Gordon Bowker: Orwell’s Library

Readers familiar with the life of George Orwell (b. Eric Blair, 1903) probably know that for over a year in the mid-1930s, he worked in a Hampstead bookshop — Booklovers’ Corner, at the junction of Pond Street and South End Green. The shop is long gone but a plaque commemorating the association now marks the spot. Writing about this experience, Orwell always portrayed it as a wretched one. In an essay, ‘Bookshop Memories’, published in 1936, he listed a veritable catalogue of miseries the job entailed, especially having to deal with the kind of customers the shop attracted. They were not, he wrote, as many people supposed, ‘charming old gentlemen browsing eternally among calf-bound folios’ — and really bookish people were a rarity.

Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all. ..In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

That ‘exceptionally interesting stock’ is very differently depicted in his 1936 novel based on his bookselling experiences, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, filmed in 1997 with Richard E. Grant as the disgruntled young poet, Gordon Comstock, reduced to selling books, most of which he considers junk.

Eight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright. They were arranged alphabetically. Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galsworthy, Gibbs, Priestley, Sapper, Walpole. Gordon eyed them with inert hatred. At this moment he hated all books, and novels most of all. Horrible to think of all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place. Pudding, suet pudding. Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in — a vault of puddingstone.

People who knew Booklovers’ Corner regarded Orwell’s depiction of it as a caricature. But, as we know from books like Animal Farm, he was a brilliant satirist who exaggerated to make a point — in this case that writers were often forced into menial work in order to subsist. While he was writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his career had stalled and his literary future looked bleak. The book’s savage tone reflects his sense of frustration, but Comstock’s hatred of bookselling has been also ascribed to Orwell himself.

As if to confirm the point, in ‘Bookshop Memories’ he complained that the job had ruined his taste for books as sheer objects of pleasure.

There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out of date gazetteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the ‘sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl’s Own Paper. ..Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

However, all this is Orwellian exaggeration, and even while he was still working at Booklovers’ Corner he told a girlfriend, ‘I wish I had £700, or even £500, and I could start a bookshop of my own.’ He didn’t open a bookshop, but he did continue collecting books.

Orwell was an avid reader and prolific reviewer, and thousands of books passed through his hands. He retained comparatively few, except those that influenced him most — those he called ‘books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life.’ Many of these cherished works inform his various works. So, like most readers who are book collectors, Orwell had two libraries — the vast incalculable one he kept stored in his mind and the more select one he kept on bookshelves at home.

Books he mentioned reading as a child included Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland (said to have had its own peculiar influence on Animal Farm), Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (humorous fantasy he thought the best way of debunking things), Ballantyne’s Coral Island (details of which he could recall some thirty years later), Dickens’s David Copperfield (one of his most brilliant essays was on Dickens), Gulliver’s Travels (Swift, like Dickens, was a guiding star for him), and H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (discovered in a friend’s library when he was fourteen). He loved comic books, especially the Gem and the Magnet, about which he famously wrote in his essay ‘Boys’ Weeklies,’ and American books for children — Little Women, Helen’s Babies, and Mark Twain’s stories of Mississippi life — which he celebrated in ‘Riding Down from Bangor.’ In his teens, he relished ghost stories (especially those of M. R. James) and the great detective stories of his age. His pantheon of fictional heroes encompassed Chesterton’s Father Brown, Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados, and R. Austin Freeman’s forensic detective, Dr. Thorndyke, as well as E. W. Hornung’s gentleman crook, Raffles. Above all he loved Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, many of which he claimed to know by heart. At his death he still possessed a much-thumbed 1925 edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Books read as a boy continued to influence him. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, W. H. Davies’s Autobiography of a Super Tramp, and Jack London’s People of the Abyss — read while a schoolboy at Eton — informed his very first book (Down and Out in Paris and London, published by Gollancz in 1933), a report based on his experiences of dishwashing in Paris restaurants and tramping in England.

Orwell’s admirers are often surprised to learn how highly he regarded the writing of Somerset Maugham — ‘The Vice Consul’ (from On a Chinese Screen, 1922), clearly inspired his essay ‘A Hanging’, and Ashenden (1928) was one of the models he took (along with Swift’s A Modest Proposal) in working to perfect his own ‘windowpane’ style of prose. In 1940 he wrote, ‘I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.’

