The Unhappy Vicar

Samuel Hynes

George Orwell was one of the great self-mythologisers. He sought out extreme experiences, was a policeman in Burma and a pauper in Paris and London, lived among unemployed workers in the North of England and among soldiers in Spain, and then turned those hard adventures into fables of imperialism, poverty and war. Everything that he wrote has the feel of direct experience, as though the books composed one long autobiography: yet everything is transformed, moulded into meaning, by his fierce moral sense. It’s no wonder that myths grew up about him, or that they still persist, screening the actual man.

One of the most persistent is the myth of Orwell as the conscience of his generation. In a time when other major writers made their reputations out of formal innovation and modernist vision, Orwell made his out of rectitude; I can’t think of another modern writer whose principal virtue is generally agreed to be his virtue. This idea of Orwell has two evident sources. One was his willingness – indeed his eagerness – to suffer the indignities and deprivations that he wrote about. Actual poverty lends moral authority to the man who writes about the poor, and Orwell had gone among the lowest of the low. The other was his declared, though professedly reluctant, commitment to politics. When he wrote in 1946 that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism,’ he was simply confirming a view of his work that already existed, and that also carried moral weight. To write so singlemindedly, against the grain of his literary nature, in the cause of democracy, was that not heroic self-abnegation? What he said was not, of course, strictly true: not every line of Coming Up for Air is either for democracy or against fascism (much of the book is pure nostalgia), nor is The English People exactly a socialist document. But Orwell saw himself as a man who had taken up politics like a cross, because the necessities of his time compelled him to, and his critics have followed him in that myth.

He was not, in fact, really a political thinker at all: he had no ideology, he proposed no plan of political action, and he was never able to relate himself comfortably to any political party. In his early books he expressed feelings that were consistent with Left politics – anti-imperialism in Burmese Days, sympathy for the oppressed poor in Down and Out in Paris and London – but he left the political implications unuttered, and until 1936 never wrote anything that one could call political. Even the reviews that he wrote for the Adelphi and New English Weekly in those years were primarily literary, the sort of things that his archenemies ‘the pansy-poets’ might have written.

But by 1936 he had made a small reputation for himself as an authority on poverty, and so he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to visit the industrial North and write a book about working-class conditions there. It was Orwell’s first real experience of this class: his Down and Out companions had been tramps and beggars, but in Lancashire and Yorkshire he met an altogether different category of the poor – workers, men who wanted to work, but who had no jobs. He found in these men qualities that he valued – pride, dignity, generosity, strength, class solidarity – and when he returned to London he wrote a book about them that is both a celebration of their virtues and an angry polemic against their sufferings – The Road to Wigan Pier. On his trip to the North he had found what his novels lacked – heroes.

In the second part of Wigan Pier Orwell turned from his myth of the workers to his myth of himself: the road of his personal history that had led through Eton and Burma, Paris and London, to his rendezvous with the English proletariat in Wigan, where he had found the emotional kinship with working people that he called ‘Socialism’. It was a kind of conversion experience, that’s clear: but to call it a political conviction is to mistake feeling for thought. Wigan Pier contains not a single political idea: it is all feelings, including some feelings that point in very un-socialist directions: nationalist feelings, Luddite feelings, anti-intellectual feelings, and running right through the personal narrative, a deep distrust for political parties and indeed for all politics, which Orwell never lost. The word ‘Socialism’ turns up a good deal in these later pages of Wigan Pier, but the nearest Orwell comes to a statement of what socialism means to him is in this sentence: ‘economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop … and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.’ This is scarcely a political statement, as Wigan Pier is scarcely a political book: rather, it is a personal, moral one, like Auden’s, prayer for ‘new styles of architecture, a change of heart’. But politics don’t happen in the heart.

No wonder Gollancz felt that he had to write a disclaiming foreword to Orwell’s book before he could issue it to his Left Book Club subscribers. A book that said that political methods don’t matter, and said further that the working classes smell and cat their cheese with their knives, that middle-class socialists are all ‘high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers’, a book that dismissed the whole idea of the class struggle as a polemical mistake, could hardly have been what Gollancz had in mind. As an instrument of socialist instruction the first part of Orwell’s book might be useful, but for Gollancz and his club the latter, personal narrative was a polemical disaster. Perhaps that’s why Gollancz had it illustrated with painful photographs of urban poverty in Wales, Newcastle, Coatbridge, Limehouse, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Poplar, St Pancras and Durham (there’s not a single photograph of Wigan): to counteract Orwell’s odd views.

