Why I Write
You have to feel a little sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, or “Sambo” and “Flip” as they were known to their charges. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. It was no worse than many other such establishments: the food was bad, the building underheated, physical punishment the norm. Pupils learned “as fast as fear could teach us,” one alumnus later wrote. The day began with a frigid and fetid plungebath; boys denounced one another to the authorities for homosexual practices; and daily morale was dependent on whether a boy was in or out of favor with Flip. In some ways the school was better than many: it had a good academic record, Sambo nurtured contacts at the most important public schools, especially Eton, and clever boys from decent families of modest income were accepted on half fees. This was a calculated act of generosity: in return the boys were meant to reward the school by gaining academic distinction.
Often, this worked, and the Wilkeses might have had reason to congratulate themselves, in the early years of World War I, for having admitted on reduced terms the sons of Major Matthew Connolly, a retired army officer, and of Richard Blair, a former civil servant in the Opium Department of the government of India. The two boys, Cyril and Eric, each won the Harrow Prize (a nationwide history competition), and then took scholarships to Eton in successive years. The Wilkeses must have thought their investments had paid off, the accounts balanced and closed.
But Englishmen of a certain class—especially those sent away to boarding schools—tend toward obsessive memory, looking back on those immured years as either an expulsion from the familial Eden and a traumatic introduction to the concept of alien power, or else as the opposite, a golden and protected spell of time before life’s realities intrude. And so, just as World War II was about to begin, the Wilkeses, much to their distaste, became a matter of public discussion and argument.
Major Connolly’s boy, young Cyril—renamed “Tim” at St. Cyprian’s, and given the school character of an Irish rebel (if a tame one)—published Enemies of Promise in 1938. While describing in some detail the harshness and cruelty of the lightly disguised “St. Wulfric’s,” Connolly also admitted that as preparatory schools went, it had been “a well run and vigorous example which did me a world of good.” Flip was “able, ambitious, temperamental and energetic.” Connolly, who leaned toward Edenic memorializing (especially about Eton), recalled the vivid pleasures of reading, natural history, and homoerotic friendship. He devoted several wistful pages to the latter subject. Connolly’s book must have felt to the Wilkeses as damaging as the fire that burned St. Cyprian’s to the ground the following year. Flip wrote him a “Dear Tim” letter about the harm he had done to “two people who did a very great deal for you,” adding that the book had “hurt my husband a lot when he was ill and easily upset.”
For the next thirty years, the debate continued about the true nature of the Wilkeses—diligent pedagogues or manipulative sadists?—and more widely about the consequences of sending small boys away from home at the age of eight: character-building or character-deforming? The photographer Cecil Beaton had been at St. Cyprian’s at the same time as Connolly and Blair, surviving by charm and the ability to placate by singing “If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy.” He applauded Connolly for having “seen through all the futilities and snobbishness of Flip and her entourage.” Others joined in, like the naturalist Gavin Maxwell and the golf correspondent Henry Longhurst, a stout defender of Flip as “the most formidable, distinguished and unforgettable woman I am likely to meet in my lifetime.” Connolly later came to regret what he had written. When Flip died in August 1967 at the age of ninety-one, he turned up at her funeral, doubtless expecting sentimental reunion, the rheumy eye, and the forgiving handshake. Not a bit of it. The major’s boy had turned out a bad egg and a bounder, as literary types often do. Connolly self-pityingly noted that “nobody spoke to me.”
Yet Flip’s death merely led to the most savage and contentious contribution to the debate. Ten years after Enemies of Promise, Eric Blair, by then George Orwell, wrote his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” as a pendant to Connolly’s account. It was never published in Britain during his lifetime, or Flip’s, for fear of libel; but it did come out in the US, in Partisan Review, in 1952. Longhurst picked up a copy of the magazine in Honolulu and was “so shocked that I have never read it again.” Forty years after it was first published in Britain, sixty years after it was composed, and now almost a century after the events it describes, “Such, Such” retains immense force, its clarity of exposition matched by its animating rage.
Orwell does not try to backdate his understanding; he retains the inchoate, emotional responses of the young Eric Blair to the system into which he had been flung. But now, as George Orwell, he is in a position to anatomize the economic and class infrastructure of St. Cyprian’s, and those hierarchies of power that the pupil would later meet in grown-up, public, political form: in this respect those schools were truly named “preparatory.”
