By M.G. Sherlock
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
If those words seemed familiar to some readers in 1949 it may have been because they had a faint recall of something similar by the same author:
‘The clock struck half past two… The ding-dong of another, remoter clock–from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street–rippled the stagnant air.’
Those were the opening words of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell’s third novel, published in April 1936. He later disliked it and would not have it reprinted. But it is as rewarding as any of his books.
Gordon Comstock, the protagonist, is an angry young man who pre-dates John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter by twenty years. The style is racy and lively and like all Orwell’s work, compulsively readable. Its structural similarity to Nineteen Eighty-Four is striking, though little noticed by critics: both stories feature a misfit who despises his job and hates the times he lives in, both have scenes of countryside lovemaking, police cells, and visits to prostitutes (and both open with clocks striking!). Both men have, or had, sisters who were in some way ‘sacrificed’ to them. Though the grimness of Nineteen Eighty-Four makes Aspidistra seem almost light-hearted, both Comstock and Winston Smith surrender in the end to the status quo.
The tone throughout tends to self-pity (the adjective ‘beastly’ is over-used) but is relieved by the vitality wit and mordant observation which show Orwell’s other side. (He notes, among many other observations, the seasonal variations in the rubbish in London gutters. and the beauty of the winter woodlands around Burnham Beeches). And when Gordon and Rosemary reject the idea of abortion and marry, this becomes the only Orwell novel with a sort of ‘happy ending’.
Gordon’s dreary life is cringingly well depicted; the dingy digs with nosy landlady, the constant near-poverty and sense of personal worthlessness it brings. The rejection of his poems by snooty magazines (and when eventually he gets a fat cheque for his work, he squanders it all on a drunken night in the West End). Boredom makes Comstock wish for war – until his reconciliation with lower middle-class values, when he no longer wishes to see suburban streets blasted by bombs. Interestingly, Orwell’s next novel Coming Up For Air is pervaded by fear of the looming Second World War. By then he’d been to Spain, had personal experience of fighting and being wounded, and knew it wasn’t nice.
Comstock’s works as an assistant in a Hampstead bookshop. Apart from low pay, tedium, and having to cope with cranks and timewasters who visit the shop. He does not give an impression of actually hating the job. Orwell may not have wished to leave too negative a taste as his own time in an identical position may have been the making of him as a writer. He had written Down and Out in Paris and London and complained that he couldn’t get it published. Mabel Fierz, who with her husband knew Orwell from holidays in Southwold and had helped him with London accommodation, thought that she would try to have it published. By her own account she ‘badgered’ the literary agent Leonard Moore to read Orwell’s manuscript. Moore took it on, had it accepted by Victor Gollancz, and Orwell’s career was launched. ‘He was thrilled, of course,’ Mrs Fierz remembered, ‘He had no idea it had even been taken to the agent’.
Aspidistras come and go throughout the book. Gordon tries unsuccessfully to kill one in his lodgings, but ‘the beastly things are practically immortal’. The landlady of his considerably more squalid room in Lambeth brings him one as a goodwill gesture (‘Hast though found me, o mine enemy?’) And at the end, the extent of Gordon’s capitulation is shown when he buys an aspidistra for their marital home, even when Rosemary emphatically doesn’t want one.
On his own admission, Orwell was not a ‘real’ novelist but had a wealth of personal experiences which he simply dressed up as novels. Had he lived longer, though, he might have come to recognise the virtues of his early works, disputing the later critical opinion of them as rather shambolic test-runs. Eighty years on, this novel has hardly dated at all and will undoubtedly find new admirers in the future.