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


THE TRUTH ABOUT ORWELL  

By Stephen Spender
The New York Review of Books 
16 November 1972
George Orwell
The Unknown Orwell
by Peter Stansky, by William Abrahams
Knopf, 316 pp., $8.95

George Orwell
by Raymond Williams
Viking, 102 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Road to Wigan Pier
by George Orwell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 232 pp., $2.25 (paper)



Just as I sat down to write this article, a letter appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (October 13) from Orwell's widow, Sonia Orwell, stating that The Unknown Orwell by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams contains "mistakes and inaccuracies" and misinterprets Orwell's character, and that it was written without her cooperation (with the result that the authors were not permitted to see important documents at University College, London, which are in her trust). In refusing to assist the authors she was respecting Orwell's wish, stated in his will, that no biography of him should be written. At the same time, since she now realizes that there is no way of preventing people from writing about Orwell's life, she has authorized Professor Bernard Crick, who is already writing about Orwell's political thought, to write a biography, and she has given him "irrevocable" access to the materials.

I congratulate Sonia Orwell on her wise decision (which must have been very painful to her) to make the Orwell material available, and perhaps one can be grateful to Stansky and Abrahams for jogging her into appointing Professor Crick. For a writer to attempt to prevent his biography from being written is like imposing an ordinance on his neighbors not to talk about him behind his back. The only effect such a demand could possibly have would be to silence one's loyal friends (who would say "hush" instead of speaking out in one's defense) and loosen the tongues of enemies and gossips. The eventual answer to this would necessarily be to authorize a biography based on the facts made accessible.


The Unknown Orwell is, however, neither gossipy nor malicious. It may contain mistakes (doubtless we shall see a list of them) but it is in no way indiscreet or damaging to Orwell's reputation. I myself disagree at some points with the authors' interpretation of Orwell, but it is difficult to think that seeing the withheld material would have substantially altered their views. A biographer's interpretation of his subject is, after all, simply a point of view. Presumably Professor Crick will have a point of view about Orwell with which, however well founded, one might disagree.

The background to their writing this book is that Stansky and Abrahams had originally planned their brilliant previous book Journey to the Frontier as a study of the attitudes and actions of four English writers during the Spanish Civil War—Julian Bell, John Cornford, George Orwell, and another English writer, still alive. Their researches into Cornford and Bell were so fruitful that they found they had enough material for a book exclusively about them. Since they explored the histories of their subjects not just about "Spain" but about their educations and early lives, they were left with a mass of unused material, chiefly about Orwell. The Unknown Orwell is based on this. It is written by writers well qualified to discuss their subject. It does not fall into the class of Robert Sencourt's biographical memoir of T. S. Eliot, which is spottily informed but written by someone completely incapable of understanding Eliot's work or personality.


Orwell came from one of those English families which although middle class are rather mixed up socially. His real name was Eric Blair (Orwell being a pseudonym which he adopted when he published his first book). The Blairs had come down in the world rather, and Eric Blair's father had a position in the Indian Civil Service (Sub-Deputy Opium Agent) of exactly the kind that would make a son ask himself, when sent home to preparatory school in England, whether his father was a gentleman. Our authors make too much of the Blair family tree, which had ramifications reaching into the family of the present Earl of Westmorland. I cannot really believe this was important. The English, unless they are intensely snobbish, don't—or didn't—attach much importance to their remote cousinly connections with the aristocracy. But small boys of my own generation were told we must write "esq." after our father's name on the envelope, because we were gentlemen. Not to be a tradesman was what mattered.

Eric Blair's mother was half French, her father being of a French family—Limouzin—which had for long conducted businesses in Burma. Blair spent the first four years of his life in Bengal, to which his father had been transferred, and was then taken by his mother and two sisters to England. He was a near-win—almost near-miss—child who got a scholarship first at St. Cyprian's, a well-known prep school graced with the presence of two other remarkable boys, Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton. Later Blair won a scholarship to Eton.

Stansky and Abrahams give us a tremendous amount of English school and "class" background. The picture of Eric Blair that emerges is of a gritty, physically unattractive child, one of those boys who seem to have been born old, as Cyril Connolly recalled, and with no close friends, but still making his mark as an intellectual and contributing priggish, moralistic stories to the school literary society.