Until his mid-thirties, Orwell was something of a gypsy. After a childhood in Henley-on-Thames and early adult years spent in Southwold, there were (after absences in Burma and Paris), various lodgings in and around London until 1936, when he married and settled in an old cottage in Wallington in Hertfordshire. So, he was late in beginning to build a settled library, as others with his breadth and depth of reading (he was a classics scholar) might have done much earlier. There were also financial limits to his book-buying, most of his pre-war adult life having been spent in comparative poverty. However, he haunted secondhand shops and sometimes the review copies did accumulate. Lettice Cooper, the novelist, who visited the Wallington cottage, remembered books all over the place, including piles on the stairs — ‘booby-traps for the unwary.’

His experiences in the Spanish Civil War produced Orwell’s greatest nonfiction work, Homage to Catalonia, inspired by Great War memoirs such as Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Aldington’s All Men Are Enemies (the best of them all, he thought), and Max Plowman’s A Subaltern on the Somme. His disillusionment with communism in Spain eventually spawned his two last great novels.

In wartime London, Orwell worked first at the BBC, then as literary editor of the left-wing review Tribune. In 1944, just after he had moved his library from Wallington, his flat in Kilburn was demolished by a doodlebug. His friend Inez Holden remembered him scrabbling among the bomb-rubble to salvage his books and trundling them in a wheelbarrow back to the Tribune office in the Strand during his lunch breaks — a strenuous task for a man now fatally stricken with tuberculosis; but parted from his books he felt acutely deprived.

Not long after Animal Farm appeared in 1946, and money troubles were finally behind him, he estimated his library at around nine hundred books, of which a dozen were borrowed. They had, he calculated, cost him £165.15S over the previous fifteen years. Some, however, dated from his childhood, some were old favourites preserved in blue bindings. A number of them — mainly the works of the Elizabethans and Romantics — were brought to their marriage by his first wife, Eileen, an Oxford graduate and poet, and one-time student of Tolkien.

Until 1949, Orwell laboured to produce his final masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four: Among the books which helped define that novel’s bleak vision were Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Eugene Lyons’s Assignment in Utopia, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and Zamyatin’s We. Of these, only the Koestler survived among his final collection.

The 523 books remaining at his death are listed in Peter Davison’s twenty-volume Complete Works of George Orwell. They include a 1921 edition of Butler’s Notebooks (which he had had in Burma as a young policeman in the early 1920s), a full set of Conrad, a 1901 popular edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Dickens’s works in fifteen volumes from various publishers, sixteen T. S. Eliot first editions (none earlier than 1925), an 1853 edition of Fielding’s works, a 1921 edition of Anatole France’s Les contes de Jacques Tournebroche, Hardy’s The Dynasts (rebound in dark blue), the Petronius Satyricon, a complete Thackeray in ten volumes, a collection of Trollopes (the Anglican Church held a strange fascination for him), Tolstoy’s War and Peace (in three volumes), Twain’s Innocents Abroad (a 1871 edition), and several novels of George Gissing (a writer he greatly admired). Apart from the Eliots, there were first editions of Graham Greene’s England Made Me and The Heart of the Matter, and of Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags.

One set of books he was extremely proud to possess was Miscellanies in Prose and Poetry, a first collected edition of Swift, published somewhere between 1738 and 1744 (probably that printed by George Faulkner from 1735 onwards), bought for five shillings at a farmhouse auction. In 1935, he had begun collecting political and religious pamphlets. Eight years later, with Reginald Reynolds, he edited a collection of these (British Pamphleteers, Volume I, published by Allan Wingate in 1943), to which he wrote a brilliant introduction lamenting the deterioration of pamphleteering in an age of party political rhetoric. It reflects an intense sympathy for the English dissident tradition and the sort of awkward, critical cast of mind that finally brings the wretched Winston Smith to his doom at the hands of Big Brother. Orwell’s pamphlets, 353 in all, now reside at the British Library.

Books in his collection that would now command a decent price include first UK editions of James Joyce’s Haveth Childers Everywhere (1931) and Two Tales of Shem and Shaun (1932), and a 1925 Paris edition of Ulysses in a blue binding. For a time he had been quite inspired by Joyce’s great book (as an awkward pastiche of the Nighttown chapter in A Clergyman’s Daughter reveals), but, with the emergence of Finnegans Wake, his interest, along with that of many others, waned. In the thirties he had possessed first editions of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Black Spring (1936), both banned in England at the time, but in January 1940, after a letter to the publisher (Jack Kahane of the Obelisk Press in Paris) was intercepted, his Wallington cottage was raided and Henry Miller was taken into custody. ‘The police were only carrying out orders and were very nice about it,’ he told Victor Gollancz, ‘and even the public prosecutor wrote and said that he understood that as a writer I might have certain books, e.g., Lady Chatterley’s Lover; but it appears that Miller’s books have not been in print long enough to have become respectable.’

