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Diaries

At first glance, George Orwell’s domestic diaries seem to show a cold and uncaring man. In fact, not

In his introduction to Orwell's Diaries, the editor Peter Davison, who oversaw the monumental effort of the author's Complete Works, writes that, despite Orwell's aversion to having a biography, "It is ironic that these diaries offer a virtual autobiography of his life and opinions for so much of his life." There are ironies here, but Orwell inadvertently writing an autobiography - at least as we commonly understand the genre - is not among them. Rather than personal journals recording daily occurrences and opinions that constitute an implicit narrative of internal life (or, for that matter, of external actions), the Diaries are a melange of a working writer's notebooks, interspersed with a decade or so of what he called "domestic diaries". Readers should abandon hope that the domestic diaries will offer insight into Orwell's domestic life or relationships, however. Last year, the organisers of the Orwell Prize began blogging his diary entries, beginning in 1938. This starting date seems to have been entirely expedient: the blogs are posted "in real time", 70 years to the day after he wrote them, so the website started with the entries from 70 years before the first post, and plan to end in 1942 (2012). The diaries included in this volume are more extensive. They begin in 1931 and extend through 1949, until just before the author's premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 46 in January 1950.

Orwell did not intend these domestic diaries for publication, of course - with good reason. They are almost entirely devoid of narrative interest. A great many entries baldly state the number of eggs his hens laid: "One egg." "One egg." "Two eggs."

One day he catches a snake and wonders what kind it is. Another day he notes that his goat's milk tastes remarkably pungent, and concludes that she is feasting on wild garlic. Such faint domestic comedy is as entertaining as the housekeeping records ever become.

In 1946 Orwell moved to Jura, in the Inner Hebrides, and became preoccupied with the weather. He punctuates his meteorological reports with accounts of domestic crises - his sister Avril dislocates her shoulder and they can't set it; his small son Richard gashes his forehead, requiring stitches. But even such mild excitations are narrated quite baldly, without discernible emotion.

Unfortunately, this terseness risks creating the erroneous impression of a man so detached as to seem nearly autistic, never in his home life reflecting upon his family, friends, or even literature. It is self-evident, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. Orwell recorded the 1948 entries, for example, while he was in the final stages of Nineteen Eighty-Four - and the early stages of the final bout of tuberculosis that would soon kill him.

Readers approaching the Diaries hoping to encounter the private man will be disappointed - for example, they rarely mention his tiny son, Richard, whom he adopted with his first wife, Eileen, shortly before she died during an operation in 1945. Taken in isolation, they could suggest a monstrous carelessness. But, of course, Orwell cared deeply about his son, as a touching letter he wrote in hospital demonstrates:
“I don't know that it matters except for being expensive and not seeing little R. I am so afraid of his growing away from me, or getting to think of me as just a person who is always lying down and can't play."

But Davison does not include that letter, which comes from Bernard Crick's still-definitive 1980 biography, George Orwell: a Life. The exclusion is fair enough, if perhaps unfortunate - this volume is the collected diaries, after all, and Davison has published separate collections of occasional journalism and letters. But there are some far odder omissions, including Orwell's late entry (Crick locates it in a 1949 notebook) explaining his feeling of inadequacy, a persistent sense, despite his intense productivity, "that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time." Inexplicably, this celebrated passage is nowhere to be found in the 1949 entries. Crick includes another passage from the same notebook that does not appear in this volume, under the title "Death Dreams": "Death Dreams very frequent throughout the past two years. Sometimes of the sea or the sea shore or more often of enormous, splendid buildings or streets or ships, in which I often lose my way, but always with a peculiar feeling of happiness and of walking in sunlight."

I am happy to give Davison the benefit of the doubt and to assume there must be a logic to these omissions, but he does not offer one. And it is difficult to reconcile his claim that these Diaries offer "a virtual autobiography" with his apparent exclusion of autobiographical reflections in favour of weather reports and egg tallies.

Fortunately, the domestic diaries, while constituting a large proportion (perhaps 50 per cent) of the book, are interspersed with what might be called writer's notebooks. Orwell titled these individually: the "Hop-Picking Diary" from 1931; the diaries from 1936 that would form the basis of The Road to Wigan Pier; the "Morocco Diary", from when Orwell and Eileen went to North Africa for his health between 1938 and 1939 (although these, too, contain a fair number of domestic accounts of livestock); the 1939 notes that Orwell retrospectively named "Diary of Events Leading Up to the War"; and the "War-Time Diary" that Orwell kept intermittently throughout the Second World War.

These more socio-political accounts redeem the Diaries from being of interest only to specialists (and probably of little interest to them). They are rich in evocative detail and observation, and in many cases readers will recognise the seeds of famous passages to come in Down and Out in Paris and London and Wigan Pier. That said, the sketchiness of the entries also demonstrates the unarguable superiority of the books, and will presumably send most readers hotfooting it back to them.

That is where they send Davison, as well. He decides at times to reprint the published version - as in Wigan Pier's description of the mountains of slagheaps and the girl cleaning a sewage pipe - to enable him to offer a miniature comparison/contrast essay on Orwell's revisions. This is not necessarily objectionable, but it is entirely arbitrary: no other entry receives the same textual scrutiny. With similar arbitrariness, in his introduction to the "Morocco Diaries" of 1939, Davison suddenly launches into a defence of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy, offering another miniature essay, this time on political history. Where Davison's expertise and scrupulous editorial work on the immense Complete Works cannot be questioned, some of his editorial decisions here can be: he gives considerably shorter shrift to what some might consider more pertinent information, simply announcing Orwell's two marriages, the adoption of his son and the death of Eileen, without giving other biographical context or explanation.

Ultimately, the Diaries suggest that Orwell reserved his intellect and passion for his life and for his professional writing. He emerges as less uninterested in the external world than in his own interiority. This Orwell spares no energy for introspection or daily trivia, and gossip is entirely absent, with the exception of one piquant detail - he notes in 1939 ("from reliable private information") that Oswald Mosley was rumoured to be "a masochist of the extreme type in his sexual life". Disappointingly, he does not amplify this (surprisingly topical) titbit. Otherwise, the only sex in the book comes when, with great interest, he watches rooks copulating on the ground.

The "War-Time Diaries" are the heart of the book. Here, one hears the voice of Orwell the Swiftian conscience of his nation: "You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion either . . . When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth."

If we are searching for Orwell the prophet and author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we need look no further: "Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency."

And there are a few skewering one-liners, as when he observes: "Attlee reminds me of nothing so much as a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen." The most abbreviated entries are often the most vivid: "16.11.40: I never thought I should live to grow blasé about the sound of gunfire, but so I have." And this unforgettable image of burning newspapers during the Blitz: "19.10.40: The unspeakable depression of lighting the fires every morning with papers of a year ago, and getting glimpses of optimistic headlines as they go up in smoke."

There are also glimpses of Orwell's lexical sensibilities, as when he notices on 2 January 1941 the prevalence of the word "blitz", and writes that he awaits its use as a verb - and then on 22 January, as he observes with satisfaction that the Daily Express has done just that. But ultimately glimpses are all these Diaries afford. "I suppose sooner or later we all write our own epitaphs," he notes in 1942, after wryly observing that he is working for the BBC only five years after roundly abusing war journalists in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell wrote his own epitaph many times over, but it is probably not to be found in this collection, which despite its many pleasures does not often enough suggest the simple greatness of its writer.

Diaries George Orwell
Harvill Secker, 528pp, £20

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature at the University of East Anglia

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter