The Essential Orwell

Frank Kermode

  • 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.

The need to be extremely unequivocal, to present arguments without conventional rhetorical shading or contemplative half-tones, helped to form the mature prose style. It was a product of the same extremism that sent Orwell out on the road as a tramp, preferring the dosshouse to the comfort of more prosperous working-class homes (though they were his image of paradise). He ‘went native in his own country’, said V.S. Pritchett. He also went native in his own language. But to do either of these things called for extreme self-discipline, for an almost military upper-class rigour. Orwell’s style is of course not the style of tramps. Nor is it the style of cosy tripe shops. In fact, it is the enemy of the lumpen and the gemütlich just as certainly as of bourgeois evasion and euphemism. The achievement of such a manner is unmistakably an achievement of high culture – almost an inverted mandarinism. The humble style has a grand history: to match it with great subjects calls for virtuosity, which is why it cost Orwell such time and effort to learn how it was done, and also why he was keen to distinguish it from pulp prose, which he regarded as an instrument for the oppression of the poor.

His hatred of cliché, and all kinds of carelessness in expression, is quite properly said to derive from his conviction that clarity of language was necessary to clear thinking, and that clear thinking was essential to social health. This explains his choice of Harold Laski as a principal target in the essay on ‘Politics and the English Language’. But his extreme fastidiousness goes beyond that intelligible concern for straight as against crooked or muddled thinking. Good prose must have a force, a dignity, that inevitably make it sound aristocratic in a context of shoddy writing and unachieved thinking. There is a ruthlessness in Orwell’s prescriptions for good prose, a characteristic excess – for example, in his proscription of not un-: ‘a not unblack dog chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field’.

The last of his rules for good writing states that none of the others should apply if barbarism resulted: but there was in him a strain that was, if not barbarous, then barbarian. It emerged in his life. We read of him lashing out at tiresome Burmese students with a heavy cane; attacking Rayner Heppenstall; killing an adder with sadistic deliberation. He once wrote of a wasp that was eating the jam on his plate. He cut it in half with his knife, and watched it continuing to eat jam, which squirted out of the back end: flying off, it had a sudden understanding of disaster. Orwell was not interested in his own part in these proceedings: he presents the story of the wasp as an allegory of the condition of England. He liked military service and rather enjoyed the war. In Scotland he carried a service revolver. Most of his eccentricities have a barbarian flavour. Working men never mistook him for a working man; his friend Jack Common notes that ‘breeding’ was what you first noticed about him. He did not conquer a dislike for proletarian over-familiarity; he always kept some upper-class ideas of order. His ideal society had a ritual basis, and pieties he might have been expected to think obsolete. He would not use broken tombstones to mend a wall. While Down and Out in Paris and London was in the press he was taking an active part in Anglican services and reading the Church Times. He asked to be buried in consecrated ground and in accordance with the rites of the Church of England. Such a man would not have agreed with Auden’s statement that a poem was a fascist organisation (a whole population of words locked in cellars) or with more modern assertions that well-formed sentences are fascist. What distinguishes his prose is not merely the plainness of its language but also the authority of its ordering, which at times may exhibit a certain brutality.

As the prose was shaped, so was the life. A biographer who can’t do justice to the prose will, in that measure, fail with the life. Still, Crick’s book has the virtue of getting better as it goes on. The childhood and youth of the hero make heavy reading, partly because Crick is obsessed with the question whether ‘Such, such were the joys’ is a fair account of the prep school Orwell attended with Cyril Connolly. No doubt Orwell would have said it was essentially true. He once praised Martin Chuzzlewit, with its mixture of travel book and fiction, as ‘a good example of Dickens’s habit of telling small lies in order to emphasise what he regards as a big truth’. The power of prep schools to corrupt children was, to Orwell, a big truth, though it may be noted that he gave quite usual bourgeois reasons for not sending his own adopted son to the local primary school: ‘any child that has a chance should be rescued from them.’

