Elizabeth was just turned twenty-two, and was an orphan. Her father had been less of a drunkard than his brother Tom, but he was a man of similar stamp. He was a tea-broker, and his fortunes fluctuated greatly, but he was by nature too optimistic to put money aside in prosperous phases. Elizabeth’s mother had been an incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such things as Women’s Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen’s pose was that of an artist exiled among ‘the Philistines’ — these, needless to say, included her husband — and it was a pose that gave her almost unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself.
The inevitable crash came late in 1919. Elizabeth was taken away from school, to continue her education at a succession of cheap, beastly schools, with gaps of a term or two when her father could not pay the fees. He died when she was twenty, of influenza. Mrs Lackersteen was left with an income of £150 a year, which was to die with her. The two women could not, under Mrs Lackersteen’s management, live on three pounds a week in England. They moved to Paris, where life was cheaper and where Mrs Lackersteen intended to dedicate herself wholly to Art.
Paris! Living in Paris! Flory had been a little wide of the mark when he pictured those interminable conversations with bearded artists under the green plane trees. Elizabeth’s life in Paris had not been quite like that.
Her mother had taken a studio in the Montparnasse quarter, and relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness. She was so foolish with money that her income would not come near covering expenses, and for several months Elizabeth did not even have enough to eat.
It was a mean, beastly existence. In fact, it reached levels of ‘beastliness’ which Elizabeth had not previously known to exist. But the thing that most depressed her, most filled her with the sense of sinking into some horrible lower world, was her mother’s studio. Mrs Lackersteen was one of those people who go utterly to pieces when they are deprived of servants. She lived in a restless nightmare between painting and housekeeping, and never worked at either. At irregular intervals she went to a ‘school’ where she produced greyish still-lifes under the guidance of a master whose technique was founded on dirty brushes; for the rest, she messed about miserably at home with teapots and frying-pans. The state of her studio was more than depressing to Elizabeth; it was evil, Satanic. It was a cold, dusty pigsty, with piles of books and papers littered all over the floor, generations of saucepans slumbering in their grease on the rusty gas-stove, the bed never made till afternoon, and everywhere — in every possible place where they could be stepped on or knocked over — tins of paint-fouled turpentine and pots half full of cold black tea. You would lift a cushion from a chair and find a plate holding the remains of a poached egg underneath it. As soon as Elizabeth entered the door she would burst out:
‘Oh, Mother, Mother dearest, how can you? Look at the state of this room! It is so terrible to live like this!’
‘The room, dearest? What’s the matter? Is it untidy?’
‘Untidy! Mother, need you leave that plate of porridge in the middle of your bed? And those saucepans! It does look so dreadful. Suppose anyone came in!’
The rapt, other-worldly look which Mrs Lackersteen assumed when anything like work presented itself, would come into her eyes.
‘None of my friends would mind, dear. We are such Bohemians, we artists. You don’t understand how utterly wrapped up we all are in our painting. You haven’t the artistic temperament, you see, dear.’
‘I must try and clean some of those saucepans. I just can’t bear to think of you living like this. What have you done with the scrubbing-brush?’
‘The scrubbing-brush? Now, let me think, I know I saw it somewhere. Ah yes! I used it yesterday to clean my palette. But it’ll be all right if you give it a good wash in turpentine.’
Mrs Lackersteen would sit down and continue smudging a sheet of sketching paper with a Conté crayon while Elizabeth worked.
‘How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply everything. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.
Elizabeth had no friends in Paris. Her mother’s friends were women of the same stamp as herself, or elderly ineffectual bachelors living on small incomes and practising contemptible half-arts such as wood-engraving or painting on porcelain. For the rest, Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners. She had one great solace at this time. It was to go to the American library in the rue de l’Elysée and look at the illustrated papers. Sometimes on a Sunday or her free afternoon she would sit there for hours at the big shiny table, dreaming, over the Sketch, the Tatler, the Graphic, the Sporting and Dramatic.
Ah, what joys were pictured there! ‘Hounds meeting on the lawn of Charlton Hall, the lovely Warwickshire seat of Lord Burrowdean.’ ‘The Hon. Mrs Tyke-Bowlby in the Park with her splendid Alsatian, Kublai Khan, which took second prize at Cruft’s this summer.’ ‘Sunbathing at Cannes. Left to right: Miss Barbara Pilbrick, Sir Edward Tuke, Lady Pamela Westrope, Captain “Tuppy” Benacre.’
Lovely, lovely, golden world! On two occasions the face of an old schoolfellow looked at Elizabeth from the page. It hurt her in her breast to see it. There they all were, her old schoolfellows, with their horses and their cars and their husbands in the cavalry; and here she, tied to that dreadful job, that dreadful pension, her dreadful mother! Was it possible that there was no escape? Could she be doomed forever to this sordid meanness, with no hope of ever getting back to the decent world again?
It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In fact, any excess of intellect — ‘braininess’ was her word for it — tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people — people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes — were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these Highbrow ideas — Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. And when it happened, as it did once or twice, that she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all his life, rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance company, she despised him far more than she despised the dabblers of her mother’s circle. That a man should turn deliberately away from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes through rather than marry such a man.
When Elizabeth had been nearly two years in Paris her mother died abruptly of ptomaine poisoning. The wonder was that she had not died of it sooner. Elizabeth was left with rather less than a hundred pounds in the world. Her uncle and aunt cabled at once from Burma, asking her to come out and stay with them, and saying that a letter would follow.
George Orwell, 1903-1950. Burmese Days, 1934, Chapter 7
Published by Harper & Brothers, USA, 1934; Victor Gollanz, GB, 1935
image 1: Georges Bouche, 1874-1941. Nature morte aux oranges, 46 x 55 cm
image 2: Louis Thevenet, 1874-1930. Nature morte, 1914. Oil on canvas, 38,5 x 46 cm
George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days, describes the lives of the colonial civil servants and officials of the British Empire, based on Orwell’s observations while working in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s. Elizabeth Lackersteen epitomises the idle and under-educated ex-pat, with assumptions of superiority in her status due to her class and race, who yearns for the superficialities of English country life and sporting pastimes. A short episode in the novel describes the otiose life of Mrs Lackersteen, her mother and the indolent milieu of the cultivated bohemian artist. Elizabeth despises the dirt and poverty of the artistic dabblers and dilettantes, and it is her mother’s fate to die as a result of food poisoning associated with her socially corrupt lifestyle. The text suggests a beatific vision of Paris in the 1930s, conjured up by John Flory, an English civil servant in Burma: ‘I’ve never even seen it. But, good Lord, how I’ve imagined it! Paris — it’s all a kind of jumble of pictures in my mind; cafes and boulevards and artists’ studios and Villon and Baudelaire and Maupassant all mixed up together. You don’t know how the names of those European towns sound to us, out here. And did you really live in Paris? Sitting in cafes with foreign art students, drinking white wine and talking about Marcel Proust?’ Burmese Days, Chapter 6.