After passing his India Office examination in 1922, he spent five years in the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma before resigning to escape imperialism and, as he explained, to “get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants”.
It was not until 1933, however, that a final draft of a book that had been inspired by those earlier experiences, Burmese Days, was taken to Victor Gollancz, who earlier that year had published Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.
Fearing a libel case, Gollancz rejected Burmese Days, as did both Heinemann and Cape before Harper Brothers in New York agreed to publish 2000 copies in October 1934.
The British edition that followed in 1935 was one in which Orwell revised some content to distance it further from his own personal experiences.
He later came to regret doing so and thereafter referred to the US edition as “the true first edition” and the British one as as “a garbled version and should NOT be followed”.
A copy of the US edition that had failed in the fifth of these ‘English Bibliophile’ sales against a £20,000- 30,000 estimate this time made a low estimate but record £12,000.
It was one that he had inscribed, using his real name, “With very best wishes from Eric Blair”, to Mabel Fierz. She was a good friend who, after Faber rejected Down and Out…, saved the manuscript Orwell had said she should throw away and initiated its move, via the literary agent Leonard Moore, to Gollancz.
In gratitude, Orwell presented Mabel with signed copies of all his published works, and in 2010 the copy of Down and Out in Paris and London that Orwell had inscribed for Moore was sold for £86,000 by Gorringe’s.
In all there were a dozen Orwell lots in the recent Sotheby’s sale, among them the fine copy in dust jacket of his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter of 1935-36, shown above.
A very rare item indeed, and a publisher’s file copy, it made £12,000. Only an uncorrected proof copy in frayed and chipped jacket has made more – £19,000 at Bonhams in 2013.
A 1936 first of Keep the Aspidistra Flying made £8500 and more record setters emerged among later works.
With The Road to Wigan Pier of 1937, a selling price of £9000 simply equalled the previous best, set in that 2010 Gorringe’s sale, but outright records for simple, straightforward firsts in jackets were established by four other books.
These were Homage to Catalonia of 1938, at £5000; Coming Up for Air of 1939, at £7500; Inside the Whale and other Essays of 1940, at £3000, and Animal Farm of 1945, at £5000.
A wider-ranging report on this sale will appear in a future issue.