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The Writing on the Wall

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell

edited by Sonia Orwell, edited by Ian Angus
Harcourt, Brace & World, Vol. IV, 521 pp., $40 the set

This collection of Orwelliana—essays, journalism, letters—is very sparse in letters. Orwell was not much of a correspondent, and the people he must have written to, e.g., his parents, evidently did not save his letters. In four thick volumes, only one to his mother turns up, one to his wife Eileen, one to Sonia Brownell, whom he married in his last illness, none to his father or his sisters. He writes his publisher that the older sister, Marjorie, has died and he will have to go up to Nottingham for her funeral, and footnotes let us in on the fact that the younger one, Avril, was actually living with him as his housekeeper after his wife’s death and taking care of his adopted son. Did he never leave a note on the kitchen table when he went out for a walk or write her during his absences to inquire how things were going? Not a word from Burma, where he spent more than five years in the Indian Imperial Police; four letters (one partly business) and a postcard from Spain, during the Civil War. It was mainly publishers, editors, his agent, his executor, writer friends—people with office space and the professional habit of filing documents—who duly kept his correspondence. This gives a bleak impression of a life.

From April 1939 to January 1940, there is a blank; you would never know that the war had broken out on September 3 and that he was trying to enlist in the army—quite a reversal since when last heard from he had been violently opposing a war with Germany, declaring that it would result in the “Fascization” of England and that the British Empire was worse than Hitler. Such epistolary blanks, like holes cut out by the censor, surround the principal events of his life, both in the private sphere (what led to his marriages? did he never write a love letter?) and in the sphere of politics, where so much of his passion as a writer and journalist centered.

Take Hiroshima. It is first mentioned in his regular “London Letter” to Partisan Review. You would expect some further reactions in letters to his friends on the Left. Nothing. Ten days after Nagasaki he is writing to Herbert Read about organizing a Freedom Defense Committee, Animal Farm, the death of his wife, which had happened some months before, a holiday he plans to take, Labor Party politics, the doings of common friends. Since he has been emphatically approving (May 1944, in a polemic with Vera Brittain in Tribune) the saturation bombing of German cities on the basis of military realism, the reader is curious as to how he will “take” the atom bomb. Later (October 1945, “You and the Atom Bomb”), he foresaw the enormous significance of nuclear weapons in maintaining an international balance of terror and a political status quo within the super-states, but what happened in between, what caused him to revise his common-sense, let’s-cut-the-cackle defense of the practice of total war, is not revealed in these volumes. There was something in Orwell that made him jib at the atom bomb, maybe what he called “decency,” yet whatever it was, quirk or deep moral sanity, remains to be guessed at.

Or take the gas chambers. Though he was in Germany as a reporter shortly after the surrender, he seems to have been unconscious of the death camps, which just then were being discovered further east. No letters, apparently, have survived from this period, or perhaps he did not write any. The dispatches he sent to The Observer and The Manchester Evening News have not been reprinted here (presumably for lack of interest), but in his regular journalism he continues to speak of “concentration camps,” as if he did not know about the extermination camps or as if unaware of a difference—impossible to tell which. You will not find “Auschwitz” or “Genocide” in the index, and Orwell’s attitude toward atrocity stories is sometimes that of the plain Englishman rendered suspicious of “propaganda”; the departure from the average represented by an atrocity put a tax on his powers of belief. At other times, while conceding that there were such things as war crimes, he tended to write them off as committed by both sides and hence, on the balance sheet, cancelling each other out. If the crucial fact of Auschwitz finally “got to him”—he lived, after all, until 1950—the record is amnesiac.

In view of the uncanny “natural selection,” which has decreed, as though according to his wish, that whatever was intimate or revealing in the private letters of the man who became “George Orwell” should perish, the survival of the first letter in this collection, dated 1920, is all the more extraordinary and dramatic. Of the hundreds of schoolboy “missives” he must have penned in his copper-plate handwriting, why should this one—and this one only—have come to light? Eric Blair, aged seventeen, is writing to a school friend from his family’s summer home in Cornwall: “My dear Runciman, I have little spare time, & I feel I must tell you about my first adventure as an amateur tramp. Like most tramps, I was driven to it….” He goes on to explain how, taking the train from Eton for his summer holidays, he unwisely got out of the carriage at a station, was left behind, missed his last connection, and was stranded for the night in Plymouth with seven pence ha’penny, where he had a choice of staying at the YMCA for sixpence with no supper or buying twelve buns for the same money and sleeping in a farmer’s field. He chose the second and passed a cramped, cold August night surrounded by neighboring dogs that barked at his every movement and risked getting him put in the clink for fourteen days—he understood that “frequently” happened if you were caught on somebody else’s property with no visible means of support. “I am very proud of this adventure,” he ends, “but I would not repeat it.”

