George Orwell aka Eric Blair (1903-50) is now clearly second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of English literary giants. In our current contemporary context, where hyperbole is coin of the realm, such an opening claim would seem worthy of challenge. Who would you throw into this literary ring to fight such a bout? TS Eliot? Jane Austen? Charles Dickens? William Blake? Virginia Woolf? Chaucer? Donne? George Eliot? A Brontë? A more contemporary writer? What are the criteria? Literary inventiveness? Output? Sublimity? Literary longevity? Sales? Impact? Quotability? Profound sentence count? After reading The Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, Orwell is as significant to this reader as Shakespeare because he has the ability to see and describe things as they truly are.
It is true that Orwell’s six variable novels range from terrible to masterpiece. His political allegory Animal Farm will be esteemed for as long as books written in English are read but publishers should have heeded the author’s dying request that A Clergyman’s Daughter never be re-printed. Orwell, employing the vernacular, described it as “bollox”. His non fiction, especially the essays, are more consistently brilliant and their range is quite extraordinary. Arguably, he invented the genre of popular culture studies with essays on unlikely topics such as funny postcards, brewing a good cup of tea and boys’ magazines. His insights into the uses of language for political gain will also be read for as long as we have a future in which to read. Orwell’s prescience, in Nineteen Eighty-four, is discussed daily in the media. State and corporate surveillance is omniscient, war ceaseless, sophisticated propaganda emanates from screens that are rarely off and the debasement of public language is led by political leaders who lie with such regularity it has become normalised. No novel has more relevance to our 21st century international or domestic political contexts than this final novel. It literally killed him as he typed and corrected drafts with his biro while bedridden with pulmonary tuberculosis.
Eric Blair published from 1914-34 and pseudonymously, as George Orwell, from 1933 until his premature death in 1950, aged 46. In a working life that barely stretched two decades, Orwell published two million words. Novels, reviews, essays, letters, diaries, BBC radio scripts and longer non fiction was produced in a time of massive political upheaval, war and personal tragedy. His mother, father, sister and wife died in quick succession and of course, he battled what was probably tuberculosis for most of his writing life. In Spain, Orwell was shot through the throat and not expected to live as he was carried from the front lines. His survival allowed him to write about what it is like to be shot but more importantly, it informed everything he wrote subsequently and was arguably the culmination of the single-most influential experience of his intellectual and political development – the Spanish Civil War. Fighting against fascism in Spain led to a profound understanding of propaganda. Orwell now knew how political leaders and movements use language to make ‘murder respectable’ and shows us how this works.
Quantity is not always quality but the twenty-volume Complete Works reveals an extraordinary ability to produce original thinking written intelligently, if not always elegantly. His prose is, to paraphrase one of his more well-known lines, often more a hammer than a window pane. Reading his work chronologically is an intellectual pleasure. It also challenges preconceptions about his politics, personality and the extent of his literary and journalistic output. We just do not have anywhere near the same weight of material for the writers mentioned in the opening paragraph. If we did, one wonders what windows would open onto all kinds of lost perceptions of life in England over the last seven hundred years. Essentially, the reader gains access to Orwell’s thinking as it changes and develops while history unfolds. His life spans WWI, the Russian Revolution, depression, the rise of fascism, WWII, the atomic bomb and the beginning of the Cold War. Like Shakespeare, he had a quality education and flair for seeing clearly the tumultuous times in which he lived. His observations are often sage, his love of language always evident. He was a new kind of writer and one who makes more sense to his readers now then what he did in his own times.
Orwell has more lost years than Shakespeare. Considering the scholarly effort focused on uncovering his life and character there’s little evidence, after graduating from Eton in 1921, about his time in Burma, Paris and in Southwold (on resignation from the Burmese police). There are hints that Orwell was intimately acquainted with prostitutes. Like Arthur Koestler, he was not a man to hop into a cab with late at night if you were a woman. Even a walk in the park could be problematic. There is some suggestion that Blair left England for Burma as a result of a botched seduction or attempted sexual assault of his childhood friend, Jacintha Buddicom in September 1921. On his return in 1927, after 5-years of service as a police officer where he participated in the ‘dirty work of empire’ at close hand, he intended to propose to Jacintha. She would not see him. Orwell was never to know that the reason was not what he suspected but that she was pregnant and later was to have the child adopted. This was a seminal moment in the life of the writer and certainly propelled him further along the unusual path he was to walk during the next decade and more.
