the physical world, tell it another story. It was the same with Hell, which up to the age of about fourteen I officially believed in. Almost certainly Hell existed, and there were occasions when a vivid sermon could scare you into fits. But somehow it never lasted. The fire that waited for you was real fire, it would hurt in the same way as when you burnt your finger, and for ever, but most of the time you could contemplate it without bothering.


"George Orwell" at Eton, 1921

I have never even been down to Eton, where I was relatively happy,[5] though I did once pass through it in 1933 and noted with interest that nothing seemed to have changed, except that the shops now sold radios. As for St Cyprian's, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there.


[1] Orwell papers, University College, London, box 10.

[2] It was first published, with some changes of names, in New York in Partisan Review, Sept. - Oct. 1952, but not in Great Britain until 1968.

[3] Brown was the second master of St. Cyprian’s and one of the only two “adults in any way connected with the school whom I did not either dislike or fear”. In the original manuscript, where Orwell consistently used real names, he was called Siller, a misspelling of Sillar.  (Pearce, op. cit., p. 370).

[4] “Sambo” and “Flip”were the nicknames of Lewis Vaughan Wilkes, the Headmaster of St. Cyprian’s and his wife Cicely, both of whom Orwell hated.

[5] After a brief interlude at Wellington, Orwell went to Eton as a scholar from 1917 to 1921.




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