Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). So he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

In other words, the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to present a fully justify the accusation that he guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party. Slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

In one scene Rubashov is confronted with the young son of a former friend who he met when abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation about a purely theoretical opportunity to change the path of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction. This young man, who Rubashov had frequently seen in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance, has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised until he now willingly declares that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1. Rubashov knows the idea that there was ever a concrete plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn. Slowly he is convinced that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, he himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this too leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov having a number of memories like this, some in dreams, some in hard remembrance, analysing his behaviour, acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. the Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality, and so on.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life; Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on  his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career. It feels one the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because covering a longer period, and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time less intense because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out in the real world, whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmareish gaze of Big Brother.

Dreams and issues

It also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – and sometimes has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

At one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

Typical of the often long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play. This is what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which (inevitably) feature European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixite.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap you back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism.

In one long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime which must have scandalised loyal Party members and fellow-travellers in the 1940s. Ivanov explains that the Party has only decades, only years, to try and catch up with the advances made by the capitalist West in 150 years – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both come from within the Party, both use the terminology and worldview of the Party, but fundamentally disagree about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Related links

Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

Insidious persuasion is his method (p.379)

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start to unfinished notes on Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. It is an eye opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker.

As the parentheses suggest, Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long notes, explaining the background of each of the magazines, and Orwell’s relation to them – for example including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News reviews, generally describing the political situation, to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these); but also working on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute, and so on.

He quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. Subjects include: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants and so on.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview fairly simply:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is under threat; only a revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human nature and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is interesting to learn this was noticed at the time: the book includes the first ever sustained essay on Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s lead reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government. (pp.375, 377)

It seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of this actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific. In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a generation into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell is anti-American. It comes out in lots of places in the novels that he despises American consumer culture, despises soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. And this cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made him underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’. I.e. not only the survival but the triumph of consumer capitalism and the flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The total mind control which remodelled human nature to render it stupid and supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves, this never happened. Even in its darkest days, there was samizdat literature in the USSR, there were dissidents in Eastern Europe, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

As I read through I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with Orwell, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416). An opinion of purely historic interest. He speculates that, if four letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, did swearing become less common? No. On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, it triumphed. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, but it looks alive and kicking to me today.

Not only does his journalism pick up on one or more elements of his worldview, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political prophecy he is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then society was grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s – and it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram etc etc has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

Orwell’s journalism may well offer trenchant commentaries on particular events of the day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, alongside forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics – but when they refer to precise movements of British government ministers (Sir Stafford Cripps is a particular obsession of Orwell’s – who nowadays has any idea who he was?), their diplomatic missions to India or Russia, their proposals for this or that treaty or negotiation, all this is of purely historical and pretty arcane interest now.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

The best way of seeing these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader thinks of his great novel.

Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the ideas and implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he eventually found an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And that he managed to complete it, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s. He completed and finished in every detail the book which is a masterpiece partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades, not least in the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book.

This book contains hundreds of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

What is maybe a little unexpected is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the Left wing orthodoxy in England. Barely a page goes by without withering criticism of Left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control isn’t from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from the actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to crush, to hound, vilify, arrest, torture and execute, all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the Left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia; they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’. And when it was eventually published it prompted personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain. It could happen here, he realised: because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class has given its heart to a foreign power and a Great Leader who they slavishly believe will transform the world and make them happy. And because they have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he criticises the Tories, the instinctively fascist Catholic church, the lies of the right-wing press and so on – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. To him and aficionados of left wing politics he is making subtle and important points: to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, executing Tories, the upper class, and random members of the bourgeoisie, and imposing totalitarian mind control. This is why, after its initial support had run out, Attlee’s Labour Party was kicked out in the 1951 election and replaced by the Tories who governed the country for the next 13 years.

Only when the Labour Party under the youthful Harold Wilson managed to identify itself with the new generation and with shiny new technologies, did it manage to regain power in 1964 and govern for the rest of the Swinging Sixties (a little like Tony Blair’s harnessing the excitement of a new generation who wanted change after 18 long years of Tory rule in 1997).

Back to Orwell – beside the countless anticipations of Nineteen Eighty-Four scattered throughout these pieces, maybe the next most consistent strand is his relentless criticism of Left-wing intellectuals and the mind-controlling orthodoxy of the Stalinist communists so prominent in England’s cultural life at the time. Although he says his opponents are capitalism, the Tories, the class system and so on – the people who attract his real and repeated ire, his really emotional contempt, are his fellow Left-wingers who he thinks live in a world of delusions which they try to impose on everyone else. Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. For example today’s resignation of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing a Sun article on British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues, and that this fact makes his reflections on what that kind of orthodoxy means for freedom of speech and for imaginative literature makes those parts of his essays surprisingly relevant to the present day.

Social history

That said, it also contains his thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. A must-read not only for Orwell fans, but a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’

I read this when I was 16 in 1977. The Soviet Union still existed, Eastern Europe was ruled by communist dictatorships and England was visibly falling to pieces. The external situation was bad enough but being a teenager and new to this kind of adult literature, it scared the bejasus out of me, in fact it helped introduce me to what books could really do, their power to change your entire view of life.

Quite clearly Nineteen Eighty-Four is the summary to which Orwell’s writings were heading. It brings together:

  • The theme of political lying, of the power of political propaganda if applied with ruthless consistency to utterly distort ‘the truth’ – something he had seen at first hand during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
  • I have pointed out in other reviews how the theme of privacy and the dislike of being spied on appears in his earlier novels (creepy landladies or venomous headmistresses spy on the protagonists of A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying). Privacy is one of the key characteristics Orwell lists in his delineation of the English character in The Lion and The Unicorn.
  • A post-war world of permanent poverty ruled over by loudspeakers telling everyone what to think is a recurring nightmare of the narrator of his 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air.
  • The image of posters everywhere blaring their relentless messages is anticipated by the bitter hatred of adverts and posters of earlier protagonists, notably Gordon Comstock in Aspidistra.
  • And the idea of finding escape from the relentless shabbiness of life in a rural idyll is a) as old as the industrial revolution b) the central theme of Coming Up For Air.

But these themes are turbo-charged with an extraordinary imaginative power to produce one of the most famous books in the world, the one which made his pen-name, Orwell, into an adjective, Orwellian, which denotes a nightmare world in which every aspect of our lives, along with all our conversation and even our thoughts, are surveilled and controlled, and the slightest deviation from the official party line is punished by torture, ritual confession and then ‘vaporisation’.

The plot

As presumably everybody knows the plot concerns Winston Smith, a citizen of Airstrip One (formerly known as Britain) a province of the world superstate, Oceania. Winston works at the huge pyramidal Ministry of Truth, which dominates the ruined skyline of London. As the book opens Winston, a scrawny sickly 39 year-old, has woken up to his unhappiness in the down-trodden, impoverished society set in the year of the title (35 years in the future when the book was published). His society is ruled by the Party under the control of Big Brother who is ‘watching you’ not only from hoardings and newspapers, but from telescreens installed in every living space, which both blare out martial music and endless lists of industrial statistics, but also watch and monitor every movement, every word of the citizens.

The world consists of three super-states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania is at any one time allied with one of the others against the third, thus producing a state of continual warfare which justifies the poverty and misery of daily life. But Oceania switches ally and enemy almost at random and each switch requires all records of the previous alliance to be expunged from all records and even from the memories of its citizens.

Language is being reduced to Newspeak, a drastically simplified form of English in which it will be literally impossible to entertain a thought contrary to the Party line. Any such deviant thought is labelled a ‘thought crime’ which is enforced by the Thought Police.

Winston begins to rebel in a small way when he discovers a tiny alcove in his apartment which the all-watching telescreen camera can’t reach. Here he begins to keep a diary in a beautiful old notebook, which he picked up at an antiques shop on one of  his many prowls round downtrodden London. He meets a fellow dissident, Julia. They make a visit to the countryside where they briefly enjoy a sense of freedom and life. But on returning to Winston’s flat they are both arrested for thoughtcrime.

In the final section, Winston is interrogated at length by a Party interrogator, O’Brien. He doesn’t want to kill Winston. He wants to break his spirit so completely that Winston will end up genuinely loving Big Brother, genuinely loving the force which has ruined his life and destroyed his love. In the long philosophical conversations which O’Brien and Winston have, O’Brien explains the basic principles of life in 1984. Imagine a boot pressing down on a human face, forever. That is the future of the human race.

The book is divided into three parts.

Part one

This is immediately reminiscent of Orwell’s previous novel, Coming Up For Air, in that the entire 80-page section takes place on one day. Winston arrives home at his scuzzy apartment block, Victory Mansions, just as the clocks are striking 13 (because Airstrip One runs on a 24-hour clock system). In his room he helps Mrs Parsons with her blocked sink, which gives him an opportunity to see her hateful children who are dutiful members of the youth Spies movement and already spying on all adults. He returns to the secret alcove in his apartment to begin his diary and suddenly finds himself pouring out a torrent of memories and thoughts. He returns to work in time for the Two Minutes Hate, in which the girl with dark hair and O’Brien sit close by, yelling at the features of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great traitor, the man blamed for everything which goes wrong in Oceania. Winston does his afternoon work of rewriting history, then meets up with Symes, the expert on Newspeak and the chubby idiotic Parson. After work it is a fine day so he sets off for a walk, roaming east then north and ending up somewhere near St Pancras, where he follows an old man into a noisy pub and tries to get him to remember the past, failing. Wandering further he ends up at the pawn shop where he bought the diary and is shown round by and old owner. On exiting he is horrified to almost bump into the black-haired girl who he’s sure must be spying on him, then returns to his apartment by 23:30, writes a few last thoughts in the diary and falls asleep.

It is worth emphasising that all these restrictions, this life of complete surveillance and subjugation, applies only to Party members. it does not apply to the 85% of the population who are universally referred to as ‘the proles’. The proles are considered stupid sheep, uneducated chavs who are only interested in boozing, wenching and gambling. (This is pretty much how Orwell described the English working classes in his great essay, The Lion and the Unicorn.) Theoretically there are laws to govern them, and a police force, but mostly they get on with their petty lives, boozing and worrying about football results and the (completely fixed) lottery. They are subdued and poverty-stricken but they aren’t subject to the extreme surveillance and minute-by-minute terror of members of the Party, like Winston.

Part two

A few days later, walking down a corridor in the ministry, Winston sees the dark-haired girl walking towards him. She trips and falls on what is apparently an injured arm and cries out. Winston chivalrously helps her up and is startled when she slips into his hand a small object. His hearth thumping he is sure she must be denouncing him in some obscure way. Back at  his desk he takes his time then unfolds the paper among the other work-related sheets on his desk and is startled to read ‘I LOVE YOU’. What? Is it a trap? Orwell describes the way Winston has to repress every trace of anxiety on his face and continue with his work, despite his thumping heart. Even a flicker in his eyes might give him away to the telescreen facing him and the Though Police.

They manage to meet in Trafalgar Square (renamed Victory Square) and, among a mob watching trucks of Eurasian prisoners, briefly exchange details of a rendezvous.

A few days of stress later, Winston follows Julia’s instructions, takes a train from Paddington to the country. It is the second of May, bluebell season. Spring. New life. He walks down road, tracks, across a field and is stooping to pick flowers when – she meets him. She takes him to a secluded dell from which Winston is amazed to realise the landscape perfectly matches that of a recurrent dream he has and which he has labelled the Golden Country. Just as in his dream, Julia strips off, with one gesture throwing off all the restrictions of Big Brother, Ingsoc, Newspeak, all the tyrannical repressions of his life.

They make love and, unlike Winston’s long departed wife, Katharine, Julia actually seems to enjoy it. Winston feels incredibly liberated. She freely confesses she’s had a dozen lovers and loves sex. She says more people are rebels against Big Brother than you’d think, but she has – alas – never heard of ‘the Brotherhood’, the legendary underground organisation which Winston pins his hopes on. In fact she is not a very intellectual girl, she is more a free spirit, beautiful young animal etc. (She is, in her way, as much a symbol of sexual and animal freedom as against the crushed middle-aged impotence of Party life, as the country is a symbol of ever-renewing beauty set against the dirty, crippled landscape of London.)

They have to pretend to ignore each other at work, but manage to exchange words in the crowded prole parts of town and arrange one more opportunity to make love, in the ruined tower of an abandoned church ‘in an almost-deserted stretch of country where an atomic bomb had fallen thirty years earlier.’ Once in a prole part of town they are both knocked to the ground when a flying bomb (about 20 a month fall on London) detonates nearby.

But their occasional whispers are eclipsed when Winston has the idea of renting the bedroom over the pawn shop where he first bought the diary and where he returned and was shown round. The owner, Mr Cheeseman, gladly accepts a few dollars per visit.

But even more momentous, Julia and Winston decide to go and visit O’Brien. This is because O’Brien himself one day approached Winston in a corridor in the Ministry of Truth. He suggested Winston come round to visit him and wrote out his address in full view of a telescreen. Winston, influenced by the strong feeling of understanding he has for O’Brien, agrees. A few days later he and Julia arrive at O’Brien’s flat which, as he is a member of the Inner Party, is notably luxurious, with a servant, carpet and even – something Winston has read about but never seen – wine.

Here they immediately, almost as if in a fairy story, make a clean breast of it, admitting that they are rebels against the Party, have committed thoughtcrimes and sexcrimes, support Emmanuel Goldstein, would like to join the Brotherhood. O’Brien astonishes our heroes by turning off a telescreen, something they didn’t think possible. He responds positively that he is a member of the Brotherhood, explains its cell-like structure and secretive aims, and says someone will be in touch to give Winston a copy of the book, the definitive text by Goldstein himself. Then he bids Julia and Winston depart by different routes, five minutes apart.