Orwell also writes with the unhealed pain of an abused child, a pain that occasionally leaks into his prose. He describes a younger pupil—aristocratic and thus entitled to privileges denied to half-fees Blair—like this:
a wretched, drivelling little creature, almost an albino, peering upwards out of weak eyes, with a long nose at the end of which a dewdrop always seemed to be trembling.
When this boy had a choking fit at dinner,
a stream of snot ran out of his nose onto his plate in a way horrible to see. Any lesser person would have been called a dirty little beast and ordered out of the room instantly.
Orwell’s denunciatory fervor is almost counterproductive; readers may well feel sorry for the little chap whose hair color, nasal explosions, and accident of birth were none of his doing.
If Connolly was by his own admission a tame rebel at St. Cyprian’s, Orwell was a true one: Connolly wrote that Blair “alone among the boys was an intellectual and not a parrot.” And if the child is father to the man, the writer’s account of his own childhood is often a sure guide to his adult mentality. (At St. Cyprian’s Blair denounced boys for homosexuality—“one of the contexts in which it was proper to sneak.” Decades later, during the cold war, Orwell sneaked on the politically unreliable to the British Foreign Office.) “Such, Such Were the Joys” is about life in an English preparatory school; but it is also about politics, class, empire, and adult psychology. And the writer’s mature views on these subjects feed into his corrective vehemence:
Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.
The same typist who produced the final, fair copy of “Such, Such” also typed a draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four ; both the cadences and the message of those two sentences must have made her feel the overlap.
The Queen of England, advised by her government, appoints knights and peers; the nation at large, by more informal means, appoints national treasures. To achieve this status, it is not sufficient to be outstanding in your profession; you must reflect back some aspect of how the country imagines itself to be. (You also need to be seen not to be chasing the title too hard.) Typically, national treasures tend to be actors or sportsfolk or, increasingly, those made famous by television. It is hard for living writers to become NTs, but not impossible. Charm is important; so is the capacity not to threaten, not to be obviously clever; you should be perceptive but not too intellectual.
A most successful national treasure of the last century was John Betjeman, whose genial, bumbly appearances on television overcame the handicap of his being a poet. Someone like Betjeman’s contemporary Evelyn Waugh could never have become a treasure: too rude, too openly contemptuous of those whose opinions he despised. Postulants for treasuredom are allowed to have political views, but must never appear angry, or self-righteous, or superior. In recent times the two writers to attain unarguable NT status have been Alan Bennett and the recently deceased John Mortimer: both old-fashioned liberals, but managing to exude the sense that if confronted by a rabid crypto- fascist Little Englander, they would offer a glass of champagne (in Mortimer’s case) or a steaming mug of cocoa (in Bennett’s) and then search for common ground in uncontentious topics.
When it comes to the dead, it is hard to retain, or posthumously acquire, treasuredom. Being a great writer in itself has little to do with the matter. The important factors are: (1) an ambassadorial quality, an ability to present the nation to itself, and represent it abroad, in a way it wishes to be presented and represented. (2) An element of malleability and interpretability. The malleability allows the writer to be given a more appealing, if not entirely untruthful, image; the interpretability means that we can find in him or her more or less whatever we require. (3) The writer, even if critical of his or her country, must have a patriotic core, or what appears to be one.
Thus Dickens, as Orwell observed, is “one of those writers who are well worth stealing” (by “Marxists, by Catholics, and, above all, by Conservatives”). He also fulfills criterion 3:
Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.
Something similar has happened with Trollope, who—partly through relentless TV adaptations, but also because he invented the pillar-box—hovers on the edge of being a national treasure. This near status has been greatly helped by the public support of two Trollope-reading Tory prime ministers, Harold Macmillan and John Major—despite the fact that Trollope hated Tories.
And George Orwell? It would surprise, and doubtless irritate, him to discover that since his death in 1950 he has moved implacably toward NT status. He is interpretable, malleable, ambassadorial, and patriotic. He denounced the Empire, which pleases the left; he denounced communism, which pleases the right. He warned us against the corrupting effect on politics and public life of the misuse of language, which pleases almost everyone. He said that “good prose is like a window pane,” which pleases those who, despite living in the land of Shakespeare and Dickens, mistrust “fancy” writing. He distrusted anyone who was too “clever.” (This is a key English suspicion, most famously voiced in 1961 when Lord Salisbury, a stalwart of the imperialist Tory right, denounced Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies and member of the new reforming Tory left, as “too clever by half.”)
