Before we discuss the books you’ve chosen, could you tell us a bit about who George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair, was?
In some ways, he was a very conventional product of his time. He was born in 1903 into what with characteristic precision he called “the lower-upper-middle classes” of British life. His father was a colonial civil servant who worked in the East. The definition that he gave of himself was that most of his expertise was theoretical. That is, theoretically the Blair family were the kind of people who hunted and shot, had servants, and dressed for dinner. But practically, because his father was a fairly low-grade civil servant, as Orwell put it, they didn’t have enough money to do that.
And although Orwell went to Eton, the grandest of English public schools, he was only able to do so because he was clever enough to win a scholarship. In a certain sense, he was paying his way by getting by on his brilliance as a young man. But when he got to this grand public school, most of the life went out of him. He slacked, didn’t do particularly well, and ended up having a career working in the Burma police force. So, his early life until he started writing books was relatively obscure and rather nondescript.
Then he quits the Burma police force to become a writer, which might bring us to your first choice, the book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), an account of Orwell’s time working as an impoverished dishwasher in Parisian kitchens and in London hostels.
It took Orwell quite a long time to become a writer. He came back from Burma at the end of 1927. Now, there are various myths behind this. It’s always thought that because of his later radicalism and his anti-imperialist stance as a writer that he came home from serving in the colonial police force in a furious rage, determined to throw over all the trappings of the British Raj and imperialism. But in fact, he came home from Burma on a medical certificate. He’d been ill with dengue fever. He hadn’t yet decided if he was going to give it up, so he had six months furlough in England at the end of 1927. In the end, he decided he didn’t want to go back to Burma—he wanted to become a writer. It’s a mark of the manner in which he was feeling his way that implementing this decision took more or less five years. He published his first few articles, and then embarked on what these days we would call the research journey that produced Down and Out in Paris and London.
“It took Orwell quite a long time to become a writer”
The fascination of Down and Out in Paris and London is that it’s his first book. In it, you can see Orwell stumbling, moving towards the kind of writer he wants to be, choosing the sort of subject matter he thinks will be appropriate. He spent time in Paris, working humbly in hotels and restaurants as what the French called a plongeur, someone who basically does the washing up. Then, he came back to England and went on what he called his ‘tramping adventures’, masquerading as a down and out. He went and stayed in what were known as ‘casual wards’ in the south of England, and sort of walked his way around Kent and Essex and the London home counties, storing up impressions for what became his first book.
Again, it’s often thought that these are the first stirrings of Orwell’s pronounced social conscience; that already he was showing solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Which of course he was, but we should also remember that on another level, he was a writer looking for copy. He was a journalist looking for experience that he could convert into books. It’s very interesting that one of the English passages of Down and Out in Paris and London is obviously based on a book called The Autobiography of a Supertramp by a writer called W H Davies, which had appeared about a quarter of a century before. He was obviously using literary models.
Apart from the vividness of the reportage—he’s staying at these dreadful places and talking to tramps and down and outs and men and women of the road—what’s interesting about Down and Out in Paris and London is that it was the book of nonfiction in which he becomes George Orwell, having been born Eric Arthur Blair. He famously disliked being called ‘Eric’. One or two critics in the past have suggested that this was an almost mythological transformation, in which a certain kind of person becomes another kind of person by way of a change of name. But in fact, calling himself ‘George Orwell’ happened almost by accident. He decided he wanted Down and Out in Paris and London to be published under a pseudonym, because he thought that his very respectable parents might be slightly offended by some of the more colourful themes, especially in the Paris part. He wrote down a list of potential pseudonyms, one of which was ‘H Lewis Always’. Imagine if Nineteen Eighty-Fourhad been written by H Lewis Always!
In the end, he was staying in Suffolk at his parent’s house. He went on a day-trip to Ipswich, the county town, and came back and said to his then-girlfriend, ‘I’m going to call myself George Orwell. It’s the king’s name, ‘George’—good, solid English name—and ‘Orwell’ is the name of the local river that flows through Suffolk.’ So, George Orwell. A very simple process, in the end.
