The Intimate Orwell

Diaries

by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison
London: Harvill Secker, 520 pp., £20.00
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George Orwell on Southwold Beach, Suffolk, early 1930s

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…


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