The Essential Orwell
- George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick
Secker, 473 pp, £10.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 11450 X
- Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s edited by Frank Gloversmith
Harvester, 285 pp, £20.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 85527 938 9
- Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties edited by Jon Clark, Margot Heinemann, David Margolies and Carole Snee
Lawrence and Wishart, 279 pp, £3.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 85315 419 8
Professor Crick’s subject is important and his research has evidently been diligent. We now know a lot more about Orwell than we did, and the increment of knowledge is not always trivial. Why, then, is it impossible to commend this book with warmth? For two main reasons: first, in a work of such length the prevalence of carelessly written pages is a strong disincentive to continuing (and of course they are shown up all the more by their proximity to quotations from Orwell); and secondly, Orwell was a literary figure as well as a political thinker, and Crick’s literary touch is far from certain.
Take, for instance, the conclusion. It is sententious, but we may feel that two hundred thousand laborious words have earned the author the right to pontificate on the final page. ‘ “Our prerogatives as men,” wrote the young Auden, “Will be cancelled who knows when ... ?”, if we cannot radically alter our relationships with public power; but neither a transformed nor a reformed public realm will be worth having if individual creative values do not flourish, indeed fructify in abundance for the majority of people, not just for the chosen or even the self-chosen few ... ’ Crick often praises Orwell’s style, and even observes its progressive refinement. He must have been conscious throughout of a formidable reader over his shoulder: but he evidently did not ask himself how many faults Orwell would have found in that sentence. And there are many passages worse than that one, sentences that flop randomly onto the page, or make sense only by an act of charity on the part of the reader. I’ve chosen this one because it also contains a factual inaccuracy. The verses quoted were written not by the young Auden but by the young MacNeice, who went on to say that he was writing these lines ‘before/The gun butt raps upon the door’ – an encounter less abstract than ‘relationships with public power’. The poet is to that extent more Orwellian than Crick. As it happens, MacNeice’s poem is a poor one, but we remember it because he often wrote well, and because he, sometimes more accurately than Auden, caught the mood and posture of that moment, expressed a foreboding necessarily a bit spurious in the face of fears not yet capable of being fully imagined.
Other writers also suffer from Crick’s difficulty in reporting literature. Spotting a source for a famous line in Animal Farm, he misquotes Milton (‘And render me more equal, and perhaps,/A thing not undesirable, sometime [not something]/Superior ...’). Moreover it is untrue to say that ‘Orwell was to put this thought more pithily in Animal Farm.’ Eve is talking about the possible advantages of withholding her forbidden knowledge from Adam, not about totalitarian perversions of democracy. It is even more reprehensible for a professor of politics to misquote Hobbes’s most famous remark, about the horrors of living at a time when there is no state power to keep men in awe. The catalogue ends with the words: ‘And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. There are five partners in this ghastly firm, and to leave out ‘poore’ is to destroy the rhythm that made it memorable in the first place.
So it is not surprising that Crick has little of interest to say about Orwell’s achievement as a critic of literature. The essay on ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ is described as ‘a profound comparison of the didacticism of Tolstoy with the tolerant humanism of Shakespeare’, and indeed it is profound: but if you are doing Orwell in some depth you surely need to add that it is also, in some respects, profoundly silly (‘One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character; indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated’). This kind of thing is interesting because it shows that Orwell, in his literary criticism as in his other writing, sometimes yielded to the temptation of saying too much. Crick quite often catches him doing so. In one of the wartime London Letters to Partisan Review Orwell reported that when the authorities tore down railings for scrap they ravaged working-class parks and squares but left upper-class ones alone. When his wife pointed out that this allegation was demonstrably false, he answered that it was ‘essentially true’, rather as he accused pacifists of being ‘objectively Fascist’. Sometimes from ignorance, sometimes from a pamphleteer’s sense of the need for emphatic illustration, Orwell quite often said the thing that is not, quite. Getting some things wrong (or only essentially right) was probably the price he paid for getting some hugely important things right – the nature of totalitarianism, for instance. The struggle to get that vision of evil across, to give it very sharp definition, may be what led him to dogmatic excess or distortion in lesser matters.
Vol. 3 No. 2 · 5 February 1981
From John Thompson
SIR: As Frank Kermode brings out (LRB, 22 January), Bernard Crick draws attention in his George Orwell: A Life to the writer’s brutality. What is striking is that some interesting pieces of documentation by contemporaries touching on this are omitted from the biography. Dealing with Blair at Eton, Professor Crick is careful to trace his development as a games-player, yet fails to include this quotation from Denis King-Farlow, a member of Orwell’s election: ‘On the compulsory football field he sometimes showed the sadistic streak that was normally confined to spiteful truculence in conversation – the will to give offence and really to hurt.’ And when Professor Crick comes to sum up the youthful Blair’s rural holidays with Jacintha Buddicom’s family, he says: ‘Eric loved the countryside and the simple country pursuits.’ That is surely true, but Miss Buddicom’s assessment puts the love in a different light: ‘Eric might not have been quite so keen on killing things as was Prosper.’ It is Professor Crick’s biographical policy, he says in his introduction, not to be ‘constantly analysing and re-analysing’ Orwell’s character; he prefers ‘the evidence and the chronicle of events’ to the ‘pseudo-certainties’ of ‘literary psychoanalysis’, and therefore he has, he says, laid stress on ‘the direct evidence of people who knew him at the relevant times’. So far from doing that, he has censored King-Farlow and preferred not to quote a considered and revealing conclusion by Jacintha Buddicom. Further, we are warned off believing other witnesses of Blair, whom the biographer considers antipathetic, such as Rayner Heppenstall and Humphrey Dakin. Professor Crick thinks it more reasonable that we believe his version of how Blair behaved when he beat up Heppenstall than to believe Heppenstall. And of the brother-in-law Dakin’s critical view of Blair he says: ‘Dakin’s view is suspect as motivated by personal dislike.’ What a solecism!