I was struck by Orwell reflecting on his time as a plongeur in Paris, in Chapter XXII. He writes that this work, which is basically a modern form of slavery, might be worth it if it served any social purpose, but actually, he sees no real point in restaurants or hotels at all—you can get a better meal at home, he says. It’s at once pragmatic, funny, and anti-capitalist.
The question of how and when Orwell obtained his political consciousness is a fascinating one. I would argue that he doesn’t actually become fully politically aware until he goes to Spain in 1937, and lives for a time in Barcelona and sees what he regards as democratic socialism in action.
Interestingly, I discovered a new, previously unpublished letter from around this time, written in the autumn of 1931, again to the then-girlfriend in Suffolk. This was a time when England was in political crisis: we’d gone off the gold standard and were about to elect a national government, and Orwell, who was actually living in London at the time, writes to his friend Eleanor and says words to the effect that “the situation is very disturbed … there’ll probably be rioting in the autumn, but I don’t know anything about this because I don’t take any interest in, nor do I have knowledge of, politics.” Which seems a very odd thing for George Orwell to write at the age of 28.
How much of Down and Out in London is fabricated? Is it a bit like Thoreau in the cabin—the appearance of isolation while in reality being pretty near reinforcements and support?
A good comparison to make is with some of Orwell’s Burma reminiscences. There is the famous essay ‘A Hanging’ (1931), which is written from the point of view of somebody who sees a prisoner hanged. And then there is ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), which is always seen as this great symbolic attack on British imperialism. But it’s never been conclusively proved that Orwell saw a man hanged, and it’s never been conclusively proved that he shot an elephant. There is an account of a British colonial official shooting an elephant like that in the Rangoon Gazette, the Burmese paper of the time. But it’s not Orwell—it’s somebody else. I made the point earlier about Orwell being very conscious of using literary models when he began writing. A lot of his work is framed in procedures established by other writers. The essay about going to see the hanging in Burma, for example, in terms of its structure and some of the reflections on human rights sound rather like an essay that Thackeray wrote called ‘Going to See a Man Hanged‘ (1840).
Although I’m sure much of the book is based on his personal experience, I think it’s woven together from various parts, and I suspect that one or two liberties are taken. There are some bits I don’t believe at all, like the conversation he has with his friend Charlie about the brothel, and so on—that I think that’s just invented. It’s the way that a lot of non-fiction writers work. You don’t have to swear blind that everything in it absolutely happened; it’s a question of the ultimate aesthetic effect that you’re trying to produce. But though I have my doubts about a certain amount of the constructions of Down and Out, they don’t in the least detract from its merits. You couldn’t say that it wasn’t a faithful, autobiographical description of his life.
Moving into fiction, your next choice is Orwell’s second novel AClergyman’s Daughter (1935). Tell us about this book and why you chose it.
A Clergyman’s Daughter is a very odd book. What I mean by this is that it’s the only one of Orwell’s novels that actually has a central female character rather than a man. She’s called Dorothy Hare, and she’s a late-20-something spinster who lives with her rather tyrannical old father in a Suffolk country town called Knype Hill, a very thinly-disguised version of Southwold on the Suffolk coast, where Orwell lived on and off with his parents.
In the book, Dorothy literally loses her sense of herself and wakes up three days later as a down-and-out, walking with a group of tramps down to Kent. She comes back to London, endures a night in Trafalgar Square with the down-and-outs, and is then more or less rescued by one of her father’s relatives, and ends up teaching in a dreadful private school in West London, before, in the end, going back to live in her father’s vicarage. It’s a fascinating novel, because what Orwell is essentially doing is taking various different parts of his own life—living in Suffolk, the tramping adventures, teaching in dreadful private schools (which is what he did to earn a living in the early 1930s)—and he’s stitching them all together in a story about somebody else.