After leaving school, Eric Blair, who did not want to go up to Oxford or Cambridge, joined the Indian Imperial Police Force. Stansky and Abrahams regard this as a choice well within the tradition of the Blair family, since his opium-supervising father had been a kind of police agent. But it was a non-choice rather than a choice: a young man taking the first job in sight in order to get away from home and from the Etonians now become Oxfordians. Perhaps, too, the idea of the police had for Blair the fascination of repulsion (though his views were thoroughly patriotic and conservative and un-Orwellian at the time). His school poems were inspired by those of Kipling and his essays by his own conviction that slackers should be punished, though these attitudes were combined with a cynical disrespect for his schoolmasters. Eric Blair was a man who (while following secretly or openly his vocation as a writer) always nonchalantly chose for himself the least pleasant job, not exactly to punish himself, but because he instinctively knew that unpleasant tasks were those which plunged him deepest into the grim realities of living.


In Burma, as a police official, Blair learned to detest imperialism. Later he emphasized that he did so because he had seen it and lived it at first hand and as a wicked part of it. He felt guilty about having been in the police. He resigned from his job there, returned to England, and set out on his toilsome journey to become a writer.

Long before he had become an "idiosyncratic socialist" Blair had determined to be a writer. The most interesting sections of The Unknown Orwell are probably those concerned with this. He contributed poems and stories to an Eton magazine called The Election Times. A revealing story is called "The Slack-bob." It is an extremely priggish parable attacking boys who are slack about playing games. The poems that Stansky and Abrahams quote are all conventionally patriotic. It is as though the police officer with a literary turn had written them.

A few of his contemporaries at Eton had extraordinary literary gifts: Cyril Connolly, Brian Howard, Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), Harold Acton, and Anthony Powell. Orwell had little connection with them as they were "Oppidans" (not scholars). But he had known Connolly already at St. Cyprian's. These elegant, sophisticated, witty, and attractive boys (Orwell suffered at Eton from not being pretty) were altogether "superior persons." They were the nucleus of the Oxford Aesthetes who were to have such an influence at that university from 1926 to 1929.

Orwell's writing, when it was to emerge, was to be as different as possible from theirs. It seems to me probable that resentment of their writing, which was so much bound up with their manners and "life style," must have influenced him. According to Stansky and Abrahams he went about learning to write with a plodding assiduity which was the very opposite of their gay dilettantism. He took a room in London and wrote long poems, "some in rhymed quatrains, some in unrhymed iambic pentameters. Their tone was cynical; their language banal; their ironies predictable." How different from the rich, exotic, Sitwellian verses which Harold Acton had published in Oxford Poetry and from the prose of Cyril Connolly.

During this period he showed his work to the poet Ruth Pitter but not to Connolly. Nearly ten years later, in 1936, he wrote to Connolly inquiring after the novel he was writing, with the suggestion that he would like to boost it—not that that would do it much good. A few weeks later he reviewed this novel—The Rock Pool—in a way that showed how far stronger with him was the impulse to tell what he took to be the truth about his friend's work than to give it the suggested forward shove.

The Rock Pool is a wittily malicious account of an English artists' colony in the South of France. After suggesting that this kind of thing has been done much better by Norman Douglas and Aldous Huxley, Orwell goes on;

Even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy. For it is clear that Mr. Connolly rather admires the disgusting beasts he depicts, and certainly he prefers them to the polite sheep-like Englishman; he even compares them, in their ceaseless war against decency, to heroic savage tribes struggling against western civilization. But this, you see, only amounts to a distaste for modern life and common decency and one might equally well express it, as so many do, by scuttling between the moulting wings of Mother Church.

One notes here how Orwell falls back into the slang of the public school debating society when he is attacking intellectuals of his own class. He uses similar expressions in The Road to Wigan Pier. The idiom, which is itself almost grotesquely "public school," is in a style of invective which he perhaps thought would appeal to ordinary people on account of its straightforwardness.


Stansky and Abrahams argue that in 1927 and 1928, when Orwell took a room in the Portobello Road and sat at his work table training himself to be a writer, he had not acquired the skills that later enabled him to describe experiences in Burma which he recorded in the early Thirties in Burmese Days and "A Hanging." Yet the conversion, political, intellectual, and personal, that his feelings of hatred and guilt about Burma had effected, drove him in search of his subject matter, which was the lives of the miserable and oppressed (so different from the kind of lives described by writers who were his contemporaries at Eton). With the example of Jack London's The People of the Abyss in front of him, as well as of the disguises which London adopted in order to obtain his material, Orwell got himself up as a tramp and went on week-long excursions into the London East End, where he slept in doss houses. In doing this he was living out both his own writing and his politics.

