by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison
London: Harvill Secker, 520 pp., £20.00
George Orwell: A Life in Letters
selected and annotated by Peter Davison
London: Harvill Secker, 542 pp., £20.00
The intimate Orwell? For an article dealing with a volume of his diaries and a selection of his letters, at first such a title seemed appropriate; yet it could also be misleading inasmuch as it might suggest an artificial distinction—or even an opposition—between Eric Blair, the private man, and George Orwell, the published writer. The former, it is true, was a naturally reserved, reticent, even awkward person, whereas Orwell, with pen (or gun) in hand, was a bold fighter. In fact—and this becomes even more evident after reading these two volumes—Blair’s personal life and Orwell’s public activity both reflected one powerfully single-minded personality. Blair-Orwell was made of one piece: a recurrent theme in the testimonies of all those who knew him at close range was his “terrible simplicity.” He had the “innocence of a savage.”
Contrary to what some commentators have earlier assumed (myself included), his adoption of a pen name was a mere accident and never carried any particular significance for himself. At the time of publishing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), he simply wished to spare potential embarrassment to his parents: old Mr. and Mrs. Blair belonged to “the lower-upper-middle class” (i.e., “the upper-middle class that is short of money”) and were painfully concerned with social respectability. They could have been distressed to see it publicized that their only son had led the life of an out-of-work drifter and penniless tramp. His pen name was thus chosen at random, as an afterthought, at the last minute before publication. But afterward he kept using it for all his publications—journalism, essays, novels—and remained somehow stuck with it.
All the diaries of Orwell that are still extant (some were lost, and one was stolen in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, by the Stalinist secret police—it may still lie today in some Moscow archive) were first published in 1998 by Peter Davison and included in his monumental edition of The Complete Works of George Orwell (twenty volumes; nine thousand pages). They are now conveniently regrouped here in one volume, excellently presented and annotated by Davison. The diaries provide a wealth of information on Orwell’s daily activities, concerns, and interests; they present considerable documentary value for scholars, but they do not exactly live up to their editor’s claim: “These diaries offer a virtual autobiography of his life and opinions for so much of his life.” This assessment would much better characterize the utterly fascinating companion volume (also edited by Peter Davison), George Orwell: A Life in Letters.
Orwell’s diaries are not confessional: here he very seldom records his emotions, impressions, moods, or feelings; hardly ever his ideas, judgments, and opinions. What he jots down is strictly and dryly factual: events happening in the outside world—or in his own little vegetable garden; his goat Muriel’s slight diarrhea may have been caused by eating wet grass; Churchill is returning to Cabinet; fighting reported in Manchukuo; rhubarb growing well; Béla Kun reported shot in Moscow; the pansies and red saxifrage are coming into flower; rat population in Britain is estimated at 4–5 million; among the hop-pickers, rhyming slang is not extinct, thus for instance, a dig in the grave means a shave; and at the end of July 1940, as the menace of a German invasion becomes very real, “constantly, as I walk down the street, I find myself looking up at the windows to see which of them would make good machine-gun nests.”
To some extent, the diaries could carry as their epigraph Orwell’s endearing words, from his 1946 essay “Why I Write”:
I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue…to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.
Very rarely the diarist does formulate a sociopsychological observation—but then it is always strikingly original and perceptive—thus, for instance this subtle remark on a specified
discomfort inseparable from a working man’s life…waiting about. If you receive a salary it is paid into your bank and you draw it out when you want it. If you receive wages, you have to go and get them on somebody else’s time and are probably left hanging about and probably expected to behave as though paying your wages at all was a favour.
Then he describes the long wait in the cold, the hassles and expenses of journeys by tram back and forth to the paying office:
The result of long training in this kind of thing is that whereas the bourgeois goes through life expecting to get what he wants, within limits, the working-man always feels himself the slave of a more or less mysterious authority. I was impressed by the fact that when I went to Sheffield Town Hall to ask for certain statistics, both Brown and Searle [his two local miner friends]—both of them people of much more forcible character than myself—were nervous, would not come into the office with me, and assumed that the Town Clerk would refuse information. They said: “he might give it to you, but he wouldn’t to us.”
The writing of the diaries is terse, detached, and impersonal. I just wish to give here some space to one example—it is typical as it expresses both the drastic limitations of the form adopted by the diarist, as well as some remarkable features of his personality. It is the entry of August 19, 1947, dealing with the Corryvreckan whirlpool accident.
On the Hebridean island of Jura, in the solitary, spartan, and beloved Scottish hermitage where, in the final years of his life, Orwell spent most of his time—at least when not in hospital, for his failing health had already reduced him to semi-invalidity—he used a small rowing boat equipped with an outboard engine both for fishing (his great passion) and for short coastal excursions. Returning from one of those excursions with his little son, nephew, and niece, he had to cross the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool—one of the most dangerous whirlpools in all British waters. Normally, the crossing can be safely negotiated only for a brief moment, on the slack of the tide. Orwell miscalculated this—either he misread the tide chart or neglected to consult it—and the little boat reached the dangerous spot exactly at the worst time, just in the middle of a furious ebbing tide.
