Orwell: an accident in society
That Eric Blair was an "accident" in English society is surely due, at least, partly, to the fact that his parents were Scots.
J. EDWIN MACDONALD.
Nicolas Walter is correct in criticising the publishers of Collected Essays by George Orwell for their errors and omissions. It is important to know the times and circumstances in which writers of the calibre of Orwell thought and wrote. However, having correctly described how the dying Orwell managed to finish writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, N.W. then adds "rather like Lawrence fighting against time to finish Lady Chatterley's Lover twenty years before" – which is wrong. Lawrence finished Lady C. in 1928 and died in 1930. For many years he was in bad health and no doubt wrote the book under difficulties, but he wrote many things in his last two years – not least The Man Who Died – and went on writing until two days before his death.
I should have expected N.W. to have known this, for he is unusually well-informed, but I am not concerned about catching him out in a mistake. What is important, and what concerns me, is that his aside about Lawrence, if believed by him is possibly believed by others, and thus a romantic myth may be in process of creation: that the book is great because Lawrence killed himself writing it! The book has enough strikes against it already without this one. Non-literary working-class people, in my experience, were acutely disappointed because they had been misled, and expected it to be enthrallingly salacious. The general, and revealing, complaint was that there was "nothing in it." Non-literary criticism may be shrugged off, but in a passage of literary criticism I am compelled to object to the fostering of the idea of poor, pathetic Lawrence, coughing up blood, nobly
"fighting against time" to finish his masterpiece before death overtook him. Apart from being a chronological error, the picture is so false. Lawrence, who was many things to many people, was never poor and pathetic to anyone. He was a wonderful man, and at times he was damnable. He wrote marvellously, in prose and poetry, and at times he droned boringly. He wrote some things inferior to, and many things infinitely better than Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Nicolas Walter writes: The Blairs were certainly a Scottish family, but George Orwell was brought up in India and England, and was if anything ashamed of being Scottish in origin and prejudiced against the Scots – apparently because of the class significance of grouse and deer shooting; he always thought of himself as an Englishman, though it is possible that he did so rather aggressively just because he wasn't quite.
As for the comparison with D. H. Lawrence, it was made quite deliberately and in full sight of the facts. It is true that Lawrence finished Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1928 and died in 1930; but it is also true that Orwell finished Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948 and died in 1950. Lawrence, like Orwell, had weak lungs all his life; he became very seriously ill in the winter of 1924-25, even before he finished The Plumed Serpent, and nearly died in Mexico in February 1925, when acute tuberculosis was diagnosed by Dr. Uhlfelder.
The fact that he lived for five more years is nothing extraordinary – tuberculosis is often a slow killer, and in creative men is often accompanied by bursts of activity. But Lawrence never recovered properly, and suffered from periodic relapses which sometimes forced him into special chalets and sanatoria. There were particularly severe attacks in July 1927 and January 1928, while he was writing the third and final version of Lady Chatterley's Lover (the one that introduced the tabu words). Richard Aldington states that during the two years he was working on the novel "he was often so ill that even he had to stop writing"; and Frieda said that he was impotent from 1926 onwards (a particularly ironical point, suggesting that he was more like the despised Sir Clifford than his hero Mellors and that the book is a prime example of sex-in-the-head!).
Of course Lawrence wouldn't accept his illness; nor would Orwell. This was something they had in common, something admirable. But 1 still think that both Lady Chatterley's Lover and Nineteen Eighty-Four show signs of strain, and that this can be partly attributed to the difficulty of trying to write a conscious masterpiece in the face of worsening tuberculosis. Poor – yes, poor – Lawrence and poor Orwell both shortened their lives by "fighting against time" to finish their last great works, coughing up blood and suffering from nagging discomfort and increasing pain. This doesn't detract from the greatness of the men, but surely it does help to explain what is wrong with their books.