The Magazine

The Tory Anarchist

George Orwell deserves better than Jeffrey Meyers.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By JOHN P. ROSSI
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After heaping encomiums on Davison, Meyers devotes two paragraphs to the flaws in the edition, prominent among which are, surprisingly, a failure to note Meyers’s many contributions to Orwell studies, such as his first essay on “Orwell as Film Critic,” or his discovery of “Humberto Possenti’s letter protesting Orwell’s libel of French kitchens.” The essay, which appears in Orwell, is insignificant, and Meyers is wrong about his second claim. Possenti’s letter was published in the London Times in 1933 and can be found in the first volume of Orwell’s nonfiction writings, which appeared in 1968.    

Meyers divides his collection into two broad areas: Orwell’s life and what Meyers calls his “art,” a division that is largely artificial. The essays vary in quality. One on Orwell’s Burma is little more than a travel piece which tells us nothing important or significant about the five years Orwell spent there as an officer of the Imperial Police. (The piece originally appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, where it belonged.) On the other hand, Meyers’s analysis of the novel Burmese Days, which draws heavily on Orwell’s time in Burma, is instructive, and clearly demonstrates how deeply Orwell’s experiences there turned him into a bitter foe of the concept of empire. While Orwell came to believe that Burmese Days was not worth reprinting, it actually holds up quite well, and, like E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, serves as an example of the guilt-ridden novel of empire.

Meyers is particularly good in his discussion of Orwell’s  Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his time in Spain. Meyers is right that this was the turning point in Orwell’s life, when, as he told Cyril Connolly, he “at last really believed in Socialism.” Meyers notes that Orwell’s embrace of socialism was as idiosyncratic as the man himself. Orwell believed in a humane socialism with an emphasis on liberty and equality; he had little time for Marxism or Marxists, whom he regarded as little more than power worshippers.

Spain also turned Orwell into a bitter enemy of communism and its fellow-travelers, who he argued had betrayed the revolution in Spain. When Orwell tried to tell what he had seen in Spain, he found that this was politically unacceptable in England. The editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, rejected Orwell’s articles and reviews on the Spanish Civil War on the grounds that they contradicted the party line. Orwell was outraged. Years later, he was having lunch with Malcolm Muggeridge when he asked to change seats. When Muggeridge asked why, Orwell said that Martin was sitting nearby and he couldn’t abide looking at his corrupt face. Meyers is surely correct that the roots of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four can be found in Orwell’s experiences in Spain. Among other things, Spain taught him that the very concept of historical truth was disappearing, another concern that would find its way into his last two iconic novels, as well as into such essays as “Looking Back on the Spanish War” and “Politics and the English Language.”

One of the most unusual essays is an attempt by Meyers to show that Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows influenced Animal Farm. It is certainly true that Orwell had a fondness for animal stories he had read as a young boy—a particular favorite was The Tale of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter—but Meyers fails to demonstrate any connection between Grahame’s charming tale of Mr. Toad and his collection of odd friends and Animal Farm. The essay is also an example of Meyers’s rhetoric leading him into some strange areas. For example, he sees Toad’s fascination with rearranging the furniture in his bedroom to resemble an automobile which he then pretends to drive as an “unmistakable portrayal of masturbation and orgasm”—an example of what Dwight Macdonald called “unconscious parody.”  

Meyers’s collection suffers the fate of all such gatherings of previously published material: It is dated, redundant, and unnecessary. If he had reworked the material in light of new discoveries or fresh interpretations of Orwell’s work, it might have had some value. As it stands, Orwell: Life and Art adds little to our understanding of George Orwell and his remarkable literary output.


John P. Rossi, professor emeritus of history  at La Salle University, is coauthor of The Cambridge Introduction to George Orwell.