Similar difficulties arise from the essay called ‘A Hanging’, for it cannot be certainly stated that Orwell ever attended one. (Hanging interested him as a possible consequence of murder: in ‘The Decline of English Murder’ he is nostalgic for ‘the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them’.) Then again there is the problem as to whether, leaving Wigan by train, he actually saw a woman ‘poking a stick up a foul drainpipe’. Probably not – he was on foot, and saw the woman in ‘a horrible squalid side-alley’. Such are the issues that arise when writers work in the no-man’s-land between fiction and reporting, slipping over the border into the former in search of essential truths. Orwell often made such raids, not least, perhaps, in ‘Such, such were the joys’.

His years at Eton are relatively well documented. He was not particularly miserable, but had no social or academic success. Always low in the class list, he was also physically unattractive: ‘large, rather fat face, with big jowls, a bit like a hamster’. ‘He was not impressed by Eton,’ says Crick, ‘and most of his contemporaries were not much impressed by anything else about him’ (else?). Orwell himself says that at 17 he was ‘both a snob and a reactionary’, and we might say he retained both of these characteristics, though in wonderfully transformed versions. From Eton he went to Burma, and Crick has collected a lot of information about the Burmese days, and the slow onset of anti-imperialism. Back in England he was determined – very implausibly, as it must have seemed – to turn himself into a writer. ‘He wrote so badly,’ said Ruth Pitter, who knew him in those days. ‘He had to teach himself writing. He was like a cow with a musket.’ Though Eton left its mark, this was the time when he did all his learning, as a writer, as ‘amateur pauper’. Learning seemed often to require the conquest of an aversion, usually an aversion to dirt and human smells, but perhaps also an aversion to the humble style. He knew very well that education, not identification, was his purpose. In Down and Out in Paris and London he did what any good writer must, rearranged the facts and told ‘small lies’. But ‘he never claimed to have been a tramp, only to have been among tramps’: it would have been a real, perhaps a fatal lie, to pretend otherwise.

His education thus far complete, he changed his name from Eric Blair to George Orwell, or rather adopted Orwell as his writing name. Crick, who makes little of this, thinks others have made too much. But although he never gave up his original name, it seems obvious that the change was of more than trivial import: it marked his emergence from the long period of preparation into a life that was very different, not only because he was a writer, but because he was making his name as a writer. An earlier biographer, who thought the change had an enlarging and liberating effect on Orwell, is teased by Crick for adding that the effect is not ‘easily defined’: ‘what cannot be “easily defined” had best be ignored,’ says Crick, but that does seem a rather limiting attitude for a biographer to take.

Nevertheless, it is at about this point in the subject’s life that the biographer hits his stride. Orwell was making his way towards his peculiar kind of sanctity, full of crotchets and rather irritable, as is the case with other saints, but clearly marked by the continuity and intensity of his concern with suffering, amounting sometimes to a secular form of victimage. There is, thanks to the detail assembled by Crick, a fair representation of this aspect of Orwell. But of course the animating vision was a vision of evil, and had to be expressed in terms of politics. Here Crick is strongest. He gives a very sane account of The Lion and The Unicorn, and is extremely helpful about the tortuous history of the English Left in the Thirties. Who now knows about internal dissensions in the ILP? For that matter, who is absolutely clear about the relations between POUM and the Communist Party in Spain? These matters, and especially POUM, were intensely important to Orwell. The ILP was to be our defence against fascism ‘when this appears in its British form’, and his experiences in Barcelona helped to constitute his image of comradely socialist society. He could be wrong or wrongheaded on detail, but he clearly identified the great evil, totalitarianism. Stalinism and Hitlerism were virtually the same thing: fascism was not ‘advanced capitalism’ but a grim perversion of socialism. ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’ Crick spells all this out with care and skill, though he also quotes Stevie Smith’s portrait of Orwell in her novel The Holiday, which catches well the occasional absurdity introduced into Orwell’s conversation by his obsession with the big truth. He

said that very soon the population would be only forty million. He said that the cruelty of the Germans was nothing to what the cruelty of the English would be if the English were really up against it in the matter of losing their property ... He said that America would be the ruin of the moral order, he said that the more gadgets women had and the more they thought about their faces and their figures, the less they wanted to have children, he said that he happened to see an article in an American women’s magazine about scanty panties, he said women who thought about scanty panties never had a comfortable fire burning in the fireplace, or a baby in the house, or a dog or cat or a parrot ...