Before The Road to Wigan Pier was published, Orwell was in Spain, on the second of his journeys of ‘political’ enlightenment. There he fought against Franco with the POUM, the anti-Stalinist splinter group, was shot through the neck, witnessed the violent suppression of POUM by the Communists in Barcelona, and returned home to write Homage to Catalonia. He had felt, on his first arrival in Loyalist Spain, a momentary euphoria. Nobody in Barcelona wore ties and nobody tipped, and it seemed to Orwell that the amiable revolution he had imagined of proletarian good chaps had come to pass: but when he returned to Barcelona from the front, the ties and the tips were back, and leftists were fighting leftists in the streets. So much for the dictatorship of the proletariat: he never felt euphoric about revolution again.

Orwell returned to England full of an anti-Stalinist passion, and it was in that declamatory mood that Homage to Catalonia was written. In those Popular Front days anti-Stalinism was an unpopular line to take, and it was courageous of Orwell to set the truth he had seen before Left expediency. The position made him enemies (the Daily Worker called Homage to Catalonia ‘an honest picture of the sort of mentality that toys with revolutionary romanticism but shies violently at revolutionary discipline’ – not an altogether inaccurate judgment), and left him in a relationship of mutual distrust with most of the English Left which lasted for the rest of his life.

What the Worker called Orwell’s revolutionary romanticism was in fact more romantic than revolutionary. He believed, essentially, in a few central human values – decency, honour, freedom, justice. He believed that the human heart contained inherent goodness (though when he looked for evidence of that goodness he found it only in the hearts of the poor). And he believed, as he once said Dickens had believed, that if men would behave decently the world would be decent. But he had been educated by his travels: he had learned at Wigan how poverty denies human values, and he had learned at Barcelona how revolution betrays them. He remained true to his values, and he continued to argue that men should go on trying to make their political acts moral – what else was there to do? – but after the experience of Spain there is not much revolutionary optimism left. The political idealist, the writer whose every line was for democratic socialism, died long before Orwell the man did – died, perhaps, during those May days in Barcelona in 1937, when the Communist boot had stamped so ruthlessly on its own comrades.

It wasn’t that Orwell became reactionary, as some of his Left critics said: one can’t imagine him voting for Mrs Thatcher, or supporting her immigration policies. It was simply that he had come to see political action as both feeble and corrupt, and powerless to alter the apocalyptic future that he foresaw. If men would behave decently the world would be decent: but men wouldn’t behave decently, they would act collectively, out of fear or out of greed, and their actions would be cruel, destructive and inhuman. One can see this vision of universal evil growing in Orwell’s mind after his return from Spain: ‘Everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism … will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts’ (September 1937); ‘We might as well pack our bags for the concentration camp’ (March 1938); ‘the concentration camp looms ahead’ (November 1938). And there is the fearful vision of Coming Up for Air (June 1939): ‘The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen.’ And the final terrible one-liner of 1984: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ Orwell had not become a Tory: he had become a prophet.

Prophets make bad politicians, but they make good moralists, and that, essentially, is what Orwell always was, even when he was calling himself a socialist. In an early poem he wrote:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago,
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow …

And though one may doubt the happiness, the preaching is right, it was at the centre of his character. What, after all, is 1984 but a sermon on doom? Like any other sermon, it is cautionary, not descriptive: human values may survive, the world may be saved, but the odds are not good.

It is because Orwell was so completely the moralist and prophet that he seemed to his contemporaries, and still seems to us, a man of unusual virtue. To reject your own comfortable class and live voluntarily among the poor; to tell unpalatable truths about poverty (and make no money from the telling); to condemn the morals of your political allies; to despise the literary life that might provide a career and a decent income, and choose instead the life of a village storekeeper – all these seem austere, courageous and virtuous. And Orwell did them all.

Why he did them is another question. Orwell’s own account in Wigan Pier bases his morality on two circumstances: his birth into the ‘lower-upper-middle class’, and his experience as a policeman in Burma. The first made him abnormally aware of the class structure of England, and of his own insecure place in it. He was upper-middle, so he received the education appropriate to that class, at a good prep school and at Eton; but he was at the lower edge of that class, so he went as a scholarship boy, and fell patronised and out of place. It probably doesn’t matter what class one is on the lower edge of: it’s the edge that counts, the sense that at any moment, by one wrong move, one may fall like Lucifer, headlong down out of belonging, into the mere middle class, or into the lower class, into the depths. When Orwell descended to the world of the poor, he must have derived a good deal of comfort from the knowledge that here at last he had reached a class that he couldn’t fall out of.

