Book Review: Appreciating the Life of George Orwell — A Giant of the 20th Century
George Orwell strikes me as a man who was never mean, a man who was easy to love because he had a tenderness in him that runs like a stream throughout these letters and makes you feel, as you read, how much you would have liked to know him.
George Orwell, English Rebel, Robert Colls, Oxford University Press. 2013. 330 pages. $25
George Orwell, A Life in Letters, Selected and Annotated by Peter Davison, Liveright Press. 2013. 542 pages. $35
By Roberta Silman
Is there anyone who writes a better English sentence than George Orwell? I am not sure, but because I have always balked at the idea that good writing is a competition, I will leave it at that. I do know, though, that most English and American writers worth their salt have read and re-read Orwell because just reading his precise sentences is a source of pleasure like little else. Indeed, I have wondered if the way to teach writing is simply to read his fabulous essays and memoirs, as well as Coming Up For Air, Animal Farm and 1984. And now I would have to add his letters, for although I have read lots of those scattered in my prized, hardcover four volume The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus that were published in 1968, I had never seen his letters as a key to his life.
To be honest, I had not thought much about his life. I knew it was short and filled with illness, mostly respiratory, and that he died of TB. I knew he had been wounded in the throat during his time fighting in Spain, that he was an obstinate loner who persisted in doing things his way, and that he lost his wife and became very ill soon after they had adopted a little boy in 1944. I marveled that he had written so much despite such adversity, and I vaguely knew that he had written 1984 while he was mostly in bed, but for some unknown reason I had not gobbled up everything about him the way I had about Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, Colette, Hemingway, Rebecca West, James Joyce, Henry James, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Nabokov, Osip Mandelstam and so many others whose biographies and diaries and notebooks line our bursting shelves.
As I think about it now, I saw him as a very private, somewhat forbidding man, which doesn’t make sense because so many of the essays were so personally honest and emotionally revealing. That’s why this last week has been so important, for with these two books, I have acquired a deep knowledge of this remarkable man who defies categorization of any kind, because he was, like most of us, filled with contradictions, a man who had decided while very young to be a writer and who died with no inkling that his pseudonym would become a household name or that his body of work would prove to be one of the most important in the 20th century. I also understand finally how he fit, or didn’t, into the tumultuous time — 1903-1950 –through which he lived.
Robert Colls calls his book “an intellectual biography,” and there is a good deal of explication of Orwell’s various works as well as an emphasis throughout on what he calls Orwell’s “Englishness.” In his Introduction, Colls explains:
For there is no objective ‘England’ against which I can measure Orwell’s ‘Englishness’, any more than there is a full and final ‘Orwell’ who is the standard by which all the other Orwells can be judged. . . . It [is] about how at a certain stage in his life he wanted to identify with his country, understand it, explain it, be convinced by it, and reconnect with it in its current and previous manifestations. He thought of a future that could be made more bearable by marching towards it carrying the best of what had inspired precious generations. . . . Orwell’s Englishness sat somewhere between what had been lived and breathed in the past and what might be lived and breathed in the future. I am not saying in this book that Englishness is the key to Orwell. I am saying that it was something that he thought with as well as about, and that it stayed with him from first to last.
Although perfectly readable, Colls’s book is by no means a full biography, like some of the earlier biographies have tried to be, and, probably like them, it should be considered more as a complementary volume to Orwell’s own words. That is why this new selection of letters by Peter Davison is so important. Davison has edited, with Sheila Davison and Ian Angus (see above), a huge undertaking, The Complete Works of George Orwell, and he probably knows as much about Orwell as anyone. He also was wise enough to know that the chances of individuals buying the Complete is unlikely, so he has given us this splendid new volume, which is as close as we will ever come to an Orwell autobiography. It also includes some important letters written to George Orwell, a few of which have recently surfaced and are now seen for the first time. Davison’s decision to do this was inspired, for his selection has a real narrative thrust and is consistently interesting both to those of us who are coming to Orwell’s life for the first time and those who know a lot about him. He also explains:
In making this selection I have had two principles in mind. Firstly, that the letters chosen should illustrate Orwell’s life and hopes; and secondly that each one should be of interest in its own right.
