The Magazine

Sincerely, George Orwell

The correspondence of a ‘wintry conscience.’

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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Literary reputation is an unstable thing. Not so long ago, the luminaries were Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Mailer, but one hardly hears about them these days, unless one of their novels is adapted for the screen. Certainly Arthur Koestler, a much more profound thinker than his contemporary George Orwell, told the same story and in prose that is even better (and in a language not his own). But it is the latter whose books remain in print and whose name has become a byword for the political destruction of individual freedom and thought.

mondadori / getty images

mondadori/getty images

An instructive comparison is Orwell’s slightly older contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Despite major differences, they had in common spouses who faithfully shepherded publication of their works, thereby allowing their reputations to rise above the hot-button issues of their own time. (Koestler and Stefan Zweig suffer in this respect, as their wives committed suicide with them.) One can’t help thinking that some writers have outlived their reputation because no one remains to tend the flame. Thus, Orwell seems to tower over his age, whereas there were others in his cohort: Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Herbert Read, and such critics of authoritarianism as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Theodor Adorno.

George Orwell has certainly been fortunate in his editors. First among them was Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s widow, who, with Ian Angus, published the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters in 1968. She was also successful, in accordance with Orwell’s own wishes, in keeping biographers at bay until 1980, thus preventing indiscriminate pilfering in the archives. (Koestler’s afterlife is a cautionary tale: His immense archive in Scotland remains, with one exception, untapped by serious scholars, which has resulted in at least one very tendentious biography and, recently, allegations of rape.) Peter Davison, professor and bibliographer, has worked for almost two decades producing the 20-volume complete works of Orwell and its supplement, The Lost Orwell, and, several years ago, George Orwell: Diaries. Now we have the one-volume Life in Letters.

The first thing that surprises, especially because of the fame of Orwell’s essays, is the lack of literary style: He was not a great letter writer. It is not the “literary” George Orwell who is on display here, but the active man in engagement with the world, the Orwell who “matters,” to use Christopher Hitchens’s term. Although most of us know the end of the story, the editor’s selection produces a built-in tension, and one reads with increasing dismay of the progress of his sickness and of the miscellaneous work he did to earn money but that kept him from worthwhile writing. With impressive professional discipline, however, and uncomplaining stoicism, he provided a perfect typescript of 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four, as per the English edition) while in bed suffering the final stages of tuberculosis. 

It was said of Jonathan Swift, one of Orwell’s models, that “his personality is a problem which has not as yet disclosed the whole of his secret.” From the evidence of this “life in letters,” the same mystery does not apply to Orwell, who comes across as exceedingly straightforward and unsentimental. Indeed, it is the letters of Eileen Blair, Orwell’s first wife, included here that balance the life represented by the letters.

In the 1946 essay “Why I Write,” Orwell spelled out his goal: “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.” It was in pursuit of this goal that Orwell worked under appalling (to us moderns) conditions. Running water, bathrooms, electrical lighting—he seems not to have given much thought to them, as long as there was high tea at the end of the afternoon or “his ration of gin” in the evening. Jack Common, a working-class colleague from Orwell’s stint at the Adelphi, occupied the Orwells’ cottage in Hertfordshire for a time in the late 1930s. Apologizing for neglecting “several important items .  .  . that were chased out of my mind by the European situation,” Orwell warned Common not to use thick paper in the WC: “It sometimes chokes the cesspool up, with disastrous results. The best to use is Jeyes paper which is 6d a packet.”