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Trouble with girls

George Orwell portrayed women as devious, fatuous or frumpish. But he was no misogynist, argues Christopher Hitchens in an exclusive extract from his new book

Saturday May 18, 2002
The Guardian

George Orwell's relationship with the female sex was in general a distraught one, and he had a tendency to let it show. In his last notebook is either the sketch of a short story or, more probably, an autobiographical fragment: "The conversations he overheard as a small boy, between his mother, his aunt, his elder sister (?) & their feminist friends. The way in which... he derived a firm impression that women did not like men, that they looked upon them as a sort of large, ugly, smelly and ridiculous animal, who maltreated women in every way, above all by forcing their attentions upon them. It was pressed deep into his consciousness, to remain there till he was about 20, that sexual intercourse gives pleasure only to the man... and the picture of it in his mind was of a man pursuing a woman, forcing her down, & jumping on top of her, as he had often seen a cock do to a hen."

The narrator of Keep the Aspidistra Flying opens chapter six in the following way: "This woman business! What a bore it is! What a pity we can't cut it right out, or at least be like the animals - minutes of ferocious lust and months of icy chastity. Take a cock pheasant, for example. He jumps up on the hens' backs without so much as a with your leave or by your leave. And no sooner is it over than the whole subject is out of his mind."

There is an obvious element of tongue-in-cheek here, but it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Orwell wrote for a male audience. Moreover, in neither his fiction nor his journalism is the word "feminist" ever used except with, or as, a sneer. He included it in his famous taxonomy of weird and ludicrous beliefs, along with the fruit-juice drinkers, escaped Quakers, sandal-wearers and other cranks, in The Road to Wigan Pier. Thus, to the extent that there was a balance of power between the sexes, he seems to have felt that, if anything, it already favoured the female quite enough.

Biographers have not improved much upon his own writings in locating the source or sources of these woes. His mother was somewhat forbidding, perhaps (though less so than his father). He always felt himself unappetising to the opposite sex. At his infamous prep school, made imperishable in his essay Such, Such Were the Joys, it was the headmaster's wife, the cruel and somehow knowing and devious "Flip", who could find out his weak spots and subject him to humiliation. There is an especially powerful scene where this dreadful woman manages to combine the ignominy of bedwetting, the threat of corporal punishment and the agony of sexual shame into one excruciating episode.

Orwell was compelled to confront the idea of obscenity and indecency long before he had any concept of love or sex, let alone of the relation between the two. Many young Englishmen, damaged in precisely that way, went off to the colonies and made themselves a nuisance to the "native" women. Orwell never gave a reason for his sudden resignation from the Burma police, in which he served for five years in the 1920s, but I am morally certain that it was this latent element, as well as a more generalised revulsion against imperialism, that caused him to make up his mind. The system of exploitation in Burma depended, in its social aspect, on a double indecency.

Even the most educated Burmese or Indian man would and could be refused entry to the English Club. But even the least educated Burmese girl could be admitted to the white man's bungalow - for cash, and via the back door. Moreover, in the repression of the Burmese as a people there is an undeniable thrill of domination; it takes only a few phrases from the lips of Ellis, the clubroom sadist, to tell us what kind of filth is permanently flickering in his mind, and how adept Orwell was at detecting it.

The latter point may be the crucial one, since insights of that sort are more available to those who may have a guilty share in them. Orwell could be tongue-in-cheek about this, too, as when he wrote to his friend Brenda Salkeld in 1934: "I had lunch yesterday with Mr Ede. He is a bit of a feminist and thinks that if a woman was brought up exactly like a man she would be able to throw a stone, construct a syllogism, keep a secret etc. He tells me that my antifeminist views are probably due to Sadism! I have never read the Marquis de Sade's novels - they are unfortunately very hard to get hold of."

Salkeld was later to take the view, on the BBC Third Programme in 1960, that "he didn't really like women". This unfalsifiable charge has been made since by a number of "left" feminists, notably Beatrix Campbell in her 1984 book Wigan Pier Revisited.

Campbell was quick to notice Orwell's emphasis on the physique of Wigan's coal miners; his discovery that: "It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere."

Certainly class is involved - words like splendid and noble are applied by the officer corps to unusually good "specimens" among the other ranks, and indeed Orwell found himself employing what Campbell describes as an Etonian accolade when he said that miners had figures "fit for a guardsman". Is there a hint of the homoerotic? It is difficult to argue confidently that there is not. We know that Orwell was teased heartlessly by the writer and editor Cyril Connolly while at Eton for being "gone" on another boy; his friend and colleague Rayner Heppenstall claimed that he was the object of an adult homosexual "crush" on Orwell's part.

The only really alluring girl in his fiction, the minx Elizabeth Lackersteen in Burmese Days, is depicted as extremely boyish in physique. Perhaps it isn't wise to press this too far, but the second-most alluring girl, Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is praised specifically for the charm of her "behind". Come to think of it, his second wife, Sonia Brownell, was known as "Buttocks Brownell".

But then, DH Lawrence evinced a certain interest in buttocks as well, and wrote tellingly about the beautiful bodies of coal miners, without coming in for the same suspicion of being closeted. More suggestive in the pop-psychology sense is the very evident fact that Orwell seemed unable to stay off the subject. He went well out of his way to take a stick to "nancy-boys", "pansies" and "sodomy" and this, as we have come to know, can be a bad sign. One isn't altogether sure, even so, that it licenses Campbell's view that men are practitioners of "mass narcissism" whereas women, "because they are a subordinate sex are not". For one thing, there seems to be a potential non sequitur here. Might narcissism not be a consolation to the subordinate?

