Gauri Deshpande, the late, great Marathi writer, Indian English poet, and Marathi-English translator, once told me that when she was studying for her PhD in English at the University of Poona, her professor had insisted that his graduate students learn all the Mother Goose rhymes. He had said that they wouldn’t be able to fully understand a body of literature until they were steeped in the culture that the writers themselves would have imbibed even before they could use language. Gauri said that although at first she had felt silly reciting nursery rhymes, she had come to appreciate the wisdom of her professor’s unorthodox approach. I experienced the truth of this in my first year of fulltime teaching, when I was asked to teach Twentieth-Century British Writers and one of my chosen texts was George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mindful of the way Orwell tended to be taught in American high schools, and that my American students were likely to have been introduced to him as an anti-communist writer, I wanted to draw their attention to the novel’s English particularities. As I began re-reading in preparation for teaching it, my way suddenly became clear.
The scrawny hero, Winston Smith, is haunted by fragments of Oranges and Lemons, the old London children’s song chanted in accompaniment to the playground game of the same name.* I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed this before, but now I saw that it was all part of Orwell’s plan. Fascinated with history precisely because the government seeks to erase it, Winston Smith firmly believes that he can find refuge in the “Golden Country” of the past. As he mingles with the “proles,” the working classes of London, he fixates on the old song as the key to his lost past and seeks out elderly people who might be able to remember all the words. He finds an old man who says he knows it, but the fellow disappoints him, having forgotten the ending. If you know the rhyme, you will be well aware that the ending is critically important. It starts out benignly enough but grows progressively more ominous, taking a sudden, bloodthirsty turn in the last two lines; poor Winston learns too late that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.
One of the settings of the novel, and the place where we leave Winston at the end, is the Chestnut Tree Café. What the chestnut tree signifies is also unknown to most citizens on Airstrip One (or Britain, in Orwell’s totalitarian future). Only someone familiar with British popular culture of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s would fully appreciate the poignancy of that name. Harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sentimental 19th-century poem, The Village Blacksmith, “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree,” a popular love song in Britain of the 1930s, went:
Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
I loved her and she loved me.
There she used to sit upon my knee
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.
Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
There she said she’d marry me
Now you ought to see our family
‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree!
This song too was sung to a kind of game, one of hand movements in which each successive iteration removes more words and replaces them with mimed gestures. In his wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell spoke affectionately of England as a family “with the wrong people in charge.” If you’ve seen the 1939 Pathe newsreel of King George and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother, that is) singing and miming “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree” to signal their unity with the “proles,” it is just possible to believe in Orwell’s view of England as a family, albeit a rather dysfunctional one. But in Nineteen Eighty-Four, written after the war, the version played on the telescreen paints a very different picture of the nation:
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.
Here is a society ruled by total and totalizing power, where children will turn in their parents and lovers betray their beloved for fear of Big Brother. The official language, Newspeak, is eliminating words from the English language so quickly that we are told it will soon be impossible even to formulate the ideas to engage in “thoughtcrime,” silencing potential traitors preemptively. That once-reassuring symbol of national unity, the chestnut tree, has indeed spread, reaching its tentacles into every home and every mind.
*If you are interested in the culture and folklore of playground games, I highly recommend Iona and Peter Opie’s 1959 study, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.