In Anthony Powell’s Memoirs, which contain a great many shrewd and perceptive observations about writers of the memoirist’s time, there is a little anecdote which, trivial as Powell admits it to be, sheds a great deal of light on George Orwell’s complex character. Powell had left the room to fetch a book. Returning he found Orwell assiduously examining the pictures on the wall. Inside the baby’s cot was an enormous jackknife. Orwell looked embarrassed and said he had given it to the child to play with.
The incident illustrated his shyness, “part genuine, part assumed,” and his odd taste for sentimental vignettes:
Why, in the first place, should he want to burden himself, in London, with a knife that looked like an adjunct of a fur-trapper’s equipment? Echoes perhaps of Dangerous Dan McGrew? Why take such pains to avoid being found playing with a child?… Why leave the knife behind as evidence? It was much too big to be forgotten.
I think the answer to these questions is that the whole incident was arranged to create a genre picture in the Victorian manner of a kind which, even though he might smile at the sentimentality, made a huge appeal to Orwell’s imagination, and way of looking at things. He was, so to speak, playing the part of a strong rough man, touched by the sight of a baby, but unwilling to confess, even to himself, this inner weakness. At the same time, he had to be discovered for the incident to achieve graphic significance.
Like many others who are masochists—not sexually but in their need for some sort of punishment—Orwell wanted simultaneously to act a part and to be caught out in acting it. His personal and political nature was both romantic and masochistic, and the twin impulses are to be found in combination throughout his work, no doubt contributing in no small measure to their notoriety and to a popularity which could have never been achieved by any amount of political and social theorizing.
Like T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Orwell unconsciously strove both to be a man of action and destiny and to reveal what a fraud he was in that role; in consequence Orwell’s admirers were as much mesmerized as Lawrence’s were, though in subtler, more interesting, and more various ways. All Orwell’s novels and personal records, from Keep the As-pidistra Flying and Down and Out in Paris and London to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, embody the same kind of human contradiction: clarity and concealment, the stark and the sentimental, side by side but never recognizing each other’s existence.
Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the closest that Orwell came in his work to a dramatized self-portrait, is fascinated by O’Brien, the Thought Police chief who behaves toward him with alternate cruelty and geniality, expounding very Orwellian views on the inevitability of the tyrant state while behaving in accordance with the best Boys’ Own Paper tradition of the gloating villain. Winston himself, significantly, is not a political being at all: his pattern of life lies between a swooningly abject submission to the categorical imperative of O’Brien’s brutality, even though his conscious intelligence revolts from everything O’Brien stands for, and a nostalgic delight in the old-fashioned pleasures and customs of the “proles” who still survive in this odious new society, and whom he sees as the sole hope and force for good in an otherwise Stalinized world. The most memorable scenes in the novel are the delight a Victorian “snowstorm” paperweight gives to Winston and his girlfriend, and its destruction by the Thought Police, who torture the pair and let them go when they are no longer capable of feeling their former love for each other, with no emotion or desire left, except for Victory Gin.
The character of O’Brien, incidentally, was partly derived from Orwell’s ambivalent feeling for Georges Kopp, a Belgian-raised Communist and adventurer whom Orwell encountered while serving with the POUM in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. A heroic figure, Kopp served the cause devotedly throughout that war and the world war which followed, although he lost his Communist faith and died in obscurity not long afterward. There was clearly much about him that repelled as well as attracted Orwell; and Jeffrey Meyers, in his new biography, is surely right in suggesting the presence of the figure of Kopp in Orwell’s creative work. Kopp’s life and his importance to Orwell are just one of the many details that Meyers has discovered or investigated: his book is probably richer in Orwelliana than any of its predecessors; and it is the first study of Orwell to make full use of Peter Davison’s superb twenty-volume edition of Orwell’s complete works.1 Meyers presents a story full of new angles and anecdotes, and rich with quotation from a diversity of sources culled from an unusually active and talented literary epoch.
A romantic epoch above all. Without emphasizing the parallels too plainly, Meyers demonstrates the similarities between political and literary Romanticism at the opening of the nineteenth century, when, as Wordsworth put it in The Prelude, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” and the warring but passionate idealisms of the Twenties and Thirties of our own century in Europe. Whatever the kind and degree of his disillusionment, Orwell never shook off the power and the appeal of these Romanticisms: he would have found it impossible to live and work without the commitment they offered, any more than a medieval thinker could have shaken off the power of belief and its warring factions within doctrinal Christianity.
