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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2010

Orwell: A Life in Letters

Peter Davison, ed. London, UK & Toronto, ON: Random House, 2010; 544 pp; ISBN: 978-1-84655-355-4, cloth $54.95 CA.



Years ago, during a year in Paris, I used to visit the British Council. The Council had nice digs in the rue de Constantine. It was pleasant to spend an hour there, and besides they had a good lending library.

You had to sign up for the really popular titles. And, you couldn’t hope to borrow George Orwell’s books straightaway, especially Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Animal Farm (1945), and of course, 1984 (1949 — five copies, all constantly on loan — mostly to French nationals). You had to wait for weeks until the previous borrowers’ loans had come due.

I asked the librarian at the branch why the Council didn’t buy more copies of Orwell’s books. He said, with a wicked grin, that since Mrs. Thatcher’s election win the previous May, the Council’s book-buying budget had been frozen, “but Eric’s reputation (the librarian knew that Orwell was Eric Blair’s pen name) will outlast the present regime. Then we’ll buy him up and everybody will be happy.” He was mostly right.

Today, 60 years on from his death, Orwell remains a fundamentally important literary and political figure. His politics combined well with his fiction and his nonfiction, and his name is widely used (or misused) to describe a certain kind of “Orwel­lian” politics. His essays on civil liberty, on artful and believable writing, and on the necessity of social-democratic attitude continue to interest us — whether or not we agree.

There is a “Canadian” Orwell. In this country, Orwell was the early hero of the “valiant few” who, like him, fought against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. In 1984, the Canadian periodical index gave almost equal space to Pierre Berton and Orwell. George Woodcock, a former University of British Columbia English professor, wrote one of the better biographies of Orwell (The Crystal Spirit, 1966, Governor General’s Award), emphasizing Orwell’s anti-totalitarian actions, but with due regard to his poetry, novels and literary criticism. Woodcock thought Orwell would endure, not necessarily as novelist or journalist, but because of qualities that sometimes transcended his mere words.

Since 1984, biography and criticism have made much of Orwell’s dalliances with power, including his agreement after 1945 to make a list of people he suspected of being Communists or having Communist leanings (“fellow-travellers”) and giving it to the British government. Among literary folk, much of the talk has been about the sheer “preachiness” and predictability of Orwell’s novels and stories. For decades, academics interested in political theory have found Orwell wanting. Scott Lucas’s 2003 Orwell gave a sharp reminder to Orwell’s fans that their idol had feet of clay. In short, Orwell remains controversial.

When Secker and Warburg brought out Orwell’s complete works in 1998, many of us would have loved to buy all 20 volumes, but they were expensive. All have since appeared in paperback — not cheap, but within reach. Of the 20 volumes, 11 are devoted to Orwell’s letters, reviews and essays. The editor of that series was Peter Davison, by then also the author of a “literary life” of Or­well, and soon the compiler of a huge and useful Penguin volume, Orwell and Politics (2001).

It made sense that one day a selection of Orwell’s letters should be published, complete with chronologies, and supplied with a biographical index to help 21st century readers sort out the dramatis personae of Orwell’s short but busy lives, and that Davison should do the work.

The letters show Orwell managing several careers at once. For 20 years he was a kind of political anthropologist, undertaking “life-experiments” (as he called them) among the oppressed classes in Burma, Wigan Pier, Paris, London and northern Spain. But the correspondence also shows him working to stay afloat in the tough business of writing for a living between 1932 and 1950, especially during his long stint at the wartime BBC. He did not live to see wealth, but was never in serious want. Meanwhile he was twice married, a father, and constantly coping with sickness unto death.

In all these lives, Orwell wrote letters, sympathetic but never maudlin, straightforwardly true to the facts of his and his correspondents’ lives. People kept them.

This collection includes a brief introduction, relying on textual notes and interstitial comment to keep track of the larger canvas, Orwell’s life. If one were looking for a fair comparison in the world of published collections of letters by the Great Ones, the closest may be Nicholas Griffin’s two volume Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell. The comparison favours Griffin, who gave a clear picture of British and North American society between 1872 and 1970, Russell’s birth and death years, all the while sticking to his biscuits — that is, to Russell’s letters, with all their humour and depth. Orwell was a plainer man, often giving the impression he was in a hurry, as if he hadn’t much time.

Davison had at least two big problems to solve in this work. First, he had to not only choose from the 1,700 letters published in 1998, but also give a believable and fair picture of the author’s life.

The result of Davison’s selection is a certain emphasis on “practicalities”: Orwell’s daily existence at home as husband and parent, his several years as a sort of indigent, his year as a school teacher, his participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1937), occasional management of the village shop in Wallington (which was still operating as one when I last was there in 2005), and 10 years as a freelance writer.