The great fascination to me of A Clergyman’s Daughter is that although it’s published in the UK in 1935, it is essentially the same plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which doesn’t appear until fourteen years later. It’s about somebody who is spied upon, and eavesdropped upon, and oppressed by vast exterior forces they can do nothing about. It makes an attempt at rebellion and then has to compromise. The last scene of A Clergyman’s Daughter has Dorothy back in her father’s rectory in Suffolk, still doing the mundane, routine tasks that she was doing at the start of the novel, having rebelled against the life she’s enmeshed in still. Just like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, she’s had to come to a kind of accommodation with it. It’s a very prophetic novel in terms of what came later in Orwell’s writing.
“Although A Clergyman’s Daughter is published in the UK in 1935, it is essentially the same plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four”
In personal terms, it’s the novel of his I read first when I was in my early teens, which is when I first read Orwell. (I wrote a biography of him that came out in 2003; I’ve just written a short book, purportedly a biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and also just signed up to write another biography of Orwell that will come out in 2023, simply because there is so much new material in terms of letters, correspondence, and other material.) My mother had a row of paperbacks, and one was the first Penguin paperback of AClergyman’s Daughter. I read it at the age of 12 or 13, and the narrative voice just spoke to me in a way that no other novel previously had, even though it was written about a woman living in Suffolk 40 years before. ‘He knows all about me,’ I thought to myself, ‘he wrote this specially for me’, which is what Orwell himself wrote when he first read the American writer Henry Miller. That’s why I’ve always loved A Clergyman’s Daughter, despite what it could be argued are a number of structural imperfections.
It reminded me a little bit of James Joyce in parts. Is there something to that comparison?
The third chapter in the third part of the novel, which is set at night when they’re all sitting on benches in Trafalgar Square, is very much based on the Nighttown scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses, so you’re quite right to detect that influence.
What happened to A Clergyman’s Daughter after it went to print?
He almost repudiated it. He didn’t want it reprinted in his lifetime. He said the same of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the novel he wrote after A Clergyman’s Daughter. Although at the time there are letters where he says he’s sweated blood over it to try to make a work of art, in later life he would say that they were just written for money.
I think that’s too self-deprecating. In the context of what was being written in Britain in the 1930s, they’re rather old-fashioned novels, almost Edwardian in their outlook. They’re more like Arnold Bennett than the great 1930s modernist masters. But to me, they’re excellent novels in their own right, and they’re also seriously prophetic about what Orwell is going to write in the 1940s. They work on both levels. You can’t really consider the genesis of Nineteen Eighty-Four without thinking of A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Let’s move on then to Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Talk a bit about it.
I chose this one again for personal as well as wider critical reasons. The wider critical reason is that it fits absolutely wonderfully in the trajectory of that route to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The plot is more or less the same as A Clergyman’s Daughter: it’s about a frustrated poet and embittered bookseller’s assistant called Gordon Comstock who works in a bookshop in Hampstead in North London, is completely disillusioned with the world, and rails against what he calls as the ‘money God’. He’s an anti-capitalist without really understanding how political systems work. The novel was written in the 1930s before Orwell had actually nailed his colors to the political mast. Inexplicably, despite the fact that he’s erratic and a bit of a crank, he’s got this wonderful girlfriend called Rosemary, who loves him sincerely. He’s given up his job in the advertising agency just so he can work in this bookshop.
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Like Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter and like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he rebels against the system and is ultimately swallowed up by it. At the very end of the book, he ends up married to Rosemary (who’s expecting a baby) and gone back to work in the advertising agency because it’s the only way to cope with the world. The only way he can provide for his family and get their lives back on track is by going back to what he didn’t want to do at the start of the book. Like Winston Smith, he rebels, the rebellion fails, and he has to reach an accommodation with a world he’d previously disparaged.