Malcolm Muggeridge, who liked Orwell though he was amused by his attempts to adapt a proletarian manner and style of clothing, was himself notorious in his own time for his continued fascination with the apparatus and ideology of communism, in all its different manifestations and changes. He no longer believed in communism, perhaps never had believed in it, but he could not live without it, as a kind of aesthetic refuge. Orwell had the same kind of involvement with his time, though emphatically not an aesthetic one: his contradictory and complex emotional temperament declared itself in brilliant but also bizarre ways. Like a religious saint he needed to suffer, even though the suffering may have been deliberately invited or self-induced. He suffered in the cause of decent folk everywhere, whatever kind of ideology tyrannized them. And he distrusted all forms of political correctness.
He certainly wanted his readers to become aware of his need for self-punishment, for he had an obscure Saint Teresa–like sense of humor. The early reviewers grasped at once that the man who wrote Down and Out in Paris and London had suffered a great many vivid and picturesque hardships but had no real occasion to have suffered them. He had never been an authentic vagrant, a genuine tramp, any more than T.E. Lawrence had been or could have been a real Arab guerrilla. Both men needed self-exposure; and the second Romantic epoch, if for convenience we may call it that, contained a necessary element of acting and make-believe. Acting the part was even necessary in the dangerous world of Nazi uniforms and rallies, or of Communist “comrades” and Party lines. Orwell came to see both the danger and the fascination of this, perhaps because it mirrored his own novelist’s appetite for display and response, the genre picture and the significant scene. But he could not stand back from the scene as Muggeridge did, and survey it with absorption but also with detachment.
Meyers does not quote Anthony Powell’s anecdote of Orwell and the baby, a scene contrived, as Powell suggests, because it made such an appeal to Orwell’s imagination and to his “way of looking at things.” But Meyers emphasizes in detail and to great effect the many other oddities of Orwell’s domestic behavior. Because his real name was Eric Blair and his Scottish ancestors moderately aristocratic, he coined for himself the name of George Orwell, George being uncompromisingly bourgeois and British, Orwell the name of a small river in East Anglia, a part of the Home Counties with which Blair/Orwell had no regional connection at all. Again he can be compared with T.E. Lawrence, whose family was Irish, but who in a highly self-conscious bid to escape from the fabulous personality he had acquired in the war called himself first Ross and then Shaw, two uncompromisingly English names. Blair/Orwell was in fact a connoisseur of class distinctions, referring to his family as “lower upper-middle class,” a category worthy of Henry James himself and charmingly at variance with the sturdy proletarian persona Orwell admired and adopted.
But perversity and unexpectedness are the most endearing aspects of his personality both as man and writer. The book he most admired, and the one that most influenced the way he wrote, was Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but his favorite books were boys’ adventure stories and stirring yarns like Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. His occasional essays, which are among the best things he wrote, refer often and nostalgically to such topics, and he invented the useful concept of “good bad books,” such as the ones he habitually enjoyed reading, and “good bad poetry,” which included Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with other rousing patriotic verses.2 His tastes were also puritan: he detested anything louche or even mildly pornographic, and wrote an essay denouncing James Hadley Chase’s thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a work which by modern standards of thriller-writing seems innocence itself.
Anthony Powell told me an engaging story to illustrate this strong streak of puritanism in Orwell, with whom Powell had been at school and who remained a close friend. In keeping with his affection for old-fashioned lower-class customs Orwell loved vulgar seaside postcards, which Powell used to send him, on one occasion dispatching one of a mildly risqué sort. A sultry shop assistant is asked by a meek lit-tle bespectacled customer, “Do you keep stationery?” to which she replies, “Sometimes I do and sometimes I give a little wiggle.” To Powell’s consternation Orwell’s response was glacial: like Queen Victoria he was most definitely not amused.
They shared a taste for military uniforms however—Orwell as a young man served in the Burma Police—and Powell, an officer during the war, was in uniform when he met Orwell in the Café Royal. He was surprised to be asked in tones of “considerable tenseness,” “Do your trousers strap under the foot?” Reassured, Powell said they did, and Orwell observed solemnly, “Those straps under the foot give you a feeling like nothing else in life.” Meyers mentions this story, and comments too on the curious way in which Orwell mingled in his personal life romantic affection for modest proletarian comforts—the sausage and crumpets, the coal fire and the cat on the hearth rug—with an insistence on more middle-class standards of domestic elegance. His first wife, Eileen, was amused when they were living on no money in a workman’s cottage to be told she must serve the jam in a dish and not in the jar; Orwell cherished and polished his few bits of family silver and displayed them on the sideboard.
