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28 July 2021

From the NS archive: Coming up to Orwell

8 October 1971: The many versions of Eric Blair.

By Bernard Crick

In this review of a new collection of essays, “The World of George Orwell” edited by Miriam Gross, the critic and political theorist Bernard Crick identified a generational attitude towards the great writer. He thought Orwell meant different things to those who learned their politics in the 1930s to those who came of age politically in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Crick believed that most Orwell studies were exercises in either attacking or defending Orwell. The new volume, with contributions by some of the subtlest critics of the time, such as John Gross, Ian Hamilton and Dan Jacobson, was far more clear-sighted. Crick also found time to admonish Orwell’s widow Sonia for her too-close guardianship of Orwell’s reputation and papers. Within three years of this review, Crick had started work on his own authorised biography and later set up the Orwell Prize for political writing.

***

Eric Blair was perhaps one man, but there were several George Orwells – both of his own and others’ making. As an essayist and reviewer, he was consistently relevant, but as a thinker he was not always consistent in his conclusions. So many writers have selected from him, almost re-written him, as if challenged by him to come to terms with themselves (not always very interesting for the rest of us), rather than with Orwell as he was.

Nearly all the books on Orwell, before this one, have made the mistake of attacking or defending him as a whole in the spirit of a political and literary war to the death. But perhaps these differences and difficulties are of generational more than of ideological perspective. Those who learned “their politics” in the 1960s may have the distance to find Orwell more intellectually interesting but less emotionally provoking than did the generation of the 1930s, and may be prepared to judge the variety of his work piece by piece, not to impute to it either a perfect or a dastardly unity.

At 41, I come in between. I first read Orwell as a student of politics – which I still am – more than an activist in the late 1940s, thus during the Cold War and not the Popular Front. I read Animal Farm with delight, as much for the clarity of style as for the ability of its satire to bring out the simple, basic issues, which so many were busily engaged in not facing. And I read 1984 as a serious theoretical projection of our own civilisation, based on analogies from, but certainly not literal models of, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. I found it puzzling that anybody could see it as simply anti-communist (unless themselves simple communists), or could reduce it to a masochistic fantasy arising from an unhappy childhood at boarding school (unless such critics always regarded biography and personality as the only possible key to unusual allegiances on great political issues – one appreciates why Orwell railed so much at the political naivety and insularity of the fancy boys of literature).

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In the mid-17th century Thomas Hobbes wrote amid civil war the great imaginative masterpiece of the entailments of passive obedience in autocratic politics (and the most sustained piece of baroque prose in the language). In the mid-20th century, it seemed that Orwell had written amid cold war the great imaginative masterpiece of the entailments of compulsory enthusiasm in totalitarian politics (and a fine specimen of the plain English style). Neither system ever achieved in practice, of course, such degrees of grim perfection; but Hobbes is not criticised on these empirical grounds, even though he claimed to be writing a scientific treatise, whereas Orwell, who wrote a novel, is often denounced for inaccuracy. But how much more sensible for Orwell to have written in the form of a novel, rather than either a philosophic treatise (when philosophy has grown so esoteric), or of a social science monograph (when obscure and pseudo-technical dialects of German-American are, as yet, imperfectly understood by the average English educated reader).

All right, 1984 is not a great novel in the tradition of psychological realism. Henry James would have abandoned it and George Eliot winced, although Conrad could have seen the point and simply wished the characters better drawn. Orwell’s characters are caricatures or “humours”; but it is a great and terrible projection, none the less, of modern possibilities, perhaps still probabilities. On stronger ground are those who see it in the tradition of the science-and-society fiction of HG Wells, who so keenly interested Orwell.

Reluctance to accept Animal Farm as great satire and incomprehension that 1984 is a considerable work of political theory, not of propaganda, are, I believe, based on four things. First, narrow views of the proper scope of literature: those purists who dislike any intrusion of politics into literature. Second, the Marxists who denounce his art for having got the wrong message and for not simply serving the cause anyway. Third, a general ignorance by most literary critics of contemporary history and political theory – philistinism can work in both directions. And fourth, the hostility of those who came into political maturity (or had their adolescence permanently arrested) amid the left-wing politics of the Thirties and early Forties and who, however much their behaviour has changed, still cannot forget or forgive his cruel insight into and nagging exposures of their willing delusions – the man who loved socialism, who experienced it in Catalonia, but for ever afterwards distrusted socialists.

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In that “worthless middle generation”, I’m happy to admit to being fed up with replays of those old battles, and to have no romantic desire whatever to relive them: the present and the future are interesting and difficult enough.

Orwell had a great capacity for standing outside the fashions of left-wing politics, for keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the far vision of a realm of equality of respect and of freedom of thought and action. And there was to him only one sure sign, amid so much good will and rhetoric, of genuine pilgrims towards that secular kingdom: that they spoke the truth, however uncomfortable. Anger at Animal Farm and 1984 simply publicised more widely the earlier resentments at his Homage to Catalonia which, before the war, sold badly. This is what drove him at times to a waspish extremity in his reviews and occasional pieces: against Gollancz for refusing his book unread because he believed it to be inexpedient to attack the Communist Party, even for betraying the revolution and persecuting the anarchists in Spain. And there was the infamous refusal by Kingsley Martin and the New Statesman of his deliberately provocative “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, and the equally important book review of Franz Borkenau’s Spanish Cockpit (with which only his own book can compare as a true, contemporary picture of the Spanish war).