The next week is taken up by frantic work, 15-hour days, grabbed meals, while the whole of the Party cranks itself up for the annual festival of Hate Week. However, Winston is at a mass rally, flanked by thousands o children in their Spies uniforms, and a Goebbels-like man is raising the crowd to hysterias of hate about Eurasia, Goldstein and so on when – right in the middle of the speech – it somehow becomes known that Oceania has stopped being allies with Eastasia and at war with Eurasia, and is now at war with Eastasia and allies with Eurasia. Immediately flags and posters are torn down, but the speaker doesn’t even stop. It is a vivid example of doublethink, the technique people are raised from birth to know something is wrong or inaccurate but to do it anyway with complete sincerity. Within minutes the entire crowd is chanting its hate as Eastasia – which had been its ally only minutes before.

The long hours come in because, with one mind and without any orders being issues, Winston and his colleagues know they have to go straight to the Ministry to undertake a wholesale rewriting of the past in order to swap the words Eurasia and Eastasia. Not a trace must be left of the previous arrangement: the new arrangement must always have been true. For a week Winston and everyone at the Ministry work like dogs. Only on the sixth day do the requests for rewrites dry up and he staggers him, almost falls asleep in the bath, and then sleeps for 12 hours.

He makes his way to Mr Cheeseman’s prole pawn shop. He has  his own key and lets himself into the bedroom. Here, at last, he opens the case which was slipped to him in the crowd and begins reading The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein.

This is a dense exposition of the history leading up to 1984, via the nuclear war in the 1950s and the emergence of totalitarian states around the world. But it also gives a densely argued explanation of why society is as it is: briefly, history has been the succession of various ruling classes until they went soft or became out of kilter with technological developments. Ingsoc has learned from t his and established a permanent oligarchy based on eternal warfare. The new technology which developed at the start of the 20th century would have supplied more and more consumer goods, giving people time to educate themselves. Permanent war is a permanent excuse for the shortages of everything, including food, which keep the entire population in a permanent state of servitude. Permanent war also justifies the rule of a strong centralised government. And permanent war also allows a potentially frustrated populus to vent their frustration and hatred on external targets.

This is just the chapter on why there is permanent war. There is a lengthy explanation of the theory behind doublethink and other aspects of Ingsoc ideology. Julia arrives, they make love, and then he continues reading it out loud to her. He is enjoying the sensual fel of being in a safe secure place, reading a book, for the first time in his life. He stops reading and listens to the fat prole woman in the yard below singing the latest pop song concocted by an entertainment machine in the Ministry of Truth. He and Julia know their time is numbered but some day all this must surely come out and their repressive society be overthrown.

Meanwhile, he repeats the phrase he and Julia have often used, jokingly, ironically, fatalistically. ‘We are the dead’. She repeats it sleepily and then – to their absolute horror, another voice repeats it. The voice of the telescreen hidden behind an old print on the wall. This is the moment which should make first-time readers of the book leap out of their skin. Within seconds the room is flooded by brutal-looking Thought Police who make them stand naked,. One punches Julia in the gut and picks up her doubled-over body, carrying it off. That’s the last Winston will see of her.

Cheeseman enters the room, but without the stoop, grey hair and hook nose. He was a member of the Thought Police and they have been well and truly caught.

Part three

All through the novel has been saturated with Winston, and then Winston and Julia’s powerful sense of doom. They know their ‘rebellion’ can change nothing; they know they will be caught, tortured and shot. They even discuss ow they will fare under torture and promise each other that, in their secret souls, they will never stop loving each other.

Part three is a gruelling description of Winston’s incarceration. It starts in a common police cell surrounded by prole criminals and he is surprised to meet a number of his acquaintances from outside – the snivelling poet Ampleforth, and then his cheery, harmless neighbour, Parsons. In an obtrusively satirical note Parsons says he was turned in by his own seven-year-old daughter, a fully trained up young Spy, who overheard him muttering sedition in his sleep, and so ran to immediately tell the authorities.

But soon Winston is taken to a solitary cell and there begins days, weeks, maybe months of breaking him through common beating, and then torture using electrical shocks and drugs.

His torturer is O’Brien and the two features of the process are that it is an immensely intellectual process: O’Brien isn’t interested in extracting confessions about conspiracies or collaborators: he is solely concerned with completely breaking down Winston’s personality and remaking it, remodelling it so that he doesn’t just intellectually accept the Party line, so that he lives and believes it, genuinely.

The second feature is that despite the agonising torture – specifically the long session of electric shocks O’Brien administers – Winston continues to admire and respect O’Brien. For the torture is not only designed to break him, O’Brien delivers an extended lecture on the true nature of the Party, on its worship of power, on the way it will expunge every other feeling from the entire human race except hate, carefully cultivated through the Two Minute Hates and Hate Week, and for the rest, utter subservience. All previous dictatorships claimed to want power for a purpose, to eventually reach some utopia of peace and equality. The Party is the ultimate evolution of all such revolutionary movements: it wants power for its own sake.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’

This is the tone of the final part. All Winston’s fears are confirmed, and then some. This isn’t a temporary phase. The Party has become devoted to the possession of unlimited Power forever. O’Brien confirms how every aspect of Oceania society – hate week, Newspeak, anti-sex, telescreens – is devoted to that and that alone.

And all through the agony, as his back arches in animal pain, Winston is aware of the superiority of O’Brien’s intellect and grasp. He knows what Winston is thinking at every stage of his demolition. He has seen it all before.

But this isn’t a general knowledge. He knows virtually to the word what Winston is thinking. Winston lies back on the torture bed, gasping and sweating when the current is temporarily turned off, thoughts racing through his mind, and O’Brien speaks – putting into words exactly what Winston was thinking. The effect is more than uncanny, it is like a dream in which everything has been foretold and is now enacted with nightmare inevitability.

The actual plot is simple – they almost completely break Winston down into genuinely accepting that two plus two makes three or four or five or whatever the Party decrees. But still inside him a little bit of soul holds out. O’Brien knows this as he knows everything and when the time is right – takes Winston to room 101. This it the place of your worst fears. And it is where they get out the cage of rats which they will tied to Winston’s face. The starving rats will gnaw through is face and eyes in seconds. As they bring it closer he irrationally knows he needs to put something, someone between himself and this terror. And suddenly he screams out, Do it to Julia, not to me, do it to Julia.

He has betrayed the last secret innermost part of himself. He has betrayed his pledge to Julia. He is a completely broken man. That is the point of room 101. In the final few pages he has been released back into society but as a shambling wreck. He spends his days at the Chestnut Tree cafe, drinking Victory gin and working on chess problems from The Times. The text goes inside his thoughts to describe how they have been completely aligned with Party thought, how he steers himself away from any doubts or dissident thoughts by using crimestop. When the telescreen announces a terrific victory for Oceania in Africa, Winston cries tears of joy and relief. He looks up at the massive poster of Big Brother looking over the cafe with tears in his eyes. He loves Big Brother.


Elements of the uncanny

Orwell despised cranks, health food nuts, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, naturists, feminists, he lumped them all together. Spiritualists and clairvoyants also came in for knocking whenever he was making digs at contemporary fads. He prided himself on his straightforward, manly, no-nonsense mentality. Thus in The Lion and the Unicorn he doesn’t pussyfoot around the issue of fighting: we must fight Hitler or Hitler will conquer us, simples. Their limp pacifism accounts for his dislike of sniggeringly superior Bloomsbury types.

Having now read hundreds of pages of this blunt speaking, it came as all the more surprising to realise that this, his last and greatest book, contains not only the extremely well-known ideas Newspeak and thoughtcrime and Ingsoc and Big Brother i.e. not only the well-known analytical and political elements — it also contains a strongly irrational, spooky and voodoo element.

The Golden Country

It is full of strange dreams and ghostly anticipations. Take the Golden Country. In chapter three Winston has what he says is a recurring dream of an idyllic rural landscape, has it so frequently that he’s taken to calling it the Golden Country.

Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country. It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. That too was a gesture belonging to the ancient time. Winston woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. (p.28)

This is itself a powerful description of a dream vision, but what lifts it into the eerie is that later, when Julia takes him to the countryside to make love to him, it is in the exact same place he has dreamed about all these years – even down to the pool by the trees full of dace.

They were standing in the shade of hazel bushes. The sunlight, filtering through innumerable leaves, was still hot on their faces. Winston looked out into the field beyond, and underwent a curious, slow shock of recognition. He knew it by sight. An old, close-bitten pasture, with a footpath wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side the boughs of the elm trees swayed just perceptibly in the breeze, and their leaves stirred faintly in dense masses like women’s hair. Surely somewhere nearby, but out of sight, there must be a stream with green pools where dace were swimming?
‘Isn’t there a stream somewhere near here?’ he whispered.
‘That’s right, there is a stream. It’s at the edge of the next field, actually. There are fish in it, great big ones. You can watch them lying in the pools under the willow trees, waving their tails.’
‘It’s the Golden Country – almost,’ he murmured.
‘The Golden Country?’
‘It’s nothing, really. A landscape I’ve seen sometimes in a dream.’ (p.101)

How do you explain that? There is no rational explanation. It is almost as if the super-rational, totally controlled world of the novel requires not only the escape to the (rather traditional) rural idyll – but at some level also requires the presence of the irrational. Nineteen Eight-Four is a profoundly phantasmagoric narrative in which dreams literally come true.

O’Brien and destiny

Take another irrational element, which doesn’t make sense but is terrifyingly compelling. Right from the start Winston is aware of the identity of the senior party official man O’Brien, a man of commanding presence and visible intelligence. What is eerie is the way Winston is drawn towards him in some subtle, almost homoerotic way, and especially haunting-odd-notable way that O’Brien seems drawn to him as well.

Or is he imagining it? Is Winston’s desperate need to talk about his ideas and feelings so overflowing that he is seeing conspiracy and rebellion where there is none? Whatever the cause, Winston is certain that during that morning’s Two Minutes Hate some kind of spark leapt between them.

Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction. But there was a space of a couple of seconds during which the expression of his eyes might conceivably have betrayed him. And it was exactly at this moment that the significant thing happened – if, indeed, it did happen.

Momentarily he caught O’Brien’s eye. O’Brien had stood up. He had taken off his spectacles and was in the act of resettling them on his nose with his characteristic gesture. But there was a fraction of a second when their eyes met, and for as long as it took to happen Winston knew — yes, he KNEW! — that O’Brien was thinking the same thing as himself. An unmistakable message had passed. It was as though their two minds had opened and the thoughts were flowing from one into the other through their eyes. ‘I am with you,’ O’Brien seemed to be saying to him. ‘I know precisely what you are feeling. I know all about your contempt, your hatred, your disgust. But don’t worry, I am on your side!’ And then the flash of intelligence was gone, and O’Brien’s face was as inscrutable as everybody else’s. (p.17)

Partly he is drawn towards O’Brien because years previously, he had had a powerful dream about him.

Years ago – how long was it? Seven years it must be – he had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.’ It was said very quietly, almost casually – a statement, not a command. He had walked on without pausing. What was curious was that at the time, in the dream, the words had not made much impression on him. It was only later and by degrees that they had seemed to take on significance. He could not now remember whether it was before or after having the dream that he had seen O’Brien for the first time, nor could he remember when he had first identified the voice as O’Brien’s. But at any rate the identification existed. It was O’Brien who had spoken to him out of the dark. Winston had never been able to feel sure – even after this morning’s flash of the eyes it was still impossible to be sure whether O’Brien was a friend or an enemy. Nor did it even seem to matter greatly. There was a link of understanding between them, more important than affection or partisanship. ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ he had said. Winston did not know what it meant, only that in some way or another it would come true. (p.

‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ becomes a repeated phrase, a kind of talisman, a mantra for Winston. It becomes one of his images of hope, hope for some kind of change or escape.

‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ O’Brien had said to him. He knew what it meant, or thought he knew. The place where there is no darkness was the imagined future, which one would never see, but which, by foreknowledge, one could mystically share in. (p.86)

Thus throughout the first parts of the book, O’Brien comes to figure in Winston’s mind as the person he is writing his diary to, the person he is recording his innermost feelings of rebellion for.

The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?
But no! His courage seemed suddenly to stiffen of its own accord. The face of O’Brien, not called up by any obvious association, had floated into his mind. He knew, with more certainty than before, that O’Brien was on his side. He was writing the diary for O’Brien – to O’Brien: it was like an interminable letter which no one would ever read, but which was addressed to a particular person and took its colour from that fact. (p.68)

What is so voodoo about this is that part three of the book reveals that O’Brien does know and understand all about Winston, but he is far from being a friend: he will be his interrogator. And they do meet in a place with no darkness, but it is not a place of freedom: it is the torture room of unimaginable pain and complete mental abasement.

Right from the start of the novel Winston is convinced there is something special between him and O’Brien but it is a shock to the reader and to Winston that the relationship will turn out to be the weirdly intense twisted one of torturer and torturee.

And not just any torturer, not just a sadist administering punishment in a blunt way to gain spurious confessions. In a weird uncanny way O’Brien can see right into Winston’s soul. He anticipates all of Winston’s thoughts, every question and doubt, even down to using the exact phrases in Winston’s mind. He has a supernatural power. He is a supernatural figure.

Dreams of his mother

And then there are other dreams, pure and simple. Winston is aware all the time of a sense of loss, a sense that this isn’t how life shouldn’t be, that he can’t quite express. The feeling is reinforced by the strange dreams he has of his mother, who ‘disappeared’ when he was a boy. Chapter three opens in the midst of a dream, which like so many dreams is full of obscure, powerful meaning and leaves a strong aftertaste.

At this moment his mother was sitting in some place deep down beneath him, with his young sister in her arms. He did not remember his sister at all, except as a tiny, feeble baby, always silent, with large, watchful eyes. Both of them were looking up at him. They were down in some subterranean place — the bottom of a well, for instance, or a very deep grave — but it was a place which, already far below him, was itself moving downwards. They were in the saloon of a sinking ship, looking up at him through the darkening water. There was still air in the saloon, they could still see him and he them, but all the while they were sinking down, down into the green waters which in another moment must hide them from sight for ever. He was out in the light and air while they were being sucked down to death, and they were down there because he was up here. He knew it and they knew it, and he could see the knowledge in their faces. There was no reproach either in their faces or in their hearts, only the knowledge that they must die in order that he might remain alive, and that this was part of the unavoidable order of things.