The industrial areas visited by Orwell as he researched The Road to Wigan Pier were dominated by cotton as well as coal, and Campbell rightly points out that by neglecting the former in favour of the latter in his researches, he overlooked the industrialisation of female labour. He overlooked it in the case of coal as well, being either unaware of or indifferent to the long history of women's work "on the pit brow".

Women are by no means invisible in Orwell's travelogue, but they occur as wives or daughters or young persons caught in domestic drudgery. If he had known of women working in mining it seems likely that he would have been appalled; most educated people imagined that women and children had been spared such arduous work since at least the time of Lord Shaftesbury. Another feminist critic, Deirdre Beddoe, complains of the women in Orwell's novels, who are either shrews or geese, vamps or frumps, or else (Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four excepted) grasping and conformist.

This, as it happens, is true. It is even true of Mollie, "the foolish, pretty white mare", of Animal Farm, who sells herself out for a handful of ribbons and a couple of sugarlumps. Not that the men in these novels - moth-eaten, either scrawny or bloated, selfish, resentful and repressed - are exactly paragons. However, Beddoe is right about one thing. Every one of the female characters is practically devoid of the least trace of intellectual or reflective capacity.

Elizabeth Lackersteen in Burmese Days is mindlessly lowbrow to an extent that shocks even the besotted Flory. Dorothy in A Clergyman's Daughter operates on blind and simple Christian faith, can't keep her end up in an elementary argument with the village atheist, and collapses at the same time as her beliefs. Hilda, in Coming Up for Air, attends the Left Book Club only because admittance is free. The sweet-natured Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying never even pretends to have the smallest idea what Gordon is talking about. When Winston Smith begins to read the excitingly dangerous forbidden manuscript of Emmanuel Goldstein aloud in Nineteen Eighty-Four, his supposed co-conspirator Julia promptly falls fast asleep.

What can be said in Orwell's defence here? Part of his novelistic enterprise was to represent the dead-endishness of much English life. Few images can emphasise this more tellingly than that of a woman wasting away. In one of the best passages of A Clergyman's Daughter, Dorothy finds herself trapped as a teacher in a hideous school whose precise purpose is the deliberate stultification of young girls. George Bowling recoils from the sight of a female shop-assistant being bullied and tormented by a nasty male overseer. Though Campbell and Beddoe don't notice it, accusing him of ignoring the vast submerged workforce of female domestic servants, his novels and columns make frequent reference to the abysmal existence led by precisely this "skivvy" class.

We know that Orwell married one very tough-minded and intelligent woman, Elleen O'Shaughnessy, whose life was lost to a botched hospital operation. He later admitted to having treated her poorly on occasion, but all witnesses are agreed that he was devoted to her and was made almost wordless by her death.

He fell in love with Celia Kirwan, one of the most brilliant as well as one of the most beautiful of her generation, and proposed marriage to her without success. In his near-death agony he proposed successfully to Sonia Brownell who, difficult as she was, could not be described as shallow or vapid. This deserves to be entered on the credit side of the account even if, as we have learned, the dying Orwell sometimes suggested to women that they might be tempted by the lifetime sinecure of "writer's widow".

Even with its indignity and pathos, this is not an offer he would have made to anyone he suspected of being mindless. "Women in Orwell's fiction," observes Beddoe rather tritely, "are not capable of happiness without men." It would be equally acute to say that they - Dorothy in A Clergyman's Daughter, for instance - are incapable of happiness, or are made unhappy by men. And it would certainly be true to say that men in Orwell's fiction are utterly incapable of happiness without women. Yes, they resent the need of women, as many men do, and as Orwell himself obviously did. Yes, they distrust the marriage bond as a "trap" set by a hypocritical and acquisitive society. But to write about male-female relations in any decade and to omit these elements would have been to abandon verisimilitude.

Viewed with discrimination, Orwell's actual prejudice turns out to be against the sexless woman, or the woman who has lost her sex and become shrivelled and/or mannish. This is an old male trope; it appears to conform in his case with a wider dislike or suspicion of anything "unnatural". The big surprise, in reviewing feminist criticism of him, is the failure to notice his revulsion for birth control and abortion. He never treated either subject to a full-length review, but shied away with disgust whenever it was forced on his attention.

During the second world war, he noticed that goods requiring scarce rubber had become shoddy and hard to find, whereas male contraceptives were of good quality and easy to come by. Whenever he did a word-portrait of a future mindless caretaker state, the list of its sub-Utopian features was certain to include a contemptuous reference to a birth-control clinic or an abortion centre. And, whenever he wrote about population, he took the view that it was failing to reproduce itself with enough speed or vigour. It does seem from certain letters and memoirs that he believed himself to be sterile; this added to the larger burden under which he toiled in his relations with women.

Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the grand exception here. Even when pregnant as a result of her very first (and very disappointing) sexual encounter, she refuses to employ any moral blackmail against the unlovable Gordon Comstock. It is therefore on his own initiative that he decides to consider the responsibility of choosing between the sin of abortion and the "trap" of marriage. We know Comstock's silly and self-pitying voice well enough by this stage, so it is fairly obviously Orwell speaking when a suddenly mature Gordon has his epiphany: "For the first time he grasped, with the only kind of knowledge that matters, what they were really talking about. The words 'a baby' took on a new significance. They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly, alive and growing. His eyes met hers. They had a strange moment of sympathy such as they had never had before. For a moment he did feel that in some mysterious way they were one flesh. Though they were feet apart he felt as though they were joined together - as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his. He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating blasphemy, if that word had any meaning."

