Remembering George Orwell
1903, June 25. - 1950, January 21.

Big Brother is bleeping us - with the message that ideology doesn’t matter. It was all very different in the 1930s, as three books about the early Left reveal.


By Stefan Collini
The Guardian
4 July 1998

review of: The Complete Works of George Orwell,
edited by Peter Davison. 20 vols, Secker & Warburg, £750

In the I980s a refurbished warehouse in Wigan was kitted out, complete with a museum and restaurant, as "The Orwell Wigan Pier", from which visitors could take barge trips on the canal. Rarely can the anti-historical drive of "heritage" have been so fatuously illustrated. Orwell only visited Wigan for a few weeks in 1936, and the title of his subsequent book was anyway an allusion to a local joke. Only the resources of Newspeak could do justice to such absurdity: the whole thing is DOUBLEPLUS UNREAL.
In some ways, Orwell’s enduring iconic status is puzzling. As a writer (and "George Orwell", we have to remind ourselves, only existed as a writer), he is a figure of glaring limitations. His novels suffer from their diagrammatic, propagandistic qualities; his plain-mannish literary persona led him to be reductive and philistine; there is something tiresome and self-flattering about his repeated insistence that only the cantankerous non-joiner has any chance of telling the truth; and he is a compendium of intolerant prejudices, represented by his repeated attacks on "pansy intellectuals".
Moreover, one might have expected his writing to "date" badly, since it is so tightly bound up with the politics of the 1930s and 1940s, but new generations of readers conscripted by exam syllabuses continue to fall under his spell. He actually subtitled Animal Farm "a fairy story", a detail omitted in many editions, and that description may suggest something about the source of that particular book's enduring power, even for readers for whom "Communism" is something to be looked up in the notes.
We also tend, in this post-Cold War world, to write off Orwell’s predictions of creeping totalitarianism as alarmist pessimism, but it is worth remembering that he was at least as preoccupied by the insidious managerialism and deadening consumerism of liberal societies. For example, in a sentence that was written 50 years ago, Orwell imagined another "implausible" feature of life in Airstrip One: "The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention." Nah, it’ll never happen.
Certainly, it was one of Orwell's strengths, as well as the source of some of his obvious limitations, that he was always truculently "off-message". We don't find it very difficult to imagine what he might have said about Britain in the age of another Mr Blair. An updated version of his famous essay on "Politics and the English Language" would make particularly enjoyable reading, and he would surely have had no difficulty in identifying the whereabouts of the Ministry of truth: O'Brien is now Minister Without Portfolio, and "Big Brother is bleeping you".
The great difficulty with Orwell is not to allow the slag-heaps of glibness that result from the political, commercial and curricular appropriations of him to obscure the enduring qualities of the courageous, driven man who recognised, in a characteristically plain phrase, that he had "a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts". Part of the value of comprehensive scholarly editions of major writers lies in the way they help us to confront the icon, worn smooth by repeated careless handling, with the unevenness and sheer variousness of the actual writer's achievement. Peter Davison's long-awaited edition of "the complete Orwell" serves this purpose marvellously well.
Volumes 1 to 9, containing textually corrected editions of Orwell's nine books, were published in 1986-7. After many difficulties and delays, volumes 10 to 20, containing the essays, journalism, letters and much else besides, have now triumphantly appeared. The 11 volumes of miscellaneous material contain 3.737 separate items, plus several more that only came to light when this edition was already at the proof stage. There is some new, and a vast amount of newly accessible, material here which it will take scholars some years to digest.
There is an irresistible madness about a "Complete Works" edition on this scale; it yields pleasures which fall somewhere between those of dipping into Wisden and those of poking around in a dead aunt's attic. Most readers will probably remain content with the four-volume Penguin Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, which was first published in 1968. Some indication of what they will be missing, however, is given by the fact that only 68 of the 379 reviews and only 226 of the more than 1,000 letters printed here were included in that edition, not to mention the vast body of material from his time at the BBC during the war, his lectures on street-fighting tactics to his Home Guard platoon ("bombs easier to throw downstairs than up"), his diaries, previously unpublished letters by his first wife, Eileen, records of his earnings, and so on.
Every item is impeccably presented and authoritatively annotated; there is a wealth of additional commentary. The cumulative index to the last 11 volumes runs to 187 closely-packed pages. The edition more than once refers; in wry-self-defence, to the description of the character in 1984 who "was engaged in producing garbled versions -definitive texts, they were called". Professor Davison knows better than to lay claim to definitiveness, but the message on the tele-screens should certainly be BLAIR-TEXTS UNGARBLED GOOD, and quite a few unBlair untexts ungarbled good, too.
These volumes thus document in quite extraordinary detail what was a relatively short writing life. And they bring home even more forcefully than Bernard Crick’s splendidly tough-minded biography the extent to which this was a writing life, a life lived in thrall to the ideal  of producing clear, honest, telling sentences. From the moment in the mid-l930s when he starts to sign personal letters with his pseudonym, we can trace the unnerving process by which the man was increasingly absorbed into his writerly persona (neatly symbolised by the fact that his first wife died as "Eileen Blair", while his second lived on as "Sonia Orwell".
The first item in this edition is an (uncorrected) letter home from the 8-year-old Eric: "I supose you want to know what schools like, its alright we have fun in the morning. When we are in bed." (Ah, such, such were the joys!) The final entry has him signing his last will and testament three days before his death, aged 46: he directed that the headstone on his grave should bear the name "Eric Arthur Blair", but he also left instructions for the Uniform Edition of the works of "George Orwell". Blair est mort: vive Orwell!

Stefan Collini is Reader In Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University.

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