He could not remember what had happened, but he knew in his dream that in some way the lives of his mother and his sister had been sacrificed to his own. It was one of those dreams which, while retaining the characteristic dream scenery, are a continuation of one’s intellectual life, and in which one becomes aware of facts and ideas which still seem new and valuable after one is awake. The thing that now suddenly struck Winston was that his mother’s death, nearly thirty years ago, had been tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. His mother’s memory tore at his heart because she had died loving him, when he was too young and selfish to love her in return, and because somehow, he did not remember how, she had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today. Today there were fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows. All this he seemed to see in the large eyes of his mother and his sister, looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking. (pp.27-28)

‘Looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking…’ A haunting, terrifying, upsetting image. Later, in the torture room, he remembers this and other dreams, and the dreams and the unbearable world of pain become increasingly mixed up.

Precisely because he lives in such a regimented, rational world, his dreams seem all the more portentous, haunting and obscurely revealing.

The importance of dreams

Nineteen Eighty-Four is designed as a political fable and has over the past 70 years prompted vast discussion of its many rational, analytical qualities – the nature of totalitarianism, the likelihood of a surveillance state, the use of political propaganda etc etc, lengthy debates about its relevance to contemporary socialism or totalitarian states, or discussion of Orwell’s brilliant invention of a whole language of repression, Newspeak.

Less attention is given to the strange dream-like quality of the narrative. Nineteen Eighty-Four is saturated with both literal dreams and of dream-like coincidences, premonitions, of uncanny coincidences, of people feeling drawn towards their destinies which are then eerily fulfilled.

Winston moves in an atmosphere of terror, sure, but he also moves among phantoms, in a world of forebodings and omens, himself feeling drawn inexorably towards…. towards some obscure but powerful revelation. (It is a small but significant indication of the role of the irrational in the novel that Orwell describes the bond between O’Brien and Winston as mystical.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is often described in a loose way as a ‘nightmare’ vision of the future. I’m highlighting that it does quite literally contain nightmareish elements – it is not only full of dreams full of dreamlike qualities – eerie repetitions and anticipations and above all the whole narrative feels driven along, compelled by the kind of supernatural, unstoppable, hellish compulsion of a real nightmare. And the figure of O’Brien, is a figure from a nightmare – the man you think can see right into your soul and is your saviour, redeemer, father confessor, and mentor — turns out to be your arch torturer, punisher, abaser and instructor in an unstoppably satanic vision of the end of humanity.

Half way through Winston has another of his vivid, powerfully meaningful yet obscure dreams.

[Julia] pressed herself against him and wound her limbs round him, as though to reassure him with the warmth of her body. He did not reopen his eyes immediately. For several moments he had had the feeling of being back in a nightmare which had recurred from time to time throughout his life. It was always very much the same. He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. In the dream his deepest feeling was always one of self-deception, because he did in fact know what was behind the wall of darkness. With a deadly effort, like wrenching a piece out of his own brain, he could even have dragged the thing into the open. He always woke up without discovering what it was: but somehow it was connected with what Julia had been saying when he cut her short.

This nightmare, also, will come true. It is his premonition of Room 101.

In summary, although the rational ‘issues’ are the ones which get enumerated and discussed, it is in fact to the book’s astonishingly powerful dream-like quality, to the nightmareish inevitability of the plot, and to the hallucinatory omnipotence of the diabolical O’Brien, that the novel owes its tremendous imaginative power.

The movie

Three film adaptations have been made. This is the first, a live BBC adaptation starring Peter Cushing.


Credit

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1949. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story must be one of the most famous novellas in the world.

It is the story of Manor Farm whose animals rise up and throw off the repressive rule of Jones the farmer, write a set of revolutionary rules, write a revolutionary anthem (Beasts of England), create a flag for the coming Republic of Animals when all humans had been overthrown, and try to institute animal utopia and live according the doctrines of ‘animalism’.

But slowly this ‘revolution’ is co-opted by the clever calculating pigs, who roll back the liberating effects of the revolution one step at a time, until at the fable’s climax, the animals look into the house to see old Jones dining with the now thoroughly corrupt pigs and can see no difference between them. Their new revolutionary master is identical to their old reactionary master.

The animals rise up against Farmer Jones - illustration by Ralph Steadman

The animals rise up against Farmer Jones – illustration by Ralph Steadman

Animal Farm is a naked satire on the corruption of the Russian revolution which went from genuine egalitarian idealism to brutal dictatorship in under 20 years.

The specific prompt for the book was Orwell’s nausea at the way British official channels swung 180 degrees from anti-Soviet propaganda while Stalin was an ally to Hitler (September 1939 to June 1941) to sudden support for our gallant ally, Uncle Joe, once he was fighting on our side i.e. against Hitler.

Orwell had never deviated from the hatred of Stalin’s murderous regime which he saw working at first hand during the Spanish Civil War. Confirming his worst fears of British culture’s craven submission to pro-Stalin influences, the book was turned down by a succession of publishers, some on the direct advice of the Ministry of Information, which was tasked with repressing criticism of our gallant Soviet ally.

The fable is alive with brilliant touches. At first the victorious pigs write out a set of revolutionary rules, the seventh and most important is of which is ‘All animals are equal’. It was a brilliant idea to have the clever pigs simplify this for the dimmer animals (the sheep, hens and ducks) into the motto ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’. But it was a real stroke of genius for Orwell to later have the pigs amending these rules, most notoriously amending rule seven to become ‘All animals are equal – but some are more equal than others’. This says something so profound about human beings and our laws and rules that it can be applied anywhere where laws are corrupted and distorted by the powerful.

A drunk pig rewrites the rules of the revolution - ilustration by Ralph Steadman

Squealer falls off the ladder while rewriting the rules of the revolution – illustration by Ralph Steadman

Like all fables it endures not just because it skewers the Stalinist tyranny so well – but because it brings out really deep, profound truths about human nature, our sometime strengths and our all-too-human weaknesses, the readiness not only of the unscrupulous to rule corruptly by terror, but the far worse readiness of their aides and lickspittles to help them and, worst of all, the willingness of so many of us sheep to let them.

The 1954 adaptation

There have been countless adaptations. Maybe the most atmospheric, because made during the bitter Cold War, is this 1954 cartoon adaptation.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)

In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.

  1. England Your England (35 pages)
  2. Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
  3. The English Revolution (9 pages)

The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.

Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.

That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.

England Your England

By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.

What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.

What, he asks, is England?

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

Religion?

The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.

This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)

This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.

Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:

The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.

Class?

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.

One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.

This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.

Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.

(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)

And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.

It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.

The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.

Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.

In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.

2. Shopkeepers at War

In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that

private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.

The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!

Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.

In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.

Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.

The nature of the revolution

So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –

a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.

3. The English Revolution

We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.

Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.

The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.

Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.

A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:

  1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
  6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.

Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!

In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.

And then what happened?

Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.

And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.

And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.

Conclusion

This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.

However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.

A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.

London 1940 - seat of a socialist revolution?

London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?


Credit

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938)

Potted biography

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair to a civil servant in India in 1903. The family moved back to England in 1907 and sent young Eric, first to prep school near Eastbourne, then to Eton, where he met other boys who were to be among the literary luminaries of his generation. In other words he was brought up to be the toffiest of the toffs. However, unlike most of his literary contemporaries, Eric decided not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge but instead enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police and returned to Burma. Here he served from 1922 until 1927, wielding great responsibility for large provinces and huge numbers of ‘natives’.

Slowly he lost his faith in the Imperial mission, and came to dislike his role. One contemporary said he had an unusual sympathy for the natives and went to the unprecedented lengths of learning their language. He had a taste for the underdog and a dislike of power.

So he quit the Imperial Police and moved back to Europe, staying with friends and family and trying to make a living as a writer. In the late 1920s he spent two years in Paris, struggling to write and working in the kitchen of a big hotel; and he developed a taste for dressing in rags and going on the tramp, sleeping in the roughest parts of London and investigating the capital’s poorest doss houses and hostels. He converted these experiences into his first book, a long work of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). There followed a novel based on his time in Burma – Burmese Days (1934) and another which recycled his experiences sleeping rough in London and working in the hop fields of Kent – A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935). Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) exaggerates Orwell’s own taste for slumming it into the caricature of the alienated intellectual, Gordon Comstock, a failed poet consumed by bilious hatred of the modern world.

By the mid-1930s Orwell was established as a novelist, an essayist and a writer of reportage, a presence, a name, contributing overtly political left-wing articles to a variety of magazines and journals. No sooner had he delivered the manuscript of Keep the Aspidistra Flying in January 1936, than his publisher, Victor Gollancz, suggested he write a book on the social conditions in the north of England, badly affected by the international Depression.

Orwell readily agreed and set off to live among working class people in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield from January to March 1936. He spent the summer working up his diary and notes of the trip into the first part of Wigan Pier, which consists of documentary reportage of the conditions he saw, the wretched housing and the unbelievably tough life of a coal miner. Then he turned to writing part two of the book,ich is an odd autobiographical account of his own personal development as a Socialist followed by a quirky set of ‘arguments’ in favour of ‘Socialism’. I recently reviewed this and made clear, I hope, that, as contemporary critics pointed out, Orwell nowhere in his hundred-page defence of Socialism actually defines what socialism is – a major Fail – beyond some high-sounding truisms about it representing Justice and Decency.

So Orwell brought with him to Spain:

  • the self-confidence of the Eton-educated Englishman
  • the hard-headed experience gained from being an officer in the British Imperial police for five years – which meant a familiarity with weapons, drill, commanding men, and swift decision-making
  • his abilities as a writer, in particular his talent for detailed factual description and for vivid pen portraits of individuals
  • his passionate support of Socialism which was, however, ideologically and politically naive and undeveloped

The Spanish Civil War

While he was working on the manuscript of Wigan Pier there was a military coup in Spain against the left-wing democratically elected government. On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army co-ordinated military risings in Spain’s African colony of Morocco and throughout barracks on the mainland. However, not all the risings worked, some were repressed or didn’t take place, so after a confusing few days the generals were left in control of Morocco and the western half of Spain, leaving the capital, Madrid, the second city, Barcelona up in Catalonia, and most of the south and east of the country in government or ‘republican’ hands. Both sides thought the thing would be over in days, either the coup would be suppressed or it would succeed, but in the event it did neither. In both parts of the country there began to be reprisals against the ‘opponents’: in the parts controlled by the ‘nationalist’ generals, trade unionists, communists, writers and subversives were rounded up and executed; in ‘republican’ zones rumours soon abounded of churches being burned down, priests executed and nuns raped (though the raped nuns stories have to this day never been proved).

Both sides hardened their positions, with the generals leading military assaults designed to expand their territory. But the government was hampered from the start by fear of their own supporters; they delayed handing out arms and ammunition to whatever forces remained loyal. It was the anarchist and socialist trade unions which immediately rallied their members, and armed them with whatever was to hand.

The generals had risen because they were terrified that the republican government was going to push through socialist and even communist reforms. They mounted the coup against the leftists and in the name of the Catholic Church and a mystical idea of an older, nobler Spain. But their coup had the unintended consequence of triggering the very revolution they feared: in republican areas workers rose up, seized their farms and factories, implemented workers’ council and collectivisation. In the cities bourgeois dress and even forms of speech disappeared, socialist, communist and anarchist flags appeared everywhere. Young men and women dressed like revolutionaries and addressed each other as comrade.

Almost immediately the conflict was internationalised when fascist Italy and Nazi Germany spotted the potential of having an authoritarian ally in the western Mediterranean and the Germans, in particular, with their methodical approach, saw the opportunity for testing out the military hardware they had been developing – tanks and planes. For their part the two western democracies, France and Britain, shied away from involvement. I’ve recently read Antony Beevor’s outstanding history of the Spanish Civil War where Beevor he makes it shamefully clear that many in the highest political circles in England supported the military coup. Thus it was that England led the democracies (including America) in imposing a ban on arms exports to the Spanish government. In the long run this lack of foreign support for the elected government was to guarantee the success of the military coup – but it turned out to be an extremely long-drawn-out conflict, a bitterly fought civil war which lasted three long bloody years, until April 1939, costing upwards of a million civilian and military lives.

The international brigades

Quite quickly the Left in England responded to the outbreak of the war. They lobbied the government to intervene (futilely, as it turned out), but many left-wing organisations also called on volunteers to go out to Spain and ‘fight fascism’. In fact, volunteers streamed in from all across Europe and by just a month into the war, had begun to be organised into what became known as the International Brigades.

While he was finishing the manuscript of Wigan Pier Orwell was also making enquiries about volunteering. The main conduit for volunteers, the British Communist Party, was doubtful about his party loyalty, so Orwell secured a letter of recommendation from the Independent Labour Party to their representative in Spain, John McNair, who was co-ordinating British volunteers in Barcelona. Thus it was that, instead of being channelled into one of the communist-backed International Brigades, Orwell found himself being steered towards the Spanish militia associated with the British Independent Labour Party – the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (in Spanish the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or POUM).

This was to be decisive in Orwell’s experience of the war, in his subsequent account of it, and in all his subsequent writings. For although the generals’ rising had triggered a revolutionary situation in the cities of republican Spain, what nobody knew at the time was that Stalin’s Communist International had instructed the communist party in Spain to suppress the genuine workers’ revolution which had happened on the streets.

The reason is simple. By 1936 Stalin was very concerned at the rise of Hitler and the formation across central Europe of the Fascist axis of Germany and Italy. He was scared of being attacked. He needed allies. Stalin had been assiduously cultivating the French with a view to making an alliance and was also feeling out to the more reluctant British. It was true he wanted the proto-Fascist Spanish generals to be defeated, but he was just as concerned that a true Bolshevik revolution in Spain would scare France and Britain further to the right, forcing them to come to some kind of understanding with the Fascist powers, and thus effectively setting all of Europe against him.

It was vital to Stalin not to scare France and Britain. Thus from the first the communist machine put out the message that a limited and bourgeois revolution was to be supported, but that all genuinely revolutionary elements should be suppressed. In the context of Spain this largely meant the very large political and social movement of Anarchism. In Spain Anarchism meant, in practice, that workers controlled loose federations of farms or industries which they organised individually. It was form of socialism but completely and proudly without the idea of one, authoritarian, central control: which was, of course, the form Stalin’s totalitarian regime took in the USSR.

