Raymond Chandler, George and Sonia Orwell

By L J Hurst

In August 1947 Raymond Chandler, who was a great correspondent, wrote to his friend and critic James Sandoe, ‘The Partisan Review arrived. It is rather a good magazine of the sort. It has no Cyril Connolly or Orwell and certainly it is far below the Dial for which I had a rather exacerbated devotion during the early twenties’ (10 August 1947). The next year, writing again to James Sandoe, he said ‘Yes, I’d like to read George Orwell’s essay “The British People” [sic] very much. Orwell, like other clever people, probably including you and me, can be an ass on occasion. But that doesn’t mean he is never interesting, perceptive, and very intelligent’ (27 January 1948).

Two years after those comments lamenting the absence of Orwell, eighteen months after praising Orwell’s intelligence, and only a few weeks after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Chandler wrote to Carl Brandt, his New York agent: ‘It has seemed to me for a long time now that in straight novels the public is more and more drawn to the theme, the idea, the line of thought, the sociological or political attitude, and less and less to the quality of the writing as writing. For instance, if you were to consider Orwell’s 1984 purely as a piece of fiction you could not rate it very high. It has no magic, the scenes are only passably well handled, the characters have very little personality; in short it is no better written, artistically speaking, than a good solid English detective story. But the political thought is something else again and where he writes as a critic and interpreter of ideas rather than of people or emotions he is wonderful’ (22 July 1949).

Orwell and Chandler never met or corresponded. Perhaps, though, an error made by Orwell reveals that the appreciation of his work was reciprocated. In 1949 Orwell recorded that he had read Raymond Chandler’s The Little Lady. Chandler never wrote such a book, but he did write both The Lady In The Lake and The Little Sister, and the 1950 index of Orwell’s library shows that it was the latter title that he owned. Orwell’s melding of their titles, an error made with no other author’s titles, suggests not only that he knew the former title but that Chandler’s work had some special significance to him. That he had an author such as Chandler in his library at all, given his scathing criticisms of hardboiled authors such as Paul Cain, or his more general criticism of authors such as Ernest Hemingway whom he perceived as being of that type, is evidence of that.

It is not clear from Chandler’s letters if he realized that Orwell had died in January 1950 when he continued to refer to him as an example. He wrote again to James Sandoe, discussing detective stories: ‘What I don’t seem to cotton on to is the affectation of gentility which does not belong to the job, and which is in effect a subconscious expression of snobbery, the kind of thing that reached its high-water mark in Dorothy Sayers. Perhaps the trouble is that I’m an English Public School man myself and knew these birds inside out. And the only kind of Public School man who could make a real detective would be the Public School man in revolt, like George Orwell’ (31 October 1951). Chandler, like other writers including P G Wodehouse and Dennis Wheatley, had been a scholar at Dulwich College. Pedantically speaking, Dulwich is not a Public School, unlike Eton, as it was not one of the nine examined by the Clarendon Commission which lead to the 1869 Public Schools Act, but it was close to that ideal (and, unlike Eton, had not required a Commission to enquire into it in the first place). Neither Chandler nor Orwell knew it, but their places at the two schools were similar: Orwell attended Eton (1917-1921) on a scholarship; Chandler’s fees at Dulwich (c.1900-1907).were paid by an uncle as an act of generosity to Chandler’s destitute and abandoned mother. From his reviews we know that Orwell agreed with Chandler on the snobbery of Sayers, and that he continued to criticize snobbery when he saw it returning at the end of the War, where Orwell’s examples included a sub-Wodehousian advertisement for lime cordial and the end of the ban on turn-ups on trousers.

Born in the USA but raised in England due to his mother’s situation, Chandler went to work in the USA before the First World War, but returned to fight on the Western Front with Canadian forces, afterwards settling in California where he became a senior financial officer in the oil business before he lost his job in the ’30s and turned to writing. Just as he had had to learn book-keeping, he had to learn to write ‘American’. Most readers would never realize that he was not native born. In December 1954 Chandler’s wife Cissie, died. She was considerably older than him, but like Eileen Orwell had been a support and a close-reading critic of her husband’s work. Chandler decided to visit England, where for many years he had maintained a good relationship with Hamish ‘Jamie’ Hamilton, his British publisher. He had a wide readership in Britain and in some years his income from his British royalties had been greater than that from the USA. He sailed on the Mauretania and took a room at the Connaught Hotel in London. The London literary world wanted to meet him. Annoyingly, his account of meeting Sonia Orwell has been redacted in the Selected Letters, the largest collection available:

‘Natasha Spender is a charming and devoted hostess and served up a magnificent meal and everybody got tight. They poured it on me a little too thick, I imagine. A Sonia somebody [Orwell] … said that I was the darling of the British intellectuals and all the poets raved about me and that Edith Sitwell sat up in bed (probably looking like Henry IVth, Part 3) and read my stuff with passion. They said [Cyril] Connolly had written a piece about me which was considered a classic. The funny part of it was that they seemed quite sincere. I tried to explain to them that I was just a beat-up pulp writer and that in the USA I ranked slightly above a mulatto.

‘Well anyhow it was a lot of fun’ (27 April 1955, annoying ellipsis in original).

Based on the earliest dates found in second-hand copies, Penguin Books published or re-republished Chandler’s works in bulk in 1954. I imagine Edith Sitwell was working her way through a pile of those. Since Chandler’s agent, as late as 1948, was negotiating with Penguin Books, in all likelihood Orwell himself had read Chandler in the hardback original, unless some passing GI had left Chandler’s American softbacks with him after taking up Orwell’s war-time offer in Partisan Review that visitors should try to contact him at the Tribune offices.