I read it in my mid-teens, and I just found Gordon Comstock, for all his imperfections, a wonderful figure. He wasn’t necessarily anybody I aspired to be, but there are some marvelous themes early in the novel where he’s working in the bookshop. Through him, Orwell projects his view of British literature in the 1930s. At one point, Gordon goes around the shop ranting about the various authors he doesn’t like, actually kicking the spines of the books he dislikes. There’s also a wonderful scene too where he comes back to his lodgings and finds that some immensely snooty highbrow poetry magazine called the Primrose Quarterly has rejected one of his poems, and he just has this terrible rant: “The sods! The bloody sods! ‘The Editor regrets!’ Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it? Why not say outright, ‘We don’t want your bloody poems. We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with. You proletarians keep your distance’? The bloody, hypocritical sods!”
This is very revealing in Orwellian terms. Comstock is presented as an outsider, this person on the fringe of the literary world with no connections and no strings that he can pull. Yet at the same time as Orwell was working in a bookshop, his articles and his poems were being published in a magazine called The Adelphi by a friend of his called Richard Rees, who like him was an Old Etonian! Orwell is much better connected than Gordon Comstock, but it’s as if he’s projecting his resentments through this fictional character. Though Comstock is not Orwell, the similarities between them are very interesting.
Is this Orwell mapping his own sense of social isolation onto the character’s class position?
Exactly. I’m convinced that most of Orwell’s work, especially the fiction, contains mythological projections of himself—in other words, the person that he really wants to be. He conceives of himself as this outsider, this tangential figure out there on the margins. But in fact, if you examine Orwell’s life in the 1930s and especially the 1940s, he was very well-connected. He’d just met his old friend Cyril Connolly about this time, a very influential literary critic. When Connolly started Horizon, probably one of the best literary magazines in Britain at that time in the 1940s, Orwell is one of his star columnists. Orwell is much better connected at this time than you’d imagine from some of his writings. He’s not on the doormat side of literary mythology as he imagines himself to be.
He certainly seems very well-connected on paper, but I recall some of the reminiscences his peers wrote about him which often tend to remark that there was something odd about his appearance and demeanor—that he always seemed out of place, even among Etonians, and especially when socializing with members not of his own class.
You’re quite right, but a lot of it is slightly contrived. Orwell’s friend Anthony Powell once said that after the Second World War, when slightly smart evening parties with smart dress codes started up again, Orwell would come along in an old, shabby suit. It had obviously been made by a really good tailor, so it looked more distinguished the shabbier it got. In the doorway to these parties, he’d look round and say, ‘Oh, is it alright that I come in dressed like this?’
“I’m convinced that most of Orwell’s work, especially the fiction, contains mythological projections of himself”
There was a kind of contrivance about it. He knew the rules. He was an old Etonian. On one occasion, when he invited an old Spanish Civil War comrade to come and have supper with him, he put on a dinner jacket. I think Orwell is being slightly manipulative here, and slightly self-conscious—choosing how to behave.
Given the publication date of this book, I have to mention a line of Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” What catalyzed such a shift in his writing and thinking?
In terms of Orwell’s political consciousness, in early 1936 he went on a tour of what was known as the distressed areas of northern England to write what ultimately became The Road to Wigan Pier. This is sometimes seen as the mark of his political awakening. I have my doubts about that, because the reports that he makes from places like Wigan, Leeds and Sheffield are not so much political as anthropological. When he comes across socialists and political activists, he’ll write something like ‘And I met so-and-so today, who is involved in the Labour movement’, giving the idea that he doesn’t really know much about it or what it consists of. There’s still a sense that he’s a journalist looking for copy. Although he sympathizes very greatly with the people he comes across, he hasn’t really yet decided what focus this sympathy is taking.
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There’s great doubt until late on as to what form The Road To Wigan Pier would take. In fact, I discovered once in the archive a letter from Orwell’s publisher Victor Gollancz to Orwell’s agent, really quite late on, asking ‘What is George up to? Is he writing some essays? Is he writing a proper book? What is it that he’s working on?’ So, The Road to Wigan Pier came together quite late on as a piece of work. Very shortly after it’s finished, Orwell goes off to Spain to observe the Spanish Civil War, which he ends up fighting in. And he says that his original aim in going to Spain was to write some journalism.
