On paper, the novels that George Orwell wrote in the 1930s look surprisingly remote from one another. Burmese Days (1934) is about a colonial administrator who kills himself over a failed love affair. The heroine of A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) is an amnesiac spinster who embarks on a low-life picaresque with a gang of down-and-outs. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) stars moth-eaten Gordon Comstock, a disaffected poet trying to preserve his integrity in the presence of capitalism’s rattling swill bucket. Coming Up for Air (1939) finds a middle-aged insurance salesman grimly revisiting the locales of his Oxfordshire boyhood. All four, however, share the same emotional perspective; each, in the end, declares itself as a step on the path that leads to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell’s most ingrained habit as a novelist is a trick of grounding his fiction in the circumstances of his own life. A few extra-curricular flourishes aside, his novels consist almost exclusively of projections of himself, deviously imagined structures erected on the foundation of his own psychology. Nowhere, perhaps, is this tethering in the kind of person Orwell imagined himself to be more evident than in what he thought of his novels after he had finished writing them. He is obsessed with the idea of failure and his attitude to his fiction is usually one of bitter disparagement. A Clergyman’s Daughter was written off as “bollix”. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was later marked down as a potboiler. Even Nineteen Eighty-Four, he told Malcolm Muggeridge, was a good idea that had crumbled in his hands.
And if the books are failures, so are the people who wander around in them. Each of Orwell’s novels turns out to be a study in regression, a matter of life not sustaining its early promise, dreams cast down into dust. Flory in Burmese Days is a lonely fantasist whose best years have been squandered in drink and whoring. Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter is an old maid at 28. Even George Bowling in Coming Up for Air, perhaps the most resourceful and worldly of this desperate crew, is irrevocably caught up in the ooze and stagnation of a life lived out with his mirthless wife, Hilda, in the shadow of approaching war, the bombs and the machine guns that are going to smash civilisation into bits.
And behind them – behind Comstock, with his rants against the editors who won’t print his poems, or Dorothy bicycling to Holy Communion through the inhospitable back lanes of Knype Hill, Suffolk – lurks the figure of Orwell himself, a man who, despite much evidence to the contrary, considered himself a failure and believed that, wherever he was set down on the planet, whether in early 1920s Burma or on late 1940s Jura, he was being watched. Each of his four novels from the 1930s has what is in effect the same structure: the setting up of a solitary, persecuted anti-hero in opposition to a hostile world. That world is at bottom Orwell’s own – the Burmese village where he had served as an Imperial policeman, the Suffolk town where he had lived with his parents – in each case twisted out of kilter, decorated with all the subliminal horrors that oppressed the author as much as the people he created.
What makes these landscapes so suffocating is the presence of “them”, the malign exterior forces that Orwell assumed to be at work interfering in his characters’ lives. If the people in his novels share a single characteristic, it is their creator’s tendency to victimise them, to place them at the centre of a hostile world in which their every movement is subject to constant surveillance. The provincial backwater of Knype Hill is represented as a cauldron of spite and backbiting. Gordon’s life is a series of furtive concealments: he brews illicit cups of tea in his room while listening for the sound of the landlady’s feet on the stair. Bowling has a terror of being found out. His journey in search of the Thames Valley haunts of his boyhood is paranoiacally undermined by the thought that his wife’s spies are on his tail.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the spies are real and unavoidable, symbolised by the tele-screen that hangs on every wall. Written more than a decade before Oceania, Airstrip One and two-minute hates, the 1930s novels are full of sharp, prefigurative intent. The alarm clock that jerks Dorothy out of bed in the opening paragraph of A Clergyman’s Daughter is “like a horrid little bomb of bell metal”. The aeroplanes are coming, Gordon reflects in Keep the Aspidistra Flying; the whole world will shortly be going up in a roar of high explosives. “My poems are dead . . . We’re all dead people in a dead world,” he tells his girlfriend, sounding uncannily like Winston Smith. Even the campaign that Gordon works on after his shamefaced return to advertising (canvassed by the slogan “PP [ie ‘pedic perspiration’]. What about YOU?” which is reckoned to have a “sinister simplicity”) seems only a yard or two distant from the looming horizons of Big Brother and the Thought Police.
Yet these connections ought not to surprise us. Each of Orwell’s novels is, ultimately, the story of a rebellion that fails, of an individual – in Animal Farm, a mini-society – who, however feebly or obliquely, attempts to throw over the traces. Each ends in more or less the same way, with the protagonist humbled, defeated, sent back to square one. Flory shoots himself. Dorothy returns to the sedative thraldom of her father’s rectory. Gordon marries the pregnant Rosemary and succumbs to the insidious embrace of the Money God. George Bowling creeps home to the west London suburbs in shame. In much the same way, ten years later, Winston Smith, brainwashed and re-educated, knows that he loves Big Brother.
The best one can hope for is a kind of coming to terms with the weight of this environmental quicksand – the “he is dead but won’t lie down” peddled by the epigraph of Coming Up for Air. The truly startling thing about this catalogue of failure, inanition and spiritual servitude, however, is that the dilemmas it advertises are so clearly Orwell’s own.
DJ Taylor is the author of the Whitbread Award-winning “Orwell: the Life” (Vintage, £9.99)