Orwell’s father, a severe but ineffectual man who had been a colonial administrator in India, had urged his son to try for the Burma Police. Orwell made no objection. He had disliked his time as a schoolboy at Eton, where he had not been popular with the masters and had not made an impressive record: he was keen to get away from England. In Burma, like his colleagues, he had native mistresses and was reasonably competent at a highly demanding and responsible police job. He also acquired useful experience for his later writing, notably the essays about shooting an elephant and seeing a man hanged and the less original novel Burmese Days, which borrows from E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. But during his time in Burma, although he clung to the idea that he might one day become a writer, he seems to have had no literary skills at all and none of a born writer’s instinctive groping toward a style and a manner of his own.
Meyers is excellent and detailed on the provenance of Orwell’s early work and on the overwhelming impression it gives of ordinariness, of the via dolorosa trodden by every young failed untalented writer. Ruth Pitter, a poet of the period now lost sight of but at her best remarkably good, is one of the many witnesses, critics, reviewers, and casual friends whom Meyers has talked to, or whose comments at the time he has tracked down. Ruth Pitter helped Orwell find a room in the squalid and broken-down part of London where she was living, but she was skeptical about his future as a writer:
Ruth gave practical support, but shared his [Orwell’s] parents’ view of his literary ambitions. Mocking his lack of imagination, his earnest if amateurish efforts, she emphasized the egoistic aspects of being a writer. Though she was a poet herself, she dismissed him out of hand: “he was a wrong-headed young man who had thrown away a good career, and was vain enough to think he could be an author…. We lent him an old oil-stove and he wrote a story about two young girls who lent an old man an oil-stove…. One story that never saw the light of day began ‘Inside the park, the crocuses were out.’ Oh dear, I’m afraid we did laugh.”
Yet this was the man whom V.S. Pritchett was to describe as “the wintry conscience of a generation.” As well as being himself a self-punishing romantic, Orwell offers another contrast: the writer who did not seem a talented or remarkable young man who goes on to become a saint, sage, and seer almost by accident.
Or rather by a series of accidents. As a child and young man Orwell had always had a bad chest and lungs and was in a condition later to be described by a doctor as pre-tubercular. He needed to take care of himself, but given his temperament, care was the last thing he was prepared to take; nor were his “lower upper-middle class” parents the sort to make a fuss over him. One can hardly blame them since their difficult son treated them with impatience and scarcely concealed boredom. Bad food and endless “tramping” in bad weather in his quest not only for what Meyers aptly calls “the joy of destitution” but for literary material out of which to construct his writing made it certain that the lung condition would steadily worsen.
So it did, but as in the case of D.H. Lawrence, not to mention so many geniuses of the first Romantic period, tuberculosis and the arts can go hand in hand and can turn out to be the most productive of bedfellows. Art, and its fulfillment, care nothing about the artist’s own life, which is usually forfeited in the process. Lawrence and Orwell at least survived a good deal longer than did most of their nineteenth-century predecessors.
Then came the Spanish war. Orwell was probably too self-willed and too egotistic ever to be a convinced Communist, but here was the perfect moment for both having a hard time and finding something real and urgent to write about. His experience at the front, where he was wounded, and still more in Barcelona, soon banished from his heart and mind all considerations except disillusion and intense anger. He had joined the POUM, the Anarchists’ faction in the Republican cause: its members were his comrades in the common struggle, and yet they were soon being hunted down like rats by the Stalinists on their own side and shot whenever found. Orwell and Georges Kopp themselves barely escaped. Back in London Orwell wrote his first remarkable book, indeed for many good judges his best book, Homage to Catalonia, which he had great difficulty getting published in the climate of a London intelligentsia secretly or openly in sympathy with Stalinism and the Party line.
For Orwell loyalty and decency were overwhelmingly what counted, and here they had been outraged by those Communists who were still the official heroes of the Spanish war. Orwell characteristically remained unmoved by the fact that if the war was going to be won, the Stalinists were crucial to winning it: they alone possessed the iron discipline which later made it possible for Russia to win the war against Hitler. What counted for Orwell was that his fellow fighters against Franco were being killed by Communists and that this fact had become obscured in the conventional left-liberal accounts of the war.
