One of the first appreciations of Orwell, published in June 1950 just months after his untimely death, came in a special edition of World Review. Interestingly, it mixed both celebration and critique. Orwell’s personality as much as his writings clearly fascinated many – and this is reflected in the articles here.
Around selections from Orwell’s Notebooks (from 18 May 1940 to 28 August 1941), which lie at the core of the journal, are contributions from a glittering array of (all male) journalists and intellectuals: Bertrand Russell, Tom Hopkinson, Aldous Huxley, John Beavan, Herbert Read, Malcolm Muggeridge and Stephen Spender.
World Review, published by Edward Hulton, described itself as ‘a monthly devoted to literature and the arts and all other aspects of our cultural interests’. It had previously published Orwell’s Appendix on Newspeak from his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (then shortly to be published) though without any background explanation. *i
In a brief editorial, Stefan Schimanski says that Orwell felt, ‘strangely enough’, that his diary should not appear until ten years after the events described. ‘Today, the records as he left them in his notebooks, have, indeed, the value of a document that brings to life a forgotten and short-lived period of high expectation.’
The first article (pp 5-7) – just a few hundred words – is by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He highlights Orwell’s ‘admirable essay’ on Dickens and compares Animal Farm with Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s satire, he suggests ‘expresses universal and indiscriminating hatred, Orwell’s has always an undercurrent of kindliness’. But he concludes on a critical note (pp 6-7): ‘The men of our day who resemble Goethe, Shelley or Wells in temperament and congenital capacity have mostly gone through, either personally or through imaginative sympathy, experiences more or less resembling imprisonment in Buchenwald. Orwell was one of these men. He preserved an impeccable love of truth, and allowed himself to learn even the most painful lessons. But he lost hope. This prevented him from being a prophet for our time.’
Next, Orwell’s Tribune colleague T. R. Fyvel contributes a 13-page biography. It is split into seven sections: after a brief Introduction, the second section is a moving, personal memoir of his time visiting Orwell in hospital just before he died. He writes (p. 7): ‘In this private ward, a square pane of glass is let into the door of each private sickroom, through which patient and caller can see each other. I visited him fairly often during these months, and my first glimpse of him was always through this glass, and always a slight shock, at the sight of his thin, drawn face, looking ominously waxen and still against the white pillow.’ Orwell would then immediately start to chat. ‘His need to plunge straight into conversation was more than ordinary shyness. It had something of the schoolboy about it. And to the last, even on his sick-bed, Orwell retained those boyish traits which were so marked in his character.’
But Orwell did not like talking about possible death. ‘To the last he kept his form. He read newspapers carefully, watching out for journalist misuse of words – one of his pet worries – and noting down instances. The last piece of work he was contemplating was to be a study of Joseph Conrad. The interaction of the Continental and English mind held a special interest for him.’ The last time he saw Orwell he seemed ‘particularly cheerful’ and they chatted about his plans to leave for Switzerland by ‘special charter aircraft’ and about their early schooldays.
In the third section, Fyvel examines Orwell’s class background with special reference to his comments in The Road to Wigan Pier. He next moves on to Orwell’s time at ‘a preparatory school in the South of England’ (St Cyprian’s, in Eastbourne, though for libel reasons its name is never given) at Eton and then, at the end of section five, in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He comments (p. 13): ‘In personal affairs, Orwell was always extraordinarily reticent, so shy as to be almost secretive. Though he seemed to like to deal in personal asides, e.g. “When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob”, this was always in terms of social classification: the self-revelation is only apparent. In his novels, on the other hand, he himself stands out; for, if he had sharp power of insight, he had much less of invention. From Flory, in his first novel, Burmese Days, to Winston Smith in 1984 [as the novel is consistently called throughout the journal, rather than Nineteen Eighty-Four], his last, all his heroes are Orwell himself, suitably transmuted.’
Section six (pp 14-18) moves rapidly through the biography taking in publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Clergyman’s Daughter and Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his essays on Dickens and Kipling, his fighting in the Spanish Civil War, publication of Homage to Catalonia and finally of Coming up for Air. Orwell’s success, he stressed ‘remained confined to increasing prestige among a few discerning critics’. Fyvel adds in parenthesis: ‘Once, in 1940, he told me that he reckoned – he loved making such calculations – that his literary earnings over the decade 1930-40 worked out at not quite three pounds per week.’
In the final section (pp 18-20), Fyvel returns to personal reminiscences. ‘It was probably my second or third encounter with him which remained in my memory. It was at his small mews flat near Baker Street, in London, a rather poverty-stricken affair of one or two rather bare, austere rooms with second-hand furniture. I saw an extremely tall, thin man, looking more than his years, with gentle eyes and deep lines that hinted at suffering on his face.’ Following publication of Animal Farm in 1945, to ‘instantaneous success, especially in America’, Orwell, for the first time in his life, became ‘comparatively well off’. ‘But I found him in character quite unchanged – and physically very tired. … In spite of his many new friendships, he remained a solitary and a lonely man.’
In a section of the journal subtitled ‘Revaluations’, Malcolm Muggeridge, Orwell’s friend, former intelligence agent and later editor of Punch, contributes a surprisingly highly critical assessment of Burmese Days (pp 45-48). He writes: ‘Considered simply as a novel, Burmese Days is not particularly satisfactory. Most of the characters are stock figures, and most of the dialogue is intended rather to present them as such than to reproduce actual conversations.’ He continues (p. 46): ‘The description of the Europeans in their club, of their discussions about electing a “native” to membership, their quarrels and their drunkenness and their outbursts of hysteria, is somehow unreal.’
Perhaps in an attempt to offer some ‘balance’ he ends (somewhat unconvincingly) on a positive note: ‘Burmese Days, as I have said, is not on any showing a great novel. It is, however, extremely readable and, in some of its descriptive passages, brilliant.’
John Beavan, who next examines The Road to Wigan Pier (pp 48-51), was London editor at the time of the Guardian. Little did he know that he featured on Orwell’s infamous ‘little list’ of crypto-communists handed over to the government’s newly formed secret propaganda outfit, the Research Information Department, in 1949. There is an attempt to understand Orwell’s complex attitudes to class: ‘As a child he was taught that the poor were dirty and immoral and he was denied their society, though they seemed to him to be the most interesting and friendly of people. He never quite got over this.’ And Beavan ends: ‘Orwell produced at least one book that touched men of his time deeply, and that even his slenderest writings helped many of us to examine our consciences with something of his fierce honesty.’
Poet Stephen Spender, in his short article on Homage to Catalonia (pp 51-54), also takes the opportunity to comment on his personality: ‘He was perhaps the least Etonian character who has ever come from Eton. He was tall, lean, scraggy man, a Public House character, with a special gleam in his eye, and a home-made way of arguing from simple premises, which could sometimes lead him to radiant common sense, sometimes to crankiness.’ On Homage, Spender (p. 53) says that it had encouraged him to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ’the living truth’. ‘This has all too often in history been exploited in order to trample on human freedoms for the sake of some authoritarian teaching which is supposed to bring happiness in this world or the next. Orwell was extremely sceptical of the claim of any cause to represent “the living truth”. But he himself in his own life was an example of “the lived truth”, which is perhaps the most valuable truth anyone can offer to humanity.’
Tom Hopkinson, then editor of Picture Post, another Hulton publication, next looks at Animal Farm (pp 54-57). Actually, his stint at Picture Post was soon to be ended abruptly after Hulton objected to his publication in October 1950 of reports by James Cameron and photojournalist Bert Hardy of UN atrocities in the Korean War – and promptly sacked him. In his article, Hopkinson provides a precis of the novel, ending in glowing terms: ‘Orwell’s knowledge of farming helps to maintain the necessary faint illusion of reality. Nothing is shirked – even the relations of “Animal Farm” with its human neighbours. Everything is treated with combined lightness and assurance that suspend disbelief. … Animal Farm is a work of genius in the lofty tradition of English humorous writing.’
The art historian, poet, literary critic, anarchist, pacifist and philosopher, Herbert Read, in considering 1984 over just two pages, provides a rather strange explanation for its success (pp 58-59). He writes: ‘In his last years he saw only the menace of the totalitarian State, and he knew he had only the force left to warn us. It is the most terrifying warning that a man has ever uttered, and its fascination derives from its veracity. Millions of people have read this book. Why? It has no charm; it makes no concessions to sentiment. It is true that there are some traces of eroticism, but surely not enough to make the book, for those who seek that sort of thing, a worthwhile experience. An element of sado-masochism in the public may explain the strange success of this book.’
The novelist Aldous Huxley brings the collection of essays to a close with just half a page ‘Footnote about 1984’ (p. 60) critiquing the novel and at the same time promoting his own ideas. In his celebrated Brave New World (1932), Huxley says he prophesied the production of ‘Hypnopaedia’. It is now, he stresses ‘an accomplished fact’. ‘Pillow microphones attached to clock-controlled phonographs playing suitable recordings at regular intervals during the night are now being used quite extensively here by paediatricians who want to get rid of childish fears and bad habits, such as bed wetting, or to help backward children acquire larger vocabularies, and by students who want to learn foreign languages in a quarter of the time ordinarily required for the job.’ And he ends with a jibe at Orwell: ‘It looks very much as though the systematic brutality described in 1984 will seem to the really intelligent dictators of the future altogether too inefficient, messy and wasteful.’
Overall then, the various articles provide a fascinating if rather idiosyncratic insight into the early reception of Orwell.
Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln
and chair of the Orwell Society