In British social history there are innumerable examples of the disadvantaged man rising in the world and becoming eminent. The class system is mobile. There have been fewer examples, until the 1930s, of upper-class figures attempting, on principle, to go down hill, though, especially in the arts and sciences, there is an instinctive freedom from conformity to the ruling social ethos. It is obvious that the rigorous educational system by which the privileged were formed in Great Britain was a training also for the privilege of dissidence tending to leadership in revolt—see Shelley.
The case of George Orwell shows how complex, ambiguous, and long drawn out such conversions are. (Or are they reversions? That is to say, instances of a privileged family “going down” in the course of nature?) This (but as a conversion) was examined in Peter Stansky and William Abrahams’s earlier and admirable book The Unknown Orwell when they spoke of the double identity of Eric Blair and the pseudonymous George Orwell, and looked into his background as the child of “lower, upper middle class”—Orwell’s phrase—Anglo-Indian civil servants of decent means.
Orwell was sent to the right cramming prep school, became a scholar at Eton, and drifted, far too young, because he did not go to the university, into the Indian Police in Burma. He acquired the Imperial veneer, but was languid in his job and did not much like either the ruling white company or the “natives.” A loner and odd-man-out, he had some inborn melancholy, even an actively cherished sense of failure which so often guarantees being “doomed for success”—as one of his friends put it—his real intention being literary fame of some kind. His difficulty was the usual one of not knowing whether he had the talent.
The new book takes up the story when Down and Out in Paris and London gave Orwell a start and shows the slow phases of the change of personality and conscience until the change from Blair into Orwell was completed by the Spanish Civil War. There was a strong bent for fantasizing in Blair. Like many impatient young writers he took over the perennial delusion that his talents were frustrated by a literary mafia. His quickly acknowledged reputation makes nonsense of this. He could complain only that his books did not sell well at first. A “political” writer—“all art is political”—he was a total innocent of the “dishonesty” of politics until the Spanish Civil War introduced him to the sectarian tangle, the compromises and bloody betrayals of revolt—in short, the mafia was political. He was not among the doctrinaires whose quarrels dominated the decade; he remained an idiosyncratic socialist, at odds with the established coreligionaries. A decade after the Spanish Civil War and its disillusion, he declared, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Those last four words with their undertone of diffidence and their overtone of the amateur’s assurance and waywardness go to the heart of his character and beliefs as they developed. “Decency” is one of his keywords. “Honesty” is another. There is more of the lasting and reflecting Orwell in his essays on Dickens and Kipling than in Animal Farm and 1984.
The young Blair, the police officer, was determined to live by writing alone and had painfully to learn. He was lucky in some small financial help from his mother and his aunt who, albeit anxiously, saved him from having to earn his living, except for a brief period as a schoolmaster. He isolated himself in the parental gentility of Southwold and was, up to a point, happy. He saw himself as some kind of novelist, though more of a Gissing than a Maugham or a Wells. The difficulty was one of literary conscience: in his concern in Down and Out in Paris and London with the lives of the irredeemable poor, he knew he was protected by having a way back. If he tried semi-starvation he knew he was a voyeur. There was a vogue for this kind of writing at the time—we think of Gorki, even of Kipling in the East End—the literary difficulty was to avoid the Bohemian nostalgie de la boue and the romantic.
The merit of that early Orwell book, as Day Lewis said in a review, was that the “sensational” was presented without sensationalism. The narrator “had no illusions about the extremely poor; he finds the effects of hunger and poverty upon himself and the rest compelling shame, lying, self-pity, bestial fatalism.” Day Lewis noted that Orwell did not ask what the facts meant politically, and Stansky and Abrahams add, “What a non-didactic and apolitical book it is. Paradoxically, that may help to explain its continuing vitality and interest: tracts for the times seldom survive the times they are tracted for.” The achievement is the discovery of a plain, level prose. An odd note of sadism appears, the authors note, when he screams, when private fantasies spring out. He is obsessed with bad smells. Orwell’s dilemma was that he was born for reportage but wanted to be a popular novelist, and although his early novels were commended he lacked imaginative and inventive capital and was always in danger of running out of it. He depended on “making experience” in order to be able to write. He needed to be stirred by personal angers but in his novels these forces turned morbidly inward:
The result is a subjective response to private experience: the nightmare that mistakes itself for a true account of life as it is. But once these forces that were so much part of his nature could be turned outward and he could concern himself with the plight of others, identify with the existence of others, objectify the angers that stirred and transmute them into a concern for others, which he began to do in 1936 in The Road to Wigan Pier and in Shooting an Elephant…he would be truly Orwell.
