For the pleasure of a happy ending we can leave George Orwell there enjoying a rare moment of collective euphoria. In reality of course things don’t end like that, and the story of the outcome of his efforts still has not ended. 1942 was also marked by the publication of William Beveridge’s Report on Social and Allied Services which led to the National Health Service and, on the same day, Wednesday 2December, Enrico Fermi’s achievement of a controlled nuclear chain reaction which led to the nuclear arms race. The possibility of improving the health of everybody and of killing everybody has gone on increasing since then, with no end yet in sight. From Orwell’s perspective, if the war was going to end in a triumph for British imperialism allied with Russian totalitarianism and American capitalism, what hope was there for a world worth living in? Back in the saddle in January 1943, he was already telling his Partisan Review readers: ‘As to the real moral of the last three years – that the Right has more guts and ability than the Left – no one will face up to it.’
He continued to fulfil his duties conscientiously at the BBC, but no longer having to bust himself to learn the job or try to achieve the impossible to help win the war. The danger of India being invaded receded as Japan lost ground, and winning sympathy for its colonial masters remained impossible, as well as unnecessary, while they were keeping its most popular leaders locked up. The weekly news bulletins could continue in a more relaxed fashion now that the news was mostly cheering, and the emphasis shifted to education programmes. The work of lining up speakers on literary, scientific, religious and philosophical subjects was more administrative than creative, but it did keep him in close touch with the knowledge, opinions and brain-power available at that time.
In the summer of 1943 he learnt one new broadcasting technique: turning stories into half-hour audio-dramas. He did this for Crainquebille by Anatole France, The Fox by Ignazio Silone, A Slip under the Microscope by H. G. Wells, The Emperor’s New Clothes of Hans Christian Andersen, and, perhaps most challengingly, Macbeth. His versions of all of them were gripping but, perhaps inevitably given their brevity, failed to achieve a sense of completeness. For Macbeth, which he rated ‘probably the most perfect of Shakespeare’s plays,’ he narrated the story, adding dramatic readings from selected scenes. His version was a tale of ambition leading through crime to a regime of terror brought down at last by free individuals backed up by an English army. ‘All art is propaganda,’ he had observed in his 1939 essay on Dickens and again not long after his induction course at the BBC, and by this time he might have said the same of all reading. At least in this case his reading of the most perfect play he could think of came across as the most perfect piece of propaganda as well.
Good at it though he was, the educational broadcasting was a kind of reversion to the school-mastering he had done in his young days to keep bread on the table, and he had never wanted to be a teacher, or any kind of academic. It was time to move on, and on 24 September 1943 he wrote his resignation letter to Rushbrook Williams. He was not resigning because of any grievance or disagreement with the BBC, he explained, but because he was not achieving anything there. ‘I feel that by going back to my normal work of writing and journalism I could be more useful than I am at present.’
He left in November, became an editor and columnist for Tribune, and started writing Animal Farm. The latter was, he recalled later, ‘the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.’ His previous three books had been a political memoir (Homage to Catalonia, 1938); a novel (Coming up for Air, 1939) and a tract (The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941). The idea of writing both to convince and to enthral simultaneously, both at full strength, had become a reality for him between 1941 and 1943.
Having acquired a more interactive way of writing at the BBC, he continued it at home, reading his day’s work on Animal Farm to Eileen in bed at night, discussing the plot with her and welcoming her criticisms and suggestions. It is no coincidence that his most flawless book was also the one he wrote in a mode of listening and being listened to.
In 1945 Eileen died under anaesthetic for a hysterectomy, and the loss, together with his own increasing illness from tuberculosis, accounts for some of the darkness of Nineteen Eighty-Four. His two-year stint as a bureaucrat, with all the frustrations and absurdities it had entailed, provided most of the imagery for the rest. The canteen, the work spaces, the dreaded Room 101, the social life, the singing cleaning ladies, the air thick with propaganda and the whole atmosphere of the Ministry of Truth came directly from Broadcasting House. It was a much less perfect book than Animal Farm but also much more shocking, with its combination of nightmare and realistic detail. As a result, it had an even bigger impact. It had sold about 25 million copies by the end of the 20th century, and Animal Farm about 20 million. Orwell certainly did embark on something ‘more useful’, when he left his radio job to start writing in this new way. If he had stayed there much longer he might never have got around to it. That is hypothetical. What we do know is that by the time he left the BBC he had found the way to set free his genius.
