Among the biographers who have applied themselves to relating and explaining the life and times of George Orwell, who was once Eric Blair, there will be few who, having delved and dug into this short but momentous life, are capable of letting it rest there. With the richness and depth of the literature he left us, it is easy to forget that even though he lived for forty-seven years, only half that time were serious writing years. He was a straightforward man, Eric Blair, given to good manners and plain speaking. Having purged some of his own demons (Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days) and then morphed into George Orwell, he went in search of other people’s devils and did his best to present them as he found them (The Road to Wigan Pier and Animal Farm). In the process maybe he came to understand himself better, as is liable to happen when any problem is deliberately examined under the public and defining microscope of the written word.
No one appears to have enjoyed this sharing of his conceptions and misconceptions more than he himself did. His novels explored aspects of contemporary 20th century life which are relevant socio-political documents today. Despite the high profile of his last two novels, his articles, reviews and essays in various journals such as Horizon and Tribune are where one might be forgiven for feeling closest to George Orwell, to his likes and dislikes, and to those subjects closest to his heart. It is the magic of constant discovery within these works that the irresistibility of the plain man’s words will quietly entwine themselves round you and ensure that you never again quite escape the fascination of interpreting and then re-interpreting George Orwell.
Were you to settle down with some of the essays (Penguin published a miscellany of over 40 of them in 2000, with an introduction by Sir Bernard Crick) the often cheerful, matter-of-fact subjects tumble onto the page, a kaleidoscope of passion and pessimism, humour and humility impossible to resist. The everyday making of a good cup of tea becomes a strangely intimate exercise and sides are taken when it is discovered that, unlike some, Orwell belongs to the brigade which puts the tea in the cup first and adds the milk afterwards. After only mentioning one quite trivial subject, there are already questions to be asked and opinions to be exchanged. That is where he grabs you because every line he writes is liable to be encrypted and contains a wealth of possibilities; the more you read and read again, the more enlightenment you find.
The same changing angles and unexpected layers of perception apply to the Orwell poems. The other day a friend and I were discussing his poem ‘Romance’ and my friend thought it showed all the bitterness and cynicism of a young man simply making use of the facilities in the Burma of 1922-27 when the British Raj did as it pleased. My interpretation was completely the reverse, for in it I saw the pleasure in the girl’s youth and beauty, his relief, after abortive efforts in England, at finally parting with his virginity, and the quirky little last line in which he laughs with wry indulgence at the girl’s awareness of her own value, knowing that they know that she will be the winner and, what’s more, that he’ll visit her again.
When I was young and had no sense,
In far off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.
Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said “For twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me.”
She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.
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One wonders whether Orwell considered that his life was really dull and colourless because his novels seem to reflect a tired kind of depression and seediness that is not present in the essays. To be constantly short of money will make life extremely grey and ‘featureless’ because it takes a certain amount of liquidity to inject the colour of incident into each day and without it, the eking-out of meagre funds tends to make life very ‘dull’ indeed. But George had his own ways of gingering things up. To be sent off to the other side of the World for five years, having left behind The Girl Most Desired ‘with all hope denied’ (Page 154, Eric & Us) was clearly enough to start off his Burmese idyll on the wrong foot and, judging by the gloom – even the rage – with which he described those years, it appears to have introduced a sullen mood of inward despair. This youthful angst grew even darker on returning to England with his unsuccessful attempt to re-establish his boyhood romance. The disappointment of what he saw as rejection evolved into a determination to sink himself down to the bilges of life in order to allow himself the recognition that others were suffering a great deal more all around him (Down and Out in Paris & London, 1935; Burmese Days, 1936; The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937). It certainly affected, and at times depressed, the way he wrote his novels which is why the essays are such bran tubs of lucky dips and all so much more satisfying in many ways.
The interesting thing about applying oneself to debating the content of George Orwell’s work is that he quite generously expects you to disagree with him now and then. The ‘puckish’ side of his nature positively entices his reader to cross swords with such remarks as:
‘Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.’
‘Politics and The English Language’, Horizon, April 1946
In occasional bullish mood he will fling out remarks to make your blood pressure rise, such as an essay called ‘The Prevention of Literature’ where Orwell deliberately provokes with:
‘Here I am not trying to deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of antisocial selfishness.’