Orwell used “sophisticated” and “intellectual” and “intelligentsia” as terms of dispraise, hated Bloomsbury, and not just expected but hoped that the sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin would outlast those of Virginia Woolf. He was scathing about social elites, finding the ruling class “stupid.” In 1941 he declared that Britain was the most class-ridden country on earth, ruled by “the old and silly,” “a family with the wrong members in control”; yet he also recognized that the ruling class was “morally fairly sound” and in time of war “ready enough to get themselves killed.” He described the condition of the working class with sympathy and rage, thought them wiser than intellectuals, but didn’t sentimentalize them; in their struggle they were as “blind and stupid” as a plant struggling toward the light.
Orwell is profoundly English in even more ways than these. He is deeply untheoretical and wary of general conclusions that do not come from specific experiences. He is a moralist and a puritan, one who, for all his populism and working-class sympathies, is squeamish about dirt, disgusted by corporal and fecal odors. He is caricatural of Jews to the point of anti-Semitism, and routinely homophobic, using “the pansy left” and “nancy poets” as if they were accepted sociological terms. He dislikes foreign food, and thinks the French know nothing about cooking; while the sight of a gazelle in Morocco makes him dream of mint sauce. He lays down stern rules about how to make and drink tea, and in a rare sentimental flight imagines the perfect pub.
He is uninterested in creature comforts, clothes, fashion, sport, frivolity of any kind, unless that frivolity—like seaside postcards or boys’ magazines—leads to some broader social rumination. He likes trees and roses, and barely mentions sex. His preferred literary form, the essay, is, as George Packer observes, quintessentially English.* He is a one-man, truth-telling awkward squad, and what, the English like to pretend, could be more English than that? Finally, when he rebranded himself, he took the Christian name of England’s patron saint. There aren’t too many Erics in the lists either of saints or of national treasures. The only Saint Eric is Swedish, and he wasn’t even a proper, pope-made saint.
“Getting its history wrong,” wrote Ernest Renan, “is part of being a nation.” Pointedly, he said “being,” not “becoming”: the self-delusion is a constant requirement, not just part of a state’s initial creation myth. Similarly, getting its iconic figures wrong—and rebranding them at intervals—is part of being a nation. The Orwell whom the English have sanctified is a descendant of the stone-kicking, beef-eating, commonsensical Dr. Johnson (another malleable iconic construct). It is the Orwell who writes to the publisher Fredric Warburg in October 1948, “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot.” It is the Orwell of straight thinking, plain writing, moral clarity, and truth-telling.
Yet things are never so simple, not even in the truth-telling, and Orwell’s own line—“All art is to some extent propaganda”—might make us cautious (and reflect that the dictum applies a fortiori to journalism). Take Orwell’s denunciation of St. Cyprian’s. Despite being written three decades after young Eric Blair’s grim experiences, it is much harsher than that of anyone else who wrote about the school. If Orwell had lived to show up at Flip’s funeral, the revenge of the golf correspondents might have been worthy of St. Cyprian’s itself. But was Orwell’s account so unremitting because he saw more truth than all the others, because time had not sentimentalized him, because with hindsight he could see exactly how that kind of education system perverted young minds and spirits to the wider purposes of the British establishment and Empire? Or was his thumb propagandistically on the scale?
One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London between Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, “Shooting an Elephant.” Sonia, “to the delight of other clients,” according to Crick, “screamed” at him across the table, “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.
But the unpatriotic doubter must persist, as Crick did. And in the afterword to the paperback edition of his biography he quotes a tape recording of an old Burma hand’s memories of the incident Orwell recounted. According to the elderly witness, Orwell did indeed shoot “a fucking elephant.” However, the elephant had not, as Orwell claimed, rampagingly killed a man (whose corpse he described in detail); further, since the beast had been valuable company property, not to be so lightly destroyed, its owners complained to the government, whereupon Blair was packed off to a distant province, and a certain Colonel Welbourne called Blair “a disgrace to Eton College.” Such external doubting might corroborate the internal doubts of literary genre. As Crick argues, twelve of the fourteen pieces in the issue of Penguin New Writing where “Shooting an Elephant” first appeared were “similarly of a then fashionable genre that blurred the line between fact and fiction—the documentary, ‘authentic’ style.”
