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

George Orwell
George Orwell; drawing by David Levine

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…

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