George Orwell an Accident in Society

NICOLAS WALTER wrote an account of The 'New Wave' in Britain in ANARCHY 1, and discussed Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution in ANARCHY 3.

GEORGE ORWELL'S REAL NAME was Eric Blair, and he was born in 1903 and died before he was 47. He was one of the most remarkable Englishmen who lived in the first half of this unhappy century. He was a child of the Raj (the British regime in India), like Thackeray, Kipling and Saki; his father had been a customs official in Bengal, and he himself served as a policeman in Burma for five years after leaving school. He was also a child of what he called "the lower-upper-middle-class" – the shabby-genteel "poor whites" of the English class-system – and his education was a parody of what his background demanded. First he was sent to a beastly prep-school in Eastbourne (St. Cyprian's – described as Crossgates in his bitter essay Such, Such were the Joys and as St. Wulfric's in the last part of Cyril Connolly's mellower Enemies of Promise); then, being clever enough to win scholarships, he went to Eton. In later life he claimed he wasted his time there and said it had no influence on him, but he might have been a very different person if he had gone to a conventional public school (such as Wellington, where he won another scholarship); Eton is one of the few really good schools where a scholarship boy can get away with doing nothing, and its influence is no weaker for being subtle.
By the time he went to Burma in 1922 he had assembled a fine collection of chips on his shoulder. He had been sent away from home for most of his childhood, like so many other children of so-called civilised middle-class parents (this extraordinary habit could be the subject of a fascinating piece of sociological analysis); he had been taken by St. Cyprian's at a reduced fee in the hope that he would win credit for the school with a good scholarship (which he did), and he wasn't allowed to forget the favour; he was sickly, and thought he was also ugly and unpopular (which he wasn't); then for some reason he didn't go up to Cambridge, where he might have done very well, but went out to Burma instead; and of course he was that unhappy animal, a bourgeois intellectual doing uncongenial work.

When he was 24 he threw up his post in Burma, after acquiring on one hand the material for a novel and some of his finest essays, and on the other “an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate”. It would be fair to say that he spent the second half of his life trying to do just that. First he spent some time as a dishwasher in Paris and a tramp in England, acquiring the material for his first book – Down and Out in Paris & London (1933) – and writing occasional book reviews. Then he became less extreme in his deliberate bohemianism and settled down for a bit, working at a school near London and a bookshop in Hampstead (acquiring material for later books as usual), writing more reviews and other articles, and publishing two novels – Burmese Days (1934) and A Clergyman's Daughter (1935).
It was at this time that Compton Mackenzie put him among the best realistic writers of the early Thirties, praising his “directness, vigour, courage and vitality”; that he became more or less able to live by writing; that he finally dropped his own name in favour of the pseudonym by which he is generally known; and that he married Eileen O'Shaughnessy. After the publication of his best realistic novel – Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – he became increasingly a public and representative figure, though underneath he always remained his own private individual self.

First his publisher, Victor Gollancz, sent him to the North to gather material for a book about poverty and unemployment. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), in which he declared his commitment to socialism; it was perhaps his worst book, but at the same time his most revealing, and it remains one of the few Left Book Club titles still worth reading. Then he went to Spain to write about the Civil War but immediately joined the POUM militia, fighting on the Aragon front and witnessing the Barcelona “May Days” before he was seriously wounded in the throat and returned to England (narrowly escaping first death and then the Communist purge of the POUM). This time the result was Homage to Catalonia (1938), one of his best books and also one of the best contemporary accounts of the Spanish Civil War. He now definitely parted from the fellow-travelling socialists of the Popular Front, hating Fascism as much as them but hating Communism nearly as much (he has never been forgiven for being ten years ahead of them). As the Second World War approached, he took up the characteristic ideological position he was to maintain for the last decade of his life. His fourth novel – Coming up for Air (1939) – was his farewell to conventional fiction.
His attitude to the War was what Marxists in 1914 had called “Social Patriotism”: he was a left-wing revolutionary and an English nationalist at the same time. This was an integral part of his whole ambivalent and contradictory attitude to social and political problems – he loved England and hated Fascism (though he was never crudely anti-German), so he wanted to win the War; but he loved “justice and liberty” and hated poverty and oppression too, so he also wanted to see a socialist revolution in this country. On the one hand he supported the war effort, trying to get into the Army and joining the Home Guard instead, working for the Indian Service of the BBC, attacking Socialists and Communists and Pacifists and Anarchists incessantly and indiscriminately (and sometimes downright intolerantly) for being "objectively pro-Fascist"; but on the other hand he threw himself into the effort for his own brand of socialism, trying to turn the Home Guard into a People's Army and watching the manoeuvres of the Churchill Government with undisguised suspicion, broadcasting left wing ideas to the few Indians who listened to the BBC, writing The Lion & the Unicorn and dozens of other similar forgotten appeals for "the English revolution".

