George Orwell Reads A Book That Never Was

[George Orwell’s favourable review of John Mair’s thriller Never Come Back appeared in the New Statesman on January 4th 1941. The book did not reach the shops for another four months. Indeed, the book that Orwell read and praised never reached the public at all. In this exchange, Orwell Society members Richard Young [RY] and L J Hurst [LJH] discuss the bibliography of Never Come Back in the light of cover scans and impression dates in their copies, explaining how Orwell reviewed a book the public could never read, and the reasons for the delay in its ultimate appearance.]

[RY] … my copy of Never Come Back. Note the jacket says ‘just out’ with no mention of a second edition. So I think this is the first issue jacket. The book is dated 1941 on the title page, with no mention of subsequent printings on the reverse. The title page however is mounted on a cancel, which I think was done so that the note shown in the second scan attached could be inserted. Also a number of other pages in the first part of the book are clearly mounted on cancel stubs as well. So there obviously was a withdrawn earlier version. Is your copy the same internally as mine i.e. no mention of a second impression? If so then Gollancz maybe just put a second edition dust-jacket around the same issue of the book, and that is what you have.



As for the background to this what I know is the following: On 20th December 1940 Mair’s publisher Victor Gollancz received a letter from a firm of solicitors – Smith, Rundell, Dods & Beckett acting on behalf of Mr Frank Whitaker, then the editor of John o’London’s Weekly and Country Life. Whitaker had been alerted by a third party – ‘a gentleman of literary experience’ – who had seen a review copy of the book sometime that month. Whitaker took exception to passages in the book relating to a character called Mr Whitby. The letter said that these passages ‘are obviously a lampoon of himself and such as to hold him up to ridicule’. The passages to which he objected most are quoted as being on pages 19 and 20 and on pages 48 and 49.

The letter threatens that ‘if publication does take place he will be obliged to take other steps to protect himself’.

So clearly the bound copies of the first edition (some of which had been circulated for review) where withdrawn and the appropriate changes made. The published book makes no mention of the character Whitby, and it may be that this was re-written as the character Mr Poole – but I cannot be certain.

[LJH] … your purple ‘Just Out’ on the front cover is replaced by ‘2nd edition’ on my copy. And the reverse title page shows:
‘First published April 1941
Second Impression June 1941’



Orwell’s review appeared in the New Statesman on January 4th 1941, four months before Gollancz’s ‘First published’ date. So it appears that Gollancz was acting as if the ‘Whitby’ version had never appeared, and the ‘Poole’ edition was the first when he printed the impression dates. As you say, Orwell must have had a very early or proof edition of the ‘Whitby’ version. In turn, if Gollancz appealed for the return of the book after receiving the 20-12-40 letter then Orwell did not act on it, and the NS printed his review regardless.

The Oxford University Press 1986 reprint has a long introduction from Julian Symons. In the early ’80s he appealed for information on Mair via the Times Literary Supplement and received responses from a number of people, including Mair’s widow. So his introduction is very detailed. He specifically says that Poole is the character which replaced Whitby, ‘the portrait of him marginally changed’.


[ILLUSTRATION: Later paperback edition, with an introduction by Orwell’s friend Julian Symons]

I would guess that politics was at the bottom of the spat. In theory, John o’London’s was a Liberal newspaper (founded to support the party, though surely Country Life was not?) while Mair was a highly regarded New Statesman reviewer with one successful non-fiction title to his credit (The Fourth Forger, a biography of William Ireland) – mentioned on Gollancz’s dust wrapper. As Mair was a man of the left, it looks as if the (small ‘c’) conservatives were getting their retaliation in first.

[RY] … interesting to learn that it was officially reprinted. I am amazed though that the first impression is then given as April 1941 (with Gollancz you have to have the second to know when the first was issued). The gap between the review and the publication can’t have helped sales!

I am sure though that both Gollancz editions were done in very small quantities. My copy was the first I had seen, and the only other first I know of that has changed hands was the file copy, which was bought by the dealer who sold my one (it had been in his personal collection). I have not heard of any other seconds until yours, which probably makes it rarer than the first (as seconds often are).

[LJH and RY conclude] At Christmas 1946 (coincidentally the anniversary of his review), Orwell looked back at the problem posed by the threat of libel proceedings such as affected the appearance of Never Come Back, without mentioning that title (or the difficulties Orwell himself had with his first three novels, where character and name changes were demanded by Gollancz prior to publication to protect against legal action.), and wrote: ‘I believe the libel trade, like some other trades, went through a slack period during the war, but a few years before that the bringing of frivolous libel actions was a major racket and a nightmare to editors, publishers, authors and journalists alike. Some people used to declare that it would be better if the libel laws were abolished altogether, or at any rate greatly relaxed, so that newspapers had as much latitude as they used to have, for instance, in pre-war France. I cannot agree with this. Innocent people have a right to protection against slander. The racket arose not so much because the law is unduly strict as because it is possible to obtain damages for a libel from which one has not suffered any pecuniary loss.

‘The sufferers are not so much the big newspapers, which have fleets of retained lawyers and can afford to pay damages, as publishers and small periodicals. I do not know the exact provisions of the law, but from interviews with terrified solicitors which I have sometimes had before a book went to press, I gather that it is almost impossible to invent a fictitious character which might not be held to be a portrait of a real person. As a result, a blackmailing libel action is an easy way of picking up money.’ (‘As I Please’ 27th December 1946).

Clearly not enough has been done to help the situation. Events have proved in recent years that while ‘[i]nnocent people have a right to protection against slander’ the law has still not provided it. Orwell’s remarks remain relevant to both sides of the publishing trade.

[Never Come Back was published as a Penguin paperback in 1944, and by Oxford University Press in 1986, as one of their 20th Century Classics. Never Come Back was also published in the US by Little Brown in the autumn of 1941. There were [RY thinks] 3 impressions of that edition. It was filmed, with little of the original story surviving, as Tiger By The Tail in 1955. It has been adapted for both wireless and television broadcast by the BBC under its original title. Potential readers will discover that the book is now [2015] out of print everywhere, and while copies of the OUP paperback are available cheaply, even the Penguin edition is extremely scarce and like the hardbacks fetches high prices].

JohnMairNeverComeBack1stEdn Declaration 



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