Considers the importance of a friend to George Orwell
There were three Richards in George Orwell’s life: the father, Richard Walmsley Blair (1857-1939); the son, Richard Horatio Blair (born in 1944); and the loyal friend, Sir Richard Lodowick Edward Montagu Rees (1900-1970). Rees plays a modest role in Orwell biographies, helping him get started as a writer and standing by him in his last years. At the beginning he published his early work in The Adelphi and tried to interest T. S. Eliot in Down and Out in Paris and London, and at the end he drove Orwell to hospital after the completion of Nineteen Eighty-Four, then became his literary executor jointly with Sonia. He published George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory in 1961, and reminisced on television about him with a young Melvyn Bragg shortly before his own death in 1970.
Malcolm Muggeridge said in an obituary that August that Orwell had named his son Richard after Rees, but it seems more likely that it was after his father, Richard Walmsley Blair. Still, it is easy to imagine that Rees was that important and close to him. ‘Gordon thought of Ravelston, his charming, rich friend, editor of Antichrist, of whom he was extravagantly fond,’ Orwell wrote in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying based on his early struggles, and may well have felt like that about Rees. John Middleton Murry’s widow spoke of Rees’s ‘genius for friendship’ towards her and her husband. Who knows whether Orwell would have stayed the course without that kind of genius to bear him up?
Much of Rees’s charm and talent went into helping other writers, and when both Orwell and John Middleton Murry were gone, an unlikely new protégée came along to fill the vacuum: the French philosopher Simone Weil. She too was dead, from tuberculosis like Orwell, in 1943, at the age of 34, but had left behind her a mass of brilliant unpublished writings. Her mother in Paris and her brother in New York were at loggerheads over how to publish these. The mother favoured a popular approach, and was backed by Albert Camus at Éditions Gallimard, while the brother wanted to do it in an academic way, and tried to hold back the rush into print. The mother was using royalties from her daughter’s books to finance lawsuits against her son, but Rees managed to become the trusted friend of both of them.
Wikipedia: Simone Weil
His aim was to make Weil’s abundant insights available in English, and he translated five volumes of her work, publishing four of them with OUP, as well as a biography. Despite his efforts, she has never won much of a readership in English. In French, however, there is now a 15-volume Oeuvres complètes, similar in size to the 20-volume Complete Works of Orwell. And there are other striking similarities: she belonged to the Left, joined the POUM to fight in Spain, and was anti-war till the Second World War broke out, when became dead set on helping to help win it. She was also vehemently anti-totalitarian and an adroit critic of Marx. She did not try being a tramp but did become a very unskilled factory worker for a while, which nearly killed her, and like Orwell she did go down a coal mine to see what it was like.
On the other hand she was a thorough-going French intellectual, with all the complexities that that entails, something of a mystic, and attracted to Roman Catholicism – in those respects as opposite as can be to Orwell. Richard Rees nevertheless found the same truth in her work as he did in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
He became a prolific writer during the last decade of his life, but that was not his forte. ‘In some ways I rather prefer dealing with other people’s work,’ he wrote to Simone Weil’s brother, André. ‘If it seems true, what does it matter who the author is?’
As a writer Richard Rees has all but vanished, while the man he helped most has become more and more influential. That may well be just what he wanted.
Desmond Avery is the author of the recently published George Orwell at the BBC in 1942
By permission of the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell