Plain English

Denis Donoghue

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four: Facsimile Edition by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison
    Secker, 291 pp, £25.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 436 35022 X
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, edited by Bernard Crick
    Oxford, 460 pp, £17.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 818521 9
  • Inside the Myth. Orwell: Views from the Left edited by Christopher Norris
    Lawrence and Wishart, 287 pp, £12.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 85315 599 2
  • The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell by George Woodcock
    Fourth Estate, 287 pp, £5.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 947795 05 7
  • Orwell’s London by John Thompson
    Fourth Estate, 119 pp, £9.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 947795 00 6

Orwell took little care of his manuscripts. He didn’t anticipate that collectors of such things would pay real money for them, and that universities would think it a privilege to turn a writer’s bits and pieces into an archive. The typescript used in the printing of Nineteen Eighty-Four is in the Orwell Archive at University College London. There are also preliminary drafts of the novel – pages of handwritten and typewritten material, with corrections and additions – which correspond to a little less than half of the published text: 44 per cent, according to Peter Davison’s estimate. These have now been published in an opulent edition: the right-hand pages of the book give a full-size photograph of the material, the left-hand pages contain Professor Davison’s transcription, laboriously deciphered, the cancellings in nearly every case recovered. Orwell’s typescript is given in roman, his manuscript in italic script. The book is far too big to be held in the hand; it is for consultation on a large desk, the pages to be turned with due appreciation of the craft of editor and printer. The work of printing and binding was done in Italy by Imago Publishing Ltd, Thame.

Davison’s work on the text is edifyingly careful. Only a few errors have come to my notice, and perhaps one or two further tiny blemishes. On page 5, a cancelled word has been dropped from the transcription. It seems clear that Orwell first wrote: ‘on official business’, changed this to ‘on an official errand’, and then went back to his first phrase. On page 160 the word Davison deems indecipherable is, I think, ‘crude’. On page 234 Ampleforth’s eyes are ‘dreamy’ – as on page 233 – not ‘dreary’. On page 265 the two words given as indecipherable are probably ‘it is’. On page 260 ‘county’ in the transcription seems to be ‘country’. On page 272 ‘possiby’ should be ‘possibly’; and on page xix a rude semi-colon, displacing a comma, has turned a sentence awry.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, according to Davison, ‘was conceived at some time between mid-1940 and the end of 1943, an outline of topics being drawn up by January 1944’. The outline is printed as an appendix in the Clarendon Press Nineteen Eighty-Four, which uses the text Davison has prepared for the new complete edition of Orwell, and has a critical Introduction and annotations by Bernard Crick. Davison reports that Orwell wrote about fifty pages of the book in the summer of 1946: the novel in its first form was typed in the summer of 1947 and completed by October. Between the middle of May 1948 and early November 1948 Orwell revised the work, and the final typescript was sent to Secker and Warburg on 4 December. The English edition was published on 8 June 1949, the American a few days later.

Only pages 25-38 – Goldstein’s testament – of the fifty typed pages done in 1946 have survived. Davison has decided that the present manuscript pages and some of the typewritten and interlinear matter were written during the period of revision, May to November 1948. The remaining pages are harder to date, but Davison’s Introduction gives all the available evidence.

The facsimile has three substantial passages which didn’t survive into the final text: an account of the lynching of a pregnant black woman – ‘One of the niggers was a pregnant woman and when they hoisted her up she gave birth to the baby. The crowd played football with it’ – a description of the journey to O’Brien’s flat, and an account of the meeting of Julia and Winston after leaving O’Brien’s flat.

Davison’s Introduction also gives something I could have done without – his justification of the Facsimile as ‘drawing attention to ways and means of writing good, direct, simple English’. Given ‘the lamentable state of public utterance and private writing, and Orwell’s deep interest in such matters, I doubt,’ Davison says, ‘whether he would have despised such a modest by-product of his artistic labours.’ I’m sorry to find Davison extending the life of this notion. Crick, too. ‘Almost nothing in Orwell’s achievement is more admirable,’ Crick asserts in the Introduction to the Clarendon Press edition, ‘than his defence of plain English and determination to link it, both logically and emotively, to freedom and truth-telling.’ More admirable? I would say ‘more suspect’. The shoddiest part of Orwell was his determination to link plain English to freedom and truth-telling.