The death of Cissie left Chandler to his worst demon: drink, and on this and later visits he was less and less tractable. On the only occasion that the BBC tried to record an interview with Chandler it failed because of his intoxication. Ian Fleming, who was to conduct the interview, had organized it for early in the morning and called for Chandler at his hotel: he found him staggering even at such a time. They went into the studio and Fleming, in his courteous way, tried to make it work, but Chandler was rambling, slurred and incomprehensible. The tape remained unbroadcast until many years after Chandler’s death, and then only as a historical curiosity. So again there is the biographical parallel: no recording of Orwell’s voice at all, and hardly any of Raymond Chandler are known to exist. There are equally few film records.

It was unfortunate that the London literary parties and Chandler’s drinking prevented Chandler and Sonia Orwell discussing wider subjects, for Chandler had already encountered a dark figure who was to make a dubious entry into Sonia’s life, leaving a shadow that still falls today. That person, against whom he might have warned her, was E Howard Hunt.

Hunt was a strange figure, a graduate of the Ivy League Brown University, who had joined the CIA, while also churning out paperback-original thrillers. In 1952 he wrote to Pocket Books, Chandler’s American paperback publisher, from his base in the US Embassy in Mexico City, berating their publication of stories which Chandler had re-used (“cannibalized” was Chandler’s own term) to create most of his novels. Pocket Books did not respond themselves but passed Hunt’s letter onto Chandler who replied in detail. Chandler listed the inappropriate use of his work in anthologies against his will, went onto defend his use of his own copyrights, mentioned the loss otherwise of work such as this in ephemeral magazines, and ended with an attack on hacks who directly and indirectly pirated his work (16 November 1952). Even while he wrote his letter Hunt was at work on another plan: that the CIA should promote and subvert the filming of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Just as Chandler had spliced his stories into new plots for novels, it was the intention of the CIA to splice other politics and other criticisms into Orwell’s fable of political corruption, and to hide that intention by using front-men as its producers and negotiators in acquiring the film rights from Sonia Orwell, who represented as best she could the Orwell estate. The records of these negotiations remain nebulous as to what was offered and said at the time, and even who attended is uncertain. Hunt made his first claims about his role in his 1974 autobiography, but by then he had a criminal conviction for his role in Nixon’s Watergate burglaries. Daniel Leab in the latest and most detailed account of the making of the film, Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm, is unsure of Hunt’s role beyond his claim to have been there in the shadows of the negotiations and the later rewriting of the film script. The consequence of Hunt and his colleague’s machinations, though, was to leave a taint over the whole work for years to come.

Fortunately Chandler and Orwell in their own lifetimes had instigated another period of parallel effort, whose study is still of benefit today: in October 1944, Orwell published ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’ in Horizon; which, to help his American friend Dwight Macdonald, he allowed to appear the next month in Macdonald’s new magazine, Politics; while in December 1944, Chandler’s essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Perhaps something serendipitous was in the air that two such figures should simultaneously have been thinking about crime writing and its reception on either side of the Atlantic; each comparing British and American crime, one as an American author, the other as a British critic. Internet searches suggest there are academic comparisons of the two essays but unless the academics are aware of Orwell and Chandler’s wider sympathies it remains dubious that they can do justice to the work of either. Read together or apart, though, the two essays remain seminal in the studies of the genre.

Biographers have speculated on the way that Orwell’s career might have progressed had he reached Switzerland and recovered his health. Consider some of his friends and acquaintances: George Woodcock became an academic, while Jack Common continued to struggle to find time to write. A Tribune colleague such as Frederick Mullaly turned to writing semi-pornographic pot-boilers, but Julian Symons became known as a crime author and wrote one of the best histories of the genre; and that other Julian, Julian Maclaren-Ross, turned his later infatuation with Sonia Orwell into a ‘tale of terror’ before dying prematurely. More crime writers since then have discovered that the genre allows them to investigate every aspect of political and public life, and Orwell might have taken that path, too. Its benefits had already been signaled:

‘“There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks,” Ohls said. “Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall …. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system. Maybe it’s the best we can get, but it still ain’t any Ivory Soap deal.”

‘“You sound like a Red,” I said, just to needle him.

‘“I wouldn’t know,” he said contemptuously. “I ain’t been investigated yet.’” (The Long Goodbye [1953], Chapter 39)

Orwell would have liked that.



  • Apart from the books mentioned in the text, you will need a copy of both Raymond Chandler’s Selected Letters Edited by Frank MacShane (1981) and Raymond Chandler Speaking Edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine [sic] Sorley Walker (1962), and a willingness to go beyond their indices, as each is inadequate, to discover all Chandler’s thoughts on George Orwell. Chandler’s complete papers remain unpublished so may contain more of interest, including his full account of that meeting with Sonia.
  • Orwell’s 1949 reading list and the index of his library are in Volume 20 of the Complete Works edited by Peter Davison. The second, softcover edition includes a footnote cross-referencing the reading list and index.
  • An article about the November 2014 DVD re-release of Halas and Batchelor’s Animal Farm and Howard Hunt’s role can be found on the Daily Telegraph website: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/11209390/How-the-CIA-brought-Animal-Farm-to-the-screen.html



2 thoughts on “Raymond Chandler, George and Sonia Orwell

  1. Very good and detailed report. Having read both authors, Orwell and Chandler and their biographies, did not know all this. Can not, of course, approve any Government using or trying to use Litterary works as propaganda, and luckily, with G.Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, they did not had success. Still a shame how they dare to change its end into what would have been something else. Thank You for the information.


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