Then at the end of the War came Animal Farm (1945), his most perfect and popular book, which deservedly brought him fame and some fortune, and made him a successful writer at last. But his wife died in tragic circumstances, and soon he too became ill; he had always suffered from lung trouble, and now he contracted tuberculosis. He went with his adopted son to the Scottish island of Jura (which was about the most unsuitable place he could have picked), and while he was dying there and in sanatoriums he finished his last and most deeply pessimistic book – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – rather like Lawrence fighting against time to finish Lady Chatterley's Lover twenty years before. He married again and prepared to go to Switzerland, where he might have recovered, but he died suddenly in January 1950.

George Orwell's reputation with the general public rests on his last two books, the extraordinarily dissimilar political fantasies. It has been suggested that they won't survive and were simply ingenious tracts for their times. I can't believe this. Animal Farm – the only book he "really sweated over" – is a beautifully written fairy-tale; our grandchildren may not read it as socialists, but they will surely do so as human beings. And Nineteen Eighty-Four, despite all its acknowledged shortcomings (he said himself, "It wouldn't have been so gloomy if I hadn't been so ill"), has a magnificent grandeur seldom found in English literature; of course it belongs to the age of Stalinism and Austerity, but is it just a symptom of disease and despair? I don't think so.

His reputation with his admirers rest also on his three works of reportage – Down & Out in Paris & London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia – which are uneven but fine examples of their kind and have all lasted very well; and though he wasn't a natural novelist his four straight novels are by no means negligible. But people who find that George Orwell speaks directly to them, when so many of the other writers of his generation are as if they had never been born, are constantly re-reading his essays. The three collections of these – Critical Essays (1946), Shooting an Elephant (1950), and England Your England (1953) – have until now been among the priceless possessions of all true Orwellians. But now his publishers have brought out what at first looks like the omnibus edition we have been waiting for, a nice fat book of over 400 pages and 160,000 words, packed with some of the best things he wrote.*

*Collected Essays by George Orwell (Secker & Warburg, 30s.; paperback edition – Mercury Books, 12s. 6d.).

I wish I could recommend this book without any reservations, but that's out of the question. There's a 'Publisher's Note' on p. 7 which is both inappropriate, since it was clearly designed to be a publicity blurb, and inaccurate. It claims that "This volume collects all George Orwell's essays (except the short pieces contributed to Tribune under the title 'I Write as I Please') contained in Critical Essays, Shooting an Elephant and England Your England". This isn't true. In fact five other essays in those three books have been omitted:-
1 & 2 – the two extracts from The Road to Wigan Pier in England Your England. This is reasonable, since they can be found where they came from, the book having been re-issued in 1959 (though it has unfortunately lost its 32 photographs and Victor Gollancz's interesting Foreword).
3 – the extract from The Lion & the Unicorn which was the title essay in England Your England. This is reasonable only if the whole book is going to be re issued shortly, as it certainly ought to be.
4 & 5 – the essay on Kipling from Horizon in Critical Essays, and that on Gandhi from Partisan Review in Shooting an Elephant. This is quite inexcusable, and can only be due to a most unfortunate editorial mistake – the publishers can't possibly have left out such excellent and characteristic things on purpose without telling anyone, and they should put them back in as soon as possible.