That is to say, not Blair, with his peculiar fantasies about a literary mafia, his perverse opinions and exaggerations, so mixed up with honesty and common sense. As a novelist he wrote poorly about women, though he was far from being a misogynist (yet he would say, in those early days, that the best proof of Conrad’s genius was that women disliked him). He saw “conspiracies” everywhere.
In the Roman Catholic Church, in the highbrow literary world where…you succeeded only “by kissing the bums of verminous little lions.”
He saw people chiefly in terms of class or group. There was his pathological hatred of Scots, based either on the whisky-drinking Scottish planters in Burma or (as Cyril Connolly thought) derived from his smart prep school days when pretty Scottish boys wore kilts on Sunday and became pets of Matron. There seemed no end to his cheerful perversities (one of his women friends has recorded), and they seemed to show he enjoyed thinking himself ignored and a failure—unloved. What struck everyone in the early Bohemian days in Hampstead was his integrity, his unremitting sense of literary vocation.
Orwell was still very much the dissident old Etonian, a club that puts an ineffable stamp of game-playing charm and steely determination on its members. (There was an exceptional amount of literary talent among Eton boys at that time; among others the school produced Cyril Connolly and John Lehmann, the most original and go-ahead young editors of little reviews in the Thirties—Horizon and New Writing.) It is amusing to remember that Orwell’s hard times in Paris had given him a pernickety taste in good wine: he was snobbish about the cheap Chianti drunk in cheap Hampstead restaurants where the left-wingers ate. He liked very good food, and when, eventually, he married and he and his wife moved to a cheap country cottage—they kept the little village shop where only children came to buy sweets and lived austerely off their garden and their poultry—his wife’s family silver was on the table. He was very much the déclassé bed-sitter and cottage writer of the Thirties when times were hard for minority writers who, like himself, picked what living they could out of highbrow journalism for miserable pay.
The account of this life in the country and London with its encounters with the cranks who proliferated—figures like Middleton Murry with his changes of Messianic vision—the drunken or earnest parties, is very entertaining. We notice the beginning of many myths about Orwell’s life. Some are bizarre: Orwell was said to go for walks carrying a shooting stick. (Very upper class: he probably would have had one.) But out of this grew the tale that he and his wife each carried one when they set out to enjoy a sedate country view. More absurd was the myth that he had on principle married a working-class girl, for Murry had done so with appalling results. In fact, Orwell had married a beautiful, well-born, and well-educated Anglo-Irish girl, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the daughter of a distinguished surgeon, and this deeply happy marriage, in his thirties, was certainly what prompted him to look outward. He was working on Wigan Pier with concentrated excitement.
One important aspect of the marriage was that it brought him to a close friendship with his brother-in-law who was an intelligent, level-headed young man of marked political perceptions. He had been in Germany doing research and had seen the rise of Hitler.
It was he who introduced Eric to the idea, which seems not to have occurred to him until then, that Hitler intended to carry out the programme of Mein Kampf and if allowed to go on unchecked would bring catastrophe down on the world.
The O’Shaughnessys were a civilized and affectionate family. Orwell had seldom encountered such a happy conjunction.
As against his inveterate pessimism, here was the possibility that one could, after all, be happy.
Always the writer, on the morning after his wedding he sat down to write the famous Shooting an Elephant, as if in a sudden discovery of maturity.