It was when he got to Barcelona very early in 1937 that he discovered what he thought was the ideal human community, which is a lot of people who seemed (although there might be economic differences between them) to be living in conditions that were more or less equal. Instead of a servant in a hotel who would call you ‘sir’, he would call you ‘you’. All of the deference and all the class distinctions that he observed in Britain all seemed to have disappeared in Barcelona in 1937. I think this had a profound effect on him in terms of thinking of what a society could do if it really took steps to try and institute conditions of genuine social equality. That’s the catalyst—1936 and early 1937—when he starts becoming the political writer we know him to be in his mature years.
Tell us a bit more about the next title on your list, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), another of Orwell’s reportage books. It’s famously divided into two very different parts.
That’s right. Part One is this wonderful reportage. The chapter that always made the largest impact on me was the first one, where he’s staying in this dreadful lodging house run by a couple called the Brookers in Wigan, above a terrible tripe shop. Orwell’s fastidiousness, which is one of his greatest characteristics, was outraged by having to stay in this terrible place. Part of the amusement of that, to me, is the way in which every description is loaded against the people involved. He obviously loathes Mr and Mrs Brooker, with whom he’s staying. But they can’t win on any level: Orwell will describe a room not only as filthy, but as “debauched.” Just a slightly untidy room is “debauched.” There’s another marvelous occasion where he comes across the landlord Mr Booker peeling potatoes, and Orwell says, “he sat by the fire with a tub of filthy water, peeling potatoes at the speed of a slow-motion picture.” Now, if you’re peeling potatoes, then the water you’re peeling them into is going to be dirty. There’s nothing you can do about it. But in Orwell’s eyes, it’s another brick in the wall. Whatever the Brookers do, they simply can’t win. I just think it’s terribly funny, and I simply don’t care how unfair it is that all the evidence is loaded against them, because it’s just so brilliantly written.
The second half is a polemic about socialism written by somebody who hadn’t really yet worked out what socialism was. On the one hand, it’s very astute, but on the other hand, it’s rather clumsily done, because Orwell is still coming to grips with this enormous subject that he’s only just begun to think about. In fact, this so offended Victor Gollancz, who published the book under the auspices of the Left Book Club in 1937, that he wrote a preface taking exception to some of it. He didn’t toe any party lines and would have given offense to many of the people who’d come across it.
The Road to Wigan Pier is a very transitional book. It shows all the attention to detail and the thought of street-level reportage that distinguishes Down and Out in Paris and London, but it’s moving forward to a political position—the political position—that will underlie what Orwell starts writing in the 1940s, for which we now celebrate him.
I noticed in this and the other George Orwell books you chose—in Down and Out in Paris and London and Keep the Aspidistra Flying for instance—how deeply concerned Orwell is with smell and dirt. He seems obsessed at all times with noting how his surroundings (or even individual people) are covered in muck and grime. What do you make of it? Is it fidelity to reality, the discomfort of an Eton boy, an injection of Jonathan Swift?
The distinguished literary critic John Sutherland wrote a book called Orwell’s Nose (2016), which he describes as a ‘pathological biography’, after he noticed just how heightened Orwell’s sense of smell is. He’s obviously a very sensitive child. You read the essay that he wrote about his prep school, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ (1952), and he’s practically fixated on smell and noxiousness.
The thing one notices about Orwell a lot is his fastidiousness. He’s always going on about sweat; he’s always going on about smell; he’s always going on about dirt. It’s one of several obsessions that he clearly has from a very early part of his life that then begin to flow in a sort of unhindered tide through the novels. To give you another example, another obsession of Orwell’s that takes hold from an early age is rats. Rats are everywhere in Orwell’s books. There are loads of rats in Down and Out; in Burmese Days, whenever anyone gets buried there are already rats burrowing down deep underneath the graves. It reaches his highest point in Nineteen Eighty-Fourwhen O’Brien threatens to release the cage full of starving rats on Winston’s face.