There are errors as well as omissions. The blurb says the essays are printed "in order of first publication". Again this isn't true. In fact the scheme seems to have been to allocate them to the years of their first publication and then put the years in order – thus the 1946 essays are all anyhow. The trouble is that some of the years are wrong. Boys' Weeklies appeared in Horizon in March 1940, not in 1939; The Art of Donald McGill appeared in Horizon in September 1941, not in 1942 (this is right in the text but wrong in the list of contents); and Arthur Koestler appeared in Focus in 1946, not 1944. Someone hasn't done enough homework.

Anyway it is quite unsatisfactory to make the year of first publication the only bibliographical information in a book of this kind. We need the names of the periodicals as well, not for the sake of mere pedantry but because it is relevant to know whether an article was written for Adelphi, New Writing or Horizon, say, or for Gangrel, Polemic or Now. A good writer like George Orwell adapts himself to his medium and his public, just as a good conversationalist adapts himself to his audience, and it is impossible to wrench his work out of its original context without distorting its emphasis and flattening its point. Thus Anti-Semitism in Britain takes on a new meaning when we know it was written for the American Contemporary Jewish Record, and it is worth being reminded that the essay on Salvador Dali – Benefit of Clergy – was written for the Saturday Book but later excised because it was considered objectionable! The right way to do this sort of thing may be seen in the Penguin edition of Lawrence's Selected Essays.

It is regrettable that these matters haven't been cleared up in time for the paperback edition, but there should certainly be a properly corrected second edition as soon as the stocks of this one are sold out. (Incidentally, while we are on the touchy subject of publishers' carelessness, it's about time Secker & Warburg learnt that the Tribune title Orwell used was 'As I Please', not 'I Write as I Please', and that the nine Tribune pieces in Shooting an Elephant actually appeared under their own names – between November 1945 and November 1946 – and not under the general title at all.) To sum up, I advise anyone who can bear not to own a book of George Orwell's essays for a time to wait until there is a less imperfect one available.

Like Oliver Twist I am now going to ask for more. Even if this book did contain all the essays in the three earlier collections, perfectly arranged and annotated, it wouldn't be enough. Orwell wrote many more than thirty essays that are worth re-reading; he wrote that many for Adelphi alone during the decade before the War. His novels and books of reportage have all been re-issued now, though he was by no means just a novelist or reporter. I think it is time many more of his essays were re-issued too – especially the more personal pieces, like his introduction to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, some of the extracts from his wartime diaries published in World Review just after he died, and – above all – Such, Such were the Joys, which appeared posthumously in America and still hasn't been published over here because of libel fears.
Apart from these, the essays I should like to see rescued from oblivion seem to fall into two classes, and might well be printed in two separate books.

Firstly, there are the whole of The Lion & the Unicorn (1941) the two chapters from Gollancz's The Betrayal of the Left (1941), the Fabian lecture from Victory or Vested Interests (1942), the Adelphi articles called Political Reflections on the Crisis (December 1938) and Not Counting Niggers (July 1939), the New Writing article called My Country Right or Left (August 1940), the Commonwealth Review article called Catastrophic Gradualism (November 1945), the Tribune article called Through a Glass Rosily (November 1945), the Partisan Review article called Toward European Unity (July/August 1947), and several other pieces of this kind, culminating in the short book The English People (1947). These could all go together in a book called England, Socialism and the War, or something like that, and would make remarkable and surprising reading.
Secondly, there are his introductions to Jack London's Love of Life (1946) and to Volume I of British Pamphleteers (1948), and his broadcast talk printed in Talking to India (1943) – there must be several others as good buried somewhere in the cellars of the BBC. With these are dozens of short articles and reviews like the Tribune pieces in Shooting an Elephant which would go well in a book. There are the two on Ruth Pitter (Adelphi), the two on Jack Hilton (Adelphi), the two on Henry Miller (Tribune), the two on George Gissing (Tribune and the London Magazine), the prison ones on Macartney and Phelan (Adelphi), the ones on Havelock Ellis and Osbert Sitwell (Adelphi), on T. S. Eliot (Poetry), Herbert Read (Poetry Quarterly), Oscar Wilde (Observer), on Hardy, Smollet, Goldsmith, Thackeray, Lawrence, Zamyatin and Mark Twain (Tribune), and other miscellaneous Tribune items – Literature & the Left, You & the Atom Bomb, Revenge is Sour, Freedom of the Park, and odd remarks on things like pleasure-spots and pith-helmets. Anyone who has read all these will have more respect and liking for Orwell than one who has just read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I'm sure there are plenty I've forgotten or never heard of. But I don't suppose there's a chance of seeing them reprinted.

