In 1945 George Orwell reviewed his career and wrote notes to his literary executor: two of his novels should never be republished. The first was A Clergyman’s Daughter. The other was Keep the Aspidistra Flying (‘Aspidistra’) which he described as a ‘silly potboiler’ he should never have written. By 1945 Aspidistra had already sunk without trace: it had been published by Gollancz in April 1936 in an edition of 3,000 copies, although only a few more than 2,000 copies were ever sold (see the illustration of the first edition). Gollancz had had no reason to reprint it, Orwell had stopped Penguin issuing it in paperback, and his agent had been unable to place the book with US publishers.
In the end, of course, Orwell’s wishes were ignored, and the book was re-issued after Orwell’s death by Secker & Warburg in the Uniform Edition in 1954, and published in the US by Harcourt in 1956 – a full twenty years after the first UK appearance.
Today, like all of Orwell’s major works, it remains in print.
When judged against Orwell’s more famous works, Aspidistra is very obviously not up there with Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia or Nineteen-Eighty Four. It is, however, a lot better than a ‘silly potboiler’, and even gave rise to a film version in the 1990s released under both its original title and as A Merry War. So why was Orwell so set against reprinting it?
One reason is that Aspidistra went through a difficult publication process, and Orwell was never happy with the end result. The reason for this was that the newly established publishing house of Gollancz had gone through some unpleasant legal proceedings in the early 1930s, and they were very keen to avoid further risks of libel or defamation arising from their publications. Aspidistra was a minefield in this regard, as the story was filled with advertising slogans and product names, some of which were real, although most were made up by Orwell. Even some of the made up slogans and products were thought too similar to real life products and slogans for comfort.
The result was that Orwell was forced to make several rounds of changes to the book and later apparently regarded the final version as ‘garbled’. Indeed in a letter to his agent before Aspidistra was even published he described the Gollancz text as ‘mutilated’.
Peter Davison has documented the changes in his notes to the Collected Works edition of Aspidistra, where using the Gollancz correspondence files and notes, he sought to recreate the original text as far as possible. Much of the correspondence between Gollancz and Orwell on the textual changes took place whilst Orwell was in North West England undertaking the ground work for The Road to Wigan Pier in early 1936. The surviving letters and correspondence can be found in Volume 10 of Davison’s Collected Works. The level of irritation Orwell felt about the process can be gleaned from a telegram he sent to Gollancz from Wigan on 19th February 1936 when he said ‘Absolutely impossible make changes suggested would mean complete rewriting am wiring agent’. Nevertheless he did supply another whole list of changes five days later in a letter sent on 24th February.
Davison gives around 30 changes in the notes to the Collected Works edition, although several of them are repeated at various points in the text e.g. the slogan ‘Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex’ which appears in the first edition, replaced ‘Roland Butta enjoys his meal with Bovex’. The Collected Works edition reinstates ‘Roland Butta’ at the appropriate places. It will be noted that the replacement ‘Corner Table’ has the same number of letters as ‘Roland Butta’, and this was something Orwell tried to do each time, as Gollancz were keen not to have to re-set the novel. It was not always possible, though, for Orwell to do this.
I was able to add slightly to Davison’s restoration work a few years ago by comparing a proof copy of Aspidistra against both the published Gollancz edition, and Davison’s restored Collected Works edition. The full results of this comparison (along with a similar one for A Clergyman’s Daughter) were very kindly included by Davison as an appendix in his book Orwell – A Life in Letters, published in 2010.
The proof copy in question (see illustration) is probably from quite a late stage in the publication process, as some of the changes required of Orwell, and noted in his various letters responding to requested changes, had already been incorporated into it. Quite a number of the original passages now restored by Davison were present in this proof however, such as the ‘Roland Butta’ example quoted above.
Nevertheless there were some differences between the proof and the final Gollancz edition, representing last minute changes which had not previously been identified, and which were not included in the Collected Works edition.