The same skepticism—or critical research—may be, and has been, applied to Orwell’s equally celebrated anti-Empire piece, “A Hanging.” Crick, while admiring its six pages as having “the terror of a Goya coupled with the precise, mundane observation of a Sickert,” was not convinced that Orwell had ever attended a hanging; or even if he had, whether it was this one—the hanging of the essay being by implication something confected. Whether or not this is the case, there is one interesting omission from Orwell’s account: any stated reason why the man was being hanged. If, as a young journalist, you attended an execution, and afterward drank whisky with those in charge, you would surely have found out what crime the poor devil had committed. And if so, why not pass it on to readers? It’s possible that the offense was so vile that Orwell suppressed it lest readers conclude that there might, after all, be something to be said for capital punishment. Or he might have suppressed it as irrelevant, given his belief that any execution anywhere was an “unspeakable wrongness.” Or, as Crick suspected, he might have been describing a typical execution rather than a specific one.
When Dirk Bogarde or Ronald Reagan exaggerate (or invent) their war service, we think them mildly (or seriously) deluded. We might, if sympathetic, imagine them stretching the truth once or twice, and then finding themselves stuck with the story. Why judge Orwell differently? Because he’s Orwell. We could argue, as David Lodge has done with “A Hanging,” that the value of the two Burmese essays does not rest on their being factually true. But this is a very literary defense, and possibly a case of cutting the writer more slack because we admire him anyway. Yet we are hardly dealing with someone like Ford Madox Ford, who believed in the greater truth of impressions over that of mere grubby facts. Further, if the neglected Ford is sometimes classified as a “writer’s writer,” Orwell was the very opposite—a kind of nonwriter’s writer. As Packer puts it of “Shooting an Elephant,” “the naive reaction is the right one.” Many of those who admire him might lose respect or faith if he turned out not to have shot a fucking elephant, or not to have attended this specific fucking execution, because he, George Orwell, said he had, and if he hadn’t, then was he not mirroring those political truth-twisters whom he denounced? If “all art is to some extent propaganda,” then are we not to suppose that the laws of propaganda apply even if you are on the side of truth, justice, and the angels?
One of the effects of reading Orwell’s essays en masse is to realize how very dogmatic—in the nonideological sense—he is. This is another aspect of his Johnsonian Englishness. From the quotidian matter of how to make a cup of tea to the socioeconomic analysis of the restaurant (an entirely unnecessary luxury, to Orwell’s puritanical mind), he is a lawgiver, and his laws are often founded in disapproval. He is a great writer against. So his “Bookshop Memories”—a subject others might turn into a gentle color piece with a few amusing anecdotes—scorns lightness. The work, he declares, is drudgery, quite unrewarding, and makes you hate books; while the customers tend to be thieves, paranoiacs, dimwits, or, at best—when buying sets of Dickens in the improbable hope of reading them—mere self-deceivers. In “England Your England” he denounces the left-wing English intelligentsia for being “generally negative” and “querulous”: adjectives which, from this distance, seem to fit Orwell pretty aptly. Given that he died at the age of forty-six, it’s scary to imagine the crustiness that might have set in had he reached pensionable age.
Nowhere is he more dogmatic than in his attitude toward writing: what it is for, how it should be done, and who does it badly. Auden is “pure scoutmaster”; Carlyle “with all his cleverness…had not even the wit to write plain straightforward English”; Rupert Brooke’s “Grantchester” is “accumulated vomit.” Even those he approves of have major faults: Dickens is really “rather ignorant” about how life works; H.G. Wells is “too sane to understand the modern world”; while Orwell’s “defense” of Kipling is oddly patronizing. There are huge generalizations about how writers develop and age; and for all his moral clarity about totalitarian language, his own prescriptiveness is sometimes severe, sometimes woolly.
“All art is to some extent propaganda” looks striking, but is greatly weakened by the “to some extent,” and what, finally, does it mean? Only that all art is “about” something, even if it is only about itself. “Art for art’s sake”—a concept Orwell would abhor—is just “propaganda” for art itself, which the movement was well aware of. Then there is: “A novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot.” Since this dismisses both novelists of the private life and those who (as was common in the nineteenth century) set their stories a generation or two back, out go Austen, the Brontës, Flaubert, James, and so on, and so on.
“Good prose is like a windowpane.” As an instruction to cub reporters and old hacks—also as a self-instruction of the kind writer-critics issue to the world while actually describing their own procedures—it sounds reasonable enough. But it begs questions, as does Orwell’s other key instruction, from “Politics and the English Language”: “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” Together, these dicta presuppose, and instruct, that writing is a matter of examining the world, reflecting upon it, deducing what you want to say, putting that meaning or message into words whose transparency allows the reader, now gazing through the same windowpane from the same position, to see the world exactly as you have seen it. But does anyone, even Orwell, actually write like that? And are words glass? Most writing comes from a more inchoate process; ideas may indeed propose words, but sometimes words propose ideas (or both transactions occur within the same sentence). As E.M. Forster, a frequent target of Orwell’s, put it (or rather, quoted) in Aspects of the Novel : “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” To Orwell this might seem a piece of pansy-left whimsy; but it probably accords more closely to the experience of many writers.