Orwell in Spain

This was the complex and cynical political situation Orwell found himself in when he crossed the French border and arrived in Barcelona, introduced himself to McNair and was inducted into the POUM militia. His book describes the astonishing atmosphere in revolutionary Barcelona, the lack of beggars, prostitutes or ostentatious luxury in the streets. A whole host of issues around poverty and decency, which readers of his novels and reportage would have been familiar with, had here come true. He was dazzled.

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senior’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving.

Orwell describes conditions in the militia barracks (which had been renamed the Lenin Barracks), the pathetic training and almost complete lack of arms. Then the journey up to the ‘front’ near Zaragosa, and the squalor, cold and boredom of life in a trench zigzagging along ridges about a mile away from the fascist trenches.

Orwell was at the Aragon front for 115 days without break during which there was little or no fighting and certainly no campaigns by either side. His eye for the filth and squalor (human excrement everywhere) and descriptions of everyone’s attempts to keep warm would ring bells with anyone who’s read Down and Out or Clergyman’s Daughter.

We were near the front line now, near enough to smell the characteristic smell of war – in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food.

In February Orwell was sent with other POUM militiamen 50 miles to join the army besieging Huesca. The main struggle is with the cold and, once Spring arrives, with the infestation of lice. Throughout the book there are those characteristic sparkles of Orwell’s grim humour.

I have had a big experience of body vermin of various kinds, and for sheer beastliness the louse beats everything I have encountered. Other insects, mosquitoes for instance, make you suffer more, but at least they aren’t resident vermin. The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

There is one sizeable military manoeuvre, when his troop were ordered into a ‘holding attack’ on Huesca, designed to draw the Fascist troops away from an Anarchist attack on the Jaca road. Orwell vividly describes the tension and confusion as his group of fifteen captured a Fascist position, are disappointed to find no guns or much-needed ammunition but stumble across a beautiful telescope, when the fascists counter-attack and Orwell and his men are forced to pull back to their own lines in such confusion that they leave the telescope behind.

Afterwards we learned that the action had been a success, as such things go. It was merely a raid to make the Fascists divert troops from the other side of Huesca, where the Anarchists were attacking again. I had judged that the Fascists had thrown a hundred or two hundred men into the counter-attack, but a deserter told us later on that it was six hundred. I dare say he was lying – deserters, for obvious reasons, often try to curry favour. It was a great pity about the telescope. The thought of losing that beautiful bit of loot worries me even now.

Finally, in April 1937, he was granted leave to return to Barcelona where he rendezvoused with his still-new wife (they’d only got married in June of the previous year) on the 27th April. Orwell was horrified by the change that had come over the city. Gone was the revolutionary zeal, back were top hats and fur coats and bootblacks and tipping. On a superficial street level, the revolution seemed already to be defeated.

The street fighting of May 1937

Also there was a poisonously tense atmosphere. The political rivalry between the anarchists, including the related group of the POUM, and the steadily power-grabbing communists was coming to a head. On 3 May 1937 Orwell was crossing the foyer of his wife’s hotel when a friend told him that ‘it’ had started.

‘It’ was a week or so of street fighting that broke out between the various left-wing factions when a contingent of Civil Guards tried to storm the Barcelona telephone exchange, which was held by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT union. Shots were fired and suddenly barricades went up all over town and communists, anarchists, socialists and Civil Guards all started shooting at each other.

From a journalistic point of view, Orwell was extraordinarily lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He hurried down the Rampla, the central avenue on Barcelona, to POUM headquarters and was handed one of the handful of rifles available, and then took his place on the barricades. He describes how the cafe next door to POUM headquarters had been occupied by Civil Guards who build their own barricade and how, after an exchange of fire, Orwell’s respected superior, Georges Kopp, negotiated a ceasefire. Later Orwell was posted to the cinematograph opposite POUM headquarters, a building which had two ornamental domes on its roof which commanded a good view up and down the Rambla. Rumours fly around, and at night there is the sound of gunfire and distant explosions. Eventually, a ceasefire of sorts is negotiated and the barricades begin to come down. Orwell’s eye witness account is a priceless piece of social history, not only of events, but of mood and atmosphere.

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues, and prowling gangs of armed men.

Being shot

With a tense semblance of normality restored, Orwell is ordered to return to the front. Here, just a week or so later, on 20 May, Orwell, back in the republican trenches, was shot through the neck by a nationalist sniper. He gives the most extraordinarily vivid account of being shot.

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock — no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into immense distance. I fancy you would feel much the same if you were struck by lightning. I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space of time much less than a second. The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.

There is a long, sober and fascinating description of what happens to you as a casualty in war: the panic of friends and colleagues; the scrabbled medic doing what he can; being carried  by sweating men down terrible paths to the field hospital. All the time he was convinced he was going to die. But he doesn’t. The wound is cleaned and dressed and he is transferred on to several hospitals before arriving back at Barcelona.

But God, all the politics apart, Orwell has such an eye for detail and such a vivid forceful way of expressing himself.

At Monzon Hospital the doctor did the usual tongue-pulling and mirror — thrusting business, assured me in the same cheerful manner as the others that I should never have a voice again, and signed my certificate. While I waited to be examined there was going on inside the surgery some dreadful operation without anaesthetics – why without anaesthetics I do not know. It went on and on, scream after scream, and when I went in there were chairs flung about and on the floor were pools of blood and urine.

On the run

Here he arrived in a town transformed out of recognition. In his absence, on 16 June 1937, the POUM had been declared an illegal organisation. Its leaders had been arrested and, though Orwell didn’t know this when he wrote, taken off by the Soviet NKVD to a newly established prison, and tortured before being executed. His wife tells him all this in a hurried sotto voce conversation in the hotel foyer before hustling him out and Orwell has to go on the run. They make an attempt to free his former commander, Georges Kopp, from prison where he is now confined, Orwell going to the lengths of personally tracking down and pleading with the colonel commanding engineering operations in the Army of the East in his office – but with no success. Anyone connected with the POUM is condemned. They have to look for their own safety.

After a week or so hiding with other fugitives, his wife manages to get the help they need to smuggle them both onto a train, on 23 June 1937, and straight to the border with France, where, mercifully, they are allowed to cross and are free.

Back to sleepy England

And so slowly back to England, recuperating from the physical and mental exertions of his 6-month trip. And there to face the biggest challenge of all when the orthodox communist party of Great Britain, along with all its allied writers and editors and magazines, refuses to believe his eye-witness account about the communist suppression of revolution in Spain. He saw at first hand, the lying and deceit practiced by numerous left-wing magazines and intellectuals and realised how totalitarian regimes don’t just lie, the systematically control reality – and, worse, many educated people who should know better, go along with their systematic distortions.

This was the seed, the germ, from which the horrifying total mind control depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was to grow.

The lasting impact

Soon after arriving home Orwell’s health broke down and he wrote part of Homage to Catalonia in a sanatorium in Kent, some in Morocco where he was advised to go to escape the damp English climate. It was here that he followed the classic Stalinist show trial held for the POUM leaders (and himself and his wife) in Barcelona, all of whom were accused of Trotskyism, sabotage, treason and so on.

Victor Gollancz, founded of New Left Books, refused to publish Catalonia thus damning him in Orwell’s eyes as a member of the Stalinist intelligentsia. It was published by Warburgs in April 1938. The Spanish Civil War still had one long bloody year left to run but already it was clear to informed opinion that the republicans would lose. Like most of Orwell’s books Catalonia didn’t sell well, shifting only 900 copies by the time the Second World War broke out.

From now onwards his writing would have a much more informed sense of what socialism could mean in practice, but also of the terrifying reality of a totalitarian society, the reality of repression, torture and execution and of pitiless political struggle, which threatened all the common decencies he held so sacred.

This sense of fighting for what was good and decent in English society and culture was to underpin many of the essays he subsequently wrote, especially once the great European war everyone had been fearing finally broke out in September 1939.

And Spain…

After describing his perilous mission to meet the senior army officer who might be able to release his friend Georges Kopp from prison, Orwell recalls how, when he finally admits that both men served in the POUM, the officer stepped back with alarm on his face. Absolutely everyone was being brainwashed by communist propaganda that the POUM were traitors, Trotskyites and fascist spies. However, right at the end of the interview, though he has visibly failed in  his mission to get Kopp released there is a slight pause… and then the Spanish officer shakes his hand. It is a small but moving gesture. And it reminds Orwell of the many acts of generosity and nobility he has seen among the Spanish and Catalans.

I record this, trivial though it may sound, because it is somehow typical of Spain – of the flashes of magnanimity that you get from Spaniards in the worst of circumstances. I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century. It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form. Few Spaniards possess the damnable efficiency and consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs.

General Franco’s regime was to endure until the dictator’s death in 1975, but although conservative and repressive in the extreme, Orwell was right in that it never approached anything like the genocidal horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

George Orwell in Catalonia with POUM militia

George Orwell (the tall one) in Catalonia with POUM militia


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936)

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak — Strube’s ‘little man’— the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B. B. C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate! No, it isn’t like that that one was meant to live. One’s got to get right out of it, out of the money-stink. (p.51)

In Orwell’s previous novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, the seducing cad, Warburton, cynically suggests to the naive young Dorothy that money makes the world go round; in fact, he suggests that the famous chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be brought up to date with the word ‘money’ replacing ‘charity’. One year later this novel was published and its epigraph satirically does exactly what Warburton had suggested.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…  And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

This weak, unsubtle gag accurately summarises Keep The Aspidistra Flying which is the unremittingly dingy, depressed and ultimately monotonous story of short, miserable, failed poet Gordon Comstock who is obsessed with money and his lack of it.

Gordon Comstock

Gordon is 28 and works in a grimy second-hand bookshop in a seedy part of north-west London. He seethes with resentment against his miserable fate, resentment he takes out in the form of withering satire on his customers, the wretched adverts on hoardings opposite the shop, the weather, London, the depressing spirit of the times, everything. Everything – his clothes, the shop, the boos, the street, the customers, the boarding house, the landlady, the other lodgers – everything, seen through his eyes, is seedy, run-down, grimy, filthy, mangy, mildewed and manky.

Orwell pays minute attention to every humiliating aspect of Gordon’s shabby, poverty-stricken little existence. He takes two pages to describe the lengths Gordon has to go to in order to make a cup of tea in his own room (a practice banned by the landlady) which includes sneaking downstairs to the privy to flush away yesterday’s tea leaves, and heating the water on his room’s wretchedly underpowered gas ring.

Orwell takes a sadistic glee in rubbing the reader’s face in Gordon’s all-conquering sense of failure and the sordid practicalities of his existence. The squalor, the shame and the thousand petty humiliations of a) living on the edge of poverty b) being a wretched failed poet, are drilled home on page after page.

Of the half dozen I’ve read, this is Orwell’s least interesting book: the subject of being a failed writer in London is extremely clichéd, and Gordon’s diatribes, either in his own head or to anyone who will listen, are above all very repetitive; by page 100 they’re just boring.

So this is not such a good book to read as the splendidly descriptive Burmese Days or the experimental and reportage-filled Clergyman’s Daughter.

The plot

Second hand books We’re introduced to Gordon, rotting and miserable in the dingy second-hand bookshop. He takes the mickey out of the customers. He goes home to his dingy miserable boarding house and makes a secret cup of tea. He reminisces about his large and hopeless middle-class family of losers, the wretched Comstocks. He traipses north to a literary party which turns out to have been cancelled to his vast chagrin, so he ends up walking all over London, looking wistfully into pubs and lustfully at passing girls and feeling immensely sorry for himself.

Back story He reminisces about his miserable time at private school where he was mocked for his genteel poverty. Then his time at an advertising agency where he turned out to be good at copywriting but despised himself for being in on the ‘great money-scam’, ‘worshiping the money god’ etc. This is all below Gordon who considers making money sordid and disreputable. So, to the despair of his hard-up family, he quits this excellent job to work in the bookshop out of some misguided wish for moral purity. What an arse.

Ravelston Gordon goes for a few beers in a squalid pub with his rich friend, the magazine editor and champagne socialist, Philip Ravelston. Gordon spends the entire time moaning about how miserable life is on a measly two quid a week, never having enough money to eat properly, to go out, to make friends and contacts, never having the peace of mind to write blah blah blah. The trouble is – we know the problem is entirely of his own making. The kindly owner of the advertising agency made it clear that Gordon can go back any time he wants to. It is obstinate to the point of imbecility to make himself and everyone around him so miserable.

Rosemary He has a girlfriend, the diminutive but tough Rosemary Waterlow. They meet for a walk (Gordon’s landlady won’t allow young women to even enter the hallway). This descends into another long bitter rant against his poverty by Gordon, combined with the bitter accusation that, after two years of going out, she still hasn’t let him sleep with her. The third-person narrator attributes this refusal to her upbringing in a big happy rambunctious family. Rosemary wants to preserve her happy sexless girlhood for as long as possible. She is ‘fond’ of Gordon and wants to mother him etc but can’t bring herself to say yes. He, for his part, is tormented by frustrated lust: it is all he can think of half the time, and all twisted up by the thought that it is essentially his poverty which prevents them either getting married or even being able to afford a hotel to have sex in.

No sex please, we’re British Gordon and Rosemary go on a set-piece outing to Burnham Beeches, catching the train from Paddington station to Slough. The winter sun warms and animates them but they can find nowhere to eat except an over-priced hotel by the Thames and here Gordon is, characteristically, overawed and bullied by the pretentious waiter, finding himself forced to use up all his money on a rotten meal of cold beef and muddy wine.

Eventually, miserable and humiliated, the couple walk on into woodland where they find a warm nook, Rosemary strips off her clothes and prepares to ‘sacrifice’ herself to him. She will ‘give’ herself, although she doesn’t really want to, solely in order to make Gordon happy. This is disheartening enough, but at the vital moment Rosemary realises Gordon isn’t wearing a condom and panics. He is rebuffed. They argue. Standing looking down at her naked body, he is disgusted with himself and with her. The sun goes in and the whole thing suddenly appears unbearably sordid and mean.