One could hardly wish, in a few sentences, for a clearer proof of the way in which Orwell relied upon the instinctual. The impalpable umbilicus unites the couple as well as the mother and child; to sever it prematurely, for any selfish motive, is to commit an un-nameable but none the less intelligible offence against humanity. Of course, no sooner does Gordon go to the library to consult some volumes on embryology and pregnancy than he is confronted by another foe: "The woman at the desk was a 'university graduate, young, colourless, spectacled, and intensely disagreeable... Gordon knew her type at a glance' ."

There are limits to plain old decency and common sense, we may be sure. Orwell was the cause of a domestic dispute in one of the Yorkshire slum homes in which he lodged, as a consequence of doing what any well-bred middle-class guest would do, and helping Mrs Searle with the washing- up. Her husband and another male guest were very much put out. Mrs Searle herself remained neutral in the dispute. And Orwell noticed that it was the women quite as much as the men who expected domestic chores to be performed on the distaff side: "I believe that they, as well as the men, feel that a man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he developed into a 'Mary Ann.'"

He also wrote that this distinguished the proletarian home from the middle-class one, where the boss of the house was quite likely to be the woman, or even the baby. Taking this as her starting point, Janet Montefiore interrogates Orwell's subjectivity about females. Her book, Men and Women Writers of the 1930s: The Dangerous Flood of History, is by some distance the most acute feminist reading of the period. However, she employs a somewhat standard vocabulary in approaching Orwell's well-known narration in The Road to Wigan Pier of the wretched young woman glimpsed from the relatively lordly perspective of a passing train, suggesting that "Orwell's documentary image of the inarticulate slum girl whose sordid physical suffering represents the general misery of the working class, use[s] the image of a woman's body as a class signifier."

True enough, but the vision of a young girl deprived of her prime and reduced to drudgery and shame is a "trope" which one would not have wished, as a campaigner against needless poverty and ignorance, to be without. And had Orwell omitted this figure, and others like her, there would certainly have been other feminists to say that he rendered the female form "invisible".

One conclusion might be that Orwell liked and desired the feminine but was somewhat put on his guard by the female. And he really didn't like, and may even have feared, either feminine men or masculine women. With a reserved part of himself, he suspected that the war between the sexes was an unalterable feature of the natural order. In his better moments, he did not give credit to the natural order for such things as the sexual division of labour, or the tyranny of domestic relations. Victim of a narrow-minded patriarch himself, he would like to have been a firm but gentle father. But benevolent patriarchy is, quite rightly, the very assumption that feminism exists to challenge. We are still witnesses to, and participants in, the battle over what is and what is not, in human and sexual relations, "natural". At least it can be said for Orwell that he registered his participation in this unending conflict with a decent minimum of hypocrisy.

This is an edited extract from Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens, published by Allen Lane on June 6.



Orwell and me

Margaret Atwood cried her eyes out when she first read Animal Farm at the age of nine. Later, its author became a major influence on her writing. As the centenary of George Orwell's birth approaches, she says he would have plenty to say about the post-9/11 world

Monday June 16, 2003
The Guardian

I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. Thus, I was able to read it at the age of nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals, sort of like Wind in the Willows. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book - the child's version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead.

So I gobbled up the adventures of Napoleon and Snowball, the smart, greedy, upwardly mobile pigs, and Squealer the spin-doctor, and Boxer the noble but thick-witted horse, and the easily led, slogan-chanting sheep, without making any connection with historical events.

To say that I was horrified by this book is an understatement. The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust. I cried my eyes out when Boxer the horse had an accident and was carted off to be made into dog food, instead of being given the quiet corner of the pasture he'd been promised.

The whole experience was deeply disturbing to me, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for since. In the world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is bullshit and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what's really going on.

The pigs browbeat the others with ideology, then twist that ideology to suit their own purposes: their language games were evident to me even at that age. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels - Christianity, Socialism, Islam, Democracy, Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good, the works - that are definitive, but the acts done in their name.

I could see, too, how easily those who have toppled an oppressive power take on its trappings and habits. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right to warn us that democracy is the hardest form of government to maintain; Orwell knew that to the marrow of his bones, because he had seen it in action.

How quickly the precept "All Animals Are Equal" is changed into "All Animals Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal Than Others". What oily concern the pigs show for the welfare of the other animals, a concern that disguises their contempt for those they are manipulating.

With what alacrity do they put on the once-despised uniforms of the tyrannous humans they have overthrown, and learn to use their whips. How self-righteously they justify their actions, helped by the verbal web-spinning of Squealer, their nimble-tongued press agent, until all power is in their trotters, pretence is no longer necessary, and they rule by naked force.

A revolution often means only that: a revolving, a turn of the wheel of fortune, by which those who were at the bottom mount to the top, and assume the choice positions, crushing the former power-holders beneath them. We should beware of all those who plaster the landscape with large portraits of themselves, like the evil pig, Napoleon.

Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular Emperor-Has-No-Clothes books of the 20th century, and it got George Orwell into trouble. People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn't have all that figured out at the age of nine, of course - not in any conscious way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.

Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. Thus, I read it in paperback a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again: it was right up there among my favourite books, along with Wuthering Heights.

At the same time, I absorbed its two companions, Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I was keen on all three of them, but I understood Darkness At Noon to be a tragedy about events that had already happened, and Brave New World to be a satirical comedy, with events that were unlikely to unfold in exactly that way. (Orgy-Porgy, indeed.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me - a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions (this was a feature of my school) - and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen-Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent: most adolescents feel like that.)

I sympathised particularly with Winston's desire to write his forbidden thoughts down in a deliciously tempting, secret blank book: I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers, because it's this scribbling of his - along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a teenager of the 50s - that gets Winston into such a mess.

Animal Farm charts the progress of an idealistic movement of liberation towards a totalitarian dictatorship headed by a despotic tyrant; Nineteen Eighty-Four describes what it's like to live entirely within such a system. Its hero, Winston, has only fragmentary memories of what life was like before the present dreadful regime set in: he's an orphan, a child of the collectivity. His father died in the war that has ushered in the repression, and his mother has disappeared, leaving him with only the reproachful glance she gave him as he betrayed her over a chocolate bar - a small betrayal that acts both as the key to Winston's character and as a precursor to the many other betrayals in the book.

The government of Airstrip One, Winston's "country", is brutal. The constant surveillance, the impossibility of speaking frankly to anyone, the looming, ominous figure of Big Brother, the regime's need for enemies and wars - fictitious though both may be - which are used to terrify the people and unite them in hatred, the mind-numbing slogans, the distortions of language, the destruction of what has really happened by stuffing any record of it down the Memory Hole - these made a deep impression on me. Let me re-state that: they frightened the stuffing out of me. Orwell was writing a satire about Stalin's Soviet Union, a place about which I knew very little at the age of 14, but he did it so well that I could imagine such things happening anywhere.

There is no love interest in Animal Farm, but there is in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston finds a soulmate in Julia; outwardly a devoted Party fanatic, secretly a girl who enjoys sex and makeup and other spots of decadence. But the two lovers are discovered, and Winston is tortured for thought-crime - inner disloyalty to the regime.

He feels that if he can only remain faithful in his heart to Julia, his soul will be saved - a romantic concept, though one we are likely to endorse. But like all absolutist governments and religions, the Party demands that every personal loyalty be sacrificed to it, and replaced with an absolute loyalty to Big Brother.

Confronted with his worst fear in the dreaded Room 101, where a nasty device involving a cage-full of starving rats can be fitted to the eyes, Winston breaks: "Don't do it to me," he pleads, "do it to Julia." (This sentence has become shorthand in our household for the avoidance of onerous duties. Poor Julia - how hard we would make her life if she actually existed. She'd have to be on a lot of panel discussions, for instance.)

After his betrayal of Julia, Winston becomes a handful of malleable goo. He truly believes that two and two make five, and that he loves Big Brother. Our last glimpse of him is sitting drink-sodden at an outdoor cafe, knowing he's a dead man walking and having learned that Julia has betrayed him, too, while he listens to a popular refrain: "Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me ..."

Orwell has been accused of bitterness and pessimism - of leaving us with a vision of the future in which the individual has no chance, and where the brutal, totalitarian boot of the all-controlling Party will grind into the human face, for ever.

But this view of Orwell is contradicted by the last chapter in the book, an essay on Newspeak - the doublethink language concocted by the regime. By expurgating all words that might be troublesome - "bad" is no longer permitted, but becomes "double-plus-ungood" - and by making other words mean the opposite of what they used to mean - the place where people get tortured is the Ministry of Love, the building where the past is destroyed is the Ministry of Information - the rulers of Airstrip One wish to make it literally impossible for people to think straight. However, the essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it's my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he's usually been given credit for.

Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life - in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale. By that time I was 44, and I had learned enough about real despotisms - through the reading of history, travel, and my membership of Amnesty International - so that I didn't need to rely on Orwell alone.

The majority of dystopias - Orwell's included - have been written by men, and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who have defied the sex rules of the regime. They have acted as the temptresses of the male protagonists, however welcome this temptation may be to the men themselves.

Thus Julia; thus the cami-knicker-wearing, orgy-porgy seducer of the Savage in Brave New World; thus the subversive femme fatale of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924 seminal classic, We. I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view - the world according to Julia, as it were. However, this does not make The Handmaid's Tale a "feminist dystopia", except insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered "feminist" by those who think women ought not to have these things.

The 20th century could be seen as a race between two versions of man-made hell - the jackbooted state totalitarianism of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four, and the hedonistic ersatz paradise of Brave New World, where absolutely everything is a consumer good and human beings are engineered to be happy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that Brave New World had won - from henceforth, state control would be minimal, and all we would have to do was go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in.

But with 9/11, all that changed. Now it appears we face the prospect of two contradictory dystopias at once - open markets, closed minds - because state surveillance is back again with a vengeance. The torturer's dreaded Room 101 has been with us for millennia. The dungeons of Rome, the Inquisition, the Star Chamber, the Bastille, the proceedings of General Pinochet and of the junta in Argentina - all have depended on secrecy and on the abuse of power. Lots of countries have had their versions of it - their ways of silencing troublesome dissent.

