Long-awaited and indispensable, this generous collection brings together a large number of Orwell’s letters; much but not all of his literary, political, and miscellaneous journalism (even a few poems) resurrected from the periodicals in which it first appeared; some diary-notebooks, two of which are invaluable for the light they cast on his methods of research and composition; and all of his previously published books of essays.
The selection begins with the famous essay of 1946, “Why I Write.” Thereafter the arrangement is chronological: the major and the minor, the ephemeral and the enduring scrupulously juxtaposed, with no attempt to discriminate between them. The effect is often brilliantly illuminating but also at times reductive, bringing everything up, or down, to a plateau, impressive in itself but inevitably below the peaks of Orwell’s achievement. No doubt this is the risk inherent in the biographical approach determined upon by the editors, Sonia Orwell, the author’s widow, and Ian Angus, curator of the Orwell archive at University College, London, whose knowledge of the facts of Orwell’s
life can hardly be rivaled. They deserve our gratitude. The task confronting them was so formidable — how to deal with material copious enough to fill four volumes with a good deal left over — that almost any strategy of executing it would
be open to question. And it would seem that where Orwell is concerned, the biographical approach, whether disguised as literary criticism or historical analysis, is unavoidable.
He himself in “Why I Write” declared that “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” But even as a generalization this is arguable; applied to Orwell it is misleading, for while he is one of the best and most readable writers of his time, his personality is all over his prose — in which respect
he is no different from Shaw or Lawrence or Forster — and his windowpane is not the clear colorless glass it appears to be, but a glass tinted with Orwellian colors. It is the proof of his skill as a writer, and the appeal of his personality, that when we look through the pane we are persuaded we are seeing the truth as it actually is, rather than the truth as he believed it to be.
The memoirs of Orwell by his friends make clear how self-revealing, but also how reticent, he could be, in his life and in his writing. So too do the letters in the present edition. Much of what he wrote, whether fiction or nonfiction, is a kind of edited autobiography, and it is almost impossible as one reads to separate the man from the work. In her introduction, Mrs. Orwell says she “felt that arranging the letters, rather unorthodoxly, among the texts did give an idea of how his life and work developed. To him they were one.” This seems to me beyond argument. The defects of the novels he wrote in the 1930s, their inconsistencies and improbabilities, represent a failure to assimilate the elements of autobiography into the fiction — the experience of life that was going on almost simultaneously with the attempt to record it. But Orwell’s personality is compelling and ineffaceable, and it is the presence of the writer in whatever guise he may choose to assume — except perhaps A Clergyman’s Daughter — that gives these novels their undeniable vitality. Still, in the 1930s his best books are nonfiction, where the autobiographical strain is unconcealed and he can write directly of life as he saw it among the dispossessed (Down and Out in Paris and London), the working class (The Road to Wigan Pier), and the soldiers of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia). It was only some years later that he hit upon the form best suited to him as a novelist of ideas, the fable, and achieved his masterpiece of fiction, Animal Farm, where style and content are perfectly in accord. Of course the most obvious example of Orwell’s determination to reveal so much of himself
The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harcourt, Brace & World, 4 vols. $34.80)
and no more is that he should be known to us not as Eric Blair, his real name, but as George Orwell, the nom de plume he adopted in 1933 at the time of the publication of Down and Out. Both names are signed in gold on the covers of the present edition, Eric Blair first, and below it, between parentheses and in quotations: (“George Orwell”). A good deal more was at stake than the mere taking of a pseudonym. What needs to be emphasized is the use that Orwell made of the experience of Eric Blair, in his work and in his life. There was always in Orwell the residue of Eric Blair; he remained Eric to those who knew him before 1936; he never changed his name legally.
The creation of Orwell was an act of will by Blair, and it was carried on at almost every level of his existence, affecting not only his prose style but also the style of his daily life. Becoming George Orwell was his way of making himself into writer, at which he brilliantly succeeded, and of unmaking himself a gentleman, of opting out of the genteel lower upper-middle class into which he was born and going down a class, at which he had only an equivocal success. He got on well with tramps, who took him as an Etonian down on his luck, which he was, and with his comrades in Spain, who were impressed with his air of authority and recognized him as a leader, but he did not appear to have a circle of friends among the workers, even at his local pub in Islington.
The enduring result of the creation was that it allowed Eric Blair to come to terms with his world. Eric Blair was the man to whom things happened; George Orwell, the man who wrote about them. Much of his life, especially before 1936, was an attempt to escape from the system into which he had been born, and which inexorably provided him with an education, an accent, and a standard of judgment that might be turned against him. The system, he felt, had almost crushed him in his prep-school days, and toward the end of his life he left a grim record of them in “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Cyril Connolly, who was at school with St. Cyprian’s, thought him a “true rebel” there, but in his own mind Orwell was sure he was damned: “I had no money, I was weak, I was ugly, I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt.” That, he felt, was the judgment of St. Cyprian’s, and by inference, of the system. Even after he went to Eton, and from there to the Imperial Police in Burma, he continued to believe that it was an unalterable judgment, and that your place in the world did not depend on your own efforts but on “what you were.” This mood continued to afflict him until his return from Burma in 1927; and his novels, including Animal Farm and 1984, accept the omnipotence of the system, while his heroes are its victims.
Yet Orwell made himself a happier man than he had ever dreamed of being, and a powerful writer also. It was here that he was best served by his creation. Much as Orwell in conversation with friends would pick and choose what he would reveal of himself, so Blair, through Orwell, could pick and choose among the elements of his past. Ironically, many of the qualities that contribute to the Orwell personality and style as we are familiar with them in his work are precisely the qualities Blair had thought despicable in his school days. Eric Blair saw himself as a smelly, impoverished member of the lower upper-middle class, who because of his being bright enough for a scholarship and coming from a suitable Anglo-Indian background had received an inappropriate gentleman’s education. But George Orwell was an idiosyncratic socialist, who, no matter how badly he dressed or austerely he lived, would never lose the air of authority in his prose which marks a Public School “old boy.” Orwell could transform the upper-class values that Blair resented and infuse them with the egalitarianism he envied among the miners in Wigan and learned at firsthand as a soldier among soldiers in Spain. Eric Blair looked back unforgivingly on the world before 1914 — it was that world that had sent him to his
prep school — while George Orwell could believe it was superior to what came after, and recorded the period nostalgically in Coming Up for Air. And if Eric Blair was enraged by the hypocrisies endemic to a boy’s school in England of the First World War, George Orwell was moved to a simple and intense patriotism during the Second World War when England was endangered.
There were moments when Blair and Orwell were at one: in the comradeship of the Spanish Civil War, and in the inspiriting early years of the Blitz when it was possible to believe in a brave new England to come. They were moments of honor and decency, in which Blair and Orwell could participate and feel at ease. But such moments could not last: they would be undone by the Stalinists, as in Spain, or by the thought police, as in 1984. Then the struggle would be resumed, between the patriot and the radical, the idealist and the skeptic, the sahib and the victim. Out of the tension came the masterpieces, Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and the essays.