Certainly it would be a better tribute to his memory and a better service to his readers to publish more of his own work than to bring out yet another book about his books; but this is what his publishers have done.* Since he died there have been five books of this kind, which is rather absurd. There's a little British Council pamphlet by Tom Hopkinson (Longmans, 2/6d.) and a full-length study by John Atkins (Calder, 18s.), and one or other of these is really all anyone needs. Each of the other three could easily have been compressed into an essay based on the more interesting parts, which are the personal anecdotes – Laurence Brander on Orwell at the BBC, Christopher Hollis on Orwell at Eton, and now Richard Rees on Orwell at the beginning and end of his literary career. To put it briefly and brutally, there's nothing wrong with Rees' book except that it's expensive and unnecessary, though it does contain some good material.

Once more I want to ask for a new book, this time either a proper biography of George Orwell, or – if his own objections are still to be respected – a sort of symposium collecting memories of him before all his friends and relatives have died and it is too late. Such a book would contain the relevant parts of those by Brander, Hollis and Rees, and of others like Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise and Rayner Heppenstall's rather disgraceful Four Absentees; it would also include the many recollections written or broadcast during the dozen years since he died. and the many more that may never be recorded if something isn't done pretty soon (though there is said to be a project on these lines at University College, London). The point is that it is far more interesting to read about the life of Eric Blair than about the work of George Orwell; after all, if you want to know about his books, the best thing to do is to read them.

In fact the new volume of essays does make that easier, despite its defects. We now have in one place twenty-five of his essays, first published in a dozen magazines between 1931 and 1948, at an average price of 1/3d. each (only 6d. in the paperback edition). And what

*George Orwell by Richard Rees (Seeker & Warburg, 18s.).

remarkable essays they are! Few English writers have been able to put so much so well in such a small space. Begin with that minor masterpiece, A Hanging, which was one of the earliest things he ever published and packs into 2,000 words more than most people could get into 20,000, and its sequel, Shooting an Elephant, whose 3,000 words contain a classic of British imperialism, a miniature companion for A Passage to India. Go on to the scraps of work which people like Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Colin MacInnes have been doing after him – the famous studies of boys' comics and funny post-cards. Then there are nine apparently literary essays which turn out to be so much more than merely literary – Dickens, Yeats, Wodehouse, Swift, Dali, Koestler, Henry Miller, Raffles and Miss Blandish, and Tolstoy and Shakespeare all acquire much more interest when Orwell has dug up cultural, social and political implications from their work and added his personal feelings to pure criticism. There are recollections of the Spanish Civil War, a smack of Wells, impressions of Marrakesh and a Paris hospital, and finally the eight important essays on politics and literature and politics-and-literature.

I suggest that no socially conscious person can afford to ignore a great deal of this book. In particular Politics & the English Language and Notes on Nationalism should be read at least once a year. But reading these essays should not be only a duty – they are written so well that it is hard not to enjoy them over and over again. And even if you haven't got time to plough through them all, your case isn't hopeless, for Orwell was a highly quotable writer, and many of his best remarks will echo in your mind long after you have skipped over them. He dates, but he doesn't fade at all; once read, never forgotten.

