Burmese Days

Background

Orwell spent five years from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma (now Myanmar). Burma had become part of the British Empire during the nineteenth century as an adjunct of British India. The British colonised Burma in stages – it was not until 1885 when they captured the royal capital of Mandalay that Burma as a whole could be declared part of the British Empire. Migrant workers from India and China supplemented the native Burmese population. Although Burma was the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia under British rule, as a colony it was seen very much as a backwater.[4] The image which the English people were meant to uphold in these communities was a huge burden and the majority of them carried expectations all the way from Britain with the intention of maintaining their customs and rule. Among its exports, the country produced 75% of the world's teak from up-country forests. When Orwell arrived in the Delta to begin his career as an imperial policeman, in January 1924, the Delta was leading Burma's exports of over 3 million tons of rice – half the world's supply.[5] Orwell served in a number of locations in Burma; having spent a year of police training in Mandalay and Maymyo, his postings included Myaungmya, Twante, Syriam, Insein – (north of Rangoon, site of the colony's most secure prison, and now present-day Burma's most notorious jail),[6] – Moulmein and Kathar. Kathar with its luxuriant vegetation, described by Orwell with relish, provided the physical setting for the novel.

Burmese Days was several years in creation. Orwell was drafting it in Paris during the eighteen months he spent there in 1928 to 1929. He was still working on it in 1932 at Southwold while doing up the family home in the summer holidays. By December 1933 he had typed the final version,[7] and in 1934 he delivered it by motorbike to his agent Leonard Moore for publication by Victor Gollancz, who had published his previous book. Gollancz, smarting from fears of prosecution with regard to another author's work, turned it down because he was worried about libel action.[7] Heinemann and Cape also turned it down for the same reasons. After demanding alterations, Harpers were prepared to publish it in the United States, where it made its debut in 1934. In the spring of 1935 Gollancz declared that he was prepared to publish Burmese Days provided Orwell was able to demonstrate it was not based on real people. Extensive checks were made in colonial lists that no British individuals could be confused with the characters. Many of the main European names have since been identified in the Rangoon Gazette and U Po Kyin was the name of a Burmese officer with him at the Police Training School in Mandalay.[8] Gollancz brought out the English version on 24 June 1935.[9]


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