Democracies have traditionally defined themselves by, among other things - openness and the rule of law. But now it seems that we in the west are tacitly legitimising the methods of the darker human past, upgraded technologically and sanctified to our own uses, of course. For the sake of freedom, freedom must be renounced. To move us towards the improved world - the utopia we're promised - dystopia must first hold sway.

It's a concept worthy of doublethink. It's also, in its ordering of events, strangely Marxist. First the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which lots of heads must roll; then the pie-in-the-sky classless society, which oddly enough never materialises. Instead, we just get pigs with whips.

I often ask myself: what would George Orwell have to say about it?

Quite a lot.

· This is an edited extract from Margaret Atwood's contribution to BBC Radio 3's Twenty Minutes: The Orwell Essays series, broadcast tonight at 8.05pm. Roy Hattersley's and John Carey's essays will be broadcast at the same time on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Margaret Atwood's latest novel, Oryx and Crake, is published by Bloomsbury.

August 25, 2008

Media Talk

What George Orwell Wrote, 70 Years Later to the Day



Aug. 12 began as a hot morning in Aylesford, Kent, England, only to be followed by a powerful thunderstorm in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the blackberries were beginning to redden.

Aug. 12, 1938, that is.

The observations were made by George Orwell, whose copious diaries are now being published every day in blog form, exactly 70 years after they were made. The scholars behind the project say they are trying to get more attention for Orwell online and to make him more relevant to a younger generation he would have wanted to speak to.

“I think he would have been a blogger,” said Jean Seaton, a professor at the University of Westminster in London who administers the Orwell writing prize and thought up the idea of the blog.

Though as prolific as any blogger (his collected writings occupy some 20 volumes), Orwell, who died in 1950, never had the chance to spontaneously publish his thoughts to a waiting public. Now — with some lag time — they are being made available that way at

The Webmaster has included hyperlinks, including a definition of blackberries (no, not the kind you operate with your thumbs) and a Google map of the sanitorium in Kent in southeast England where Orwell was recuperating from tuberculosis and observing the weather so closely.

The entry from Aug. 10, for instance, is offers this report: “Drizzly. Dense mist in evening. Yellow moon.”

Rest assured, he will soon become consumed by the clouds gathering over Europe. Next month the blog will reprint the entries from the political diary he started Sept. 7, 1938.

“The diary isn’t Orwell at his most polemic; it is Orwell at his most steady, most observant,” Professor Seaton said.

Like any good political blogger, Orwell devoured the news, making clippings and looking for shifts in public and government opinion, Professor Seaton said. “He’s partly obsessed by the newspapers because of the start of the world war,” she said. “The diary is written against this almost traumatized understanding that there is going to have to be a second world war.”

The material being reprinted (with the permission of the Orwell estate) can be found in the Orwell archive at University College in London and in the author’s collected works, but “ordinary people won’t go to it,” she said. “I thought, if you publish what he wrote as he wrote it in real time, people would find that rather engaging.”

Professor Seaton said the site would publish at least until 2010, and had more than 50,000 page views since it started on Aug. 9.

The Orwell blog is not the only effort to inject spontaneity into material written generations ago.

For more than a year, Bill Lamin, 60, a retired mathematics teacher in England, has been publishing the letters of his grandfather, who fought in World War I — 90 years to the day.

Part of the attraction for readers, Mr. Lamin said in an e-mail message, was that “no one knows the outcome, whether he lives or dies from letter to letter.”

While the Orwell blog will not have that level of suspense, Professor Seaton said the material was full of tension.

“You do know how this story is going to end,” she said, “but one of the brilliant things is that Orwell doesn’t know how it is going to end.”




Friday, Aug. 08, 2008

Should George Orwell Blog?

By Camille Agon

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," noted
George Orwell in a weekly newspaper column in 1946. To help him keep focused, the author of Animal Farm and 1984 kept a diary in which he recorded everything from how many eggs his chickens laid to his political observations on the rise of communism in Europe. From Aug. 9, the Orwell Prize, an annual award for political writing set up by admirers and old friends, will make some of those diaries available online — but not all Orwell fans are happy about it.

The diaries will be published as a sort of a blog, with entries added daily, exactly 70 years after Orwell wrote them. Running from 1938 through 1942, the diaries cover the early days of World War II as well as Orwell's travels in Morocco, where he recuperated from injuries he received in the Spanish Civil War. There's also a lot about chicken farming.

Orwell kept different diaries for different things. "His domestic diaries show that Orwell was a very enthusiastic and conscientious gardener and farmer," says Gordon Bowker, one of Orwell's many biographers. "He would detail the state of the weather, what he had planted, what needed to be pruned, etc." Orwell's political diaries, which will start appearing from Sept. 7, chronicle his daily thoughts on Europe's descent into World War II. Those writings, says Bowker, are based mostly on the many newspapers Orwell read and show him "trying out his political ideas."

Although Orwell was sick through much of his life (he died from tuberculosis in 1950 at the age of 46), his prolific output included newspaper columns and stories, essays, reviews and novels. Biographer Sir Bernard Crick calls him the greatest political writer since Jonathan Swift.

So what can mundane writings, like personal notes on "a violent dust-storm" in the afternoon of Oct. 9, 1938, or the purple color of ripe olives at a Moroccan market tell us about the man who brought us the chilling phrases Big Brother, newspeak and doublethink?

"The diaries reveal some very interesting and intriguing aspects," says Professor Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Prize. "They expose his tremendous, hungry empiricism, revealing the keen, alert, ever noting, ever observing facts writer he was." Orwell's remarkable meticulousness, she says, "is one of the tools that produces the extraordinary political independence of mind that people value him for."