Orwell realized his mistake too late; the boat was already out of control, tossed about by waves and swirling currents; the outboard engine, which was not properly secured, was shaken off its sternpost and swallowed by the sea; having steadied the boat with the oars and passed twice through the whirlpool, Orwell headed toward a small rocky islet that was nearby. The boat overturned just as it was being pulled ashore by his nephew, spilling its occupants and all their gear into the waves. Orwell managed to grab his son, who had been trapped under the boat, and he and his son and niece swam safely ashore. Perchance the weather was sunny; Orwell proceeded immediately to dry his lighter and collect some fuel—grass and peat—and soon succeeded in lighting a fire by which the castaways were then able somehow to dry and warm themselves. Having gone to inspect the islet, Orwell discovered a freshwater pool that he conjectured was fed by a spring of freshwater and an abundance of nesting birds. Under his unflappably calm and thoughtful direction the little party settled down without any panic. Some hours later, by extraordinary chance in such forlorn waters, a lobster boat that was passing by noticed their presence and rescued them.
Virtually nothing of this dramatic succession of events is conveyed in Orwell’s desiccated note: half the diary entry is devoted to naturalist observations on the islet puffin burrows and young cormorants learning to fly. To get the full picture, one must read the nephew’s narrative in Orwell Remembered, edited by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick (1984). There, one is struck first by Orwell’s total absence of practical competence, or of simple common sense1—and secondly by his calm courage and absolute self-control, which prevented the little party from panicking. And yet, at the time, he had entertained no illusions regarding their chances of survival; as he simply told his nephew afterward: “I thought we were goners.” And the nephew commented: “He almost seemed to enjoy it.”
Conclusion: if one had to go out to sea in a small boat, one would not choose Orwell to skipper. But when meeting with shipwreck, disaster, or other catastrophes, one could not dream of better company.
Orwell left explicit instructions that no biography be written of him, and he even actively discouraged one early attempt. He felt that “every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats too humiliating and disgraceful to contemplate.” And yet the posthumous treatment he received from his biographers and editors is truly admirable—I think in particular of the works of Bernard Crick and of Peter Davison, whose volumes are models of critical intelligence and scholarship.
In Davison’s selection of the correspondence, Orwell, unlike many other letter writers, is always himself and speaks with only one voice: reserved even with old friends; generous with complete strangers; and treating all with equal sincerity. As the director of the BBC Indian services, for which Orwell broadcast during World War II, wrote, “He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge and, in early days, would have either been canonized—or burnt at the stake! Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.”
The letters illustrate all his main concerns, interests, and passions; they also illuminate some striking aspects of his personality.
Orwell once defined himself half in jest—but only half—as a “Tory Anarchist.” Indeed, after his first youthful experience in the colonial police in Burma, he only knew that he hated imperialism and all forms of political oppression; all authority appeared suspect to him, even “mere success seemed to me a form of bullying.” Then after his inquiry into workers’ conditions in northern industrial England during the Depression he developed a broad nonpartisan commitment to “socialism”: “socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.” The decisive turning point in his political evolution took place in Spain, where he volunteered to fight fascism. First he was nearly killed by a fascist bullet and then narrowly escaped being murdered by the Stalinist secret police:
What I saw in Spain, and what I have seen since of the inner workings of left-wing political parties, have given me a horror of politics…. I am definitely “left,” but I believe that a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels. [My emphasis.]
From then on he considered that the first duty of a socialist is to fight totalitarianism, which means in practice “to denounce the Soviet myth, for there is not much difference between Fascism and Stalinism.” Inasmuch as they deal with politics, the Letters focus on the antitotalitarian fight. In this, the three salient features of Orwell’s attitude are his intuitive grasp of concrete realities, his nondoctrinaire approach to politics (accompanied with a deep distrust of left-wing intellectuals), and his sense of the absolute primacy of the human dimension. He once identified the source of his strength:
1 On this subject, Orwell's wife, writing to his sister (from Marrakech, in 1938), observed with wry amusement: "He did construct one [dugout] in Spain [during the Civil War] & it fell down on his & his companions' heads two days later, not under any kind of bombardment but just from the force of gravity. But the dugout has generally been by way of light relief; his specialties are concentration camps & the famine. He buried some potatoes against the famine & they might have been very useful if they hadn't gone mouldy at once. To my surprise he does intend to stay here [in Marrakech] whatever happens. In theory this seems too reasonable and even comfortable to be in character." ↩
On this subject, Orwell's wife, writing to his sister (from Marrakech, in 1938), observed with wry amusement: "He did construct one [dugout] in Spain [during the Civil War] & it fell down on his & his companions' heads two days later, not under any kind of bombardment but just from the force of gravity. But the dugout has generally been by way of light relief; his specialties are concentration camps & the famine. He buried some potatoes against the famine & they might have been very useful if they hadn't gone mouldy at once. To my surprise he does intend to stay here [in Marrakech] whatever happens. In theory this seems too reasonable and even comfortable to be in character." ↩