In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell enumerated the things about England that made him glad to be home: “bathrooms, armchairs, mint sauce, new potatoes properly cooked, brown bread, marmalade, beer made with veritable hops.” In “England Your England” he celebrated “a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans.” In 1993, the Trollope-loving Prime Minister John Major, with his party split, the currency on the slide, and his own authority diminishing, found similar refuge in those seemingly eternal aspects of Englishness:
Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers [i.e., bettors on football pools], and, as George Orwell said, “Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist” and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.
Less than a third of those fifty years have elapsed, but many pools fillers now play the national lottery or log on to Internet gambling sites; global warming is giving the English a taste for chilled beer; while the bicycling Anglicans are being replaced by Muslims driving to the suburban mosque. All prophets risk posthumous censure, even mockery; and the Orwell we celebrate nowadays is less the predictor than the social and political analyst. Those born in the immediate postwar years grew up with the constant half-expectation that 1984 would bring all the novel described: immovable geopolitical blocs, plus brutal state surveillance and control. Today, the English may have their sluggardly couch-potato side; their liberties have been somewhat diminished, and they are recorded by CCTV cameras more often than any other nation on earth. But otherwise 1984 passed with a sigh of relief, while 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a louder one.
Orwell believed in 1936 that “the combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” That “never” was a risky call. And on a larger scale, he believed throughout World War II that peace would bring the British revolution he desired, with blood in the gutters and the “red militias…billetted in the Ritz,” as he put it in private diary and public essay. And after the revolution:
The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten….
One out of four on the vision thing; and tractors were hardly a difficult pick.
Against such a background, it would be rash to try to predict the continuing afterlife of Orwell’s work. Many of his phrases and mental tropes have already sunk into the conscious and unconscious mind, and we carry them with us as we carry Freudian tropes, whether or not we have read Freud. Some of those English couch potatoes watch programs called Big Brother and Room 101. And if we allow ourselves to hope for a future in which all Orwell’s warnings have been successfully heeded, and in which Animal Farm has become as archaic a text as Rasselas, the world will have to work its way through a lot of dictators and repressive systems first. In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just a single novel about the country, but a trilogy: Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell shared with Dickens a hatred of tyranny, and in his essay on the Victorian novelist distinguished two types of revolutionary. There are on the one hand the change-of-heart people, who believe that if you change human nature, all the problems of society will fall away; and, on the other, the social engineers, who believe that once you fix society—make it fairer, more democratic, less divided—then the problems of human nature will fall away. These two approaches “appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time.” Dickens was a change-of-heart man, Orwell a systems-and-structures man, not least because—as these essays confirm—he thought human beings recidivist, and beyond mere self-help. “The central problem—how to prevent power from being abused—remains unsolved.” And until then, it is safe to predict that Orwell will remain a living writer.
Orwell's essays are less well known in America than in Britain, and their availability less continuous. George Packer's two volumes make a fine introduction, containing all the celebrated pieces, plus lesser items demonstrating Orwell's range of curiosity. Packer divides them into the "narrative" essays, mainly from an earlier period, and drawing more on personal experience; and the "critical," mainly from a later period, when analysis was more central. But the essay is such a compendious and tolerant form, and Orwell's nature as a writer so resistant to borders and categories, that just as the essayistic mode spills into his fiction, so here there is much overlapping between the "narrative" and the "critical."
The Penguin volume contains four of his key essays: "Why I Write," "The Lion and the Unicorn," "A Hanging," and "Politics and the English Language."↩
Orwell’s essays are less well known in America than in Britain, and their availability less continuous. George Packer’s two volumes make a fine introduction, containing all the celebrated pieces, plus lesser items demonstrating Orwell’s range of curiosity. Packer divides them into the “narrative” essays, mainly from an earlier period, and drawing more on personal experience; and the “critical,” mainly from a later period, when analysis was more central. But the essay is such a compendious and tolerant form, and Orwell’s nature as a writer so resistant to borders and categories, that just as the essayistic mode spills into his fiction, so here there is much overlapping between the “narrative” and the “critical.”
The Penguin volume contains four of his key essays: “Why I Write,” “The Lion and the Unicorn,” “A Hanging,” and “Politics and the English Language.”↩