What is it that gives him such a hold over people (like myself) who have only read his books since he died? Why does he speak to me as a contemporary when Arthur Koestler, Victor Gollancz, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender and all the rest always sound like voices from the past? These and many others have had their say about him and tried to pin him down with a phrase, labelling him with a technical name like a butterfly. Koestler sees him as a sort of auto-masochistic Swift in modern dress. Connolly remembers him as "one of those boys who seem born old", who stood out as "an intellectual and not a parrot, for he thought for himself", and sums him up: "I was a stage-rebel, Orwell a true one" (even at prep-school). Later he called him "a revolutionary who is in love with 1910", whose "most valid emotion" was "political sentimentality". Spender described him as "an Innocent, a kind of English Candide of the twentieth century" (which applies more aptly to Spender himself). Gollancz noted the "conflict of two compulsions" in his socialism – "He is at one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual, a frightful snob … and a genuine hater of every form of snobbery" – and paid tribute to "the desperate struggle through which a man must go before, in our present society, his mind can really become free". Rees compares him to Lawrence: "A man with a mind of his own, with something in his mind, and speaking his mind … an independent individual who saw with his own eyes and knew what he thought and how to say it". John Beavan called him "a Lollard of social democracy, a preacher of the true faith at war with the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church". All these things are true, but none of them is the whole truth. The first thing to remember about George Orwell is that he was a very complicated man.

It is possible to detect two main driving-forces in his career – a sense of compassion and guilt, and a determination to be tested and not to be found wanting. He remarked when he became a socialist, "For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience"; and at the end of his life he spoke of the existence among people like him of "an awareness of the enormous injustice and misery of the world, and a guilt-stricken feeling that we ought to be doing something about it". To purge his guilt, he became a sort of idiosyncratic mixture of Hemingway and Camus – throwing himself from the Burma police among the down-and-outs of Paris and London, then among the unemployed working people of Wigan and the POUM militiamen of Catalonia, on into the double effort "to defend one's country and to make it a place worth living in" – always putting himself to the test, forcing himself to endure hardship and discomfort, swallowing disgust and pain, going without proper food during the War and proper medical care after it, wearing down his health and his talent, fighting the evils of the world, and the weakness of his body to the day of his death, always striving, striving to tell the truth about what he saw and what he felt.

He had his faults. He often spoke out without verifying his facts – "Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class" and so on – and often he was grossly unfair. No one will forget his swipes at "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England" and at "all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like blue-bottles to a dead cat", and there were plenty more like them. Hardly any literary or political group escaped his bitter criticism. But he should be seen not just as an angry middle-aged man but as an extreme example of the English middle-class dissenter who, having rebelled against his own group, must always rebel against any group, even a group of conscious rebels; clearly he felt what Graham Greene has called the "artist's duty of disloyalty to his group". So he was a Puritan, like D. H. Lawrence and Colin MacInnes and John Osborne, whose nostalgic puritanism took strange forms; he was a patriot, like Aneurin Bevan and (again) Colin MacInnes and John Osborne, whose passionate love of his country exaggerated his loathing for what is wrong with it; he was a socialist who once, according to Richard Rees, threatened to punch the head of a Communist who was belabouring the bourgeoisie; a bohemian who always looked, says T. R. Fyvel, like "a somewhat down-at-heel Sahib”
and who detested bohemianism. He was a man full of logical contradictions and emotional ambivalences, but the point is that this made him better, not worse. He was always able not only to see but to feel both sides to every argument, to realise the imperfections of every position including his own, and his honesty about the difficulties this raised was one of his most valuable characteristics. He was a heretic obliged to betray his own heresy, a protestant protesting against his own faith, a political quaker reduced to trusting only the light shining in his soul.