Orwell had the same sort of trouble getting Animal Farm published. The left-wing firm of Gollancz would not look at it, alleging that while the war was on it was our duty to support our Soviet ally, presumably as much in its politics as its military endeavors. The conservative T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber was equally cautious but more insinuating. His letter of rejection to Orwell was all Jesuitical courtesy, pointing out with some justification, in view of what was to come in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that the overall effect is simply one of negation:
After all, your pigs are far more intellectual than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public spirited pigs.
Meyers is quick to point out the speciousness of this argument:
Eliot willfully ignored the cru-cial passage—inspired perhaps by Orwell’s first exhilarating visit to revolutionary Barcelona—in which he wrote that after [the farm animals] drove out Farmer Jones and before the pigs took over, “the work of the farm went like clockwork. The animals were happy as they had never conceived it possible to be.”
Nonetheless Eliot’s argument remains a cogent one. In Orwell’s two last and by far his most popular books—runaway successes that have been translated into many languages—the overall effect, politically speaking, is purely negative, amounting to a good deal less even than Voltaire’s calm advice at the end of Candide: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” For Orwell there is “hope” only in the “proles,” just as there was hope in the sturdy decency and limited intellect of Boxer the cart-horse, whom the pigs send to the slaughterhouse when he can no longer work.
Allegories are notorious simplifiers, and Orwell liked to see political matters in simple black-and-white terms. There is something prophetic all the same about the negativism of Animal Farm and of Nineteen Eighty-Four: they look forward to the climate of today, and to our contemporary indifference to ideology, as well as history. Despite the timidity of the publishers, the two books were in fact perfectly timed to catch the rising alarm at the methods of Soviet communism and its international threat, as well as a more general distrust of the secretive and authoritarian regimes that had inevitably grown up under wartime procedures in both England and America. Propaganda was not just a Nazi or a Communist instrument of government, and Orwell’s satire on it—crude but frightening and easy to understand—passed at once into current speech and attitude. Some animals were indeed more equal than others, as every citizen was able to perceive, and Meyers ingeniously quotes the opinion of Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he may well be right in suggesting was in Orwell’s mind: Eve’s ambition is to be “more equal” and sometimes “superior.”
What seems most moving and most memorable today in Orwell’s famous books is also what is most innocent and indeed naive: the character and fate of Boxer the cart-horse, and the simple pleasures of love and private possessions (the Victorian paperweight again) which still survive in the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. And yet crafty old Eliot was no doubt right in suggesting that the good, simple, decent animals, with their naive ideals, could not have run a farm successfully. Orwell may have felt sure they could have, but for him, as for most idealists, human nature was how he preferred to see it rather than what the centuries had shown it to be.
He was a good man and a gallant fighter notwithstanding, although his personal life was dogged, as might all too clearly have been expected, by the kind of bad luck that masochists sometimes attract. Orwell longed for children, but he was probably sterile as a result of TB, while Eileen had troubles which may in any case have prevented conception and led to the tumor from which she died. They adopted a little boy, on whom Orwell lavished loving but clumsy attention. After his wife died he went to live with the child on the island of Jura, one of the most remote and inhospitable of the Hebrides, with a vile climate—a home about as unsuitable as could be imagined for a tubercular writer who had to keep in touch with London’s journals and literary scene. It was a paradise for self-punishment, but even Orwell was forced to make it a little more inhabitable after the phenomenal success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In his last months Orwell married Sonia Brownell, an attractive woman who had been an editorial assistant on Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon, and she did much to cheer him up at the end. Not that he had ever been short on ladies to cherish and support him. Meyers is particularly good on a sex life more colorful and varied than had been previously supposed in so overtly puritanical a man. But Meyers also quotes some bitterly misogynistic diaries written shortly before Orwell’s death accusing some women of being congenitally dirty and slovenly as well as sexually insatiable. To the end there was much of Swift in him.
Would he have written more and more remarkable books had he survived? He was so ill when finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four that he could barely complete it, joking indomitably that no writer died until he had said all that he wanted to say. As “the wintry conscience of a generation” his work had been well done, and as his biographer rightly claims, its qualities, shining “like pebbles in a clear stream,” remain “universally appealing.” His death at the age of forty-seven was a sad loss to letters, as it was to writers and public men of conscience and integrity. Anthony Powell told me the funeral was the most heartbreaking he had ever attended.
March 29, 2001
The Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison (London: Secker and Warburg, 1998). ↩
George Orwell et al., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, in four volumes: An Age Like This, 1920–1940; My Country Right or Left, 1940–1943; As I Please, 1943–1945; In Front of Your Nose, 1945–1950 (David R. Godine, 2000). ↩