The account of the publishing of Wigan Pier is one of the most important chapters in the present book, for the authors show, with a proper touch of sardonic thoroughness, the ambiguities of Orwell’s nonchalant scorn for the established or recently converted socialists and old Stalinists of the Labour movement—Auden was “a gutless Kipling.” Orwell had strengthened his gift for reportage and his lifelong habit of wild generalizing. He became an attractively reckless master of improvisation, his plain style set off his verve. Other writers, James Hanley in Grey Children and Jack Common in his little classic The Freedom of the Streets, are much sounder on the working class in the depression, but Orwell’s whole person is in his own book. (He owed something of his good sense, I suspect, to his friendship with Common.) Comedy arises in Part Two of Wigan Pier in which Orwell’s notions of socialism left the experienced ideologues of the time tolerantly gaping—and not only Fabians but the down-to-earth Labour thinkers. He had little knowledge of what the solid working-class man was like. The heart of Orwell’s creed was simplicity itself: a belief that “economic injustice will stop when we want it to stop…the method hardly matters.” He wanted “a socialism without planning.” A change of heart was the essential answer. Even on the class system—his great bugbear—he was not rigorous. He was enjoying his polemic too much, letting fly in all directions at every one, including himelf.
His own portrait is harsh, though hardly precise. We witness the transformation of a snobbish, class-ridden servant of Imperialism (Blair) into a veritable Jeremiah among socialists (Orwell).
Nearly all middle-class socialists are denounced. They are
in a category of their own, the horror types of the crank fringe—beardless eunuchs and bearded sandal wearers…vegetarians (a pet hate of Orwell’s) immediately recognizable by their peculiar vegetarian smell.
There are the party members who leave the bottom button of their waistcoats undone, are “insincere” in their table manners (won’t drink tea out of saucers). There is a special curse upon Wellsians who have an out-of-date faith in progress and science. The eminent socialists of the Left Book Club saw that Part Two was a mess, but that Part One—the real document—was certain to be a best seller. It was.
Then came the Spanish Civil War and only one thing was clear in that confusion, that it was before anything else anti-Fascist. For the first time Orwell found himself in a political melee. There was something unlucky or amateur in Orwell’s introduction to it: his sponsors, if that is the word, were the ILP, then the crankiest of Labour bodies, disaffiliated from the party and out of date. In Barcelona he was at first unaware of the rising conflict between the Catalan anarchists and the communist-supported socialists; and innocently drifted into POUM, the Marxist splinter group with its alleged Trotskyite connections. Each group had its own militia which was not reassuring, but Orwell was still in a state of revolutionary euphoria. The buried feeling for the practical authority of the police officer with a gun seized him. He was not fighting for an empire but for human freedom. He was no voyeur now. He was out on patrol: his two misgivings were about the inefficiency of his company, and the futile quarrels of the Huesca front. He enjoyed the arguments in the trenches; he was nonchalant under fire but he was dismayed by the way the rival parties fought one another in the Spanish way. Abrahams and Stansky write:
Logic and common sense, those virtues beloved of the English, measured in the scale do not weigh much against passion, irrationalism and hatred and envy and greed…. A major reason Orwell became so disillusioned about the war—which brought out the best and the worst in many of the people involved in it—was that his expectations were too high.
The political education of the innocent was completed by the bloody street war between the anarchists, traditionally strong in Barcelona, and the temporary alliance between the socialists and communists. Orwell behaved with the police officer’s casual cool, as he picked his way about the streets, with that old British air of not knowing the war socially.
The narrative ends at the point when the purpose of the authors’ argument is achieved: to show the transformation completed. Throughout the book they have ingeniously made free with time, going back and forth with events; they have already glanced ahead at Orwell in World War II and the aftermath of Animal Farm and 1984, the death of his wife, who had lost her brother at Dunkirk. We hear of the stoical, fatally ill and desperate Orwell, but we do not see him sitting in that underground room in BBC, producing those broadcasts to India and, in between, making minor spare parts for aircraft; and urging friends to join him on that awful Scottish island, to live a simple life, warming themselves by driftwood fires, and living on fish, when weather permitted.
He was, after all, an architect of the Welfare State; he created the climate out of which it grew. As it is, Stansky and Abrahams’s book, so thoroughly evocative of the Thirties, is short of a complete judgment and the final picture, and one can only hope that they will continue their intimate and valuable critical inquiry. For they understand perspective.
May 1, 1980