“People were picking up rifles and shooting into the dark—all because Orwell had become so enraged by this rat that he blew its head off”
But it flows all the way through. Even as a teenager, Orwell is writing letters to friends about going out and shooting rats in the countryside, and he says that one of the things that really upsets him in Spain, lying there in his tent, is having a rat crawl over him in the dark. In fact, Orwell is once supposed to have virtually started a mini-war in Spain in 1937 when he was particularly annoyed by this rat that kept on coming into the trench in which he was placed, so he took out his pistol and shot it. The noise started reverberating all the way down the line, and I think they actually thought that there was an attack happening. People were picking up rifles and shooting into the dark—all because Orwell had become so enraged by this rat that he decided to blow its head off underground.
It’s one of his obsessions: there’s his fastidiousness, there’s the rat phobia, and he’s also very paranoid from an early age. He’s always complaining that people are eavesdropping on him, spying on him, reading his letters. He said that one of the reasons he changed his name is that if you had an enemy, he might cut out your name from a newspaper and work black magic over it. He had some very odd mental characteristics, of which I think this was one.
They might seem mere lovable eccentricities in a novelist. But in a non-fiction writer, aren’t those qualities—a tendency to over-exaggerate dirt and mess, and a possibly over-heightened sense of paranoia—a little more dangerous and less forgivable? Especially for an Eton man writing about the working classes.
For all the sympathy or the empathy he feels, he can never quite suppress his feeling of disgust of it with it, I suppose. It’s interesting perhaps to compare him with the Victorian writer by whom he was very influenced, George Gissing. There are profound differences between them; Gissing eventually turned into a kind of elitist who thought that the working classes were written off and beyond saving. But at the beginning, they both possess this same immense sympathy, coupled with almost a disgust at the squalor in which people live and the limited range of their intellectual resources and this kind of thing. It’s a very equivocal, ambiguous view, I think.
Without being so reductive as to map our modern standards onto work of another age and time, how are we supposed to deal with these attitudes against the reader? I’m reluctant to disregard or excuse it completely, whether it’s disgust for the working classes or even Orwell’s noted anti-Semitism.
It’s a very good point, but I think you have to accept that all writers are products of their time. Nobody, however enlightened or disinterested, ever transcends the pressure of their age. For example, quite a bit of Orwell’s writing in the 1930s might now by modern standards be recognized as anti-Semitic. We can say the same thing about T S Eliot, but that doesn’t invalidate The Waste Land. It was just the sort of thing, unthinkingly and in pre-Holocaust days, that people sometimes said about Jewish people in the 1930s.
We’re all creatures of our time, and sometimes we realize that and start making amends, which Orwell did. There is a revealing article called ‘Revenge is Sour’ that he wrote while a war correspondent in occupied Europe in 1945, where he witnesses a confrontation between a captured SS man and a former Jewish prisoner. A Jewish friend of his rebuked him for inadequate appreciation of the issues involved, and Orwell admitted that he had not thought about this hard enough. Later in his career, you can see him consciously trying not to say anything that would offend Jewish people. There’s a realisation that he perhaps wrongly had a more casual attitude towards this in the past. So, we can see him trying to make amends for previous mistakes, which I think is a very positive thing. But he was a creature of his time.
Last, we have the ever-famous Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Could you start by giving a brief overview of the book—how did Orwell come to write it, and what is it about?
Most Orwell studies and Orwell biography in general is an exercise in teleology, in that you start with the achievement of Nineteen Eighty-Fourand then you work backwards to try and isolate the various factors in Orwell’s life and previous writing that would have encouraged him to produce it.