It is not surprising that linguistic chauvinism was rampant in Britain in the years before and after the War: patriotism found it easy to preen itself upon that sentiment. It was common for English writers to claim a privileged sense of the character of the English language, on the assumption that its character was clearly identifiable. In literary criticism, especially: Leavis’s notion of what it means to be English and to speak the English language as a native was regularly summoned to testify to blindnesses and other incapacities, congenital by definition, in the work of Joyce, Eliot, Pound and Yeats. Empson’s essay ‘The English Way of Thinking’ said that a decent English style ‘gives great resilience to the thinker, never blurs a point by too wide a focus, is itself a confession of how much always must be left undealt with, and is beautifully free from verbiage: to an enemy it looks like sheer cheating.’ I recall I.A. Richards’s assertion that it was of immense historical and moral value that the ‘emerging’ countries in Africa had chosen English as the language of their communications with the world at large.

It was also common for English writers to imply that there is a direct correspondence between plain English and plain decency: an elaborate style means that you have something to hide. This implication is clear in such writings as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s The Reader over Your Shoulder, Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, and Orwell’s several essays on language and its consequences. Crick names four of these essays: ‘The Prevention of Literature’, ‘Writers and Leviathan’, ‘Politics v. Literature’, and ‘Politics and the English Language’. But it is absurd to represent these essays as making a decisive intervention upon the relation between language and politics. Orwell was indifferent to the issues raised by a philosophy of language. In his essays, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he capitalised upon the common desire to believe that a plain style is the ground of decency in morality and politics. He ignored the fact that a plain style is a rhetorical construct like any other; it is not innocent, it does not float free of compromises and exigencies. The plain style that Orwell and his colleagues used at the BBC during the War was just as ready to tell lies as truth.

Here is a passage from ‘Politics and the English Language’, the essay regularly quoted as a companion-piece to Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it ...’ Orwell is content to believe that the relation between language, cognition and utterance is as straightforward as this passage says it is. The fact that ‘the meaning’ does not choose ‘the words’ is set aside. Meaning is assumed to be independent of words: you can deal with the words separately, because they are merely instruments, you have to show them who’s master, not surrender to them. There is no problem in wordless thinking. The plainness of Orwell’s style in this passage is trading upon vague but powerful sentiments in the reader – contempt for Appeasement, his determination to stand up to the Russians, and so forth. I don’t object to the sentiments, but I think it’s wicked to pretend that a plain style hugs the decent sentiments and knows in advance which ones are corrupt.

Other books published in honour of Orwell’s year are: Orwell Remembered by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick (Ariel, 287 pp., £3.95, 5 January, 0 563 20200 9), George Orwell: A Personal Memoir by T.R. Fyvel (Hutchinson, reissue, 221 pp., £4.95, October 1983, 0 09 151741 9), Unwelcome Guerrilla. George Orwell and the ‘New Statesman’: An Anthology, edited by Alan George, introduced by Bernard Crick (New Statesman, 95 pp., £1.95, 13 April, 0 900962 16 X), George Orwell: The Search for a Voice by Lynette Hunter (Open University Press, 242 pp., £18 and £5.95, 18 June, 0 335 10580 7), Remembering Orwell, compiled by Stephen Wadhams, introduced by George Woodcock (Penguin, 227 pp., £2.95, 27 September, 0 14 007458 9), Nineteen Eighty-Four and All’s Well? by Tom Winnifrith and William Whitehead (Macmillan, 104 pp., £15 and £5.95, 4 April, 033 33493 0), Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (Secker, new edition, 241 pp., £7.95, 3 January, 0 436 35019 X), Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell (Penguin, new edition, 268 pp., £1.95, September 1983, 0 14 000972 8), The Penguin Complete Novels of George Orwell (Penguin, 925 pp., £4.95, September 1983, 0 14 00 9007 X), The Penguin Complete Longer Non-Fiction of George Orwell (Penguin, in association with Secker, 488 pp., £4.95, November 1983, 0 14 009014 2).