Such provocation is entirely deliberate from one who likes nothing better than dropping a stone into the pond of discussion and watching the ripples as they spread across the whole surface. And yet… and yet, in another mood entirely, this plain-speaking man is riveted by small wonders. In his essay ‘Some Thoughts on The Common Toad’ (Tribune, April 1946) his perfection of the art of plain speaking cannot be bettered than in a single sentence:
‘… after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict
Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent.’
In a line and a half you have the whole picture, complete with sly sparkle of humour and a total economy of words. Ah, that may be what he wrote but is that what he meant? The plain-speaking man has, with his lifelong habit of ‘double-speak’, planted doubt in the mind of his reader. Is anything the way it seems to be?
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It is extraordinary that George Orwell appears to be more often appreciated by men than women. Could this be because of that previously mentioned tendency to dusty greyness which permeates his novels and which may well appeal less to women? It would be a good subject for debate because there are to be found such riches of colour and style, intellect and humour in the essays, written in that practical, un-flowery way of his which express his genius without drama or decoration. There are also so many subtle references back to that childhood which he chose to present as having been far from happy (‘Such, Such Were The Joys’). Much has been made of this essay and its assertions over the years, but was firmly refuted by Jacintha Buddicom (Eric & Us, 1974/2006) who should know, after all, since Eric Blair spent most of them with her and her family until he went to Burma in 1922. That Orwell also, in his heart, would have agreed with her comes over quite strongly all over his work if you look for it.
There is a long, three paragraph reflection on the happiness of childhood past in an essay called ‘Riding Down To Bangor’ which he wrote for Tribune in November 1946. By then several heart-wrenching things had happened to him in that he and his wife Eileen had adopted a baby boy in wartime 1944 and, within months, Eileen had died while Orwell, by then an official War correspondent, was away in recently liberated Paris. He returned to assume fatherhood and to take care of Richard with the help of family and then a nanny. By the time he wrote ‘Riding Down to Bangor’ Richard was nearly two and Orwell was deeply involved with all things domestic, a state which he clearly thoroughly enjoyed. His own childhood may well have been in his mind when he wrote:
It is hard not to feel that it was a better kind of society than that which arose from the sudden industrialization of the later part of the century. The people… may be mildly ridiculous but they were uncorrupted. They have something that is best described as integrity, or good morale, founded partly on an unthinking piety.
George Orwell was a loving and devoted father, bringing Richard back to London to live with him as soon as he possibly could. He took his turn with the practical aspects of parenthood as well as quickly recognising how fast a child’s mind will absorb learning of every kind. Animal Farm with all its intriguing sub-texts, had been published and become a resounding success by this period, money was coming in and it was at last possible to consider the future. Despite his declining health and increasing demands by various journals which kept a regular income coming in, it was decided to lease a property in Scotland on the island of Jura so that Richard could progress in health and freedom and George could write his last, and deeply complicated novel, Nineteen Eighty Four. The fact that both ideals were achieved despite his health gradually descending into terminal illness says so much for his strength and determination. The plain-spoken man with the no-nonsense approach to his genius left behind him such a wealth of literature that it takes time and endless re-reading to recognize within the phrases the truth of who he was, and the source of where his often battered happiness lay. One of his most pared-down but revealing sentences may be considered especially illuminating. Sandwiched between a contemplation of the quality of love between children and adults, and his supposed crush on an older girl called Elsie (Mallinson?) in ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’ one discovers:
Love, the spontaneous, unqualified emotion of love, was something I could only feel for people who were young.
Given that he was recalling his early youth, and that at the time of writing this essay he was forty four, with many affairs in his life, a brief but ‘open’ marriage, and an occasional eye for the girls when opportunity knocked, one wonders whether there were, in Orwell’s short life, just two completely ‘unqualified’ and selfless loves. Consider Eric Blair’s absolute eight-year commitment to Jacintha Buddicom, and the even briefer period of complete devotion to his son Richard. Orwell’s deceptively uncluttered essays tend to raise these sort of questions to those who read them; causing repeated reads while the true message is searched for. This was, after all, the way that he and his Muse wrote to each other from their earliest youth and one wonders whether it became so ingrained in them that this was the way they continued to write for the rest of their lives.
Dione Venables runs Finlay Publisher, who publish a new essay by a leading Orwell scholar every two months. Dione contributed a revealing postscript to the 2006 edition of Jacintha Buddicom’s Eric & Us, a memoir of her childhood with her close friend, Eric Blair (later George Orwell). The three Buddicoms in Eric & Us were the children of Dione’s aunt Laura Finlay. Dione is the author of seven historical novels, and a sometime BBC broadcaster and miniaturist.