Peter Davison: Note on The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to write on the depressed areas of the north of England and, having handed in his typescript of Keep the Aspidistra Flying for publication, he gave up his part-time job as a bookshop assistant in Hampstead and travelled north. He left London on 30 January 1936 and spent two months in Lancashire and Yorkshire. On his return on 2 April he set about writing The Road to Wigan Pier. He delivered the manuscript on 15 December and it was published on 8 March 1937 in a Left Book Club edition and simultaneously in a higher-priced trade edition. Part I was also issued separately in May 1937 by the Left Book Club as a supplementary volume for ‘propaganda distribution’. By 28 November 1939, 44,039 copies of the Left Book Club edition, 2,150 trade copies, and 890 copies of Part I only had been printed: a total of 47,079. A further 150 copies were destroyed in an air-raid. The Road to Wigan Pier was not reissued in Orwell’s lifetime although a daily newspaper, the News Chronicle, published a short section in a series it ran devoted to ‘young writers already famous among critics, less well-known by the public’ on 10 June 1937. Harcourt, Brace published it in New York in 1958 and it was included in Secker & Warburg’s Uniform Edition in 1959; Penguin Books first published The Road to Wigan Pier in 1962.

The Road to Wigan Pier was published without being proof-read by either Orwell (who was by then fighting in the Spanish Civil War) or his wife, Eileen. She was offered one day in which she might see the proofs at the publisher’s office, such was the pressure to get the book out. Orwell sent a message asking for one change to be made. On page 16, line 16 (in the 1989/2001 Penguin edition), he had written ‘rooks copulating’. Gollancz had changed this to ‘courting’; Orwell asked for it to be altered to ‘treading’, and the text was amended. The original has now been restored.

The original edition of The Road to Wigan Pier was illustrated with a section of 32 plates. Harcourt, Brace reproduced these in 1958, but no later edition did so until the Complete Works edition was published in 1986. Orwell did not in fact choose the illustrations and the idea for their inclusion may not have been his. Gollancz telegraphed him to call at his office on 21 December 1936, a day or two before he was due to leave for Spain. Also present at their meeting was the architect Clough Williams Ellis, best remembered for his work at Portmeirion, but who was also interested in social problems. It may have been Ellis’s idea to include illustrations and it was almost certainly Ellis who suggested likely sources. These Gollancz noted down on his blotting pad, from which he tore off sections which he handed to Norman Collins (later head of ATV) to process. The inclusion of these illustrations in the new editions of The Road to Wigan Pier is important, even if something of their clarity is lost because they have had to be reproduced from the plates in the first edition. These illustrations reinforce the place of The Road to Wigan Pier in the English documentary tradition, as comparison with Edgar Anstey’s film, Housing Problems (1935), will demonstrate.

Victor Gollancz was uneasy about the second part of Orwell’s book and he therefore wrote a foreword. This is not reprinted here but can be found in the Complete Works edition, V, pages 216-25.

Orwell first saw The Road to Wigan Pier when he returned to Barcelona on leave from the front line at the end of April or early in May 1937. On 9 May he wrote to Gollancz to thank him for contributing his foreword. He said he liked the introduction very much though, of course, he could have answered some of Gollancz’s criticisms. Whether he was simply being polite, or was a trifle naïve, has been a matter of debate. Perhaps the fact that he wrote against a background of street-fighting in  Barcelona must be taken into account. Discussion ‘of what one is really talking about’, as he put it, must have seemed very civilised by contrast. Orwell never shrank from being direct, so his response was probably quite straightforward. Later, in conversation with Sonia Orwell, he was to see Gollancz’s foreword in a different light.

The most important ‘textual variant’ of The Road to Wigan Pier, if it can be so termed, is the omission of illustrations from so many editions. In addition, Secker & Warburg omitted item 3 on page 48 (lines 25-7) from their Uniform Edition and Penguin Books followed suit; Penguin then incorrectly renumbered the sequence. Orwell himself miscalculated some of the miners’ wages and deductions on page 38, but, since the pay-slips he used have survived, the correct calculations have now been made. Orwell’s error had the effect of making the average weekly earnings appear slightly more than, in fact, they were.

Reproduced from the Penguin Classics edition of The Road to Wigan Pier (2001) by kind permission of Peter Davison.