One of the fascinations about Nineteen Eighty-Fouris how long it took Orwell to write it. He got the idea in November 1943 having observed the Tehran conference, which was when the Allied leaders Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. This was about 18 months before the Second World War ended, but already they were beginning to sit down and divide the post-war world. This gave Orwell his idea of what he calls ‘zones of influence’. The post-war world that he projects in Nineteen Eighty-Fouris divided into three contending superpowers. In one of them, Oceania (based on London), Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, and has the job of basically airbrushing people out of history. So, if particular politicians fall out of favor, they are literally to be expunged from the printed record of previous life.
“One of the fascinations about Nineteen Eighty-Fouris how long it took Orwell to write it”
Like all the other Orwell heroes—and even like the pigs in Animal Farm, the novel written before Nineteen Eighty-Four—Winston rebels against what he sees as a corrupt, intrusive, authoritarian and autocratic system which is spying on him and controlling his life. These great extraneous forces that all Orwell’s heroes and heroines do something about; he rebels against it by having this love affair with Julia, ‘the girl from the fiction department’, as she’s called. He procures a copy of a great subversive book, Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.
Of course, it all goes wrong. Their cover is blown; the love nest they have above Mr Charrington’s antique shop in a very thinly projected version of post-war London is raided by the Thought Police, and he is taken to be re-educated. Like all Orwell’s other characters, he comes out having been defeated by the institutions and the mental landscape that he’s presumed to rebel against. It’s the most dramatic version of that sort of rebellion, or attempt to rebel, that I would argue lies at the heart of all Orwell’s novels.
Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us many unique coinages (doublethink, ‘Big Brother’, ‘Orwellian’). Could you talk a bit about these concepts and how they appear in the book?
The real horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four, quite apart from the cage full of rats, is surveillance. Everybody is spied upon and invigilated to the point where there are telescreens sitting on the walls, observing your every movement. But also, through Newspeak, the artificial language developed to meet the demands of Ingsoc, Oceania’s leaders are trying to develop a linguistic process that will constrain thought. This is a really terrifying thing. It’s not so much that you are being spied upon—it’s that language is being systematically reduced and codified. The premise is that ultimately, you won’t actually be able to think independently because of the way language has been tampered with by the leaders. The idea is that famous quote, “to make windows into men’s souls,” meaning that everyone is constrained in ways they may not even know.
In terms of how technology is working in our modern surveillance powers, it’s a terrifyingly prophetic book in some of its implications for 21st-century human life. Orwell would deny that it was prophecy; he said it was a warning. But in fact, distinguished Orwell scholar Professor Peter Davis once made a list of all the things that Orwell got right, and it was a couple of fairly long paragraphs, and it was really rather terrifying.
In comparison with Orwell’s other books, it’s an odd novel. It took him such a long time to write. And there’s a hallucinogenic quality to it as well, a luridness that some medical experts have suggested has to do with Orwell’s health while he wrote it, because he was dying of tuberculosis while finishing it off. It has this ragged, end-of-tether quality that makes you wonder what the book might have been like if he hadn’t been so ill when he wrote it. In some ways, despite the number of drafts it went through, it still has a provisional quality—the sense that he’s still working his way to what he really thinks. I sometimes wonder whether it might have been a rather different book if he’d lived longer or been in better health while he was writing it.
Returning to it for the first time in several years, I found myself surprised by a couple things: first, that despite its political symbolism and messages about the dangers of authoritarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s characters are far from flimsy stock ones—it tells a humane, often very moving love story, too. And second, I expected it to appear much more dated than it did. It doesn’t read to me like it’s at all confined to a Soviet context.
The hard left, the extreme left, disliked Nineteen Eighty-Four when it was published because they thought it was an attack on the Soviet Union. But Orwell said it was an attack on totalitarianism per se; it’s as anti-fascist as it is anti-Communist.
It was always assumed that once the sell-by date had passed, that once 1984 had come and gone, that the novel would lose its relevance. But in fact, that didn’t happen at all—if anything, it became even more pertinent to the national situation. It’s celebrating its 70th anniversary this year and it seems just as relevant to the world of the 21st century as it did to the world of the incipient Cold War in the early 1940s.