Custodians of Orwell’s writings have in the past developed shielding and maternalistic attitudes, as perhaps Professor Crick found when pursuing his researches. Writings, published and unpublished, of doubtful compatibility with the popular image of Orwell have been withheld and suppressed. Orwell, moreover, has made loyal friends among his readers; we feel he is speaking directly to us and may be unwilling to betray what seems like intimacy. More than anyone else, Professor Crick has been entrusted with the reputation of this monumental yet vulnerable man, and in finding out about him his ‘initial great respect’ has been ‘heightened’. Heightened, it seems, into an unwillingness to be harsh. Orwell would have called it a conspiracy, and denounced it.
Bernard Crick writes: I don’t ‘draw attention’ to Orwell’s brutality. I mention examples of brutal behaviour, also of gentle and of kindly behaviour. What kind of people do Professor Kermode and Mr Thompson know who can be reduced to a single dominant characteristic? Cambridge dons? However, John Thompson is evidently a close reader of sources on Orwell and his first paragraph is perfectly fair criticism. But, though my method was external and unpsychological, I could not quote everything, nor accept all sources and memories as equal. Because I do not try to make up the reader’s mind for him. I am not mindless. Denys King-Farlow’s account was not merely written after Orwell’s death but long after several critics had made the idea current that Orwell’s sadistic streak is the hidden key to his political writings. I judged that King-Farlow was exercising clever hindsight. Rayner Heppenstall and Humphrey Dakin’s accounts were similarly set down long after the event: so while I recount them fully (for lack of contemporary evidence), I also show reasons for being sceptical about their judgments. The reader must decide. I also made quite clear that among Eric Blair’s ‘simple country pursuits’ was rabbit shooting. Now if Mr Thompson is truly as nice and as gentle as Miss Buddicom, let me honestly tell him that I have killed rabbits with sticks, have strangled chickens and that only one of my sons is a vegetarian: so plainly I am defending my own ‘sadism’ or ‘brutality’ as much as Orwell’s. The second paragraph, however, contains an innuendo about ‘custodians’ and ‘maternalistic attitudes’ which is unjust both to the late Sonia Orwell and to myself. When she asked me, out of the blue, to write the Life, I made two conditions: that I should have unrestricted access to all papers and an absolute right to use and publish what I wished for the purposes of biography. These were tough terms, even if those that any scholar should ask for in similar circumstances. She agreed. This was brave and public-spirited of her. Nothing was withheld and I quoted everything I wanted to quote, even though she disliked the finished portrait. But I neither painted out discreditable things nor highlighted them for effect. Nor have any of Orwell’s writings been ‘withheld and suppressed’ by custodians. I draw attention in footnotes to political essays and early writings which should have been included in the admirably edited but perhaps misleadingly titled Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Yet no two editors or anthologisers ever agree completely. Everything Orwell published is available to be read in the Archive at University College, London; and when the unpublished and restricted material is made available (as I hope it soon will be), no skeletons will be found. All new material I have found has also been put into the Archive. The opening will help interpretations other than mine to be better grounded, but I hope on grounds more complex than any single psychological trait, especially sadism. Happily, the very publication of my book has flushed out interesting new evidence on several topics which I will be incorporating into a revised edition later this year – an edition that will also give me an opportunity to correct some minor errors.
Vol. 3 No. 3 · 19 February 1981
From John Norman
SIR: It seems that Professor Frank Kermode’s political touch is far from certain. He dredges up an old piece of Cold War theory by stating that there was little difference between the totalitarianisms of Stalin and of Hitler (LRB, 22 January). He goes on to argue (in agreement with Orwell?) that ‘fascism was not “advanced capitalism” but a grim perversion of socialism.’ Perhaps the most recent and thorough investigation of this subject is by Martin Kitchen in his Fascism (London, 1976). In his chapter ‘The Theory of Totalitarianism’ he writes: ‘The most striking difference is socio-economic, and the value of an analysis which ignores the relations of production and the resulting social structure of the two systems is strictly limited. Whereas communist revolutions resulted in a radical change of the economic and political order, fascist regimes hardly touched the private ownership of the means of production and exchange, and by replacing the bourgeois state by the new fascist-leadership state, this private ownership was indeed strengthened.’ Fascism is a possibility of advanced capitalism and Stalinism is a possibility of socialism. We can only begin to guard against them both by being very clear in our definitions as to what they are.