Or a canary, I said.

Or a canary, went on Basil, and he said that this was the end of the moral order.

As Orwell grows famous, the anecdotes accumulate. In Spain, he had at once established himself as a natural leader (a bit careless, though – his wound could probably have been avoided), and at home during the war he took charge of his section in the Home Guard, drilling the awkward squad, which included Fred Warburg, with great seriousness, and teaching them to make bombs out of milk bottles. He saw in the Home Guard the makings of a revolutionary militia, his view no doubt affected by a persistent after-image of Spanish POUM comrades. He really knew what it would mean to be free, and defended the right of opponents to say what they wanted: but the steadiness of his vision of the good life didn’t prevent him being at times grouchy or paranoid. When the publication of Animal Farm was delayed by Warburg’s shortage of paper, he maintained that Nye Bevan had held it up, fearing its effect on the outcome of the 1945 election. Later, in the days of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he kept a notebook listing the names of people he thought might be Communists.

He had a conscience fit for a Jesuit confessor. After the death of his first wife he several times proposed marriage to women he had just met. ‘What I am really asking you,’ he wrote to Anne Popham, ‘is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man. If things remain more or less as they are there is a certain amount of fun in this, as you would probably get royalties coming in and you might find it interesting to edit unpublished stuff, etc ... if you think of yourself as essentially a widow, then you might do worse ...’ Crick thinks this letter self-pitying, but Orwell was saying no more than the truth when he called himself ‘a bad life’, and it would have been unfair not to say so, not to make it quite clear what he could offer. He had fully earned this measure of unconventionality, though it is interesting that in other respects he had more trouble shaking off the manners of his class, as when he had trouble deciding how to address the young woman who acted as nurse to his child. Common sense often co-existed with a tendency to fuss over matters of this sort, and with an occasional foolish wildness, as when, by his own fault, he endangered his own life, and the lives of his guests, among the whirlpools of the Hebrides.

Crick is no mythmaker, and easily disposes of some received ideas concerning the last years of Orwell’s life. The documents prove that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the product of a race against death: it was conceived before Animal Farm, and though he wrote it under great difficulties, he did not think of it as his last book – indeed he was planning another in his last months. His early death was a quite unmeasurable loss. ‘He hated the power-hungry, exercised intelligence and independence, and taught us again to use our language with beauty and clarity,’ says Crick at the end. Unfortunately the last part of this remark is untrue, as Crick, like the rest of us, demonstrates. Still, he does achieve something unusual. Biographies as thoroughly researched as this one often cut down the subject to human size, but Orwell here seems rather to have gained in spiritual force: an achievement for which the biographer, after all, deserves our thanks.

‘Since about 1930,’ wrote Orwell in 1945, ‘the world has given no reason for optimism whatever.’ But the Thirties are interesting again, even glamorous, and authors unborn in that low dishonest decade now pour out books and essays seeking to explain and defend it. The two listed above are collections of essays. The first contains two especially interesting pieces: one by John Coombes on Orwell’s despised Popular Front, and one by Valentine Cunningham on the famous pamphlet ‘Authors take sides in the Spanish War’. The second collection is much more interesting because it contains material by survivors: in fact, it is dedicated to a vindication of the ‘radical culture’ of the Thirties, a period when intellectuals first allied themselves with workers, opposed that ‘high culture’ which could no longer sharply distinguish itself from fascism, and ‘saw the force of the Marxist analysis’.

The late James Klugmann, in an introductory essay, proclaims the achievements of the period: ‘it is a great compliment that people who are reactionary fear it so much.’ Margot Heinemann writes with exceptional authority on MacNeice, John Cornford and Clive Branson; there are studies of left-wing theatre, and of the Left Review and the Left Book Club; and, only a little to the side, a very judicious article, by Iain Wright, on Leavis. The purpose of the book is said to be to help us understand our time by grasping the role of a simpler and more practical Marxism fifty years ago. It is not very surprising that Orwell is coolly treated, or that little mention is made of Stalin, except that his influence ‘bedevilled our work’. So this isn’t a dispassionate book, and one can’t help entertaining the useless thought that the right man to review it was Orwell.