George Orwell is referred to throughout this review by his pen name rather than by his given name of Eric Blair for the sake of simplicity, though not perfect accuracy. He and his wife Eileen are referred to as “The Orwells” for the same reason.
In the introduction to his new collection of Orwell’s correspondence, George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Peter Davison grieves that, “many of those who refer to Orwell seem not to have read much more than Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four, if those. The millions who have heard of Big Brother and Room 101 know nothing of their progenitor. Ignorance of Orwell is also to be found in academic circles and in what would regard itself as the higher reaches of journalism.”(ix) Having come to Davison’s collection as an avid reader of Orwell’s published work who was all but entirely ignorant of any part of Orwell’s life that did not appear in those works, I was probably an ideal test case for this collection.
Orwell was not one of the great epistolary stylists of our time. As Davison notes, his letters tend to be fairly business-like, so we should not look here for the sort of lively literary gossip and personal scandal we find in letters from Larkin and Amis, for example. Nor should we expect the lush revelations of a deep interior life we find in the letters of Emily Dickinson. Orwell does not give us that. (However, the letters by Orwell’s wife Eileen that Davison has included give us a sense of her attractive liveliness, and a wife’s eye view of the writer at work. He tended to steal all the oil lamps) But there are undeniable pleasures to be found in such moments as a previously unpublished letter from Orwell to Richard Usborne, the editor of The Strand, that contains the line, “But I have never belonged to a political party, and I believe that even politically I am more valuable if I record what I believe to be true and refuse to toe a party line.” (xii)
Those who know as little of Orwell’s life as I did will be startled to discover how much of it was spent in significant poverty. He and his first wife Eileen spent part of their early married life in a four- room cottage, one given over to a shop, with no indoor bathroom, and no electricity. The Orwells kept the cottage for a long time—even while living in Marrakesh—because, as Orwell notes:
it’s truly a case of be it never so humble, but that fact is that it’s a roof and moving is so damned expensive besides being a misery. I think I would rather feel I had the cottage there to move into next April…because I don’t know what my financial situation will be next year. I don’t believe my book on Spain (Homage to Catalonia) sold at all, and if I have to come back to England and start on yet another book with about £50 in the world I would rather have a roof over my head from the start. It’s a great thing to have a roof over your head even if it’s a leaky one.” (130)
The memory of days when “We had so little money that sometimes we hardly knew where the next meal was coming from” (131) seems to have been hard to shake.
Coupled with Orwell’s endless health problems—from getting shot in the throat in Spain to constant trouble with his lungs that culminated in the tuberculosis that killed him—the endless grind of poverty and of looking for writing work, and hoping that one or another of his books might actually make money gives many of Orwell’s letters a grim cast.
As the arrival of World War II began to seem increasingly inevitable, this grimness only deepens. Writing to Cyril Connolly, with whom he had been at school, Orwell observes in 1938, “Everything one writes now is overshadowed by this ghastly feeling that we are rushing towards a precipice and, thought we shan’t actually prevent ourselves or anyone else from going over, must put up some sort of fight. I suppose actually we have about two years before the guns begin to shoot.” (144-5). Earlier that same year he had written to his friend Jack Common, “I personally do see a lot of things that I want to do and to continue doing for another thirty years or so, and the idea that I’ve got to abandon them and either be bumped off or depart to some filthy concentration camp just infuriates me. Eileen and I have decided that if war does come the best thing will be to just stay alive and thus add to the number of sane people.” (125)
Orwell’s concerns about the war were not entirely borne out, of course. His ill-health kept him out of the fighting, and concentration camps never came, at any rate, to England. That said, the Orwells, as were many of the English, were in a constant state of privation and trepidation. Several of his letters express gratitude to friends for saving up their tea ration to send to him. A letter from Eileen notes that an additional reason the Orwells decided to retain the cottage—no matter how ill-kept—is that, “it could be almost as safe as anywhere in England, & comparatively self-supporting, so we thought someone might be glad of it.” (121)
Amid all of this worry, Orwell had begun writing his first really successful book—Animal Farm. In 1944, he writes to his agent Leonard Moore, “This thing I am doing now will be very short, about 20,000 to 25,000 words. It is a fairy story but also a political allegory, and I think we may have some difficulties about finding a publisher. …I suppose you know which publishers have paper and which haven’t?” (225) The quest to find a publisher who will take the book (which was problematic because of its unflinching critique of Russia, an ally of England’s for the duration of the war) and who had the paper to print it (which was scarce because of wartime rationing) consumes much of Orwell’s attention for the next several months. One particularly telling letter for those of us reading in these days of email attachments and .pdf files, is to T. S. Eliot on June 28th, 1944, the day the Orwells were bombed out of their London apartment. In it, Orwell notes that the enclosed manuscript of Animal Farm “has been blitzed, which accounts for my delay in delivering it & its slightly crumpled condition, but it is not damaged in any way.” (236)
When the book finally saw print and began to see success, Orwell seems to have looked back on the publication difficulties with some amusement. His letters record innumerable rejections from publishers who were worried about the politics of the book, as well as run ins with publishers who “made the imbecile suggestion that some other animal than the pigs might be made to represent the Bolsheviks” (236) and an American publisher who rejected it because “the American public is not interested in animals.” (283) But his amusement with the past, as well as his appreciation of the current success were brief, overshadowed as they were by the devastating death of his wife Eileen. Left to care for their young adopted son, and with his health declining every year, Orwell began work on Nineteen-Eighty-Four four months later.