Not everybody agrees. "If one just reads these entries," says Crick, "one would get a very puzzled view as to what sort of person he was, and one would miss all the strength of his political criticism, all the strength of his literary criticism." Most of the diary entries, he says, are mundane notes, very few of which were ever then used as the basis of Orwell's more serious writing.

But, says Seaton, that's exactly why they're interesting. "He is a writer with such extraordinary resonance all over the world," she says. "The diaries give you a great insight into Orwell's domestic life, and it is always interesting to see the kind of life that great minds composed themselves."



January 13, 2010

George Orwell's days

From strawberry-picking in Hertfordshire to rat-fixations in Jura – the final diaries


George Orwell
Edited by Peter Davison
520pp. Harvill/Secker. £20.
978 1 84655 329 5


Diaries brings together the eleven individual journals that George Orwell compiled between 1931 and 1949. The final entry, written in September 1949, describes the daily routines of University College Hospital, where he was to die of advanced tuberculosis early in 1950. All were published in the monumental twenty-volume Complete Works (1998), but now appear consecutively for the first time. There is certainly a twelfth diary, and possibly even a thirteenth, among the items taken from a Barcelona hotel room in June 1937 by Soviet agents and now gathering dust somewhere in the NKVD archive in Moscow. In his introduction, Peter Davison reveals that he once met a man – Miklos Kun, grandson of the Hungarian Communist leader Béla Kun – who had tracked down Orwell’s NKVD file, but was unable to fillet it before the archive shut its doors to the public.

Handsomely produced, illustrated with Orwell’s own pencil sketches and footnoted with Davison’s customary élan, this latest wave in the repackager’s tide invites two questions. Why did Orwell write diaries? And what do they tell us about him? Most writers’ diaries are self-conscious affairs, where the reader ends up with a sneaking feeling that the real audience is only a remote posterity. Orwell’s are notably unvarnished, often no more than a mundane domestic record, and yet this doesn’t make them personally revealing. There is, for example, almost nothing in them about Orwell’s literary techniques. Neither is there very much in the way of confidential remarks. When he notes in 1941, out of nowhere, that he is “thinking always of my island in the Hebrides, which I suppose I shall never possess, nor even see”, there is a sudden glimpse of all kinds of things not often associated with Orwell – frustrated yearnings, sequestered retreats, the deepest of romantic chasms.

If long stretches of the diaries are notably low-key (“All day clearing out strawberries, which have not been touched since last year. It seems one plant will put out anything up to 12 or 15 runners”), then Orwell’s motive in writing them was equally prosaic. On one level he was affected by that primal diarist’s urge to set down the most basic details of his life. As the pre-war entries from his Hertfordshire cottage and the long recuperative vacation in Morocco make clear in sometimes painful abundance, no egg collector was more indefatigable and no observer of the customs of the Atlas Mountains more industrious. But to the Orwell who specialized in ground-level nature notes can be added the Orwell who was busy assembling raw material for his published work. The hop-picking diary of 1931, the account of his journey around the depressed industrial North of 1936, and to a certain extent the Moroccan journal of 1938–9, are full of reportage that would be worked up into, respectively, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1934), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and the essay “Marrakech”, which first appeared in New Writing in 1939. Each gives some idea of the refining process that produced the finished work. Orwell’s sleight of hand with the Wigan slum girl seen poking a stick up a drain in a filthy back street is well known – in The Road to Wigan Pier she is glimpsed from a train – but a similar manipulation accompanies the Arab navvy given bread intended for a captive deer – one of the defining images of “Marrakech”, but here set down with a laconic “I gave it to him and he pocketed it gratefully”.

But then reserve hangs over the proceedings like a fog. It extends to the symptoms of his final illness (“pain in side very bad”), the deaths of close relatives (“Last two days spent in neighbourhood of Newark”, he writes in May 1946, omitting to mention that he has been attending his sister Marjorie’s funeral) and even to the relatively small part of the diaries written with a definite readership in mind. The two wartime journals, the first running from May 28, 1940 to August 28, 1941, and the second from March 14, 1942 to November 15, 1942 were originally conceived as part of a joint publishing project with his friend Inez Holden. It Was Different at the Time, Holden’s half, was published in 1943. She recalled that Victor Gollancz turned down her collaborator’s effort “because he feared offending people”. The war diaries offer the odd flourish, an occasional aide-memoire (14.3.42: “I reopen this diary after an interval of about 6 months, the war being once again in a new phase”) and, once or twice, the highly unusual sight of Orwell acknowledging something about his inner self. There is an intensely revealing passage from June 10, 1940, appended to an account of the Allied retreat from Norway:

"This afternoon I remembered very vividly that incident with the taxi-driver in Paris in 1936, and was going to have written something about it in this diary. But now I feel so saddened that I can’t write it. Everything is disintegrating. It makes me writhe to be writing book-reviews etc at such a time, and even angers me that such time-wasting should still be permitted . . . . At present I feel as I felt in 1936 when the Fascists were closing in on Madrid, only far worse. But I will write about the taxi-driver sometime."

The incident, involving a “sordid squabble” over a three-penny fare, and eventually written up for Tribune in September 1944, clearly haunted Orwell through the years, leaving him “at the moment violently angry, and a little later saddened and disgusted”.