George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair, he was born to a modest, middle-class family, went to St. Cyprian’s school on scholarship from ages eight to thirteen, got a prized King’s Scholarship to Eton and instead of going to university joined the Indian Imperial Service and worked in Burma for five years. When he returned home, he went to Paris, wrote some fiction, which he destroyed, and also lived as a tramp. On returning to England in 1928 he lived with his parents in Southwold on the Suffolk Coast and spent time with the down-and-outs in London to get more material for the book that would become Down and Out in Paris and London.
During this time he also wrote Burmese Days, found an agent, Leonard Moore, and decided to write under a pseudonym. In a letter in November of 1932 he says: “As to a pseudonym, the name I always use when tramping etc. is P.S. Burton, but if you don’t think this sounds a probable kind of name, what about Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, H. Lewis Allways. I rather favour George Orwell.” He never entirely explained why he wanted a pseudonym (it was more common then), but I think it is a key to his need for privacy; there is also a reference in another biography that “it gave him an unpleasant feeling to see his real name in print.” He clearly sometimes thinks of himself as Eric and sometimes as George, and when he writes his letters that dichotomy holds: to David Astor and Arthur Koestler he is George, to his agent he is Eric Blair. Actually, one of the most touching stories revealed in the letters is that Jacintha Buddicom, who may have been one of inspirations for Julia in 1984 and whom he loved dearly as a young man — and who fled because he frightened her by wanting more physically than she could give — did not know until 1949 that her Eric was George Orwell.
He married Eileen O’Shaughnessy when he was 33 and it is clear from these letters how involved she was in his work and his life during their short marriage, how much he cared for her, and how complicated a marriage between two such determined and intelligent people can be, especially when they are struggling constantly with ill health and little money and the terrible losses suffered during the war, among them Eileen’s beloved brother. (Because so much of the new material in this volume concerns Eileen and so much has also been written about Orwell and women, I will return to this a bit later.) After Eric went to Spain to join forces against Franco, Eileen joined him there, worked in a clinic, and they fled Spain after he was wounded. From then on they lived either in the country or in London.
In 1944 they adopted a baby boy whom they named Richard, after Eric’s father; ten months later Eileen went into hospital for a routine operation to remove some fibroid tumors from her uterus and died of a heart attack when the anesthesia was administered. Eric was at that time in Paris working for The Observer; he came home stunned by Eileen’s death and spent most of the rest of his life on Jura, a small island in the Hebrides off the shore of Scotland, and, at the end in sanatoria in Glasgow and near London. Although by the time he died he had some relative material comfort from the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, he was obsessed by the need to complete a novel originally called The Last Man in Europe. At the end of December 1948 he finished typing the manuscript, now called Nineteen Eighty Four (published later in the United States as 1984), had a serious relapse of the TB that had plagued him all his life, and was dead a little over a year later.
So who was this man called Orwell? A man who seemed to expect little from the world although he loved it and its inhabitants as much as any writer I have ever encountered. A man who was happiest in the outdoors and loved his garden and fishing, a man who described himself as a “belly-to-earth” kind of person. A man who loved books, reviewed them with unbelievably clear eyes (he is the one who said a thousand words should do it for a book review), who accepted some of the hardest things in life — his poor health, his sterility — and consistently tried to tell the truth in his work, even in his fiction, adhering strictly to what serious writers call “fictional truth.” A man who had no trouble calling a bad book “tripe,” or Jean Paul Sartre “a bag of wind,” who was disgusted by certain details in Cyril Connelly’s Enemies of Promise and wasn’t afraid to say so even though they had gone to school together, who loved Brideshead Revisited but didn’t care much for The Loved One, and a man who drew a clear line in the sand about anti-Semitism in England before 1934 and after it. A man who worried about his little boy being a late talker, who yearned to be more affectionate toward the child but remained inhibited by his fears of transmitting TB, a man who said he didn’t like his father (in “Such, Such Were The Joys”) but was with him when he died, a man who declared himself an atheist but insisted Richard be baptized, was married by a cleric and buried rather than cremated.