Rosemary bursts into tears and gets dressed. They walk for miles in silence, but Gordon is no longer brooding on the failed sex, he has moved on to his more familiar routine of being more worried about not having enough money to pay the fare back to London, after spending more than he meant to at the posh riverside hotel.. Eventually, after prolonged sulking, he reluctantly admits this to Rosemary who promptly points out what an idiot he is: she has more than enough and is happy to pay. But with his ludicrously antiquated sense of ‘honour’ he simply can’t let her and prefers to stew in a juice of humiliation and endlessly pontificate about the ruinous effect of poverty. By this stage we know that what is ruining his life is his ruinous imbecility.

A drunken binge In chapter eight there is an astonishing turn of events as Gordon receives a cheque from an American magazine which has inexplicably decided to publish one of his poems. £10! He insists on taking Ravelston and Rosemary out for a slap-up dinner. The more they urge caution, the more insistent he becomes to go to the finest restaurant, order champagne and generally drink himself stupid. Reeling through the West End he hustles Rosemary into a back alley and tries to have sex with her but she fights free, slaps him and disappears. Completely plastered Gordon finds himself being taken over by two whores and Ravelston mournfully decides he ought to go along to protect his pathetic protege. In the event Gordon is far too drunk to get it up and passes out on the floor. This compares with the Saturday night party scene in Down and Out in Paris and London as a very convincing portrait of the progressive stages of drunkenness, from light exuberance, through gorging on booze, to staggering incoherence. It’s the best passage in the book.

Arrested Gordon wakes up with an incredible hangover in a police cell. After being booted out by the prostitute he wandered Piccadilly swigging from a wine bottle in the street (illegal) and when stopped by the police punched the sergeant. Orwell gives a reliably factual account of a police cell, being taken in a Black Maria to the holding cells at the court, being sentenced to £5 fine or a month in gaol. In fact his fine has already been paid by his sheepish champagne socialist patron, Ravelston, who takes Gordon back to his luxury pad in St John’s Wood. Gordon sleeps in silk pyjamas in a downy bed beneath an electric light – unimaginable luxury.

And this is the central imaginative flaw of the novel – all Gordon has to do is say Yes, Yes to help from his rich friend, Yes to getting his advertising job back, and he would have money and Rosemary’s attitude would soften and he would have her, too. It is the opposite of some searing portrait of Depression-era Britain – it is the portrait of a mean-minded, resentful, selfish little idiot who ruins ‘his own and everyone else’s life for the sake of his ‘meaningless scruples’.

Staying at Ravelston’s After the drunken night and arrest something snaps in Gordon: he accepts Ravelston’s offer of a comfortable place to stay for a while but his bitter resentment at Ravelston’s charity ends their friendship. Ravelston eventually finds him a job with a Dickensian grotesque, a misshapen dwarf who runs a seedy bookshop renting out the cheapest kind of thrillers and romances. Gordon moves into a substantially worse flop house, reeking of haddock and ringing to the arguments of the proley inhabitants. He ignores Ravelston on his one visit to him. He spurns the appeals of Rosemary and his sister, Julia.

Down, down The final chapters become dominated by his death wish, by his wish to sink down, down, down below the realm of decency or class, to submerge into what he calls the ghost-kingdom below class and society. He finds he likes the job, the grinding boredom, the idiotic clientele who borrow the sad cheap two-penny novelettes. He sits and reads cheap magazines all day (Tit BitsThe GemThe Girl’s Own Paper) and lies on his bed smoking looking at the ceiling all night.

Sex at last One evening Rosemary knocks on the door (in this low lodging house women are allowed, unlike the grimly correct rooms of his previous landlady, Mrs Wisbeach). She thinks maybe finally losing her virginity to him will somehow galvanise him and persuade him to take the mythical job back at the advertising agency. (It turns out she has gone in person to see his old boss at the agency to beg, and the boss willingly agreed to have Gordon back.) But Gordon is too far gone. They reluctantly do the deed then lie with their backs to each other. She dresses and leaves without a word.

The baby A few weeks Rosemary turns up in the bookshop. She’s pregnant. She won’t force her to marry him but she wants to keep it. There is the usual squalid discussion about a back-street abortion (such as features in the Michael Caine movie, Alfie, Kingsley Amis’s novel, You Can’t Have It All, and in the Jean-Paul Sartre novel, The Age of Reason) which you are meant to be repelled by. Gordon goes to a public library where the disapproving lady librarian lets him look at medical textbooks in which he leafs through illustrations of foetuses making himself, and the reader, feel sick.

He turned back a page or two and found a print of a six weeks’ foetus. A really dreadful thing this time – a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly – the unborn as ugly as the dead. This thing looked as if it were dead already. Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye – or was it the mouth? It had no human resemblance this time; it was more like a dead puppy-dog. (p.261)

Gordon gives in But he capitulates. He agrees to marry Rosemary and take the job at the advertising agency, though advertising represents the acme of everything he finds meretricious and trashy in contemporary culture. To his surprise he is immensely relieved. He realises it was his destiny all along. He feels as if he has finally grown up.

Gordon takes the job. He has a gift for copywriting and is soon working on a campaign for a soap client to persuade the British population they have smelly feet and need as much soap as they can buy. Rosemary and Gordon get married at a registry office. Ravelston is the only guest. He gives them a crockery set. They move into a top floor apartment off the Edgware Road. They have barely moved in before they have their first argument. He insists on buying an aspidistra to furnish the room. At first Rosemary thinks he’s joking, but he means it. In Gordon’s mind everything he rejected – including the aspidistra plant which had been, for him, a symbol of craven respectability – it has all won. Genuinely won. With no irony or sarcasm he insists they buy one and display it in the front room for everyone to see. He has joined the grown-up world. Like everyone else he will keep the aspidistra flying.


Comments

Pathetic

Gordon isn’t principled, he’s pathetic. He’s as wretchedly timid and scared as Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter but without her dignity or integrity. He daren’t go into the pub to see his friend because he’s embarrassed about only having a three-penny bit to his name. He’s afraid of going up to the flat of his rich patron, Ravelston, because he’s intimidated by its moneyed comfort. He’s scared of offending his landlady and so hides his illicit tea-making. He is, in short, frightened of life. He is a mouse not a man. Chapter 9, where he lets himself be taken in, is a catalogue of Gordon’s moral cowardice.

  • He wanted to refuse, and yet he had not quite the courage…
  • Yet for the time being he stayed, simply because he lacked the courage to do otherwise…
  • But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet…
  • From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way…

and spending three hundred pages in his company – despite the appeal of Orwell’s ever-lucid prose – is depressing.

  • He lay awake, aware of his own futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he had led his life. (p.38)
  • He took a sort of inventory of himself and his possessions. Gordon Comstock, last of the Comstocks, thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries. His total wealth a puny body and two cardboard suitcases full of worn-out clothes. (p.209)
  • He didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone — alone to sulk and despair. (p.216)
  • He looked back over his life. No use deceiving himself. It had been a dreadful life — lonely, squalid, futile. He had lived thirty years and achieved nothing except misery. But that was what he had chosen. It was what he wanted, even now. He wanted to sink down, down into the muck where money does not rule. (p.

He takes every opportunity to offend anyone close to him, starting with his family and continuing with the patron Ravelston, he’s beastly to his girlfriend, bullying and arguing with her. I particularly disliked his snobbish superiority to all popular culture – he despises the cinema, hates the products he used to write advertising copy for – especially the new American trend for ‘breakfast cereals’ – despises the ‘villa culture’ of the suburbs. The pathetic ineffectual intellectual snob.

They began to pass through straggling villages on whose outskirts pseudo-Tudor villas stood sniffishly apart, amid their garages, their laurel shrubberies and their raw-looking lawns. And Gordon had some fun railing against the villas and the godless civilization of which they were part — a civilization of stockbrokers and their lip-sticked wives, of golf, whisky, ouija-boards, and Aberdeen terriers called Jock. (p.143)

And pretty much all the vast verbiage about ‘poverty’ is nothing more than bitterness and resent against the better off. The whole book is a vast crate of sour grapes.

A stream of cars hummed easily up the hill. Gordon eyed them without envy. Who wants a car, anyway? The pink doll-faces of upper-class women gazed at him through the car window. Bloody nit-witted lapdogs. Pampered bitches dozing on their chains. Better the lone wolf than the cringing dogs. He thought of the Tube stations at early morning. The black hordes of clerks scurrying underground like ants into a hole; swarms of little ant-like men, each with dispatch-case in right hand, newspaper in left hand, and the fear of the sack like a maggot in his heart. How it eats at them, that secret fear! Especially on winter days, when they hear the menace of the wind. Winter, the sack, the workhouse, the Embankment benches! (Chapter 4)

The money-stink and war

In all Orwell’s previous books he had interesting things to observe or to explain about imperialism, poverty, coal-mining, sleeping rough, hop-picking and so on. This is the first book where almost everything the protagonist thinks and does is worthless.

Gordon’s attitude to ‘capitalism’ and ‘money worship’ is so naive and childish as to be barely worth discussing. Orwell satirises Gordon’s contempt for money-making, for seeking a good career, a good place, he especially hates go-getting American types and he loathes advertising agencies etc. Every page is packed with new formulations of Gordon’s simplistic hatred of the money god, the money-stink, capitalism etc.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good. The decalogue has been reduced to two commandments. One for the employers – the elect, the money-priesthood as it were – ‘Thou shalt make money’; the other for the employed – the slaves and underlings – ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’

It sounds good – like so much of Orwell’s it has a strong rhythm and great clarity of phrasing which drives the words home – but it is undermined by our clear knowledge that Gordon has an easy way out of the trap any time he wants to. Just ring up his old boss at the advertising agency. But no, he prefers to suffer and complain.

In a feeble sort of philosophical conversation with his wealthy patron, Ravelstone, the latter tries to argue Gordon into believing in Socialism – despite showing little or no understanding of what that would actually mean. Ravelston’s reading of Marx seems to amount to the notion that a) present capitalist society is on its last legs b) a communist revolution is inevitable and will sweep away all injustices and usher in the Golden Age. Like some of the book, this has a certain value as social history, as a presumably reasonably accurate of what educated Englishmen of the time thought.

But in any case Gordon dismisses Socialism as bunk; he is too consumed by sheer hatred and resentment of anyone better off than him. With obsessive violence he fantasises about planes flying over London, over the dingy boarding houses and squalid flats and windswept streets and lonely people and bombing it all flat, consuming London in a great conflagration. He wants a massive war to come and Ravelston sadly points out he’s not the only one.

‘Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost.’
‘Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men in Europe are wishing the same thing.’
‘Let’s hope they are. Then perhaps it’ll happen.’

Maybe this is the best way to read this book – because it is not much value as a ‘novel’ – maybe it’s best to think of it as a kind of portrait of typical angry man who encapsulates the unhappiness and humiliation of the borderline poor, of the frustrated lower middle-classes, a representative of the clever but frustrated intellectuals of an entire generation. In the hands of a continental writer Gordon could, conceivably have turned into the portrait of a fascist, an angry young man who dreams of violence cleansing the world of parasites and decadence. Encourage his anti-Semitism and throw in a shiny uniform and you have a Nazi.

All over London and all over every town in England that poster was plastered, rotting the minds of men. He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom – bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.

This fetid War Wish of Gordon’s suggests just how little people learn – or intellectuals, anyway. There was a similar mood among the volunteers for the Great War, that it would cleanse and sweep away a corrupt and sick society (see Rupert Brooke). And here, 20 years later, we have the same kind of minor intelligentsia having the same kind of thoughts all over again.

Down, down – Orwell’s psychopathology

In the end Gordon is an embarrassingly revealing description of Orwell’s own self-loathing, embarrassment, shame and cowardice. A pauper at Eton, an odd-ball in the Burmese Police, an outsider to the Bloomsbury Set and the smart London literati, resenting the doting care and concern of his parents and relations – he had a hopeless psychological urge to escape, to plunge down into the filthiest depths of degradation and, in the end, Keep The Aspidistra Flying all-too-clearly conveys Orwell’s own strange nostalgie de la boue. It gives the game away, revealing the deeply personal motivations behind his supposedly fearless social reporting.

The final chapters are dominated by Gordon’s monomania for sinking below the realm of class and decency, of escaping all those who care for him, especially the womenfolk, Rosemary and his sister, Julia; of sinking down, down, down.

  • He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud — down to the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace. (p.219)
  • He didn’t want ever to work again; all he wanted was to sink, sink, effortless, down into the mud… (p.222)
  • Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth, where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty – no duns of any kind. That was where he wished to be. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.  (p.227)
  • Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where shame, effort, decency do not exist! (p.233)
  • He had finished for ever with that futile dream of being a ‘writer’. After all, was not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all that, below all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under ground! That was where he wished to be. (p.244)
  • He would not be free, free to sink down into the ultimate mud, till he had cut his links with all of them, even with Rosemary. (p.

On reflection, it is immensely apposite that the first word of the title of Orwell’s first published book was down.

Conclusion

If we take a romantic view of writing i.e the author is trying to ‘express’ something, then the author has to find a genre, a format, a style that provides the suitable framework. When it comes to the novel, an author needs to find characters and a plot to provide a structure for the other elements – dialogue, description, reflections and ideas.

Burmese Days is a success as a novel because the wide range of characters and incidents allow Orwell to show and dramatise his experience of British imperialism, with remarkably little explicit editorialising about it. The story and the characters are the message.

