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:
Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.
This uncanny ability received its most eloquent confirmation when Soviet dissidents who wished to translate Animal Farm into Russian (for clandestine distribution behind the Iron Curtain) wrote to him to ask for his authorization: they wrote to him in Russian, assuming that a writer who had such a subtle and thorough understanding of the Soviet reality—in contrast with the dismal ignorance of most Western intellectuals—naturally had to be fluent in Russian!
Orwell’s revulsion toward all “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls” also explains his distrust and contempt of intellectuals: this attitude dates back a long way, as he recalls in a letter of October 1938:
What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen. I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti- imperialist stuff.
If the colonial experience had taught Orwell to hate imperialism, it also made him respect (like the protagonist in a Kipling story) “men who do things.”
In the end, Orwell seems to have essentially reverted to his original position of “Tory Anarchist.” In a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge, there is a statement that seems to me of fundamental importance: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”
The Human Factor
Even in the heat of battle, and precisely because he distrusted ideology—ideology kills—Orwell remained always acutely aware of the primacy that must be given to human individuals over all “the smelly little orthodoxies.” His exchange of letters (and subsequent friendship) with Stephen Spender provides a splendid example of this. Orwell had lampooned Spender (“parlour Bolshevik,” “pansy poet”); then they met: the encounter was actually pleasant, which puzzled Spender, who wrote to Orwell on this very subject. Orwell, who later became a friend of Spender’s, replied:
You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you…. [Formerly] I was willing to use you as a symbol of the parlour Bolshie because a. your verse…did not mean very much to me, b. I looked upon you as a sort of fashionable successful person, also a Communist or Communist sympathiser, & I have been very hostile to the C.P. since about 1935, and c. because not having met you I could regard you as a type & also an abstraction. Even if, when I met you, I had happened not to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet someone in the flesh you realise immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken with anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more.
Which immediately calls back to mind a remarkable passage of Homage to Catalonia: Orwell described how, fighting on the front line during the Spanish civil war, he saw a man jumping out of the enemy trench, half-dressed and holding his trousers with both hands as he ran:
I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist,” he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.
From the very start, literature was always Orwell’s first concern. This is constantly reflected in his correspondence: since early childhood “I always knew I wanted to write.” This statement is repeated in various forms, all through the years, till the end. But it took him a long time (and incredibly hard work) to discover what to write and how to write it. (His first literary attempt was a long poem, eventually discarded.) Writing novels became his dominant passion—and an accursed ordeal: “writing a novel is agony.” He finally concluded (some would say accurately), “I am not a real novelist.” And yet shortly before he died he was still excitedly announcing to his friend and publisher Fredric Warburg, “I have a stunning idea for a very short novel.”
As the Letters reveal, he reached a very clear-sighted assessment of his own work. Among his four “conventional” novels, he retained a certain fondness for Burmese Days, which he found faithful to his memories of the place. He felt “ashamed” of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and, even worse, of A Clergyman’s Daughter and would not allow them to be reprinted: “They were written…for money…. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved.” He was rightly pleased with Coming Up for Air, written at one go, with relative ease; and it is indeed a most remarkable book—about an insurance salesman who finds that the places he knew as a boy have been ruined—and it is quite prescient, in the light of today’s environmental concerns. Among the books worth reprinting he listed (in 1946—Nineteen Eighty-Four was not written yet) first of all, and by order of importance: Homage to Catalonia; Animal Farm; Critical Essays; Down and Out in Paris and London; Burmese Days; Coming Up for Air.
The Common Man
The extraordinary lengths to which Orwell would go in his vain attempts to turn himself into an ordinary man are well illustrated by the Wallington grocery episode, on which the Letters provides colorful information. In April 1936, Orwell started to rent and run a small village grocery, located in an old, dark, and pokey cottage—insalubrious and devoid of all basic amenities (no inside toilet, no cooking facilities, no electricity—only oil lamps for lighting). On rainy days the kitchen floor was underwater; blocked drains turned the whole place into a smelly cesspool. Davison comments: “One may say without being facetious, it suited Orwell to the ground.” And it especially suited Eileen, his wonderfully Orwellian wife. She moved in the day of their marriage, in 1936, and the way she managed this improbable home testifies both for her heroism and for her eccentric sense of humor. The income from the shop hardly ever covered the rent of the cottage. The main customers were a small bunch of local children who used to buy a few pennies’ worth of lollipops after school. By the end of the year, the grocery went out of business, but at that time it had already fulfilled its true purpose: Orwell was in Barcelona, volunteering to fight against fascism, and when he enlisted into the Anarchist militia, he could proudly sign “Eric Blair, grocer.”
Orwell’s sense of fairness was so scrupulous, it extended even to Stalin. As Animal Farm was going into print, at the last minute, Orwell sent a final correction—which was effected just in time. (As all readers will remember, “Napoleon” is the name of the leading pig, which, in Orwell’s fable, represented Stalin.)
In chapter VIII…when the windmill is blown up, I wrote “all the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces.” I would like to alter it to “all the animals except Napoleon.” …I just thought the alteration would be fair to [Stalin] as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.