No letters remain from Orwell’s time as an officer serving with the imperial police in Burma (1922-1927), but his widely read 1931 essay, “A Hanging,” more than fills that gap.

At all events, practical matters are mostly what we see in this Life in Letters. If one wants illustrations of Orwell’s literary power or conceptual agility, one must read his books, essays and hundreds of reviews for which, crucially, he was always paid. The emphasis on practicality is fine, anyway, as it makes us see Orwell as reasonable, occasionally calculating, and not all that different from the rest of us.

Davison also wanted to see if Orwell lived up to the credo announced in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.” In that oft-reprinted piece, Orwell said he was motivated partly by sheer egoism, partly by aesthetic enthusiasm, part­ly by historical impulse (“desire to see things as they are, to find the true facts and store them up for the use of posterity”), but above all by “political purpose — using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after … The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

To put this in perspective, recall Vladimir Nabokov’s typically vigorous description of the “problem” with Orwell’s attitude: “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual … I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth.” (V. Nabo­kov, Strong Opinions (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 33)

Well, this new Orwell collection is a persuasive rejoinder to Nabokov, if such rejoinder there need be. The letters show, in Orwell’s daily work, how art can and should be closely joined to politics.

Let’s look more closely at a few letters from 1943­–1945, in a section called “Journalism and the Death of Eileen” (pp. 219– 278). Eileen was Orwell’s first wife, who died accidentally in March 1945. In winter 1943–1944, Orwell wrote Animal Farm, and in the first half of 1945 was in Paris writing numerous papers about post-Liberation France.

Orwell’s 11 December 1943 letter to Dwight Macdonald announces he has “left the BBC after wasting 2 years in it, and have become editor of the Tribune, a leftwing weekly I dare say you know. The job leaves me a little spare time, so I am at last getting on with a book again, not having written one for nearly 3 years.” (p. 224) The book was Animal Farm which, he wrote his literary agent in January 1944, is “a fairy story but also a political allegory, and I think we may have some difficulties about finding a publisher.” Orwell also mentions a book of re­printed critical pieces, including his essay on “Wells, Hitler and the World State.” (p. 224–225)

Behind these bald facts — and Orwell puts them baldly — is the significance of his leaving the public broadcaster, and thus his most visible contribution to the “war effort,” not to mention a regular salary. From now on, Orwell would rely on his freelance writer’s income alone. But there’s the larger point, too, that for Orwell politics and art must go on together.

Then there’s the mention of H.G. Wells, whom Orwell had quite fearlessly accused of parochialism and blindness vis-à-vis Hitler and fascism more generally. Orwell always granted that Wells influenced more writers than “anybody” in first 20 years of the 20th century, but that didn’t excuse him. Orwell claimed he had never insulted Wells, but that Wells’ enthusiasm for a scientific state, in which civic liberties were “regulated,” could not be good. It was vintage Orwell, telling things as he saw them, war or no war. And it is a premonition of his book to come, 1984.

In March 1944, Orwell handed out the same treatment to G.M. Young, another “famous” writer (historian of Victorian England): “I don’t know a great deal about G.M. Young. He is the ordinary silly-clever ‘intelligent’ conservative whose habitual manoeuvre is to deal with any new idea by pointing out that it has been said before. (Young talks) about the terrible sacrifices the upper classes had made on account of the war etc. He was also trying to chase our little Indian Section of the BBC for broadcasting ‘unsound’ ideas.” (p. 227)

None of this was said or done in secret, but rather at big dinner parties, or on air at the BBC, or in print in big daily newspapers. It took courage to say, write, and disseminate these things. It is as though Orwell was asking for trouble.

Orwell had many friends in the ancient and the modern British universities, some from his Eton days. The recent publication of letters by Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper from the same period in the 20th century is a reminder of the nearly seamless connection between the academy on one hand, and the many worlds of public argument and discourse before, during, and after the war. A half-century later, the freedom and the vigour of argument in these circles — and certainly in the public and private lives of Orwell — cannot fail to impress us.

But Orwell, perhaps more than his university friends, insisted on a peculiar freedom, the necessity and the rightness of saying what’s on one’s mind with the assurance one would not be punished for it, or that if one were punished, one could somehow find a way to keep on speaking freely. There is an element of academic freedom in this, and these Letters go some way to describing the practical basis of that freedom in one life, George Orwell’s.

At a time when ideology has overtaken so much Canadian talk about higher edu­cation, and sometimes infected the arguments we hear from our own managers, Orwell’s precise and practical example has much to offer.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.