And a man who had a very complicated relationship with women: It is clear that Orwell had no idea how good looking he was or how extremely attractive he was to women. It is also clear that he liked women, although he could be immature and impulsive, e.g. the Jacintha Buddicom episode. Some biographers have seized on this aspect of his life and apparently go on and on about the swarms of women he is supposed to have bedded, but the people who knew him best also warn that some of his “adventures” may have taken place mostly in his imagination. Other biographers have thought him oddly cold, but I think they are mistaken; rather I believe he was insecure and awkward with women when he was young, and also very much of his age and time and country in his reserve as he matured. I also must point out that I found it very moving when he wrote to people after Eileen died, as in his April 13, 1945 letter to Anthony Powell, that he said “Eileen is dead.” Not that ‘she died and feel sorry for me.’ His concern was that her life was cut short, and when he writes about it he emphasizes how terrible it was for her, without a trace of self-pity.
In perhaps the most moving letter in the book, written when he was desperately lonely after Eileen’s death and trying to juggle Richard’s upbringing and his poor health and lack of funds, Orwell writes what is the oddest marriage proposal I have ever read. It is to Anne Popham, whom we will know years later as Anne Olivier Bell, (she married Virginia Woolf’s nephew Quentin Bell and edited Woolf’s Diaries with Andrew McNellie). They were neighbors in London and she had told George about her fiancé who had been killed in the RAF during World War II; she was young and beautiful and he wrote her a long letter worth quoting in part because what he says here can give you an idea of how extraordinary Orwell really was.
Here it is:
If you still feel you can start again and you want a handsome young man who can give you a lot of children, then I am no good to you. What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man. . . . Of course there is no knowing how long I shall live, but I am supposed to be a ‘bad life.’ I have a disease called bronchiectasis which is always liable to develop into pneumonia, and also an old ‘non-progressive’ tuberculous lesion in one lung, and several times in the past I have been supposed to be about to die, but I always lived on just to spite them. . . . if you wanted children of your own by someone else it wouldn’t bother me, because I have very little physical jealousy. I don’t much care who sleeps with whom, it seems to me what matters is being faithful in an emotional and intellectual sense. I was sometimes unfaithful to Eileen, and I also treated her very badly, and I think she treated me badly too at times, but it was a real marriage in the sense that we had been through awful struggles together and she understood all about my work, etc. You are young and healthy, and you deserve somebody better than me: on the other hand if you don’t find such a person, and if you think of yourself as essentially a widow, then you might do worse–i.e.supposing I am not actually disgusting to you. If I can live another ten years I think I have another three worthwhile books in me, besides a lot of odds and ends, but I want peace and quiet and someone to be fond of me. There is also Richard. I don’t know what your feelings are about him. You might think this over. I have spoken plainly to you because I feel you are an exceptional person . . .
He goes on to describe his life on Jura in some detail and ends with:
I hope you will come and stay on Jura. It would be wonderful walking over to the west side of the island which is quite uninhabited and where there are bays of green water so clear you can see about 20 feet down, with seals swimming about. Don’t think I’ll make love to you against your will. You know I am civilized.
She did not come to Jura or marry him, and he ended up marrying Sonia Brownell whom he had known for years, convinced that he might live longer if married and aware by now that his literary estate might need some attention. He had no illusions about Sonia caring for Richard and left the child’s upbringing to his younger sister Avril who had already come to live with them on Jura.
But most of all, George Orwell strikes me as a man who was never mean, a man who was easy to love because he had a tenderness in him that runs like a stream throughout these letters and makes you feel, as you read, how much you would have liked to know him. A man who had no feeling for gossip, was never, as far as I can tell, snide, and although he had experienced snobbery, didn’t know how to be a snob. What is fascinating is his ability to teach himself compassion in ways that were revolutionary in his own time and would be considered revolutionary now. And what is equally amazing is, having done that, he seemed able to see into the future and write those two extraordinary novels, Animal Farm and 1984, which have made him famous all over the world.
So I would urge readers who are at all interested in Orwell to buy these letters, put this valuable volume on the shelf next to the novels and essays and make sure they get passed on to the next generation. For the man who is buried beneath a modest stone that says: “Here Lies Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950” in Berkshire, England, whom the world knows as George Orwell, was a magnificent writer and person, a giant of the 20th century who deserves to be read and re-read throughout the ages.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection now available as an ebook; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She writes regularly for The Arts Fuse and can be reached at email@example.com.