The Unhappy Vicar
- Orwell: The Transformation by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams
Constable, 240 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 09 462250 7
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.