The ostensible subject of this post is a collection of George Orwell’s essays entitled Books v. Cigarettes, but it will take me some time for me to get there, so you should feel free either to bear with me or to find something better to read, as you like.
Twenty-five odd years ago, I began reading C. S. Lewis’ Narnian books on my own for the first time. My parents had read all or most of them to me before, some of them more than once, but I liked them more than anyone else was willing to read them to me, so I was forced to read them for myself. I skipped the first book, The Magician’s Nephew, which I did not grow to appreciate until a few years later, choosing to begin with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most famous of the series. I was six or seven at the time, so some of the words were unfamiliar to me, and I remember particularly being perplexed by Lewis’ reference to a bluebottle.
The word occurs fairly early in the story, when the children are exploring the house. They pass through a whole series of rooms that are filled with highly symbolic things, like a room draped all in green with a harp in it, and they come finally to the room that holds the wardrobe through which first Lucy and then the others will find their way to Narnia. It is in this room that the bluebottle appears. Lewis’ description reads, “They looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe, the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead bluebottle on the window-sill.”
As the only other item in the room, this bluebottle seemed important, but I had no idea what it might be. Perhaps because it is a specifically English word, or perhaps just because it is not an Ontarian word, I had never encountered it before. I had some vague idea that it was a plant of some sort, and I pictured a tall stem rising from a clay pot with a blue and bottle-shaped but withered flower dangling from its end, an image that served my purposes perfectly well at the time.
I reread the book several times over the years, but it was not until I was supposed to teach from it for a Children’s Literature course that I decided to go and find out what a bluebottle actually was. It seemed to me, considering the amount of symbolism that Lewis uses in his description of the other rooms, that he likely includes the detail of the bluebottle for a reason, and that it would probably be good for me to understand this reason before it came up in class. After all, it does not seem a significant enough detail for author to mention it without some particular reason.
So, I consulted the internet, as the great arbiter in all points of useless fact, but I still could not come to a satisfactory conclusion. The problem was that there were still two plausible meanings for bluebottle. First, and roughly in accordance with my imagination, there was the bluebottle flower, which was also known as the bachelor’s button flower, the cornflower, or the basket flower. Second, and completely contrary to my imagination, there was the bluebottle fly, a very common fly that I had often seen but never heard distinguished by name.
Of course, the significance of Lewis’ reference depends very much on which of these bluebottles he intends. The bluebottle flower is most commonly associated with celibacy, particularly in men, which might produce some interesting interpretations, especially considering that Lewis was himself a bachelor for many years and considering also that the house in which the wardrobe room is found belongs to an old professor who is a bachelor as well. In contrast, the bluebottle fly, because it breeds mostly in rotten meat and in faeces, is usually associated with death and corruption, connotations that are not obviously related to the narrative but that might support a reading that associates the world of Narnia with either death or new life, perhaps with both, depending on how one reads the fact that the bluebottle, representing death, is itself found dead on the windowsill.
Whichever bluebottle I chose, however, and I had begun to suspect that Lewis had intended it to be the bluebottle fly, both possibilities were now circulating around the word whenever I read it, so that, for me, a sort of Oxford don bachelorhood became mixed in it with a sense of mortality and decay, whatever Lewis’ intentions might have been.
At almost this same time, I was reading Robert Graves’ Poems Selected by Himself, and I came across a poem, though I cannot now find which one, where he describes seeing a bluebottle through a broken window. In this instance, the context dictates that he is referring to a bluebottle fly, and I was very interested at the similarities between the two images. Even more, I was interested that these two very similar images were produced by two people with substantially similar biographies. Graves and Lewis were born within just a few years of each other. Both fought and were wounded in WWI. Both taught at Oxford. Both wrote in a wide variety of genres. Both also, apparently, used the image of a bluebottle in a window, though this connection seemed at the time to be of the interesting but mostly useless variety.
This brings me, at last, to George Orwell and to Books v. Cigarettes, which I just finished reading yesterday afternoon. Orwell was born a little less than a decade later than Lewis and Graves, just late enough to avoid WWI, though he fought and was wounded in the Spanish Civil War. He did not teach at Oxford, though he taught in various British schools, and he did write in a variety of genres. He also, as you will have likely guessed by now, makes reference to a bluebottle fly.
In a little essay called “Bookshop Memories”, he remarks that “the top of a book is where every bluebottle prefers to die.” Granted, there is no mention of a window here, but I do not think that I am pushing the point too far to note that books and windows, and wardrobes also in certain cases, stand equally for portals to other places. These three authors are making some association here, I think, whether consciously or not, between the death of death and the passing from one world into another, between the death of mortality and the threshold to worlds of the imagination.
I wonder whether this image of the bluebottle and the connections that these authors make through it are somehow the collective production of a particular generation, of a particular culture, and of a particular time and place. I think that Graves would like this idea, and maybe Lewis also, though it would not perhaps appeal as much to Orwell. I am not invested in this particular idea in any case. I am invested only in the belief that the repetition of this image is not simply coincidental. Whatever it means, I am sure that it means something, as I seem somehow to have known ever since I began reading the Narnian books to myself those many years ago.