Stansky and Abrahams divide this part of his life into three periods:

First in London, a brief exploratory venture. Then Paris…then London again, where the range widens—out of the East End, onto the road and into the hop fields of Kent.

The investigations in Paris were deepened by the fact that he ran out of money (though he could have always gotten some by calling on a rich aunt who lived in Paris). After a period of near starvation, he found a job as a dishwasher in a hotel off the Rue de Rivoli, where he worked for two months. He plunged to still greater depths when he fell ill and was taken to a free hospital, the Hôpital Cochin:

What he discovered was a version of hell, beginning with twenty minutes of questioning at the admission desk, continuing with a compulsory bath in five inches of warm water; then, in bathrobe and night shirt but without slippers, being made to walk in the cold night two hundred yards across an open courtyard to the ward to which he had been assigned; searching for his own bed in the dim, sweetish, foul-smelling room jammed with three ranks of beds, each virtually head to foot….

Out of this came the essay "How the Poor Die."

When, in 1933, Blair published Down and Out in Paris and London, he did so under a pseudonym, George Orwell. The manuscript, finally accepted by Victor Gollancz, had been rejected by two publishers, Jonathan Cape and Faber. (T. S. Eliot, on behalf of Faber, had written him a publisher's encouraging but rejecting and disheartening letter.) Blair wished that the book, if it were to prove a failure, would not add to the humiliations which he already endured under the name of Eric Blair.

Not that this was the first time he had used another name. When traveling among tramps, disguised as one of them, he called himself P. S. Burton. Switching roles, or finding roles switched for him, was part of the pattern of the boy-brought-home-from-India and sent to a school of prosperous English boys where his parents (as the headmaster spitefully pointed out to him) only paid half the fees. When he had become a member of the Indian Imperial Police, reverting to the status of his father, he was lapsing from his status as an Etonian.


Stansky and Abrahams seize on the Blair-Orwell dichotomy and make it the thesis of their book. They drive the thesis too hard, I think, as in the following passage which, besides being confusing, tends to make the reader think that Orwell was a kind of split personality divided into a Jekyll-and-Hyde of Blair-and-Orwell:

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 schooldays. 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 shabbily he dressed or austerely he lived, would never lose an air of authority—in his life as in his prose—that is thought to mark a Public School "Old Boy."
Orwell could transform the values of the upper middle class that Blair resented, and infuse them with the egalitarianism he had witnessed among the miners in Wigan and experienced at first hand as a soldier among soldiers in Spain. Eric Blair looked back un-forgivingly 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 it, and looked back to it nostalgically in Coming Up for Air. And if Eric Blair came to disdain the platitudes and hypocrisies at a boys' school in England of the First World War, George Orwell was moved to a simple, intense patriotism during the Second World War when England was endangered.

These lines creak with the thesis doing its grind, finding contrasts and contradictions where they scarcely exist. I do not see how the first sentences connect unless they mean that George Orwell was in personality and style smelly and impoverished. Eric Blair or, for that matter, George Orwell could perfectly well, without changing his personality, have hated his pre-1914 schooldays while considering that the world of that time was superior to that of today. I have similar feelings myself, without their involving any duplication of persona.


The split into Blair and Orwell was not so much the result of his being divided within himself into two scarcely related "opposites." Rather it was the result of a person of remarkable self-consistency having to deal with such completely different sets of circumstances that in order to confront them he had to adopt different roles. It seems important to insist that if Blair met one set of circumstances (dim beginnings and failure) and Orwell another (comparative fame and success), he remained, in the most literal sense, a man of integrity, by which one means a single being, with single aims (in his case to be a writer) and a remarkably integrated view of society.

Raymond Williams in his excellent book in the "Modern Masters" series interprets the division not so much as a dichotomy within Orwell himself as a split in English life to which he was partly exposed in his childhood and at school, and to which he later deliberately exposed himself. Williams produces the theory that Orwell was in pursuit of three myths:

The myth of his boyhood, the special people, the "family," is succeeded by the observations he made on his return—a scene of bitter and bleak contradictions. But then, in a third phase, he creates a new myth that until quite recently remained effective.

This new myth is of "an England of basic ordinariness and decency," a "real England," "an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past," a family in which the "wrong members" have gotten into control.

Orwell thought—or felt—then that he had been thrust, by circumstances, among the "wrong members" of the society, that is to say the upper class. He had to get back to the "real England"; slogging his way there in muddy boots and having changed into a working-class uniform, following the example of Jack London.