As to what the diaries tell us about Orwell himself, they confirm, if any confirmation were needed, his ineradicable grounding in the Edwardian world of his boyhood. To take a tiny detail, of the 297 press cuttings assembled in the “Diary of Events Leading up to the War”, almost half come from the Daily Telegraph. One may note, too, his fascination with reports of the annual Eton–Harrow cricket match. Adjectivally, we are back in the Edwardian nursery. The sexual life of tramps is “disgusting”. Wolverhampton is a “frightful” place, as are the squalid interiors of the Sheffield slum houses and the route taken by the Wigan colliery railway line. Cold weather is “beastly”, while “monstrous” can be applied to anything from a slag heap to the remnant of a pie left in a lodging house pantry.

From his upbringing, too, comes that infallible habit of trying to “place” people, generalizing about social types, and – for all the instinctive fair-mindedness – arriving at a judgement based on class or gender divides. Thus “Ginger”, met on the hop-picking excursion, is “a fairly typical petty criminal”. The crowd at a political meeting represents “a fair cross-section of the more revolutionary element in Wigan”. Introduced to an ex-miner, now elevated to the secretaryship of a working men’s club, Orwell “would have taken him for a solicitor from his appearance”. Socially, there is a part of Orwell that never quite shakes off the ancestral ghosts. A hop-picker’s union would be doomed to failure, as “about half the pickers are women or gypsies, and are too stupid to see the advantages of one”. His fellow guests in a Southwark lodging house are “a pretty low lot – mostly Irish unskilled labourers, and out of work at that”. Not that Orwell, being Orwell, ever lost sight of his relatively exalted social status or the impossibility of ever sloughing it off. The description of the upper-class voices overheard at the Cotswold sanatorium where he stayed in the early part of 1949 is often quoted. “A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a sort of bah-bahing of laughter about nothing . . . people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful.” Then comes the incriminating sign-off: “No wonder everyone hates us so”.

If Orwell the class warrior was fatally compromised by his upper-class accent and legendary tweed suits, then he was also let down by an eternal fastidiousness. Whether at large in the back streets of Wigan or Marrakech, Orwell was invariably led, as it were, by his nose. Staying with a family called Meade on the Road to Wigan Pier trip, he commends “the only house I have been in since leaving London that does not smell”. Morocco looks set to defy some pretty considerable odds – “smells not so bad in spite of the heat and labyrinthine bazaars” – until a trip round the Jewish quarter produces a “stench” which is “absolutely insupportable, people in the narrowest alleyways habitually urinating in the street and against the wall”.

A good quarter of the 500-plus pages is taken up by the diaries Orwell kept on Jura between 1946 and 1948. Amid the vignettes from his adopted son Richard’s early childhood lurks evidence of Orwell’s well-attested rat fixation: “Rats, hitherto non-existent here, are bound to come when the corn is put into the byre . . . . Rats in the byre very bad . . . . Caught rat under the house . . .”; “I hear that 2 children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face as usual)” runs the entry of June 12, 1947. It can never be proved that the account of Winston Smith’s ordeal by rats at the Ministry of Love was written at this time, but in the end the egg collector, the amateur naturalist and the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four seem very much of a piece.








24 September 2009


By George Orwell

Reviewed by Sarah Churchwell -


At first glance, George Orwell’s domestic diaries seem to show a cold and uncaring man. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth

Diaries George Orwell
Harvill Secker, 528pp, £20


In his introduction to Orwell's Diaries, the editor Peter Davison, who oversaw the monumental effort of the author's Complete Works, writes that, despite Orwell's aversion to having a biography, "It is ironic that these diaries offer a virtual autobiography of his life and opinions for so much of his life." There are ironies here, but Orwell inadvertently writing an autobiography - at least as we commonly understand the genre - is not among them. Rather than personal journals recording daily occurrences and opinions that constitute an implicit narrative of internal life (or, for that matter, of external actions), the Diaries are a melange of a working writer's notebooks, interspersed with a decade or so of what he called "domestic diaries". Readers should abandon hope that the domestic diaries will offer insight into Orwell's domestic life or relationships, however. Last year, the organisers of the Orwell Prize began blogging his diary entries, beginning in 1938. This starting date seems to have been entirely expedient: the blogs are posted "in real time", 70 years to the day after he wrote them, so the website started with the entries from 70 years before the first post, and plan to end in 1942 (2012). The diaries included in this volume are more extensive. They begin in 1931 and extend through 1949, until just before the author's premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 46 in January 1950.

Orwell did not intend these domestic diaries for publication, of course - with good reason. They are almost entirely devoid of narrative interest. A great many entries baldly state the number of eggs his hens laid: "One egg." "One egg." "Two eggs."

One day he catches a snake and wonders what kind it is. Another day he notes that his goat's milk tastes remarkably pungent, and concludes that she is feasting on wild garlic. Such faint domestic comedy is as entertaining as the housekeeping records ever become.

In 1946 Orwell moved to Jura, in the Inner Hebrides, and became preoccupied with the weather. He punctuates his meteorological reports with accounts of domestic crises - his sister Avril dislocates her shoulder and they can't set it; his small son Richard gashes his forehead, requiring stitches. But even such mild excitations are narrated quite baldly, without discernible emotion.

Unfortunately, this terseness risks creating the erroneous impression of a man so detached as to seem nearly autistic, never in his home life reflecting upon his family, friends, or even literature. It is self-evident, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. Orwell recorded the 1948 entries, for example, while he was in the final stages of Nineteen Eighty-Four - and the early stages of the final bout of tuberculosis that would soon kill him.