Although his first experience of ‘tramping’ was while still a schoolboy at Eton, in 1920, it was during the period after his departure from Burma and before the publication of Down and Out in London and Paris (1933) that he spends time with the poor and dispossessed in England and France. He was purposely arrested, spent nights in ‘spikes’, experienced poverty, hunger, substandard accommodation and menial labouring jobs. He went ‘native’ in his own land and that of his mother, who was of French origin. It was always a little faux though as at any time Blair could have returned to his family home, or stayed with an aunt in Paris. However, how many other ex-Etonians spent the next decade or more as an imperial police officer or vagrant? Most went off to Oxbridge or careers in London shifting capital. Orwell had the eyes of an outsider but was always on the inside too. Fittingly, his first adult piece was on censorship in England and was published in France, in 1928.
One reading of his life has been that Blair reinvents himself as Orwell, the literary man seeking truth, from the publication of Down and Out in London and Paris. This may have been partly due to his indiscretions and misdemeanours as a police officer and man. “St George” he is not but certainly Orwell constructed an identity as a man of letters who was more secular than saint and more trenchant, and clear-eyed than any of his generation. Some would say “Orwell” is his most successfully realised character. However, it seems more likely, considering his publisher chose the name from his list of suggestions, that Blair decided to become an author after the revelation in Burma regarding his “true nature”. Becoming Orwell was just one stop on the journey to being a ‘FAMOUS WRITER’. An ambition first declared when he was a very young boy. Most importantly, he would not embarrass his family with the content of his books, or if his first book was a flop, he could have another crack at publishing under his own or a different name.
Orwell is oft-quoted by disparate groups – conservatives, neo-liberals, liberals, anarchists, socialists and even communists – but defies easy categorisation. The Orwell who lives rough with tramps, empathises with the plight of the working class and affects proletarian dress is at odds with the Old Etonian whose web of personal contacts ensure that he is published and supported financially. Orwell’s Etonian connections are significant to his publishing life. Many socialist or ‘proletarian’ writers – who never had connections to London’s literary elite – have fallen by the way, unknown in the 21st century whereas Orwell’s star is still in the ascendant. Orwell described himself as a Tory-anarchist in the 1930s and more famously, after 1936, as a democratic socialist. It would be fair to say that he is more in the intellectual tradition of the Tory-radical than a Socialist. On his deathbed, this lifelong atheist requested to have an Anglican burial and for his son to be educated at Eton (Richard ended up attending Loretto, the Scottish equivalent).
Orwell was hijacked by those with a neo-liberal agenda in America during the 1980-90s but the writer’s acknowledgment that he was ‘of the left’ politically has always resounded. He publicly supported the Labour Party in 1949 as a consequence of critics misinterpreting Nineteen Eighty-four. His ability to criticise ‘the left’ irritated many but Orwell’s independence of thought is one of his strongest literary suits. Another is that the reader can travel with Orwell, seeing how his thinking develops, changes and contradicts itself. We see him grow and gain a better understanding of the tumultuous times and world he experienced. His first-ever published work was a patriotic poem, “Awake Young Men of England,” printed in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard during October 1914, when he was eleven. The circle was completed when his last review, of Winston Churchill’s memoir, Their Finest Hour, was published.
In many ways, it is ludicrous to proffer Orwell as second in any conception of a pantheon to ‘The Bard’. The canon has rightly been out of fashion for half-a-century. Orwell could not create characters or plots like Charles Dickens, George Eliot or Jane Austen crafted. He was an abysmal poet and often politically naive. However, Orwell is an all-rounder, a novelist, journalist, essayist, reviewer, critic and public intellectual. Like Shakespeare, his wide-experience of life makes him a more powerfully insightful satirist than the other contenders. His work transcends the literary. Orwell sees the system and wants it to be a more decent one. He is a humanist. Orwell was one of very few English intellectuals to see through communism and would not accept that any society needed to pile high the bodies of citizens in the process of making itself. His warnings about any form of totalitarianism feel particularly pertinent. Orwell wanted everyone to be able to have a decent standard of living and felt that this was indeed possible. He does all this while celebrating English language and ordinary life, as does Shakespeare. The list of words coined by Orwell and in popular, daily usage, is so impressive there is no need to list them.
Dickens and Austen are the only serious contenders in this contest but neither have the contemporary intellectual or cultural relevance of Orwell. TS Eliot’s narrow, quite limited output and nasty intellectual dishonesty precludes him more than being born in America. Certainly, there are others more eloquent in prose or poetry but in a thousand years, a reader will learn more from The Complete Works of George Orwell about the 20th century than the collected work of any other English writer. Much more than what that same distant reader will learn about the 19th century from Austen or Dickens. Many felt that post-1984 Orwell would fade into obscurity. The very opposite has happened as individuals struggle to understand society, politics and resist totalitarianism. They will recognise that seeing things as they truly are requires one to be strangely comfortable with paradox. Orwell, with all his contradictions, is just the writer to help.