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26 July 2023

George Orwell in an age of moralists

Should we stop measuring the great English writer by today’s standards?

By Rebecca Solnit

The feminist writer Moira Donegan recently mocked contemporary ­social media reflexes in a tweet about Oedipus: “Wow, unfollowing now. I was a fan of his work solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Did not know he killed his father and married his mother.” We are in an age of ­moralists; the standard question has become whether someone was virtuous, rather than whether they were interesting or useful or exhilarating. Some of this seems valuable for forming societies that are more inclusive and less abusive; some of it is reductive and ­beside the point.

Being a moralist is a particularly fun and easy pursuit when it comes to the past, because pretty much everyone from the past comes up short when measured by present-day standards. Virtually no one in 1973, let alone 1923, had 2023 values about race, gender, sexuality and the rest, any more than they had search engines or Twitter accounts. It’s not our individual virtue but our collective receipt of humane and egalitarian ideas worked out in recent decades that gives us our presumably splendid present-day beliefs.

All this begets the question no one seems to ask: if in 50 years we are all tried by 2073 standards, won’t we ourselves be found wanting? We will certainly be judged for what we’re failing to do about the climate, which we know perfectly well requires far more than most are giving it. There are real questions, too, about whether someone has to be a good person to be a good artist, since the tendency is to evaluate the former in place of the latter.  People can have noble ideals in their art that they have trouble living up to, and if that makes them hypocrites, most of us fail by that standard – and I’d still rather have the art. On the other hand, there are artists whose moral ugliness is manifested in their art, clever and well-crafted though it may be.

Another question is what, if we are going to make moral inquiries, might constitute a fair standard for people of the past. Martin Luther King Jr was not a feminist, and while Virginia Woolf was, she doesn’t score particularly well on, among other things, class and snobbery, which is why there’s a book about her fraught relationship with her servants.

It perhaps makes sense to look for figures who support or at least prefigure our present principles, if not to ask the past to be the present. There were, for example, a handful of 19th-century white Americans who were devoted advocates for Native Americans, but the world-views and language of Helen Hunt Jackson and Thomas Tibbles are not those of indigenous activists in the 21st century.

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And then there’s George Orwell, about whom three new books are appearing soon: two that revisit his best-known fictions, and another one more or less about his first marriage. Orwell, who was one of the great essayists of the 20th century, did something crucial: he found ways to portray and explain authoritarianism, totalitarianism, propaganda and lies, ways so memorable and compelling that a year before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a man was reportedly arrested in Russia for handing out copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I recently saw a person on Twitter declare that something had been “memory-holed”, because the Memory Hole in that novel, into which information is stuffed to be forgotten, was itself so unforgettable.

I wrote a book partly about Orwell a few years ago, Orwell’s Roses, and was then upbraided in various places because he was not a feminist, the implication being that I should only write books about feminists. If I were to be confined to write only about feminists, then the terrain across which I roam would shrink dramatically, and if I were to write only about flawless feminists I’d have to stop writing altogether. I found Orwell useful and interesting, and was unsurprised that he was not more feminist than his contemporaries, though he did in the end manage to be more anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian and anti-imperialist than most of them.

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I’ve also been told repeatedly that Orwell was an anti-Semite, and the young Orwell did air many of the prejudices of his milieu; but as he matured he stopped the sneers (except at vegetarians) and wrote against anti-Semitism in particular. Some people change, and some of these verdicts seem to be the result of putting a biography into a temporal blender within which all transformation vanishes.

[See also: Virginia Woolf’s living book]

Orwell had strong female characters in some of his novels, including the protagonist of A Clergyman’s Daughter, a 1935 novel in which he portrays with empathy the terrible constraints on an unmarried young woman, and the bold Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This autumn sees the publication of Julia (Granta, 19 October) by Sandra Newman, which retells that novel from the perspective of Winston Smith’s lover. I’d expected it to take up arms against Orwell and Winston, but instead, in a book that appears longer than the original, it fleshes out Julia’s life and the workings of the totalitarian government of Airstrip One.

To my surprise, it makes Winston out to be more attractive, even sexy, than Orwell does and there are some steamy bits, though Julia also privately scorns his naiveté. At times it feels more like The Handmaid’s Tale in its portraits of young women living in dormitories, with a chance at artificial insemination by a party member or even marriage as a route out, albeit a treacherous one.