It is highly misleading to imagine that he was once a conventional socialist who later became disillusioned and then turned against socialism, which is what many conventional socialists tend to do. He said of his attitude at prep-school: "I was not a rebel, except by force of circumstances … yet from a very early age I was aware of the impossibility of any subjective conformity. Always at the centre of my heart the inner self seemed to be awake… I never did rebel intellectually, only emotionally." In Burma he knew that "as a matter of course one's sympathy was with the blacks", and he "worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment does more harm than the crime and that people can be trusted to behave decently if only you will let them alone". Later he called this theory "sentimental nonsense", but it remained with him all the same. It could be said that he was not a socialist except by force of circumstances too, – because his inner self remained awake, and knew emotionally that the enormous injustice and misery of the world were wrong and that he should be doing something about it; in the 1930's, nonconformists were forced into socialism, and Orwell went in with them.

In the face of Fascism and unemployment he wanted state action, war and nationalisation, but he always distrusted it and quoted with approval the famous misquoted passage from Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority." When he was calling for the state to cure unemployment or to fight Fascism, he knew he was in the unpleasant but all too common position of having to "defend the bad against the worse", and he always, seemed to feel a bit guilty about it; this was why his voice often rose to a shriek during and after the War, when people with simpler and more certain ideas goaded him beyond politeness.

But it would also be highly misleading to imagine that he became a complete misanthropist. In his last book he wrote two important pieces of approval – almost the only ones in the whole story. First, the proles. "They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another … The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside." This was why Winston Smith said they were the only hope. The other piece of approval goes to Winston's dead mother: "She had possessed a kind of nobility, a kind of purity, simply because the standards that she obeyed were private ones. Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from outside." George Orwell's personal autonomy and sense of human loyalty forced him to reject group values and group loyalty and the whole apparatus of authoritarian and totalitarian politics, and also forced him to express praise for people like Jack Hilton, Ruth Pitter, Osbert Sitwell and Henry Miller, although he disagreed strongly with their ideas, because they had made up their minds for themselves and preserved their integrity and expressed their beliefs without pose.

It is essential to understand that he was a very emotional man. He was, as Rees points out, both rebel and authoritarian (a "Tory anarchist" in early life), both rationalist and romantic, both progressive and conservative. He was primarily a humanist, not a dogmatist: "I became a socialist more out of disgust with the oppressed and neglected life of the poorer section of the industrial workers than out of any theoretical understanding of a planned society." To understand his brand of socialism – and indeed his attitude to politics and society in general – it is necessary to compare him to the Oscar Wilde of The Soul of Man under Socialism and the D. H. Lawrence of Democracy, and not to go hunting in the labyrinths of Marxist dialectics.
Richard Rees makes use of a remark of Simone Weil about the balance of society: "One must do what one can to add weight to the lighter of the two scales … One must always be ready to change sides, like Justice, that 'fugitive from the camp of victory'." This certainly helps us to see why Orwell was always on the losing side, taking up unpopular causes for the sake of unpopularity, secretly sympathising with the Burmese, leaving his respectable background to go among tramps, changing his name, perversely attacking socialists in a Left Book Club volume or the Establishment on the BBC, advocating social revolution in the middle of our Finest Hour, accusing pacifists of cowardice and afterwards reflecting that "it seems doubtful whether civilisation can stand another major war, and it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through non-violence".
Would he have marched to Aldermaston and sat down in Whitehall? It seems unlikely, but no one can tell. He was as unpredictable as he was inexplicable. He was the "Man-of-Letters Hero" described by Carlyle more than a hundred years ago: "Whence he came, whither he is bound, by what ways he arrived, by what he might be furthered on his course, no one asks. He is an accident in society. He walks like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is as the spiritual light, either the guidance or the misguidance." And Carlyle, who was a great misguidance, added: "This same Man-of-Letters Hero must be regarded as our most important modern person. He, such as he may be, is the soul of all." Orwell would have rejected such pretentious stuff with scorn, but there is some truth about him in it. We can dig up all the facts about him but he remains a mystery, an accident in society; he was certainly one of our most important modern persons, one of the few real heroes our age has seen. But after a time there is nothing to be said. If you have read this far you have already read too much about him: read him.

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Jul 16 2016 00:22


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