The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell by Loraine Saunders, reviewed by John Rodden
‘Disclosing the integral aesthetic components of the distinctive style that Orwell developed in his early realistic novels of the 1930s, Loraine Saunders hits just the right note in her literary analysis of Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. In reminding us of the power and optimism of these neglected writings in Orwell’s oeuvre, Saunders provides an invaluable service: her study serves a much-needed corrective to the established critical tendency to undervalue Orwell’s novelistic artistry and inbstead helps us to appreciate his full achievement and artistic legacy.’
Unlike Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the four novels George Orwell wrote in the 1930s – Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air – have never enjoyed either great popularity or much in the way of critical reputation.
They were for the most part favourably reviewed when they first appeared, but none sold well. Orwell himself refused to sanction new editions of A Clergyman’s Daughter or Keep the Aspidistra Flying during his lifetime and was scathing about their inadequacies. “They are both thoroughly bad books and I would prefer to see them go out of print,” he wrote to his agent, Leonard Moore, in 1944. Two years later, in a letter to his friend and intellectual sparring-partner George Woodcock, he wrote of Keep the Aspidistra Flying:
There are two or three books which I am ashamed of and have not allowed to be reprinted or translated, and that is one of them. There is an even worse one called A Clergyman’s Daughter. This was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for the money, ditto when I wrote Keep the A. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100 or so.
Shortly before his death Orwell dictated a note reiterating that A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying should not be reprinted.
Biographers and critics have tended to take a similarly dismissive view of these two novels, treating them as failed minor works, of interest only insofar as they reflect Orwell’s own experiences and show him developing as a writer.
Burmese Days has done better but has been praised more often for its insights into the barbarities of imperialism than for any literary merit. And although some commentators have gone so far as to declare Coming Up for Air Orwell’s best novel on literary grounds, far more treat it as a period piece, important mainly because its themes and characters prefigure those of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For at least 40 years, certainly since the appearance of the Collected Journalism and Letters edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, writers on Orwell have paid much more attention to his books of reportage, his essays and his everyday journalism than to the four 1930s novels – and particularly since the end of the cold war there has been something approaching a consensus that it is Orwell’s non-fiction, even more than Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that secures his reputation as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Loraine Saunders has nothing against Orwell’s non-fiction – but she strongly believes that it is a grave mistake to downplay the significance or the quality of the 1930s novels. The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell is, as she writes in her introduction, an extended attempt “at redressing an imbalance in Orwell studies that has insisted Orwell’s reputation as a first-rate novelist must rely solely upon the continued appreciation of his last two works”.
She goes about her task with verve, and many of her arguments are telling. She is surely right that too many writers on Orwell have made the reductionist assumption that he was simply putting his own opinions into the mouths of his fictional protagonists: the expat manager John Flory in Burmese Days, the clergyman’s daughter Dorothy Hare, the would-be poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the disillusioned insurance salesman George Bowling in Coming Up for Air. She is right, too, to emphasise the complexity and plurality of authorial voices that sustain the narratives of the novels. She develops these points convincingly with detailed textual references, though perhaps a little too exhaustively for my taste. No matter: it is good to be reminded that, for all the autobiographical elements in Orwell’s 1930s novels, he was writing not autobiography but fiction, and doing so with some subtlety and skill.
Saunders says that Orwell should be understood as a “proletarian novelist”, which on the face of it is problematic: the Old Etonian former colonial policeman was not in any but the most formal Marxist sense proletarian. Although he had no option but to work for a living, his background, tastes, manners and most of his social circle were anything but working-class. None of his novels has more than a walk-on role for a working-class character, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four the workers become the proles, alien creatures (to Winston Smith) whose vulgar subculture somehow survives the triumph of the totalitarian state.
Yet Saunders is on to something important here, even if she doesn’t get it quite right. I don’t think Orwell ever saw himself as a proletarian writer. Nevertheless, he grasped precisely how the downwardly mobile middle class had become formally proletarian – because, like him, its members had nothing to sell but their labour power – but had remained estranged politically, socially and culturally from the working class. In his 1930s novels, Orwell was imagining himself into the shoes of people he believed the socialist movement needed for success but was hopeless at attracting. Saunders argues, rightly I think, that the results are strikingly more effective politically than the overtly propagandist novels of the 1930s by such left-wingers as Edward Upward.
There are a couple of places where Saunders ties herself in knots – her discussion of the extent to which Orwell introduced fictional elements into his books of reportage is hard going, and she explains away Orwell’s dim view of A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying rather too easily – and in the end I remain unconvinced that Orwell’s 1930s novels deserve to be considered in the top rank of 20th-century English literature. But The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell is an impressive piece of work that deserves a wide readership – although with a retail price of £45 it is unlikely to get it.