But the careful reader of Orwell’s letters (assisted by Davison’s able annotations) will have noticed that Orwell was collecting material for the novel much earlier. In a letter to Noel Willmett (unidentified by Davison, and perhaps unidentifiable?) in 1944, he writes:
Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. (232)
No reader of Nineteen-Eighty-Four can encounter that paragraph without putting down Davison’s collection for a few moments of amazed wonder at what appears to be a rough draft of Orwell’s greatest work emerging in answer to a query from a casual correspondent about whether totalitarianism is really on the rise.
As Orwell worked on Nineteen-Eighty-Four his health grew worse and worse. He attempted to begin a romantic relationship with Anne Popham in 1946, but his painfully self-flagellating letters to her make it fairly clear that he was not expecting any relationship to be a long-lasting one. “You say you wouldn’t be likely to love me. I don’t see how you could be expected to…What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.” (307)
So ill that he finished writing Nineteen-Eighty-Four while confined to bed and typed up the clean copies the same way, Orwell was still able to tangle with Roger Senhouse over a badly phrased book blurb. “I really don’t think the approach in the draft you sent me is the right one. It makes the book sound as though it were a thriller mixed up with a love story, & I didn’t intend it to be primarily that.” (427) (Current Hollywood producers might wish to take note!) Later he tangled with Senhouse over whether “onto” is an acceptable word. “I know this is an ugly word, but I consider it to be necessary in certain contexts.” (447) He also battled ferociously with Harcourt Brace, cabling them in “strong terms” when they altered the metric system used in Nineteen-Eighty-Four to English units. “This would be a serious mistake.” (447). Harcourt continued to drive him mad with a later suggestion that about a quarter of the novel be cut for the American market. Orwell, who wrote to his agent that, “I really cannot allow my work to be mucked about beyond a certain point,” (453) won every round.
Orwell died on January 21, 1950. He lived long enough to see the enormous success of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, to feel sure that his beloved son would be well-cared for, and to marry, a month before his death, a young woman he seems to have loved and respected, and trusted to protect his literary legacy.
To read Orwell’s letters is to see a great mind focused on work, on politics, and on the business of writing and publishing, amid some of the most dire circumstances possible. The reader of his letters is left, at the end, with a sense of his integrity and his determination, and the feeling that—as so rarely happens—the character of the author stands up to the ethics of the work produced.
Six months before his death, Orwell wrote to his literary executor, Sir Richard Reeves. In the letter, he orders a bookcase, discusses a few reviews, and leaves us as good a summary of his thinking on literature and politics as any reviewer could hope to find.
The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all. Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise. When, for instance, Eliot can’t see anything good in Shelley, or anything bad in Kipling, the real underlying reason must be that one is a radical & and the other a conservative, of sorts…Perhaps the way we should put it is: the more one is aware of political bias the more one can be independent of it, & the more one claims to be impartial, the more one is biased. (483)
Add to this his observation that “Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot” (418) and his refusal to use semicolons because he felt them “an unnecessary stop” (367), and one is left feeling, not for the first or the last time, that Orwell wrote too little, died too soon, and is sorely needed today.