What was heinous was not the treatment of an individual reviewer, however illustrious (“fancy not printing anything of Orwell’s”), for the best have their off day, nor even Martin’s candid admission that it was “against editorial policy” – for journalists may have their policies. It was the policy itself. The journal had taken an ideological posture, perhaps based on a fantastic exaggeration of its own direct influence, and it had sold the pass of simple truth to the Communist Party’s peculiar concepts of the “objectively true”. I don’t think Martin ever saw the point in all the long controversy that followed.

In this new anthology on Orwell (The World of George Orwell edited by Miriam Gross), Raymond Carr, the historian of modern Spain, writes: “Orwell was determined to set down the truth as he saw it. This was something that many writers of the Left in 1936-39 could not bring themselves to do.” Carr attributes such reluctance not to the attractions of power as seen in the might of the Soviet Union, as Orwell did, but the “the almost hypnotic quality of the Popular Front”. This could be put more generally which would explain the biting animus that in the same volume, DAN Jones can still show towards Orwell’s ill manners to his fellow socialists. Perhaps the virtue of socialist conduct is often the vice of socialist writing, a greater concern for the company one keeps and for feeling comradely than for speaking the truth, so the belonging can become more important than the knowledge.

The theme of truth runs through all of these essays, by a most able and interesting (and very mixed) team assembled by Miriam Gross, the assistant literary editor of the Observer. She fields 15 good professionals, two amateurs, and brings in Mr Jones to dredge up all old scores on “The Arguments Against Orwell”, as if she suddenly thought it only fair and liberal to have a rude and wild contrary voice amid so much careful empathy.

Half the essays are criticism and half biography – which explains the presence of two amateurs. Jacintha Buddicom, a childhood companion who denies that he was unhappy then, and sadly ponders why “the dial counted only shadowed hours, where sunny hours could have no rightful place” – quite a find is she, for the unhappy childhood is the basic article of faith in most Orwell criticism. And a Mr Maung Htin Aung tells of his involvement in a scuffle between fellow students and the young policeman, Eric Blair, at a railway station near Rangoon in 1924.

Most of the essays show a refreshing dispassion. Dan Jacobson notes that Orwell’s view of his childhood as wholly unhappy was coloured by maudlin sentiment and his later posture of “failure the only virtue in a shoddy, corrupt and careerist world”; but he sees how Orwell liberated himself from, in his own words, “the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourselves”.

Ian Hamilton in his finely perceptive “Along the Road to Wigan Pier” makes much the same point as Jacobson in his “Orwell’s Slumming”, that Orwell never played at being a worker, only tried hard to be an austere investigator. In Paris, Richard Mayne shows, he was down and out –  he had no money so he lived among the poor, as many a young writer had done before and has done since. He never made a virtue of slumming, only used the experience – and to better effect in his reviewing and occasional pieces than in his (surely?) rather mediocre pre-war novels.

Despite several highly perceptive and informative essays, Orwell has still been poorly served. The book is a jerky compromise between critical essays and a corporate biography. The editor has obviously had to fit it into the standard form of a Weidenfeld “The World of…” So it is full of fine and unnecessary photographs – of Spain, Wigan, Frank Richards and Billy Bunter, even two Donald McGill postcards, and dustjackets in strange tongues but short on words. John Gross, Dan Jacobson, Ian Hamilton and the rest just get going when they have to stop within a narrow 3,000 words, sometimes abruptly, as sadly spoils David Pryce-Jones’s wonderfully subtle but woefully compressed “Orwell’s Reputation”. And how Orwell himself would have hated the chic appearance of the book.

Perhaps the time may not be far off when there can be a full biography and a proper critical appraisal, not the strident attacks of warm justifications which dominates the Orwell market before these present essays. And in a self-justificatory mood Orwell’s old friend, the inevitable Malcolm Muggeridge, inevitably winds up; he confesses that despite Orwell’s wish for there to be no authorised biography, Orwell’s widow, Sonia, had asked him to take on the task: “In the end the project defeated me, partly through my own indolence, and distaste for collecting and absorbing masses of tape recorded talk, much of it necessarily intensely boring, which would constitute the most of one’s material…”

A thousand pities that, with her obvious fear of malicious enemies – for he had made so many – his widow presented her biography to such an Impossibly Busy Person; and entrusted mainly to herself the Secker & Warburg so-called Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell – of which the best one can say is that it is a good amateur job, but incomplete and is now an obstacle to a genuine Collected Works. Perhaps the excellence of most of the present essays will convince her that it is wrong to defend her late husband’s reputation, papers and writings so jealously. Orwell, warts and all, would still be a giant. I believe all giants have warts, but I still believe in giants.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)