I would guess that there are two main reasons to write a novel inside the world of an existing novel. There’s fan fiction, because you want to spend more time with Elizabeth and Darcy or Harry Potter and see what else happens. And then there’s wanting to fix a book that seems somehow wrong or missing something important. For that, the type specimen must be Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, pointing out the racism and colonialism of Jane Eyre by focusing on the first Mrs Rochester, the mixed-race woman locked in the attic while Jane carries on with Mr Rochester below. It’s a strange, dreamy, sensuous book, not just a reprimand. Since then there have been retakes on well-known stories from the Trojan War to The Wizard of Oz.

I wasn’t quite sure where Julia fell on this spectrum; it seemed not particularly discontented with Orwell’s version of Big Brother’s world, expanding rather than amending it, and while in the original Julia declares herself “corrupt to the bones”, in this one we see what forms that takes. But Orwell’s Winston is something of a romantic who lends a glow of meaning to much of what he sees, while Julia is a pragmatist bent on survival: often, when an incident told from Winston’s perspective is revisited, it has somehow lost its lustre. Orwell’s totalitarian world is sketched in broad strokes, and the detailed fill-in of Julia made me admire his deft economy in creating it.

Eileen Orwell (1905-1945) the first wife of George Orwell (Photo by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy)

There are three reasons to rewrite a book, and Adam Biles’s forthcoming Beasts of England (Galley Beggar Press, 7 September) demonstrates the third: to use existing equipment to describe a new ­situation. His novel doesn’t retell Animal Farm’s story, but returns to Manor Farm many decades later, when the things to be allegorised aren’t the Russian Revolution’s degeneration into authoritarianism, but Britain’s contemporary troubles and culture.

Biles’s book has more creatures  – including alpacas, magpies, a fox named George, dogs called Dunning and Kruger – and more plot twists than the original. It takes on many of the crises of our time, including environmental toxins and the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants. The lies told by the farm’s leaders mutate and multiply in forms reminiscent of Tony Blair’s spin on the invasion of Iraq and Boris Johnson’s spin on Brexit.

Again, I was struck by how concise Orwell’s novel was in comparison. The evils of capitalism and ethnonationalism are, it seems, more complicated to unpack than the evils of simple totalitarianism. But in its portrait of maximal duplicity, built on circumlocution, rebrandings and euphemisms, Beasts of England is as much of our time as Animal Farm was of its.

And then there’s Wifedom (Viking, 17 August), in which Anna Funder begins by scrutinising her own marriage and concludes that, to quote Orwell’s famous phrase about ­“facing unpleasant facts”, she:

“needed to face the ‘unpleasant fact’ that despite Craig and I imagining we divided the work of life and love equally, the world had conspired against our best intentions. I’d been doing the lion’s share for so long we’d stopped noticing. For someone who notices things for a living, this seemed, to borrow our nine-year-old son’s term, an ‘epic fail’.”

You might imagine that Funder would task her husband, Craig, with her issues about the division of labour, but her language lets him slip away. The world has conspired; they have both stopped noticing; she allots herself but not him an “epic fail”. Instead, Craig is thanked in the acknowledgments, and her wrath is directed at Orwell, who, having died in 1950, is definitely not directly responsible.

[See also: The memeification of George Orwell]

In order to do this, Funder interprets the facts of Orwell’s first marriage in ways that make him out to be a bad person, and his wife a sad one. Her book takes up the life of Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair, the Oxford graduate who married Orwell in 1936, blending biography with fiction, a bit of memoir and a lot of opinions. As Funder declares: “To write this book I have used another voice for parts of it – Eileen’s – because I lost the one I had. I retrieved Eileen from behind the Cerberus, from under the ignoring, minimising and passive-voicing. I retrieved her from under her own self-erasure, her attentive listening.”

Funder has a confident voice, prone to flat declarations, and not always accurate, even when she’s not turning real events into fiction. For example, the six Orwell ­biographies she mentions reading, Wikipedia and the rest all record that he was born in Motihari, India, where his father worked as a sub-deputy opium agent for the British empire. Yet in Wifedom, “Orwell was born in Burma, where his father, Richard Blair, was a low-ranking functionary in the colonial ­opium-trading regime.”