A Clergyman’s Daughter is a fascinating failure. He wanted to shock his readers by taking a highly respectable Anglican spinster and submit her to the humiliations of begging, sleeping rough, hop-picking, staying in London’s roughest flop houses and so on. But a) he is trying to hit too many targets; the same woman who is supposed to experience the bitterness of sleeping rough is also meant to experience the genteel humiliations of working in a fourth-rate private school. He tries to cram too much of his own experience into one container. And b) the precise mechanism by which she is pitched out of her comfortable middle class existence onto the streets is never satisfactorily explained. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth reading because, if you forget about these problems of the book’s ‘integrity’, then the individual sections – sleeping rough in London, hop picking in Kent, being a shabby teacher – are vividly written; they have the power and insight of his best reportage.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the second example of Orwell trying to find an outlet, a form or structure for what are obviously his own experiences and feelings. (Orwell himself worked in a bookshop in Highgate while he struggled to write; many of Gordon’s thoughts about the pointlessness of even trying to be a writer must come straight from the heart.) But there isn’t enough variety of scene or subject matter to justify a 300-page book. Realising this, Orwell has taken the conscious decision to exaggerate Gordon’s anger and contempt, to turn up his bilious rants and let his acid resentment go on for page after page. My guess is he thought that by exaggerating every aspect of his own sense of poverty, immiseration, humiliation and resentment, he would produce a Great Satirical Portrait; that Gordon would become a Representative Figure of our Age

But it doesn’t come off. Gordon just comes over as an ineffectual wanker, a stew of petty frustrations. It’s no surprise that Orwell forbade the reprinting of this book in his lifetime. The first and only print run sold just over 2,000 copies.


Aspects of style

Orwell’s use of stereotypes

I noticed in A Clergyman’s Daughter how Orwell’s texts are built of ‘types’ which we are expected to recognise, this recognition drawing us unconsciously into the point of view of the narrator, into the book’s world-view. And recognition of ‘types’ is compounded by worldly-wise sweeping generalisations. Both are exemplified in this passage:

  • Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman’ s arm. Like all small frail people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the typical fat man’s good humour. He was really horribly fat. He filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word ‘fat’ if there is any way of avoiding it. ‘Stout’ is the word they use — or, better still, ‘robust’. A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as ‘robust’.

There’s plenty more where this came from. It would be possible to take Orwell’s narratives to pieces in terms of blocks or chunks built around these types or stereotypes.

  • It was one of those ‘twopenny no-deposit’ libraries beloved of book-pinchers.
  • She was one of those malignant respectable women who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active, with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautifully grey hair, and a permanent grievance. (p.24)
  • It had the sort of furniture you expect in a top floor back [room]. (p.28)
  • Lorenheim was one of those people who have not a single friend in the world and who are devoured by a lust for company. (p.28)
  • It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you. (p.31)
  • The Primrose Quarterly was one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous. (p.35)
  • The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself… Gran’pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exert a powerful influence. (p.39)
  • They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.
  • They were the kind of people who in every conceivable activity, even if it is only getting on to a bus, are automatically elbowed away from the heart of things… (p.41)
  • Some of the women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a proper living, were the kind who ‘can’t afford’ to marry. None of them, except Gordon’s Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless ‘rooms’ and tomb-like boarding-houses. (p.42)
  • His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of; a cadaverous, despondent man, with a bad stoop, his clothes dismally shabby and hopelessly out of date. (p.44)

And so on and so on throughout the text. These continual expectations that the reader is familiar with this, that or the other aspect of modern life, with this or that ‘type’ of person or place or situation, stand as continual nudges into the fiction. They both flatter the reader’s intelligence and bolster the author’s aura of worldly wisdom. ‘You and I both know about this stuff, don’t we, old chap,’ and you find yourself reluctantly coerced to go along, even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

  • He was the kind of man who never hears of anything until everybody else has stopped talking about it. (p.56)
  • The New Albion was one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism. (p.54)
  • It was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older… (p.88)
  • He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work. (p.92)
  • It was one of those small, peaky faces, full of character, which one sees in sixteenth-century portraits.
  • She was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. (p.123)
  • This was one of those cheap arid evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated. (p.225)
  • Gordon knew her type at a glance. (p.259)

Orwell knows all these types at a glance. He is an expert on humanity. And he expects you to be, too.

Orwell’s humour

All this said, Orwell is always capable of moments of pawky humour:

Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle – to high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets.

Though it is often a rather grim, unsmiling humour.

Orwell’s use of the macabre

The ghost of Dickens is always hovering over Orwell’s writing, in the combination of urban poverty with sometimes warm broad humour and other times the weird and macabre.

Mr Cheeseman was a rather sinister little man, almost small enough to be called a dwarf, with very black hair, and slightly deformed. As a rule a dwarf, when malformed, has a full-sized torso and practically no legs. With Mr Cheeseman it was the other way about. His legs were normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks seemed to sprout almost immediately below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors… It was apparent that Mr Cheeseman clipped his words from a notion that words cost money and ought not to be wasted… He took Gordon into his confidence, talked of conditions in the trade, and boasted with much chuckling of his own astuteness. He had a peculiar chuckle, his mouth curving upwards at the corners and his large nose seeming about to disappear into it… (p.223)

More than a touch reminiscent of Dickens’s malignant dwarf, Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. But the advent of Mr Cheeseman, the miserly bookseller, in the final chapters of the book, is also maybe an indication that the whole thing is intended as a grotesque exaggeration, a satire, a hyperbolic fantasy.

Big Sister is watching you

Early on in the book the landlady of Gordon’s wretched lodgings is described as sneaking around and spying on her lodgers.

It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you. (p.31)

Ring any bells? When I noticed this I realised the same thing happens in A Clergyman’s Daughter where miserly Mrs Creevy is constantly spying on Dorothy’s school lessons, and creeping about listening at the door of her bedroom.

The unpleasantness of being continually spied on was obviously an theme of Orwell’s fifteen years before Nineteen Eight-Four was published.

Contemporary relevance

Throughout the novel, among the kaleidoscope of his other thoughts Gordon feels guilty for not worrying more about the Depression and the unemployed and the suffering millions. The Depression and its severe impact on the north of England is exemplified in the repeated notion of Middlesborough as a particularly blighted town.

  • Most of the time, when he wasn’t thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun…
  • But what of the real poor? What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one’s pocket?
  • He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the unemployed.
  • In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies. He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog with a stolen leg of mutton.

As it happens today, Wednesday 9 August 2017, I just listened to a report on Radio 4’s World At One programme about the long-term impact of the financial crash of 2008, and they chose to send a reporter to Middlesborough as exemplifying the enduring negative consequences of the crash. We heard local people saying nothing is done for the town, it’s ignored by southern politicians, there’s no prospects for young people leaving town, not much hope of getting a job and no hope of buying a house. Unemployment is 1 in 6, double the national average and, as a consequence, Middlesborough had the highest Brexit vote of anywhere in the UK.

Obviously lots of things have changed since Orwell’s time, thousands of things, people’s lives have been transformed in countless ways. But some other things, deep structural things, haven’t changed at all.


Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell (1935)

She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. (p.295)

Orwell’s second novel, published in March 1935, is an oddity. A decade later he wrote it off as a potboiler and it, he even prevented it being republished when the original print run sold out. Along with its fellows Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up For Air (1939), ACD is generally overlooked because readers in a hurry prioritise his world-class classics, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the reportage of Down and OutWigan Pier, and Catalonia, and then brisk no-nonsense of his numerous political and literary essays.

Are these neglected novels worth reading?

A Clergyman’s Daughter

A Clergyman’s Daughter is divided into five distinct parts and, once you’ve finished the book, you realise they don’t fully hang together, both stylistically and in terms of plot.

Part one

introduces us to Dorothy Hare, the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church, Knype Hill, a large village in Suffolk. Dorothy is pushing 28, plain and honest, wakes up every morning around 6am to light the kitchen fire and heat the water for her father to shave in, and makes breakfast for him. They have a lacklustre live-in servant, Ellen, but the atmosphere is of extremely run-down, shabby-genteel poverty. Dorothy is continually berating herself for failing her own religious ideals – exemplified by her habit of sticking her hat pin into her forearm every time her mind wanders off during Holy Communion or she has a wicked thought. Consequently, her arm is a rash of little red marks.

In among a detailed account of her daily routine (visiting the rural poor, shopping with her meagre allowance and trying to manage the rector’s debts with the numerous town merchants) we learn she is sort of friends with the shamelessly immoral local ‘artist’ (who never paints anything), Warburton, who has a mistress and three illegitimate children. Warburton invites Dorothy to dinner to meet a novelist friend and his wife.

The novelist couple never turn up. In fact, they don’t even exist: fat (always the worst crime for tall, skinny Orwell), bald (another no-no) middle-aged Warburton invented them solely to lure Dorothy to his house under a false sense of security so he can seduce her. This consists of standing behind the after-dinner chair she’s sitting in, placing his hands on her shoulders and then running them up and down her bare arms. Dorothy leaps to her feet and tells him to stop, insists on putting on her coat and leaving. At the gate to his garden he tries to kiss her but she averts her mouth, wriggles free of his grasp and walks home to the rectory. Here, as chastisement to herself for getting into such a ridiculous situation, Dorothy carries on preparing costumes for the children’s village play, though it’s midnight and she keeps dozing off…

Part two 

opens with a surprising piece of experimental prose describing a human being slowly waking to consciousness of themselves, as a mind, as a series of sensations, as a body and then of a unified person. It is the nearest Orwell gets to acknowledging the influence of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf among the many other modernist novelists who were experimenting with stream of consciousness prose and other attempts to describe non-normal states of mind.

Dorothy has lost her memory. She slowly comes to awareness, standing on a street in London dressed in shabby black outfit, with no idea who she is or how she got there. If a sympathetic helper had taken her to a police station she might have quickly regained her past, but instead she is almost immediately taken up by three street people, two young lads and a girl, who are off to Kent to pick hops.

Confused and dazzled by their patter (specially when they discover she is the proud owner of half a crown), she finds herself inveigled into the shattering process of walking the thirty or more miles into Kent, which takes three days of hunger and begging. This ordeal is followed by even more penurious traipsing round Kent farms looking for work. Finally they get ‘lucky’ and Dorothy spends a month or so in the extremely demanding and badly-paid work of picking hops by hand, alongside a community of other hop pickers, beggars from London, and bands of gypsies.

The introduction to the modern Penguin edition I’m reading refers to the fact that in Orwell’s original conception of the novel, at the end of part one Warburton successfully seduces or rapes Dorothy, before bundling her into a car and driving her to London, there – presumably – to dump her and abandon her on the street, as we find her in part two. This is in fact the account given to everybody, including the press, by the village gossip, Mrs Semprill, who claims to have seen Warburton driving off at speed in his car, with a scantily-clad woman in the passenger seat. However, apparently due to the risk of prosecution, the whole rape scene had to be dropped and replaced with the weird non-sequitur we now have – in the text as we have it Dorothy resists the seduction and goes safely home to the rectory where she dozes off and then… mysteriously appears in London.

Eventually, right at the end of the hop-picking sequence she comes across a newspaper giving salacious account of ‘Scandal of Rector’s Daughter’, complete with photo, which repeats Mrs Semprill’s salacious account – and Dorothy undergoes the physical shock of realising it is her in the newspaper – this is her name and identity and story!

But even with her memory back, she can’t make sense of the account the newspaper gives of her being seen sitting in a car being driven by Warburton. Did he get her drunk and persuade her to elope with him? That’s certainly not what happens at the end of part one as we have it. Of course, Dorothy’s version – resisting seduction, cycling home, falling asleep – could be explained away as a kind of ‘fake memory’ she concocts to repress the brutal truth, as sometimes happens to trauma victims. But then the third-person narrator who described her cycling home would have been deliberately misleading us, which seems unlikely because part one is narrated in Orwell’s sensible, matter-of-fact voice.

If in doubt, I simply go with what is in the text – so many novels, plays, and especially movies and TV series, have mucked about with time and consecutive narrative, with shock reversals, ‘it was all a dream’ scenarios, that we 21st century readers are very used to all kinds of tricks and sleights of hand. She fell asleep in her rectory. She wakes up in London nine days later having lost her memory. OK. I’ll buy that.

Meanwhile, the detailed description of going ‘on the tramp’ down to Kent, of begging and scrounging on the road, and then of the hard outdoors life of the hop picker, are quite obviously straight from Orwell’s personal experience. It has the scrupulous attention to detail of his other works of reportage, right down to the appearance of individual pickers, details of conditions on the farm, the disadvantages of sleeping in straw as opposed to hay, the slang of the various tramps and beggars, the songs sung by the pickers and the gypsies, and much much more. If you skip part two’s ‘experimental’ woman-with-amnesia opening section, this long passage of reportage could easily have been added into Down and Out in Paris and London.

So: by the end of part two Dorothy has remembered her identity and quit the hop-picking (which was drawing to its end anyway). She makes her way back to London where she pawns her last belongings and spends the money rooming for a week in a filthy, damp room in a run-down lodging house for prostitutes off the Cut, behind Waterloo Bridge. She had written to her father from the hop camp hoping he’d reply, forgive her and take her back. But no reply comes. She writes again from London, but no reply.

Dorothy spends her one week with a roof over her head in public libraries copying out adverts for servants and then traipsing all over London to apply for them. But she finds that a single woman, with an educated accent and no luggage, is instantly perceived as what she in fact is (is she?) – a woman who’s been seduced and dumped. An immoral woman. Her predicament is an opportunity for a characteristic outburst of Orwell’s love of social ‘types’ (and studied dislike of health cranks).

She trudged enormous distances all through the southern suburbs: Clapham, Brixton, Dulwich, Penge, Sydenham, Beckenham, Norwood – even as far as Croydon on one occasion. She was was haled into neat suburban drawing-rooms and interviewed by women of every conceivable type – large, chubby, bullying women, thin, acid, catty women, alert, frigid women in gold pince-nez, vague rambling women who looked as though they practised vegetarianism or attended spiritualist seances. (p.147)

Dorothy can find no work. At the end of the week she is forced out of the lodging house and onto the street.

Part three

continues the vein of stylistic experimentation – confirming the sense from the opening of part two that Orwell is dipping his toe into contemporary modernist techniques. For part three is written entirely in script format, giving brief location settings and then extended passages of the dialogue of various characters. He uses the format to convey the incessant and inane chatter of the down-and-outs, hobos and tramps among whom Dorothy has fallen, congregated one bitter night in Trafalgar Square – namely Charlie, Snouter, Mr Tallboys, Deafie, Mrs Wayne, Mrs Bendigo, Ginger and The Kike.