Such a relatively unadventurous adventure has been granted to many middle-class children: missing your train, being stranded without money, sleeping or trying to sleep in a cold, uncomfortable, illicit place in great fear of detection. I once slept in a confessional box while running away from home and, another time, aged fourteen or fifteen, I spent most of a cold night roaming about the back yard of a university student I loved, dressed in my first evening gown (yellow chiffon with a silver belt and a bunch of cherries at the waist) with a bottle of poison in my hand. I too was unnerved by the barking of neighboring dogs and also by the clatter of garbage-can lids, which I must have jostled as I passed, in my new silver slippers, to match the belt; a bride of Death was the principle of my costume. Though eager to die, I was terribly fearful of being caught trespassing before I could swallow the iodine and be discovered on the premises as a corpse.

In that charade, no necessity was operating. I was not “driven” into an action that might have led a suspicious person to call the police. I could equally well have killed myself in my own bed or at the wash basin, leaving a note. Yet in fact the young Eric Blair did not have to pass the night in a farmer’s field in some “slummy allotment.” He must have known about the Salvation Army. Obviously an alert internal prompter notified him that here was his chance: carpe diem. Indeed, his letter to Steven Runciman sounds as if the idea of being a tramp was something they had often discussed at school. Now he had done it and was happy to furnish the details.

Ten years pass before Blair is heard from again, and now he is addressing an editor, enclosing an article he has written: “The Spike.” It is an account of one of the casual wards where he has been sheltering, with other derelicts, while tramping through the south of England. Soon, rearranged, it will turn up in Down and Out in Paris and London, the first published book of “George Orwell,” who was contriving to bury Blair in more senses than one. Before assuming the identity of a part-time tramp in England, he had been working as a dishwasher and kitchen porter in Paris. He picked hops in Kent as a migratory laborer (described here in “Hop-Picking”) and made an effort to penetrate the inside of prison life by deliberately getting himself arrested as drunk and disorderly (“Clink”)—a failure; they let him out after forty-eight hours. From 1927 till 1932, in Paris, London, and southeast England, Blair was purposefully moving in the lower depths of society among the wrecks and the jetsam. He was conducting a sort of survey, the reverse of the traditional Grand Tour, of the geography and institutions of these nether regions: workhouses, flophouses, Salvation Army shelters, cheap lodgings, jail. It is clear that he was not doing this for “copy,” nor was he exactly forced to it by shortness of money; his favorite aunt was living in Paris all the time he was down and out there, but, so far as one can tell in the absence of any letters, he does not seem to have touched her for a loan.

It is as though, once he had resigned from the Indian Service, he wished to be acted upon, rather than to act, that is, to follow the line of least resistance and see where it led—a quite common impulse in a writer, based on a mystical feeling that the will is evil. Blair-Orwell detested and resented every form of power; in politics, he loved rubbing his opponents’ noses in reality, the opposite of the corporate or individual will, just as in language he hated abstraction, the separation of mental concepts from the plurality of the concrete. The line of least resistance, obeying a law of social gravity, led him naturally downward to gauge the depths of powerlessness and indignity, and the knowledge he brought back made it impossible for him ever to eat a meal in a smart restaurant again, in the same way as, later, after going down into the English coal mines, he wrote “I don’t think I shall ever feel the same about coal again.” Every now and then, in those four or five years of vagrancy, Blair surfaced, working as a tutor to a defective boy, staying with his older sister and her husband, staying with his parents, only to plunge back again into anonymity. Was this “coming up for air” a simple manifestation of the life-instinct or some complicated testing of his forces of resiliency? By coming to the top he kept his freedom to sink once more, when the spirit moved him. He refused to drop definitively out of sight by an act of choice.

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