Poverty and Ill-Health
Orwell was utterly stoic and never complained about his material and physical circumstances, however distressing they were most of the time. But from the information provided by the Letters, one realizes that his material insecurity (which, at times, reached extreme poverty) ceased only three years before his death, when he received his first royalties windfall from Animal Farm; while his health became a severe and constant problem (undiagnosed tuberculosis) virtually since his return from Burma, at age twenty-five. In later years he required frequent, prolonged, and often painful treatment in various hospitals. For the last twelve years of his short existence (he died, age forty-six, in 1950) he was in fact an invalid—yet insisted most of the time on carrying on with normal activity.
His entire writing career lasted for only sixteen years. The quantity and quality of work produced during this relatively brief span of time would be remarkable even for a healthy man of leisure; that it was achieved in his appalling state of permanent ill-health and poverty is simply stupendous.
In his relations with women, Orwell seems to have been generally awkward and clumsy. He was easily attracted by them, whereas they seldom found him attractive. Still, by miraculous luck, he found in Eileen O’Shaughnessy a wife who was able not only to understand him in depth, but also to love him truly and bear with his eccentricities, without giving up any of her own originality—an originality that still shines through all her letters. If Orwell was a failed poet, Eileen for her part was pure poetry.
Her premature death in 1945 left Orwell stunned and lost for a long time. A year later he abruptly approached a talented young woman he hardly knew (they lived in the same building); with a self-pity that was utterly and painfully out of character for such a proud man, he wrote to her telling her how sick he was and offering her “to be the widow of a literary man.”
I fully realise that I’m not suited to someone like you who is young and pretty…. It is only that I feel so desperately alone…. I have…no woman who takes an interest in me and can encourage me…. Of course it’s absurd a person like me wanting to make love to someone of your age. I do want to, but…I wouldn’t be offended or even hurt if you simply say no…
The woman was flabbergasted and politely discouraged him.
Some years earlier he also made an unfortunate and unwelcome pass at another woman; this episode is documented by the editor with embarrassing precision—at which point readers might remember Orwell’s hostility toward the very concept of biography. Do biographers, however serious and scrupulous, really need or have the right to explore and disclose such intimate details? Yet we still read them. Is it right for us to do so? I honestly do not know the answer.
Solid Objects and Scraps of Useless Information—Trees, Fishes,Butterflies, and Toads
In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell said:
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.
And in his famous “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” he added:
If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia?… I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and…toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.
His endearing and quirky tastes, his inexhaustible and loving attention to all aspects of the natural world, crop up constantly in his correspondence. The Letters are full of disarming non sequiturs: for instance, he interrupts some reflections on the Spanish Inquisition to note the daily visit that a hedgehog pays to his bathroom. While away from home in 1939, he writes to the friend who looks after his cottage: his apprehensions regarding the looming war give way without transition to concerns for the growth of his vegetables and for the mating of his goat:
I hope Muriel’s mating went through. It is a most unedifying spectacle, by the way, if you happened to watch it…. Did my rhubarb come up, I wonder? I had a lot, & then last year the frost buggered it up.
To an anarchist friend (who became a professor of English in a Canadian university) he writes an entire page from his Scottish retreat, describing in minute detail all aspects of the life and work of local crofters: again the constant and inexhaustible interest for “men who do things” in the real world.
While already lying in hospital, he married Sonia Brownell2 three months before his death. At that time he entertained the illusion that he might still have a couple of years to live and he was planning for the following year a book of essays that would have included a long essay on Joseph Conrad (if it was ever written, it is now lost). He also said that he still had two books on his mind—besides the “stunning idea for a very short novel” mentioned earlier.
He began drawing plans to have a pig, or preferably a sow, in his Scottish hermitage of the Hebrides. As he instructed his sister who was in charge of the place:
The only difficulty is about getting her to a hog once a year. I suppose one could buy a gravid sow in the Autumn to litter about March, but one would have to make very sure that she really was in pig the first time.
In his hospital room, at the time of his death, he kept in front of him, against the wall, a good new fishing rod, a luxury he had indulged himself with on receiving the first royalties from Nineteen Eighty-Four. He never had the chance to use it.
His first love—dating back to his adolescence and youth—who was now a middle-aged woman, wrote to him in hospital out of the blue, after an estrangement and silence of some twenty-seven years. He was surprised and overjoyed, and resumed correspondence with her. In his last letter to her, he concluded that, though he could only entertain a vague belief in some sort of afterlife, he had one certainty: “Nothing ever dies.”
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." ↩
2 A young and beautiful woman—though somewhat harebrained, she managed to edit (with the collaboration of I. Angus) the excellent Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (Secker and Warburg, 1969). These four volumes still remain invaluable: not every reader can afford the twenty volumes of Davison's editions of the Complete Works. ↩
Orwell & the Anarchists September 29, 2011
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." ↩
A young and beautiful woman—though somewhat harebrained, she managed to edit (with the collaboration of I. Angus) the excellent Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (Secker and Warburg, 1969). These four volumes still remain invaluable: not every reader can afford the twenty volumes of Davison's editions of the Complete Works. ↩