The following examples in bold are the main extra changes which it has now been possible to restore as a result of examining the proof:
Proof Collected Works Edition
The hotel where Gordon Comstock and Rosemary have their expensive meal:
Riverside Hotel Ravenscroft Hotel
(Presumably somebody worked out that there actually was a Riverside Hotel which might not find the description in the novel particularly flattering.)
Flaxman, the first floor lodger, works for the:
‘Rose of Sharon Toilet Requisites Co’. ‘Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co’
Flaxman sells lipstick called:
‘Kissprufe Naturetint’ ‘Sexapeal Naturetint’
(This is much funnier and why it was changed is
lost to history)
An advert for a particular type of sauce is mentioned early on in Aspidistra:
Q.T. Sauce QT Sauce
Mr Cheeseman’s library on page 224 of the ‘Collected Works’ edition (page 259 of the first edition) is described as being next to a:
‘Cut-price undertaker’ ‘Smartish undertaker’
‘Have a Camel’
This was the last actual advertising slogan surviving in the book, but it was excised at the last minute. It goes after the first ‘Flick, Flick’ on page 262 of the Collected Works edition or page 302 of the first edition.
The paragraph of advertising slogans on page 263 of the Collected Works edition (page 303 of the first edition) had many re-writes and changes of order, and probably represents one of the main examples of the changes that were made. Davison partly restored this text, but the proof version is still different, as the comparison between proof and Collected Works shows:
Proof Collected Works Edition
‘Guinness is good for you! Night starvation – let Horlick’s be your guardian. She said ‘Thanks awfully for the lift,’ but she thought ‘Poor boy, why doesn’t somebody tell him?’
How a woman of thirty-two stole her young man from a girl of twenty. Silkyseam – the
smooth – sliding bathroom tissue. Halitosisis ruining his career. Now I’m schoolgirl
complexion all over. Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps. Pyorrhea? Not me! Are you
a Highbrow? Dandruff is the reason.’ GGuinness is good for you! She said ‘Thanks awfully for the lift,’ but she thought ‘Poor boy, why doesn’t somebody tell him?’ How a woman of thirty-two stole her young man from a girl of twenty. Night Starvation etc. Silkyseam – the smooth – sliding bathroom tissue. Halitosis is ruining his career. Pyorrhea? Not me! Are you a Highbrow? Dandruff is the Reason. Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps. Now I’m schoolgirl complexion all over. Hike all day on a Slab of Vitamalt!’
With the above it is quite difficult to be absolutely sure which is the nearest to Orwell’s original, as the proof had undergone some changes already, but I am fairly sure that the proof version is the closest, if only because the ‘Night starvation’ slogan is quoted in full in the proof version.
Of course the version published by Gollancz for this paragraph incorporated a number of changes which Orwell was forced to make on the fly, and it is quite different again as will be seen below:
‘Get that waist-line back to normal! She said ‘Thanks awfully for the lift,’ but she thought ‘Poor boy, why doesn’t somebody tell him?’ How a woman of thirty-two stole her young man from a girl of twenty. Prompt relief for feeble kidneys. Silkyseam – the smooth-sliding bathroom tissue. Asthma was choking her! Are you ashamed of your undies? Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps. Now I’m schoolgirl complexion all over. Hike all day on a slab of Vitamalt.’
Many of the above changes were agreed by Orwell in his letter of 24th February 1936, so it is clear that the proof must pre-date that letter.
Orwell must have been pleased to get all of this out of the way, as his letters at this time show the frustration he felt about the whole process, which undoubtedly coloured his later opinion of Aspidistra and his decision not to reprint it. With the changes restored by Davison, together with the few extra textual discoveries in the proof, we are now, however, much closer to his novel as Orwell wrote it. As we celebrate the eightieth anniversary of the first publication of Keep The Aspidistra Flying I am sure that this would be something that Orwell would very much appreciate. He might even withdraw his claim that it was a ‘silly potboiler’.