Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris in London (1933) was the first book published by Eric Arthur Blair under the pseudonym George Orwell. The name was chosen, according to Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick, ‘partly to avoid embarrassing his parents, partly as a hedge against failure, and partly because he disliked the name Eric, which reminded him of a prig in a Victorian boys' story’. The book offers an account of Blair’s experiences of poverty as he tried to build a career as a writer after quitting his job in the Burmese Police Force. Looking back on this period in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell explained: ‘I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants’.

The book begins by describing the experience of destitution in Paris, and particularly work as a plongeur – pot-washer – in restaurant kitchens. The second section consists of comparable experiences in England: the low-paid work Orwell finds is as a hop-picker in Kent, and the squalid accommodation he describes are the ‘kips’ or ‘doss-houses’ of London.

The question of the book’s genre is open to debate – though the raw material is broadly non-fictional, Orwell treats it with some of the techniques of the fiction writer, rearranging the historical order of events to produce a more compelling narrative, or to spare the blushes of his family. For example, the ‘Italian compositor’ who robs Orwell and worsens his predicament was in fact a woman with whom he had been involved. The book is often treated as a classic of the literary ‘documentary’ form; a record of what it was to be poor in England before the post-war introduction of the welfare state. Having suffered several rejections and after going through a number of different titles – including A Scullion’s Diary – the book was published by Gollancz in the UK and Harper & Brothers in the US, and was generally well-received by writers such as J B Priestley and C Day Lewis. It was published in French translation in 1935. English sales remained relatively low until it was picked up by Penguin in 1940, published in a cheap edition of 55,000, and categorised as ‘Fiction’.

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An introduction to Down and Out in Paris and London

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John Sutherland describes the biographical and historical events that produced George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which combines memoir with a study of poverty in two European cities in the late 1920s.

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