The years spent in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police taught him another lesson: what it was like to be an oppressor, to be the upper to someone else’s lower; and how authority corrupts both the oppressor and the oppressed. He brought back with him to England an immense weight of guilt – class guilt and imperial guilt – which he expiated by joining the oppressed, and by making oppression the subject of his writing. Class, poverty, authority – they were all oppressive forces that deprived men of dignity and decency; and what he came to call socialism was simply his dream of a society in which these forces would not operate, and men could not be degraded by them.

By writing as he did, Orwell was confessing his guilt: his books are contributions to the literature of confession. Confessional writing is the product of the private blameless guilts – class guilt, social guilt – the kinds that go unpunished by society (if one were punished, one would not have to punish oneself by confessing). So in Orwell’s books everything shameful is revealed: that as a child he was a bed-wetter; that he went to a snobbish school; that he felt a fastidious loathing of working-class manners. He even invented guilts in order to confess them: he never actually saw a man hanged, yet he wrote a fine piece about his guilty feelings at a hanging. The end of 1984 is a confession under torture. And since we take confession to be a moral act, Orwell’s relentless confessing no doubt has something to do with his reputation as our Moral Man.

Is it because he was virtuous that we believe so readily that Orwell was also a great stylist? For that is another of the Orwell myths, and one that he supported, as he did the myth of his virtue, with his own testimony: the assertion in ‘Why I Write’ that his writing was best – the good prose that is like a window pane – when he was writing with a political purpose; and the proposition in ‘Politics and the English Language’ that a clear style is a moral act. Starting from these propositions, you can see how Orwell, the conscience of his generation, might have come to be thought of as the stylistic conscience, too, and how plain living and plain writing might have come to seem the common products of a pure political rectitude.

But, in fact, Orwell could write as badly as anyone else. His range was limited, and when he ventured outside that range he could be awful – pretentious as in the Trafalgar Square scene in A Clergyman’s Daughter, awkward and ill-at-ease whenever he brought men and women together, coarsely abusive as in his attacks on pansy-poets in Wigan Pier. At his best he was indeed very good, and there is no better exemplar of the plain style that he preached: but he didn’t always practise it, and the myth that makes him always virtuous in his style, as in his life, does him a disservice.

Peter Stansky and William Abrahams have added another myth to those already wrapped round Orwell. In their previous book, The Unknown Orwell, and again in Orwell: The Transformation, they postulate two characters who inhabit in sequence the same body: first Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name), and then, by a process of enlightenment and political commitment, George Orwell. This separation of one man into two persons has a certain tidiness, but it does unnecessary violence to what was, after all, a continuous and comprehensible life, and it entangles the authors in some confusing and occasionally comical convolutions. According to this thesis, where there are two names there must be two personalities: Eric Blair didn’t simply adopt a pen-name, he cast off his entire identity and laboriously assumed another. That other identity, it seems, had preceded Blair’s assumption of it, was waiting there all the time like the old clothes that Blair kept in the closet to wear when he went down-and-outing. Thus, a Blair remark made in 1933 suggests to the authors ‘the distance he would have to go before he truly became George Orwell’; and later, when he has managed to turn his subjective feelings outward upon the world, they conclude with satisfaction that he can now ‘be truly Orwell’.

But many writers have used pseudonyms for less portentous reasons than that, and there is no reason to think that Orwell was fundamentally different from Mark Twain or George Eliot or O. Henry or Rebecca West. Certainly his motives for writing under a name other than his own seem straightforward enough. He was writing about his life among the ‘lowest of the low’, and his lower-upper-middle-class family might be embarrassed by his confessions: they were already upset enough about his failure to make a career in the Imperial Police, and his general inability to succeed in the way Old Etonians were expected to. And since Eric Blair was nobody in the literary world yet, why not be somebody else in print? So he offered his publisher four names, of which he ‘rather favoured’ George Orwell. His friend Anthony Powell’s account of why he favoured that one – that it combined a characteristic English Christian name and an English river – seems reasonable. It sounded like the name of the sort of man he would be in his writing, the name, you might say, of his imagination; but it was not a new self, Eric Blair remained alive and well.