None of the above firsts appears to have been signed; inscribed editions did not interest him. Working at Booklovers’ Corner he had attended country house auctions to acquire books for the shop, but except in rare instances signed copies and autographs left him cold:

We bought recently a lot of books with the authors’ signatures in, and some of them containing autograph letters as well, but they were all sold almost at once. One that pleased me was inscribed ‘From Beverley Nicholls, in all humility.’ There is a subtle humour in that. I often see autographed letters etc. advertised among the lots at book-auctions. I remember distinctly that in one case a letter from Sheila Kaye-Smith was priced higher than one from Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (the Queen Anne one). You often see autographs of Napoleon advertised, but they are usually pretty expensive, and of course they are not letters, only documents signed by him. Towards the end of his life he never seems to have written anything except his signature with his own hand, and apparently his spelling was appalling.

Even so, Orwell’s posthumous library did include a few signed copies, three, including the four-volume Left Hand, Right Hand (1945-49), by Osbert Sitwell, an old acquaintance, and two inscribed by another friend, Stephen Spender — Spiritual Exercises (privately printed in 1943) and Trial of a Judge (1938). However, while their condition is unknown, the most valuable books in the whole collection were probably the personal copies of his own works, though strangely, at the end, some volumes were missing — Keep the Aspidistra Flying; The Road to Wigan Pier; Coming Up for Air and Animal Farm. The complete collection was distributed among three people, his second wife, Sonia, his sister Avril, and Sir Richard Rees — all of whom are long dead, though no doubt the books have survived their past owners.

At least one book he left achieved value by association with him. A copy of Thomas Gray’s Poems (1920 edition), presented to him by the headmaster of Eton, Cyril Alington, on his leaving the College in 1921, and inscribed ‘Hunc librum Erico A. Blair ab Etona discedenti dono dedit Cyrillus Alington Magister Informator. Etonae A.D. MCMXX1,’ offered for sale by George S. MacManus in Philadelphia in 1983, fetched $1,750. In sharp contrast, in 1953 Orwell’s widow, Sonia, sold the only surviving Orwell manuscript — that of Nineteen Eighty-Four — at a charity auction for £50. Today, of course, it would command many thousands.

Some books were absent from the final list. That missing copy of Animal Farm was probably the presentation copy, rebound in dark blue, left to his adopted son Richard. Also absent were those books left at his bedside when he died at University College in January of 1950. He had also inherited a miniature library which spoke of a faded aristocratic past (the Earl of Westmorland was distantly related) and to which Orwell was particularly attached. He described it in his will as a ‘small collection of leather-covered books which are kept in a wooden travelling case and were originally the property of my great-uncle Horatio Blair.’ That case and set of books, now owned by Orwell’s niece, comprises some 152 volumes small enough (5×3 inches) to fit into the wooden case (a hinged library, three shelves high, 18 x 18 inches) with which Captain Blair put to sea in the mid-nineteenth century. These comprise an 1826 two-volume edition of Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler (printed by F. J. Rivington of London), thirty volumes of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle (1778), and 120 copies of Bell’s edition of Poems of Great Britain: From Chaucer to Churchill (c. 1780). Apart from its antique value, the Orwell association must lend this collection a considerable rarity.

Orwell was not a book collector in any specialist sense. His library represents the map of a great mind. There were favourite books he read and reread, those he read in passing, and those ‘collected’ within himself. Each of them added to what he called his ‘mental topography.’ At his death, his library contained probably the books he valued most, those that over the years had escaped his occasional culls or acts of generosity.

After working in Australia and the Middle East, Gordon Bowker studied at Nottingham and London Universities before teaching at Goldsmith’s College and writing drama-documentaries for radio and television. He has contributed to The London Magazine, Independent, Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, and New York Times. He has written film-location reports for The Observer (including Huston’s Under the Volcano and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor) and dispatches from Berlin and Warsaw for the Illustrated London News. His books include Malcolm Lowry Remembered (1985); Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry (1994, New York Times Notable Book of the Year); and Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell (1996). His George Orwell appeared in 2003, Orwell’s centenary year. This article originally appeared in Book and Magazine Collector (under the title ‘George Orwell: Book Collector’) and was reprinted in the later version by the New England Review. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.