Peter Davison's contribution to Orwell studies is not often enough celebrated. It began over a quarter of a century ago, with a commission to prepare definitive texts of Orwell's nine full-length books. There followed 17 years' hard labour on the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell (1998), whose thousands of pages, I once calculated, would cover a fair part of Norwich city centre if laid out end to end. In 2006 there came a supplementary volume, The Lost Orwell, and last year an edition of Orwell's collected diaries. In any other country, Professor Davison would have been given the equivalent of a knighthood, his own research centre and a team of postgraduate dogsbodies. This being England, he has to make do with an OBE, a room in his Wiltshire home and part-time help from his wife.
A Life in Letters uses material from a number of sources. Some of it first saw the light as long ago as 1968, in the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters edited by Ian Angus and Orwell's widow, Sonia. Rather more derives from the Complete Works. The Lost Orwell supplies correspondence with the French translator of Down and Out in Paris and London, René-Noël Raimbault, and a revealing sequence of letters from the author's first wife, Eileen. The sprinkling of new stuff that Davison has since turned up includes a significant twist on Orwell's relationship with his teenage sweetheart Jacintha Buddicom, a long letter to Richard Usborne of the Strand Magazine from 1947, declining to contribute but talking about himself at unprecedented length, and an intriguing note to an old flatmate, from December 1945, dating his hostility to Soviet communism to the early 1930s.
All this makes for an engaging introduction to Orwell's short but extravagantly documented life, beginning with a letter to his Eton chum Steven Runciman from 1920 announcing "my first adventure as an amateur tramp" and ending with a note from January 1950 from Sonia to Homage to Catalonia's French translator, Yvonne Davet, explaining that her husband is "rather ill at the moment and so isn't strong enough to write himself". In fact, Orwell died just 15 days later. Enthusiasts who haven't kept up with the latest developments in Orwell scholarship will be interested to know that some of the most fascinating items here are not by Orwell. The half-dozen recently discovered letters from Eileen to her friend Norah Myles - seriocomic reportage from a nine-year marriage cut short by Eileen's death on the operating table in 1945 - include a horribly funny one, sent in 1936 from Southwold, where the newly-weds were staying with Orwell's parents, which dissects the family background:
. . . they are all quite penniless but still on the shivering verge of gentility as Eric calls it in his new book which I can't think will be popular with the family. In spite of this the family on the whole is fun & I imagine unusual in their attitude to me because they all admire Eric and consider him quite impossible to live with - indeed on the wedding day Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, and Avril the sister said that obviously I didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there.
Eileen notes - shrewdly - that the Blairs "haven't I think grasped that I am very much like Eric in temperament". The value of her letters lies in their focus on sides of Orwell's life that he hardly ever discusses - his parents (whom Eileen liked) and the Blair household in Southwold, which he used as a bolt-hole from the time he came back from Burma in 1927 until his father's death a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War. Elsewhere, Davison drops tantalising hints about another aspect of Orwell's hidden Suffolk life - his relationship with Eleanor Jaques, to whom he proposed marriage in the early 1930s, only to be cut out by his friend Dennis Collings. "Rumours abound," Davison writes, "that a further batch of letters to Eleanor Jaques was offered for sale by Bonhams in 2009 and then withdrawn."
Here Davison is simply being polite. Late in 2008, various people with an interest in Orwell were summoned to Bonhams to inspect a cache of material formerly owned by the late Susannah Collings, Dennis's daughter, and recovered from her Southwold house. This included the letters to Eleanor reproduced in the Complete Works, all of which sold at auction last spring for astronomical sums. Not long before this, someone from Bonhams rang with the news that 19 new letters had been found in an envelope on which Eleanor had scribbled the instructions "Burn after my death". A second sale was scheduled for the summer, a garbled account appeared in a Sunday newspaper, and then, inexplicably, the trail went cold. The sale was never held, Bonhams stopped answering calls, and an enquiring Richard Blair, Orwell's son and the owner of his copyrights, was briskly informed that it was none of his business.
All this is very mysterious and, from the point of view of Orwell studies, deeply depressing. Why can't Davison have a look at them before, as seems horribly likely, they disappear into the hands of some private collector? Meanwhile, A Life in Letters contains nearly everything a reader new to Orwell needs to know about him, and a great deal that diehard fans will be enchanted to have. If I had to choose the letter most characteristic of Orwell's temperament and his view of the world, it would be one written to another of his Suffolk demoiselles, Brenda Salkeld, from August 1934. Here he records walking out to Easton Broad:
not intending to bathe, & then the water looked so nice that I took off my clothes & went in, & then about 50 people came & rooted themselves to the spot. I wouldn't have minded that, but among them was a coastguard who could have had me up for bathing naked, so I had to swim up & down for the best part of half-an-hour, pretending to like it.
There are other, equally typical remarks, about how tortoises drink, Burmese Days, which "made me spew when I saw it in print", and
an infallible ruse, taught him by Dennis's dad, for deterring fruit thieves by spraying your pears with indelible dye.
A Life in Letters
George Orwell. Edited by Peter Davison
Harvill Secker, 544pp, £20
D J Taylor's "Orwell: the Life" is published by Vintage (£9.99)