By George Orwell
Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982
___. Burmese Days (1934). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983
___. A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983
___. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983
___. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961
___. Homage to Catalonia (1938). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983
___. Coming Up for Air (1939). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984
___. The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). London: Secker and Warburg, 1962
___. Animal Farm (1945). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989
___. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954
___. Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981
___. Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981
Davison, Peter, ed. The Complete Works of George Orwell (20 volumes). London: Secker & Warburg, 1998. In particular:
XIII. All Propaganda is Lies, 1941-1942
XIV. Keeping our Little Corner Clean, 1942-1943
XV. Two Wasted Years, 1943
XVI. I Have Tried to Tell the Truth, 1943-1944
___. George Orwell Diaries. London: Harvill Secker, 2010
___. Orwell: A Life in Letters. London: Harvill Secker, 2010
Orwell, Sonia, and Angus, Ian, eds. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970. 4 volumes:
- 1. An Age Like This, 1920-1940
- 2. My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943
- 3. As I Please, 1953-1945
- 4. In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950
About George Orwell
Bowker, Gordon. George Orwell. London: Little Brown, 2003
Brander, Lawrence. George Orwell. London: Longman, Green, 1954
Clark, J. B. Memorandum dated 19 January 1943, BBC Archives, accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/orwell/7438.shtml on 20 July 2011
Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. London: Penguin, 1980
Coppard, Audrey, and Crick, Bernard, eds. Orwell Remembered. London: BBC, 1984
Davison, Peter. ‘Two Wasted Years?’ Finlay Publisher – The Orwell Essay, 2011, January – March, accessed at www.finlay-publisher.com on 12 April 2011
___. ‘Orwell: Religious and Ethical Values’, Finlay Publisher – The Orwell Essay, 2008, March– May, accessed at www.finaly-publisher.com on 5 July 2011
Hitchens, Christoper. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002
___. Hitch-22. London: Atlantic, 2011
Rees, Richard. George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961
Rodden, John, ed. Understanding Animal Farm. London: Greenwood Press, 1999
Rushbrook Williams, L. F. ‘Annual Confidential Report for E. A. Blair, Eastern Service, 10 August 1943’ BBC Archives, accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/orwell/7438.shtml on 20 July 2011
Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. London: Vintage, 2003
___. ‘Orwell’s Poetry’, Finlay Publisher – The Orwell Essay, December 2008 – January 2009, accessed at www.finaly-publisher.com on 5 July 2011
Warburg, Fredrick. All Authors are Equal. London: Hutchinson, 1973
Woodcock, George. The Crystal Spirit. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970
About the Second World War
Axelrod, Alan. The Real History of World War II – A New Look at the Past. New York: Sterling, 2008
Churchill, Winston. The Hinge of Fate (1951). London: Penguin, 2005
Clarke, Peter. The Cripps Version. London: Penguin, 2002
Holman Valerie. Print for Victory. London: British Library, 2008
Marr, Andrew. The Making of Modern Britain. London: Macmillan, 2009
Mellersh, H. E. L. et al., eds. The Hutchinson Chronology of World History. Oxford: Helicon, 1998
Nicolson, Harold. Why Britain in at War. London: Penguin, 1939 and 2010
 ‘A Letter from England’ to Partisan Review, 3 January 1943. Works XIV, p. 293.
 Works XV, p. 280.
 ‘No, Not One’, Works XIII, p. 39.
 Works XV, p. 251.
 ‘Why I write’ (1947), in Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965; p. 187.
 Crick, p. 451.
 John Rodden gives the latter figure in Understanding Animal Farm. London: Greenwood Press, 1999; p. 120. The former is attributed by Wikipedia to The Philadelphia Enquirer of 22 June 2009. Both are fallible but useful for an order of magnitude.