Inside the Myth is a collection of essays, mostly attacks on Orwell from the Left. The militants are Malcolm Evans, Alan Brown, Alaric Jacob, Bill Alexander, Robert Stradling, Beatrix Campbell, Deirdre Beddoe, Stephen Sedley, Lynette Hunter, Andy Croft, Stuart Hall, Antony Easthope and Christopher Norris. The attacks are now commonplace. Raymond Williams and other writers have been making them for several years. What they amount to is this: Orwell, ostensibly a man of the Left, made his work available to the Cold War wretches on the Right. But the critics can’t make up their minds whether Orwell was in sin or merely in error. Many of the essays have a whining tone, as if Honest George had decamped with the silver. If Orwell was mostly in error, that’s unfortunate, but hardly a tragedy. Maybe, though, he was a traitor from the start. Bill Alexander is convinced, on the authority of his own experience, that Homage to Catalonia got Spain wrong, but he doesn’t accuse Orwell of malice or false consciousness. Robert Stradling thinks that Orwell was so naive that he got nearly everything Spanish wrong. ‘His innocence of Marxism-Leninism affected his judgment of all parties of the Spanish War, and since he was unaware of modern socialist dialectic and its tropes he was unable to examine them via a critical comparison with empirical reality.’ Stradling’s appeal to empirical reality is bound to be an embarrassment to the editor, Christopher Norris, who ridicules Orwell for his ‘homespun empiricist outlook – his assumption that the truth was just there to be told in a straightforward, common-sense way.’ Norris makes several quite unnecessary detours, starting from the absurd position that ‘the Orwellian malaise can be understood straightforwardly from the standpoint of an Althusserian Marxism secure in its own theoretical rigour.’ I assume this is a joke. He then recites E.P. Thompson’s attack on Althusser’s position, takes a look at Saussurian linguistics, and Perry Anderson’s attack on the structuralist habit of invoking Saussure to explain ‘all manner of cultural phenomena’: but in the end he arrives where he began, laughing at Orwell’s ‘bluff empirical stance’. ‘What exactly,’ he asks, not staying for an answer, ‘can Orwell have in mind when he conjures up a pre-linguistic stratum of innocent, original thought as yet untouched by the malign influence of words?’ This is no advance on Raymond Williams’s reference to Orwell’s ‘successful impersonation of the plain man who bumps into experience in an unmediated way, and is simply telling the truth about it’.

In his Introduction, however, Norris makes nonsense of his superior stance by saying, of the Spanish Civil War, ‘that there is, after all, an historical truth of the matter which [Orwell’s] writings more or less consciously distort.’ In an earlier book, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, Norris resorted to Nietzsche and Foucault in repudiating ‘those systems of thought which mask their incessant will to power behind a semblance of objective knowledge’. But his assertion that there is an historical truth of the Spanish Civil War is a claim to objective knowledge. If there is an historical truth of the war, untouched by the malign influence of words, let us have it: and then let us see whether, or to what extent, Orwell distorted it. Norris’s Introduction contradicts his later essay: in the essay he doesn’t recognise any historical truth, and he mocks Orwell for thinking that there was such a thing, and that it could be produced. Stradling’s assumptions, incidentally, are precisely the same as Orwell’s, except that he offers them ‘from the standpoint of the professional historian and that of the student of History’. But that standpoint is theoretically no better than Orwell’s.

Stuart Hall’s essay makes the reasonable point that ‘despite his socialism, Orwell was instinctively an individualist.’ Maybe, Hall suggests, Orwell should have distinguished more carefully between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but he’s still someone we can learn from, ‘even, as Brecht put it, from his “bad side” ’. Lynette Hunter shows that Orwell’s narrative styles are not as undifferentiated as some readers have thought: a very good essay, this one. But most of the book is a belated piece of grousing.

George Woodcock, familiar to political history as Orwell’s anarchist friend, has reprinted without change the book he first published in 1967. Not a biography, but ‘a study of Orwell’s writing and his ideas, supported by biographical evidence’. He has added an Introduction, explaining that he has read the new stuff and thinks it makes no difference. The book is a memoir, based on Woodcock’s personal experience of Orwell, and interesting for that reason. Woodcock’s philosophy of language is about as jejune as Orwell’s. ‘That he was a great moralist is true enough,’ he claims, ‘and one aspect of his morality, the search for the word that would be exact and truthful and transparent, made him also one of the finest prose stylists of our age.’ A few pages later the claim is enlarged to cover ‘any English age’. There are the usual celebrations of Orwell’s style, ‘its firmness, its colloquial vigour, its unpretentious vividness, and, above all, its limpid clarity’. Predictably, Woodcock quotes with approval Orwell’s most ludicrous formula for good writing: ‘What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word.’ He endorses, too, the most unilluminating metaphor for the understanding of style, a window-pane through which one sees the truth. Woodcock’s book ends: ‘But the style, it is said rightly, is the man. And in that crystalline prose which Orwell developed so that reality could always show through its transparency, lies perhaps the greatest and certainly the most durable achievement of a good and angry man who sought for the truth because he knew that only in its air would freedom and justice survive.’ Would it help, given such a prejudice, to say that no style is translucent; and that the air of security and righteousness in which the prejudice is forwarded is a rhetorical device like any other?

Orwell’s London is mainly an evening with the photograph-album: pictures of London before and during the War, Orwell’s pubs and restaurants, the Dog and Duck, the York Minster, the George, the Elysée, Bertorelli’s, the Marquis of Granby. The text is modestly interesting, Memory Lane revisited with Muggeridge, Rees, Connolly, Heppenstall, Symons. Empson is quoted on Orwell at the BBC rehearsing a talk with some Indian: ‘The FACK that you’re black and that I’m white,’ Orwell said in a voice schooled to mime Cockney, ‘has nudding whatever to do wiv it.’