I find scripts difficult and boring to read and Orwell seems to agree. This is by far the shortest section, making up only 30 pages of this 300-page novel, with a few passages of prose scattered in it to explain the few bits of action, and it soon gets tiresome. I can, however, see that the script format emphasises the way that:

a) Nothing happens; the tramps mostly just lie or sit around near benches in Trafalgar Square in a kind of Samuel Beckett-like stasis.
b) Also, they are each stuck within their own stories and so don’t converse, don’t talk to each other: each one is like a robot or the proverbial cracked gramophone record – the old lady cursing her husband for kicking her out, mad Deafie singing an obscene song over and over, Ginger complaining about how he was set up to organise a robbery where he was caught and sent to prison. Each one is a prisoner of their own consciousness and life story.

Around midnight, Charlie starts stamps up and down giving a rousing performance of the bawdy ballad, ‘Rollicking Bill The Sailor’, evidently a song Orwell has heard, and which I tracked down on YouTube. It certainly is as bawdy as Orwell claims (again, due to publishing law, Orwell doesn’t include any of the lyrics):

Thus we are to imagine the chaste and devout rector’s daughter among this company of obscene automatons, a picture of human misery.

DOROTHY [starting up]: Oh, this cold, this cold! I don’t know whether it’s worse when you’re sitting down or when you’re standing up. Oh, how can you all stand it? Surely you don’t have to do this every night of your lives?
MRS WAYNE: You mustn’t think, dearie, as there isn’t SOME of us wasn’t brought up respectable.
CHARLIE [singing]: Cheer up, cully, you’ll soon be dead! Brrh! Perishing Jesus! Ain’t my fish-hooks blue! [Double marks time and beats his arms against his sides.]
DOROTHY: Oh, but how can you stand it? How can you go on like this, night after night, year after year? It’s not possible that people can live so! It’s so absurd that one wouldn’t believe it if one didn’t know it was true. It’s impossible!

In the end, she is arrested for vagrancy by the – it must be said – not unfriendly policeman who patrols the Square.

Part four

After these experimental episodes the narrative reverts to a traditional third-person voice for a refreshingly humorous passage going back to Knype Hill and describing how the rector was awoken by Ellen the servant, on the morning of Dorothy’s disappearance, and was more shocked by the fact that he had to prepare his own breakfast than by the news that his daughter had eloped.

Being completely hopeless, the rector hands the task of tracking Dorothy down over to his cousin, Sir Thomas Hare, from the moneyed part of the family, who lives in London and so is assumed to have ‘contacts’.

The Sir Thomas sections are done in broad humour for he is a caricature of a Sir Bufton-Tufton type, all ‘what what’ and tugging on his moustachios, while continually forgetting what he is saying.

Sir Thomas Hare was a widower, a good-hearted, chuckle-headed man of about sixty-five, with an obtuse rosy face and curling moustaches. He dressed by preference in checked overcoats and curly brimmed bowler hats that were at once dashingly smart and four decades out of date. At a first glance he gave the impression of having carefully disguised himself as a cavalry major of the ‘nineties, so that you could hardly look at him without thinking of devilled bones with a b and s, and the tinkle of hansom bells, and the Pink ‘Un in its great ‘Pitcher’ days, and Lottie Collins and ‘Tarara-BOOM-deay’. But his chief characteristic was an abysmal mental vagueness. He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences. When he was puzzled or in difficulties, his moustaches seemed to bristle forward, giving him the appearance of a well-meaning but exceptionally brainless prawn. (Chapter 4.1)

He has a manservant, Blyth, who speaks so softly you have to watch his lips carefully to make out what he is saying. This character feels directly descended from Dickens, as Sir Thomas descends from a long line of titled buffoons sprinkled throughout English fiction. The rector sends Sir Thomas some money and asks him to find out Dorothy’s whereabouts. Sir Thomas passes this request onto the silkily efficient Blyth (reminiscent, maybe, of the legendary Jeeves and a thousand other silently capable butlers of popular fiction) who commences his task the day after Dorothy had been arrested and bailed for vagrancy. Blyth swiftly locates Dorothy, approaches her in the street and invites her back to Sir Thomas’s Mayfair house. Astonished at this turn of events, Dorothy goes with him, washes, buys a new outfit of clothes and is transformed.

Kindly Sir Thomas is flabbergasted by how impressive she looks and speaks. What to do next? Somehow it is assumed by everyone that she can’t go back to Knype Hill – ‘the shame my dear’ – and so Sir Thomas’s solicitor suggests she gets a job as teacher in a suburban prep school. Within days it is arranged and she departs for Ringwood House Academy for Girls in Southbridge, ‘a repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London’.

There follows a long chapter satirising the shortcomings of minor private schools in the 1930s, reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s debut, Decline and Fall (1930). Most of the public school authors of this generation (Auden, Waugh, Greene, Orwell himself) did a spot of private school teaching, Orwell in 1932 and 1932 at a private school in Hayes, West London – an experience this chapter is very much indebted to.

Ringwood House turns out to be a scandalous scam, run by the scheming, bitter, joyless Mrs Creevy who’s made a living dunning money from the uneducated local shopkeeper parents of fifteen or so girls from age 8 or so to 15, who have remained scandalously uneducated. The previous teacher had been sacked for getting paralytically drunk in class. Initially daunted at the responsibility of being ‘a teacher’, Dorothy finds out on the first morning that the children know nothing, have been taught nothing. Their lessons consisted solely of hours practicing their hand-writing – forced to write out over and over a trite ‘essay’ about the joys of spring – of learning a handful of French phrases, and the bare minimum of ‘sums’ i.e. some adding and subtracting.

We remember from part one the love and attention Dorothy lavished on the school play back at Knype Hill and so are not surprised that, first chance she gets, she goes into London to buy a decent atlas, some mathematical tools, some plasticine and a bunch of copies of Macbeth. She sets the girls to building a map of the world out of the plasticine, pins up a frieze of paper round the wall to create a timeline of British history onto which they pin pictures cut out from magazines of historical characters, and so on. The children love her.

But, ‘of course’, it can’t last. The children love their daily joint reading of Macbeth but in the last scene, when MacDuff explains that he was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, many of the children end up going back home that night and ask their puritanical non-conformist parents what a ‘womb’ is. This causes a rebellion of outraged parents who the next day storm into Ringwood House and subject Dorothy to a humiliating inquisition which brings her close to tears.

That isn’t all. Even when they’ve left, Mrs Creevy starts on Dorothy in her own right, carefully and cynically explaining the situation: the children are not to be educated; they are to be rote taught to perform the basic tricks which their parents expect of them – fancy handwriting, a handful of French phrases, enough maths to be able to help out in the shop. Mrs Creevy throws away the plasticine map of the world, burns the timeline of British history and sells the copies of Macbeth.

Dorothy, in complete misery, has to abandon any hope of genuinely teaching her children: she needs this job; the memory of the nights in Trafalgar Square rises up before her; she has no choice but to obey wretched Mrs Creevy. When the new Dorothy appears before them, the children’s attitude turns from disbelief to devastation to sullen bitter resentment. They taunt her, play up, act rebellious. She has abandoned them; they take every opportunity to rub it in. In the climax of her humiliation, Dorothy finds herself taunted one step too far by the most vicious child and hits her. She has become her own worst nightmare.

She submits to Mrs Creevy’s every whim. She completely abases herself up to and including faking the children’s end-of-year school reports. They have all made ‘outstanding progress’. Dorothy receives small indicators from frosty old Mrs Creevy that she is warming to her. It is a recurrent joke that Mrs Creevy half starves Dorothy but in the last weeks before the end of term she allows her slightly more food and – in a solemnly comic moment – even (reluctantly) allows her access to the marmalade jar at breakfast.

However, it is only the more effectively to trick her. On the very last day of term, when Dorothy expects to have her contract renewed, Mrs Creevy summarily sacks her. A wizened old crone from another wretched private school has agreed to decamp to Mrs Creevy’s establishment, bringing with her half a dozen paying pupils. This is a financial boost Mrs Creevy cannot ignore and so – despite having humiliated herself and stomped all over her better nature and principles in order to please her – Dorothy finds herself out on her ear again. Mrs Creevy turns the screw by promising to forward her luggage once Dorothy is established somewhere – but for a fee of five shillings!

Part five

BUT there is to be a fairy-tale ending, worthy of the the great Charles Dickens who hovers over so much of Orwell’s writing. Just as Oliver Twist spends 400 pages enduring life among thieves and beggars on the streets of London, only to be magically revealed as the heir to a fortune in the final pages – so Dorothy is walking down the street when who should draw up in a taxi but – a beaming chuckling Warburton.

Immediately we are swept out of the world of powerless poverty and into the calm confidence of the amiable man-of-the-world. When he hears that Mrs Creevy has gouged the five shillings out of Dorothy, he turns the cab round and he and the cabman go and retrieve the money – just like that. ‘What a hole’, Warburton comments of the school, calmly and confidently, and away he whisks her.

For the reader, who has accompanied Dorothy on her knees through so many valleys of humiliation, it is an astonishing psychological transformation to be lifted into the bright sunlight. It is also striking that it is effected by a man. There is a sense of re-entering a kind of virile world of power and activity. Warburton, in his way, is every bit as nonchalantly confident and effective as the equally caddish Verrall, in the previous novel, Burmese Days. Maybe this is:

  1. an unconscious prejudice on Orwell’s part – that the feminine is helpless victim and the masculine bold and decisive
  2. or is a deliberate piece of feminist satire, highlighting how helpless and downtrodden a woman can be by patriarchal society
  3. or is simply the structural requirement that there had to be some kind of ‘salvation’ from Dorothy’s apparently endless plight, and ‘poetic justice’ makes it come from the very man who apparently caused it all in the first place
  4. or a combination of all the above

In short order Warburton tells Dorothy that Mrs Semprill’s salacious account of their elopement has been disproved, she is redeemed not only with the good gossips of Knype Hill but with her father, who wants her to return home immediately. He takes her for a slap-up meal and then they catch a train to Suffolk. The topic of conversation turns to Dorothy’s ‘loss of faith’, Warburton disputes that she was ever a Christian, but could never actually face it. Hence her loss of memory  -it was a psychological route out of an impossible situation:

He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner. Dorothy had never heard of anything of this kind before, and she could not at first accept his explanation.

Neither can we. Why did this tight corner suddenly occur on that night rather than any other? And how did she get to London?

Meanwhile, the train journey turns into a long discussion of faith and its absence i.e. living in a meaningless universe. This is no problem for Warburton, who is an amused hedonist: everything boils down to pleasure. But Dorothy tries to express the strangeness of the feeling she’s experiencing, living in a world newly devoid of faith. Imperceptibly, by steps, Warburton manoeuvres Dorothy into a mood wherein he suddenly takes off his hat (revealing his pink bald head) and proposes marriage to her. The reader is as startled as Dorothy. He follows up by spending two pages painting an extremely biting portrait of what the rest of her life will be like as a skivvy to her increasingly impoverished and gaga father, and then how she’ll be left penniless at his death and have to take a job as a governess or return to school-teaching. This is the fate of the spinster woman in the 1930s.

It is a hypnotically awful prospect and allows Warburton to take Dorothy’s hand, lift her to her feet, and then he’s begun to embrace her and is moving to kiss her before the spell is broken. Dorothy realises it was all yet another attempt of the revolting bald fat old man to seduce her.

a) It’s a strikingly slow-building scene b) It tends, yet again, to completely refute the rape notion.

Dorothy leaps back, revolted. Warburton subsides into his seat, amused and cynical: oh well, it was worth a try. The rest of the journey continues in trivial chat.

Dorothy is delivered back to her father who is delighted that his breakfasts will now be served on time. He accepts her explanation that she ‘lost her memory’ though she sees that he doesn’t really believe her. The final section of the book is a fairly long meditation on Dorothy’s loss of faith. What does it mean to live in a world without God? How can she continue to go through the motions of helping out at communion and other services, of officiating over semi-religious works with the Girl Guides and so on? She is back in the scullery making fancy dress costumes, this time for the big pageant she is organising, on her knees cutting and pasting just as she did when she ‘fell asleep’ in part one. She prays for help, for guidance in her Unbelief – and is suddenly brought back to the present by the smell of the glue heating on a pot on the stove. The glue brings her back to the world of projects and tasks. She really must get on with the costumes. Then there are the village bills to be paid. Dinner tonight to organise. And so on.

She has discovered one of the great truths – that happiness or contentment, ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ aren’t things in themselves – they are the by-products of absorption in a task.

She did not know this. She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them. Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them. (p.295)

And this makes sense of the epigraph to the book, a quote from Hymns Ancient and Modern:

The trivial round, the common task

from the hymn New every morning is the love written by John Keble in 1827. Read as autobiography, the opening and especially the close of the book suggest Orwell’s strong, unbreakable roots within the Anglican tradition.


Conclusion

Rape or memory loss?

There’s a lot to consider and mull over in this book: the biting portraits of poverty among the down-and-outs and the back-breaking work of the hop-pickers; the long section exposing the scandal of fourth-rate private schools; the decision to use ‘experimental’ techniques; the final meditation on the meaning of life. But the central question is, How effective or believable is the character of the clergyman’s daughter – Dorothy – herself?

Certainly Orwell’s aim is to be sympathetic to women. The book is a sort of rake’s progress through 1930s England except the central character is deliberately a woman in order to show the hundred small humiliations as well as a couple of huge central injustices, to which women of the day were liable to be victim.

Nonetheless, there are scores of problems. The whole novel is predicated on the notion that Dorothy is hopelessly shamed by being seduced and dumped – exactly as in the cheesiest Victorian melodrama. But in this bowdlerised/confused narrative, she isn’t raped or seduced, she went home to work on the school play costumes and then… then what? We never really find out why she ends up a week later in London in strange clothes with no memory. In chapter 5 Dorothy herself appears to give the reason to Warburton:

‘And do you think that’s really the end of it? Do you think they honestly believe that it was all an accident — that I only lost my memory and didn’t elope with anybody?’