Readers approaching the Diaries hoping to encounter the private man will be disappointed - for example, they rarely mention his tiny son, Richard, whom he adopted with his first wife, Eileen, shortly before she died during an operation in 1945. Taken in isolation, they could suggest a monstrous carelessness. But, of course, Orwell cared deeply about his son, as a touching letter he wrote in hospital demonstrates:
“I don't know that it matters except for being expensive and not seeing little R. I am so afraid of his growing away from me, or getting to think of me as just a person who is always lying down and can't play."

But Davison does not include that letter, which comes from Bernard Crick's still-definitive 1980 biography, George Orwell: a Life. The exclusion is fair enough, if perhaps unfortunate - this volume is the collected diaries, after all, and Davison has published separate collections of occasional journalism and letters. But there are some far odder omissions, including Orwell's late entry (Crick locates it in a 1949 notebook) explaining his feeling of inadequacy, a persistent sense, despite his intense productivity, "that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time." Inexplicably, this celebrated passage is nowhere to be found in the 1949 entries. Crick includes another passage from the same notebook that does not appear in this volume, under the title "Death Dreams": "Death Dreams very frequent throughout the past two years. Sometimes of the sea or the sea shore or more often of enormous, splendid buildings or streets or ships, in which I often lose my way, but always with a peculiar feeling of happiness and of walking in sunlight."

I am happy to give Davison the benefit of the doubt and to assume there must be a logic to these omissions, but he does not offer one. And it is difficult to reconcile his claim that these Diaries offer "a virtual autobiography" with his apparent exclusion of autobiographical reflections in favour of weather reports and egg tallies.

Fortunately, the domestic diaries, while constituting a large proportion (perhaps 50 per cent) of the book, are interspersed with what might be called writer's notebooks. Orwell titled these individually: the "Hop-Picking Diary" from 1931; the diaries from 1936 that would form the basis of The Road to Wigan Pier; the "Morocco Diary", from when Orwell and Eileen went to North Africa for his health between 1938 and 1939 (although these, too, contain a fair number of domestic accounts of livestock); the 1939 notes that Orwell retrospectively named "Diary of Events Leading Up to the War"; and the "War-Time Diary" that Orwell kept intermittently throughout the Second World War.

These more socio-political accounts redeem the Diaries from being of interest only to specialists (and probably of little interest to them). They are rich in evocative detail and observation, and in many cases readers will recognise the seeds of famous passages to come in Down and Out in Paris and London and Wigan Pier. That said, the sketchiness of the entries also demonstrates the unarguable superiority of the books, and will presumably send most readers hotfooting it back to them.

That is where they send Davison, as well. He decides at times to reprint the published version - as in Wigan Pier's description of the mountains of slagheaps and the girl cleaning a sewage pipe - to enable him to offer a miniature comparison/contrast essay on Orwell's revisions. This is not necessarily objectionable, but it is entirely arbitrary: no other entry receives the same textual scrutiny. With similar arbitrariness, in his introduction to the "Morocco Diaries" of 1939, Davison suddenly launches into a defence of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy, offering another miniature essay, this time on political history. Where Davison's expertise and scrupulous editorial work on the immense Complete Works cannot be questioned, some of his editorial decisions here can be: he gives considerably shorter shrift to what some might consider more pertinent information, simply announcing Orwell's two marriages, the adoption of his son and the death of Eileen, without giving other biographical context or explanation.

Ultimately, the Diaries suggest that Orwell reserved his intellect and passion for his life and for his professional writing. He emerges as less uninterested in the external world than in his own interiority. This Orwell spares no energy for introspection or daily trivia, and gossip is entirely absent, with the exception of one piquant detail - he notes in 1939 ("from reliable private information") that Oswald Mosley was rumoured to be "a masochist of the extreme type in his sexual life". Disappointingly, he does not amplify this (surprisingly topical) titbit. Otherwise, the only sex in the book comes when, with great interest, he watches rooks copulating on the ground.

The "War-Time Diaries" are the heart of the book. Here, one hears the voice of Orwell the Swiftian conscience of his nation: "You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion either . . . When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth."

If we are searching for Orwell the prophet and author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we need look no further: "Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency."

And there are a few skewering one-liners, as when he observes: "Attlee reminds me of nothing so much as a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen." The most abbreviated entries are often the most vivid: "16.11.40: I never thought I should live to grow blasé about the sound of gunfire, but so I have." And this unforgettable image of burning newspapers during the Blitz: "19.10.40: The unspeakable depression of lighting the fires every morning with papers of a year ago, and getting glimpses of optimistic headlines as they go up in smoke."

There are also glimpses of Orwell's lexical sensibilities, as when he notices on 2 January 1941 the prevalence of the word "blitz", and writes that he awaits its use as a verb - and then on 22 January, as he observes with satisfaction that the Daily Express has done just that. But ultimately glimpses are all these Diaries afford. "I suppose sooner or later we all write our own epitaphs," he notes in 1942, after wryly observing that he is working for the BBC only five years after roundly abusing war journalists in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell wrote his own epitaph many times over, but it is probably not to be found in this collection, which despite its many pleasures does not often enough suggest the simple greatness of its writer.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature at the University of East Anglia



Another pages about George Orwell in this site here and here and here and here

A page about Sonia Orwell here