But Stansky and Abrahams won’t have it so. They argue that Orwell ‘transformed himself from a self-absorbed minor novelist with little or no interest in politics to an important writer of fiction and essays who had a view and a vision and a mission’. Certainly it is true that he was first a minor writer and later a more important one, and that in the process he developed a political concern. But then, so did most of his contemporaries: look at Auden, look at Graham Greene, look at Day Lewis, Spender, Isherwood. Orwell’s whole generation was transformed by events, and Orwell simply moved with the political tide. In the process he made a reputation, and he changed: but surely any writer is a somewhat different person after he has begun to practise his art, and to be appreciated, from what he was before. The same is probably true of grocers and plumbers, and even professors. But we needn’t call it transformation.

If you want to divide Orwell up, it’s a good deal more interesting and useful to separate the angry Orwell from the compassionate Orwell. Orwell was a born hater – as many socially insecure people are: it came naturally to him to be unjust to those he considered his enemies, to make his own early life sound more wretched, and his elders more hateful, than they really were, and to hurl crude, illaimed abuse at his fellow-writers. The state of society in the Thirties and Forties provided numerous objects for his hatred, and he hated them all with vigour, if without much precision. His compassion, on the other hand, was distributed more cautiously, and was generally reserved for humble people – Burmese peasants, Spanish militiamen, English workers. There is something a little programmed about it, as though he sympathised on principle, but hated by instinct.

The thesis that Blair and Orwell were two quite different men, of different moral value, is the cause of some serious and some rather comical flaws in the book. It leads, for example, to a reference on one page to ‘Orwell’ contributing to the New English Weekly, while on the facing page ‘Blair’ is finishing Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But the Blair/Orwell thesis is not the only flaw. Another, equally damaging, arises from the circumstances in which the book was conceived and written – circumstances which seem outside the authors’ control. Some fifteen years ago Stansky and Abrahams, having completed their first collaborative work, the brilliant Journey to the Frontier, began a new project, which was to be, it seems quite clear, a biography of Orwell. Evidently they ran into difficulties; one heard rumours that Sonia Orwell had denied them access to the Orwell papers, perhaps even rights of quotation. Whatever the problems, their first volume. The Unknown Orwell (1972), covered only the years up to 1933, when Orwell’s first book was published, and its acknowledgments pointedly did not include the name of Sonia Orwell. The Foreword to that volume puts the best possible face on their troubles, describing the book as part of an original plan to write a ‘life and work’ of Orwell during the Thirties, but that scarcely seems a reasonable intention: why write a life that ignores the formative years at one end, and the decade of his best-known work at the other? It was, nevertheless, an impressive book – flawed, I thought, by the Blair/Orwell notion, but full of information, and written in a style that Orwell would have approved, and which is an astonishing achievement for two writers working in tandem.

Orwell: The Transformation continues the narrative for four more years, to June 1937, when Orwell left Spain. Once more there is an introductory statement which attempts to make the enterprise seem both logical and intentional. ‘The publication of this book about George Orwell, along with its predecessor, The Unknown Orwell, completes our original purpose: a study of three British writers of the early 1930s, and the reasons for their involvement in the Spanish Civil War’ (the other two writers are John Cornford and Julian Bell, the subjects of Journey to the Frontier). This is ingenious, but not convincing: the book reads like what it obviously is, a piece of an abandoned project, a part of an unwritable life. Once more, there is no indication of any help from Sonia Orwell, and one can only assume that she has continued to refuse to co-operate with the unfortunate authors, and that, faced with that relentless opposition, they have elected to gather together what they had got from other sources, and put an end to the whole business. I can sympathise with them in their troubles, and I am grateful for what they have added to the story of Orwell’s life. And I admire the skill and industry with which they have made these quite serviceable bricks, in the absence of the crucial straw.

But still, I can’t say that the book is a success. The story of Orwell’s transformations doesn’t end in Spain in 1937: there’s another Orwell in Coming Up for Air – a nostalgic, despairing Orwell – and another in 1984. To imply that the suit of ideological old clothes named George Orwell never changed once Eric Blair had put it on is to take the myth for the man. The myth that Orwell made of himself – the last honest man speaking plain truths in plain prose, the private man thrust into politics against his will – is part of the story, but one should not take it for the whole truth. Orwell had his individual, even heroic side, but he was also a man of his times: like other writers of the Thirties and Forties, he was divided between the personal and the public life, and between writing and politics, and like others he mistrusted the very political structures that he saw were necessary.