“It’s a terrifyingly prophetic book in some of its implications for 21st-century human life”
The other underlying theme to it that I would point out is that it’s often thought of as this great doomed love story of lovers Winston and Julia who’re rebelling against this terribly prescriptive regime that’s trying to shoot them down. But I’ve always thought that Julia was the honeypot; that she’d been put there to lead him astray and that she’s actually in league with his interrogators. One of the messages of Nineteen Eighty-Four, unfortunately, is that the people we love are in some cases calculated to betray us.
Very few other women make it into the novel’s purview: there are some women hawking in the street, there’s Julia, there’s dreams of Winston’s dead mother.
It’s a very sparsely populated novel. It hasn’t got that great kaleidoscopic cast that some of Orwell’s books have. It’s a very claustrophobic, very introverted novel. Yet it’s not wholly without hope. The message is not 100% pessimistic—if there’s hope, it lies in the proles.
There’s also the appendix about Newspeak, which is obviously written at some point in the future, when Newspeak is regarded in historical terms. You have the feeling that some kind of life has moved on and things have actually changed in the world of 1984 in which it was set. That ambiguity is not without comfort and not without hope.
You briefly mentioned the initial reception of Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—how did that book grow from its first publication in 1949 to the phenomenon that it is now?
It was a huge phenomenon. It was an international bestseller; it was a Book of the Month Club selection in America; it sold huge amounts of copies. It made a lot of money which Orwell would never live to see because he was dying. He sat there on his hospital bed and when friends congratulated him on the success of the novel, he said, “Ah, but it’s fairy gold.”
Even before he died, Orwell knew that as he saw it his message was going to be misinterpreted. He anticipated that it was going to be picked up and weaponized by the American right, which is what happened; the CIA started underwriting films of it and it was very much a propaganda weapon in the opening salvos of the Cold War. One of Orwell’s last acts, actually, before he died was to issue a statement saying that this was not intended simply as an attack on the Soviet Union, it was intended as an attack on any form of authoritarian regime that denies human liberty. But obviously there wasn’t anything he could do about that.
For all this, it survived with almost universal enthusiasm. There are still people that dislike it on the grounds that it attacks the Soviet Union, one of our great allies in the Second World War. As a piece of propaganda, it still tends to unite politicians of pretty much all sides in favor of it.
V S Pritchett called Orwell the “wintry conscience” of our generation. Rounding off our discussion, I wonder if you might talk about why Orwell was such an important writer in the 20th century (and why it is still so necessary to read him now).
I suppose we see him as such as important figure . . . well, there are so many reasons. Obviously there is the extraordinary political impact of those two books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, actually releasing out of the barrel a number of highly unpleasant but necessary truths about the way oligarchy and authoritarianism works in the mid-20th century, at a time when a lot of people were determined that those things shouldn’t be said. When Orwell was trying to get Animal Farm published in the mid 1940s, it was rejected by at least one English publishing firm because they had been recommended to turn it down by the Ministry of Information on the grounds that it was politically inadvisable, given that the Soviet Union were our allies. And Peter Smollett, the man who’d advised that the book be rejected, was actually a Soviet spy. That just shows you how convoluted the situation was in Britain in the mid-1940s.
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There’s also the simple fact of Orwellian style. There’s that famous remark of his: “Good prose is like a windowpane”—which is not something I wholly agree with, by the way. But as a stylistic influence, Orwell is hugely important. The plainness, directness, and immediacy of his style, the way in which he grabs the reader and places him in the world he’s writing about, were all enormously influential. If you look at the British writing of the 1950s and 1960s that followed, it’s absolutely drenched in Orwell’s influence. He taught whole generations that came after him to write. It’s not exaggerating the case to say that if you were going to erect a pantheon of the great British writers as currently conceived, you’d have Shakespeare, Dickens and Orwell. Those would be the three. That’s how much he has come to dominate the literary landscape of his time and afterwards.
Interview by Stephanie Kelley
August 16, 2019
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Classic English Literature Fiction Historical Figures Literary Figures