Eileen was the subject of a well-researched 2020 biography by Sylvia Topp. She was a blithely witty, valiant figure, whether plunging into Spain during its civil war, London during the Blitz, or facing the primitive living conditions of the rural cottage Orwell had moved into shortly before their marriage. Upon that marriage, she quit her master’s degree in psychology to join him in the countryside, though he followed her to London when she took a job with the Ministry of Information and then the Ministry of Food during the Second World War. Before her marriage she had served as secretary-editor for her brother, a prominent physician; she likewise typed, edited, and undoubtedly influenced some of Orwell’s work.

Both Topp and Funder think Eileen’s marriage thwarted her ambitions; I credit her with choosing her path and have not seen evidence she wanted a different one. Yet the era crushed most women’s ambitions, often so thoroughly that they did not aspire in the first place.

Illustration by Cold War Steve

In March 1945, aged 39, Eileen died from the anaesthesia during surgery for what seems to have been uterine fibroids, which had caused her chronic bleeding, anaemia, and – along with heavy smoking, her demanding jobs, and a poor diet – exhaustion. She left behind an unfinished, loving letter to her husband in which she expressed disgust with London and a desire to return to rural life.

Only a few of her letters survive, though Topp does an excellent job of filling in her background. Still, we know far less about Eileen than her husband, perhaps because that husband was a hugely impactful figure who left behind enough published writing, journals and letters to fill 20 volumes. Unquestionably the gender roles they inhabited were unfair by our contemporary standards; but that they did not transform them is more typical of the time than an individual crime.

I had hoped for a reflection on the condition of wifehood more generally. But for Funder, Eileen becomes a hammer with which to bash Orwell. It is him and not Eileen who dominates the book, which becomes a detailed examination of his sex life before, during, and after their marriage. Early in the book, Funder pulls a quote from Orwell’s last literary journal, written in the tuberculosis sanatorium in early 1949. It was his final illness, but he was planning another book and hoping for another few years of life. It’s a brutal passage, written in the third person, describing a man who hates women and their sexual desire:

“In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making… In any marriage of more than a year or two’s standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same.”

Orwell never, to my knowledge, wrote about himself in the third person, never expressed this kind of distaste for female lust, had celebrated Julia’s sexual appetite in the recently finished Nineteen Eighty-Four, pursued several women after Eileen’s death for both sex and marriage, and in October 1949, a few months before his death, married Sonia Brownell. He also writes in the first person above, below, and between these passages in his journal, but Funder dismisses the biographers who describe the third-person passage as fiction and asserts that it is autobiographical: “Orwell only ever lived with one wife. These comments refer to Eileen.”

If you look at that passage, as published in volume 20 of Peter Davison’s edition of The Complete Works of George Orwell, you see above it on the same page this sentence: “One of the things, which, at the crucial moment, prevented him from committing suicide, was the fact of suddenly realising that after 12 years of marriage he did not know what colour his wife’s eyes were.” It seems part of the same sketch, of a man who doesn’t line up with the not-at-all-suicidal George Orwell, almost four years a widower.

In Wifedom, Eileen feels dragged down rather than revived by speculative passages such as this on what her early married life was like: “My first guess: too much cleaning and not enough, or not good enough, sex.” Funder’s fiction does this, too – for instance this passage with its odd borrowing from Animal Farm: “Tonight the fire is smoking quite a lot. She is ignoring it, reading by the light of the paraffin lamp. Though also ruminating. Chewing the cud with her mind. She is trying not to behave like an animal, but of course she is one; some are just more so.”

Perhaps if you fictionalise wildly enough, you leave the station of fact and can arrive in some other realm in which characters are whoever you want them to be and the historical record remains unbattered. Let Teddy Roosevelt be a clumsy centaur, let Boris Johnson be an unhousebroken retriever, inhabit the private life of Abraham Lincoln as Gore Vidal did. You can do that in fiction that is truly fiction. But while parts of Wifedom are fictionalised, the parts that are not don’t seem to me to meet the obligations of non-fiction.

I used to tell my writing students that there is a slippery slope between the malicious thing your stepfather didn’t really do and the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein didn’t really have, because I was trained as a journalist to regard factual accuracy as an unshakeable obligation writers have to their subjects, their readers and the historical record. Part of the historical record is that they were not us, and their norms and principles were different; you can think of us as possessing different imaginative equipment, just as we use technologies that didn’t exist a few decades ago. I value George Orwell’s writing for his devotion to truthfulness and his recognition of all the ways that truths get corrupted. This is why, even if his private mores are of his time, his public writing still gives us tools to think about ours.

This article appears in our Summer Special

[See also: The sacrifices of George Orwell’s first wife]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special