Orwell's motives for writing were, he explains in the essay "Why I Write," "partly Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them for posterity"; and partly "desire to push the world in a certain direction." During the fascist decade, this desire took the form of trying to push the world toward socialism.

Fundamentally he took his stand on his own life. He brought his subject matter—the workers, the unemployed, the slum dwellers, and the Catalan Republican militia—close to his own experience, out of which came his writing. Beyond that, he obviously had confidence in his own sense of justice and what he called "decency." Moral sense and demonstrable justice (which meant economic arrangements producing equality) were everything. At the time of the first Labour government, when he was dying in the hospital, he complained to me that there were still too many rich people about. I asked him whether he felt certain that "soaking the rich," on whom, after all, the whole English economy depended, would really help the English economic situation. He said he did not care about this, it was not socialism if there were rich, people about when there were a great many poor.

It might be argued that everything came back to himself—his own views. Just as D. H. Lawrence disapproved of everyone else's sex, so Orwell disapproved of everyone else's socialism. There is some truth in this. His views were sometimes invertedly snobbish and absurd. John Morris's anecdote about going for a pub crawl with Orwell, who told him to leave the pub because he had committed the social indiscretion of asking for a "pint of beer" when he should have asked for a "mild" or "bitter," is to the point. His war diaries, published in the Collected Essays, contain prophecies and speculation which would have seemed ridiculous, if stated, even at the time. D. A. N. Jones, in a brilliant "devil's advocate" essay entitled "Arguments Against Orwell," points out how unfair Orwell could be in attacking his opponents, "the pink lefties."


His views are certainly assailable, but ultimately his position rests on his integrity. He had hammered his political actions, his way of living, and his writing into a unity. He is not so much a political thinker as a moral landmark in a political landscape which others may steer by. In this he has predecessors, like William Morris. It is pointless to say that such people often express wrong-headed views, because what they stand by is their actual existence and certain insights, which are not at all wrong. Of course, to the political intellectuals, they may provide a lesson of their ideological wrongness which is as valuable in its way as that of their moral rightness. Thus it is illuminating to learn from Raymond Williams that Orwell had no real grasp of the class struggle in England, had never made a profound analysis of the situation, had invented a new, in the long run untenable, English myth, and so on. As far as Orwell himself is concerned, all this is beside the point, though it may provide material for a very real point that Williams is making.

It is also beside the point—as far as Orwell is concerned—to suggest that Animal Farm has something wrong about it because it has encouraged the anticommunists "dedicated to the unavowed service of United States policy," as Conor Cruise O'Brien has put it, in an essay quoted by D. A. N. Jones in "Arguments against Orwell," which I have already mentioned. D. A. N. Jones goes on to point out that it is no accident that Animal Farm, and not Homage to Catalonia, is chosen as a set book in English and commonwealth schools. It is there for its anticommunist message. He writes: "The book is, for better or worse, a clear-cut expression of the anti-communist orthodoxy."

Jones reports O'Brien as stating that Orwell, if living, would have been as bitter an adversary of the Washington admirers of Animal Farm as he was of the Stalinists. I have reason to think this is true; for I happened to visit Orwell in hospital shortly after Life magazine had published a number taking up Animal Farm in a big way, on account of its anticommunist message. I asked him how he felt about this, and he said that he had not written the book against Stalin in order to provide propaganda for capitalists.


The argument that he should have anticipated the State Department and CIA reaction has as little weight as the parallel argument used at the time that Homage to Catalonia should not have been written because it would provide the fascists with propaganda against the Spanish Republicans. Kingsley Martin refused to publish Orwell's reports on the suppression of the POUM rising in Barcelona. T. S. Eliot, on behalf of Faber, turned down Animal Farm on the grounds that it might harm Anglo-Soviet cultural relations.

Arguments based on expediency, prudence, political sagacity attendant upon results had no appeal for Orwell, whose politics was of the bedrock kind based on social justice and truth. He was one of two or three people in his time who were justified in using such abstractions, because they were not abstractions to him. He had hewn them out of his own flesh.

Notes

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, 1969).

The essay is contained in The World of George Orwell edited by Miriam Gross (Simon & Schuster, 1972). This excellently illustrated and documented volume contains very good essays by Francis Hope, John Gross, Richard Myne, Dan Jacobson, Raymond Carr, John Wain, William Empson, D. A. N. Jones, and others on aspects of Orwell's biography, writings, and reputation.



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