As to why she lost her memory, there’s Warburton’s explanation that it was something to do with mental conflict, with her realising she was not a Christian — but there had been absolutely no indication of that in the previous text. And anyway, none of this explains how she came to be standing in a London street in someone else’s clothes eight days later.

Lacking this central motor for the plot, all the ancillary circumstances seem forced and gratuitous. Why can’t she go back to her father? Why doesn’t she contact the police and ask them to intervene? Or any other family members? Why doesn’t she go to the nearest church and explain the situation?

It’s hard to work out, but she fails to take any of these steps due to her sense of shame. Isn’t this all a very Victorian motivation for an entire novel? Isn’t it a bit out of place in a woman of the 1930s? It’s difficult to judge.

It is traditional to expect some kind of psychological ‘development’ in a literary novel. It’s not really clear that Dorothy changes at all. For example, if she had been raped or even seduced, lost her virginity and dumped, you’d have expected this to have left quite a psychological mark, but it doesn’t. Maybe Orwell dropped the rape idea not only because it might have led to prosecution, but because he knew he wasn’t up to imagining or describing the psychological consequences.

2. Loss of faith

Similarly, Dorothy is described as ‘having lost her faith’ during her trials and tribulations. A reasonable enough development and Orwell describes it in persuasive terms which probably apply to lots of people throughout the long decline of the Church of England:

There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith – as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind. But however little the church services might mean to her, she did not regret the hours she spent in church. On the contrary, she looked forward to her Sunday mornings as blessed interludes of peace; and that not only because Sunday morning meant a respite from Mrs Creevy’s prying eye and nagging voice. In another and deeper sense the atmosphere of the church was soothing and reassuring to her. For she perceived that in all that happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposed purpose may be, there is something — it is hard to define, but something of decency, of spiritual comeliness — that is not easily found in the world outside. It seemed to her that even though you no longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better to follow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom. She knew very well that she would never again be able to utter a prayer and mean it; but she knew also that for the rest of her life she must continue with the observances to which she had been bred. Just this much remained to her of the faith that had once, like the bones in a living frame, held all her life together.

Good, eh? Insightful into the feel of losing religious faith – but he doesn’t really show its impact on her personality. There’s no real change in perception or thought between the woman who pricked herself with pins for having the slightest unreligious thought and the woman who doesn’t think about God for weeks on end and has completely stopped praying. She’s just a bit sadder, that’s all (as described on page 273).

Something had happened in her heart, and the world was a little emptier, a little poorer from that minute. On such a day as this, last spring or any earlier spring, how joyfully, and how unthinkingly, she would have thanked God for the first blue skies and the first flowers of the reviving year! And now, seemingly, there was no God to thank, and nothing — not a flower or a stone or a blade of grass — nothing in the universe would ever be the same again.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe this is what ‘loss of faith’ amounts to. Warburton and Dorothy discuss what ‘loss of faith’ means to her on the train to Suffolk but it’s an oddly inconsequential conversation with no real outcome. There’s plenty more at the end of the book, but the whole theme seems very dated, very Victorian.

The meaningless of life in a world without God was exercising many continental writers, of whom Albert Camus (whose first work Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism was published the same year as Orwell’s book) and Jean-Paul Sartre (whose first novel Nausea, was published in 1938) spring to mind as the most obvious.

But they were starting from emptiness and then trying to build meaning. Orwell starts from deep within the comforting bosom of the Church of England and, although his heroine goes far beyond its bounds in her physical adventures, the novel shows that she never really leaves its imaginative realm in her mind.

This may or may not present a persuasive imaginative journey, depending on your temperament. I was certainly glad that she didn’t marry Warburton, but chose a life of integrity to herself and of service to religious customs, even if her faith had died. More interesting.

3. Sexual coldness

Another ‘issue’ is the way Dorothy is described early on as being averse to men. After Warburton has met her in the street and managed to kiss her cheek, Dorothy finds a quiet corner and wipes it off so fiercely she draws blood. She hates being mauled and pawed. She is repulsed by the touch of men, ‘like some large furry beast that rubs itself against you’ (p.81), and nauseated at the thought of sex (the word sex appears nowhere in the book, Dorothy refers to it as ‘all that’).

Orwell goes out of  his way to explain that her revulsion was due to witnessing, at age eight, certain scenes between her mother and father. Later, still a child, she was horrified by prints of nymphs and hairy goatish satyrs. For months afterwards she was terrified of going through the woods in case a satyr leaped out on her. Now, on the one hand this seems to me a sympathetic imagining into the mind of a child and then into the mind of the woman the scared child has become. Where Orwell crosses a line which we nowadays would consider reprehensible is where he judges her ‘sexual coldness’ to be ‘abnormal’.

It was her especial secret, the especial, incurable disability that she carried through life. (p.80)

This may or may not have been the way women of the 1930s thought about their aversion to sex, as some kind of ‘abnormality’. It is plausible in the context of the book and the general setting. It echoes how my mother, born in 1932, talked about the attitude to sex of her mother, aunts and other relations.

Then Orwell takes the matter further and makes one of the many generalisations-cum-jibes which litter the book. He concludes of Dorothy’s sexual coldness that the psychological impact of her childhood experiences is too deep to be changed:

It was a thing not to be altered, not to be argued away. It is, moreover, a thing too common nowadays, among educated women, to occasion any sort of surprise. (p.83)

Is Orwell saying that many of the educated women of his day are ‘frigid’? Controversial. (And see my point about Orwell’s sweeping generalisations, below.)

At the end of the book, when Warburton proposes marriage, Dorothy recoils.

She took it for granted that he ‘knew why she couldn’t’, though she had never explained to him, or to anyone else, why it was impossible for her to marry. Very probably, even if she had explained, he would not have understood her.

I don’t understand her. Is this is a continuation of her sexual coldness or – as hovers over the whole subject – is Orwell hinting that she’s a lesbian? Or is that too crude and too modern an interpretation? Discuss…

Recap

To recap: I think the lack of Dorothy’s psychological development – or the way it is described but not really dramatised – is tied up with the massive hole at the centre of the plot i.e. the motivation for her flight and descent into the netherworld. Both undermine the book’s claim to literature or even coherence. However, neither problem prevented me in the slightest from really enjoying reading it.

The hop-picking section is a brilliant piece of reportage which will record for all time in fascinating detail the exact nature of this type of work. My next-door-neighbour in London is an old man, just turned 80, who several times has talked about going hop-picking in Kent as a boy. He loved it. Obviously, if you were a penniless adult and it was your only source of income it was different, and this long section deserves to go into any collection of sociological reporting from the era.

Same for the script-format account of One Night In Trafalgar Square, which really conveys the cold, lack of sleep and insistent presence of other smelly, half-mad humans, the sense of abasement and humiliation, horribly well.

Sitting down, with one’s hands under one’s armpits, it is possible to get into a kind of sleep, or doze, for two or three minutes on end. In this state, enormous ages seem to pass. One sinks into a complex, troubling dreams which leave one conscious of one’s surroundings and of the bitter cold. The night is growing clearer and colder every minute. There is a chorus of varying sound–groans, curses, bursts of laughter, and singing, and through them all the uncontrollable chattering of teeth. (Chapter 3)

And also, although looking at the big picture, the character of Dorothy doesn’t quite add up, there are literally hundreds of details which Orwell describes very persuasively about Dorothy’s thoughts and hopes and feelings and experiences, which do make for very compelling reading. Her daily round in the Suffolk village is extremely believable and so is her sense of daily misery and failure in the school.

So, despite its ‘failure’ as a coherent work of literature (if you like to judge novels in those terms) it is still a brilliant and compelling read. As usual with Orwell, the vividness and immediacy of his prose makes you want to reread entire sections for the pure pleasure of their accuracy and incisiveness.


Some stylistic features

Of course and etc

Orwell often gives the impression of being too impatient to be a novelist. By the 1930s he had very settled opinions and these involved very much seeing people as types, who all conform to type and speak according to type. An Anglican vicar will of course say X, a non-conformist will say Y, a Socialist will reply with Z. Mrs Creevey is the type of head mistress, the philistine parent who criticises Dorothy is the type of half-educated blustering bully, Ellen is the type of the feeble live-in servant. Orwell’s text is full of descriptions of ‘one of those sort of people or schools or days…’

  • Like every Anglo-Catholic, Victor had an abysmal contempt for bishops. (p.66)
  • He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences.
  • She was one of those people who experience a kind of spiritual orgasm when they manage to do somebody else a bad turn. (p.218)
  • It was one of those schools that are aimed at the type of parent who blathers about ‘up-to-date business training’, and its watch-word was Efficiency; meaning a tremendous parade of hustling, and the banishment of all humane studies.
  • It was one of those bright cold days which are spring or winter according as you are indoors or out. (p.271)

This reduction of people (and situations) to types who always say the same kind of thing explains Orwell’s frequent usage of the phrase ‘of course’ and ‘etc etc’.

‘Of course’ indicates that, yes, of course and predictably enough, this is the same old situation and the same old thing happens and the same old person does the same old kind of thing.

And Orwell’s use of ‘etc etc’ at the end of people’s dialogue indicates that he is bored, and he expects the reader to be bored, by listening to the same old predictable rigmarole.

It is an odd attitude for a novelist to take towards his own creations.

Etc

The constant singing round the bins was pierced by shrill cries from the costerwoman of, ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat! Pick them ‘ops up! I’ll warm your a– for you!’ etc., etc.

Some mornings he had orders to ‘take them heavy’, and would shovel them in so that he got a couple
of bushels at each scoop, whereat there were angry yells of, ‘Look how the b–‘s ramming them down! Why don’t you bloody well stamp on them?’ etc.

THE POLICEMAN [shaking the sleepers on the next bench]: Now then, wake up, wake up! Rouse up, you! Got to go home if you want to sleep. This isn’t a common lodging house. Get up, there! [etc.,
etc.]

YOUTHS VOICES FROM THE REAR: Why can’t he —- open before five? We’re starving for our —- tea! Ram the —- door in! [etc., etc.]
MR WILKINS: Get out! Get out, the lot of you! Or by God not one of you comes in this morning!
GIRLS’ VOICES FROM THE REAR: Mis-ter Wil-kins! Mis-ter Wil-kins! BE a sport and let us in! I’ll give y’a kiss all free for nothing. BE a sport now! [etc., etc.]

There was an essay entitled ‘Spring’ which recurred in all the older girls’ books, and which began, ‘Now, when girlish April is tripping through the land, when the birds are chanting gaily on the boughs
and the dainty flowerets bursting from their buds’, etc., etc.

Various of the coffee-ladies, of course, had stopped Dorothy in the street with ‘My dear, how VERY
nice to see you back again! You HAVE been away a long time! And you know, dear, we all thought it such a SHAME when that horrible woman was going round telling those stories about you. But I do hope you’ll understand, dear, that whatever anyone else may have thought, I never believed a word of them’, etc., etc., etc.

Of course

The tell-tale phrase ‘of course’ is liberally scattered throughout the text, indicating the author’s rather tired sense of the inevitability of his own story and the predictability of his own characters.

  • After that, of course, his heart was hardened against Dorothy for ever.
  • Of course, the Rector denied it violently, but in his heart he had a sneaking suspicion that it might be true.
  • But several more days passed before this letter was posted, because the Rector had qualms about addressing a letter to ‘Ellen Millborough’ – he dimly imagined that it was against the law to use false names – and, of course, he had delayed far too long. Dorothy was already in the streets when the letter reached ‘Mary’s’.
  • It was very little use, of course, telling him that she had NOT eloped. She had given him her version of the story, and he had accepted it.
  • Mrs Creevy watched Dorothy’s innovations with a jealous eye, but she did not interfere actively at first. She was not going to show it, of course, but she was secretly amazed and delighted to find that she had got hold of an assistant who was actually willing to work.

But the instance which made me stop and really notice this mannerism comes in the middle of the private school section. After describing at length the steps Dorothy takes to genuinely educate her charges, the text reads:

But of course, it could not last.

Why ‘of course’? Why write ‘of course’? Only if you assume you are sharing with your readers a fatalistic sense that things always turn out for the worse. ‘Of course’ used like this assumes a kind of matey familiarity with stories of this type. I can’t quite put it into words but it is more the approach of a journalist in a newspaper who assumes that everyone shares his or her prejudices. ‘Of course the sexists did this or the racists did that or the wicked imperialists did the other’, if you’re reading the Guardian. Or ‘Of course health and safety did this, or red tape stifled the other, or EU bureaucrats imposed the other’, if you’re reading The Daily Mail. It evinces a long-suffering exasperation at the sheer bloody predictability of most people.

Orwell describes the scene where Dorothy reluctantly explains to the girls who’ve asked her, what a ‘womb’ is, and then editorialises:

And after that, of course, the fun began.

You feel the author coercing your responses. He assumes the odds are stacked against his heroine and expects you simply to fall in with his prejudices about people and life in general. Sometimes the reader bridles at being pushed.

Generalisations

Orwell’s prose is dotted with sweeping generalisations, which I thoroughly enjoy for their air of man-of-the-world confidence, even if I don’t in the slightest agree with them or sometimes even understand them.

  • It is a curious fact that the lure of a ‘good investment’ seems to haunt clergymen more persistently than any other class of man. Perhaps it is the modern equivalent of the demons in female shape who used to haunt the anchorites of the Dark Ages. (Chapter 1.2)
  • It is a fact – you only have to look about you to verify it – that the pious and the immoral drift naturally together. The best brothel-scenes in literature have been written, without exception, by pious believers or impious unbelievers…
  • It is fatal to flatter the wicked by letting them see that they have shocked you. (Chapter 1.3)
  • Like all abnormal people, she was not fully aware that she was abnormal. (p.82)
  • No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it.
  • It was the fourth of April, a bright blowy day, too cold to stand about in, with a sky as blue as a hedgesparrow’s egg, and one of those spiteful spring winds that come tearing along the pavement in sudden gusts and blow dry, stinging dust into your face.
  • Nothing in the world is quite so irritating as dealing with mutinous children.

The generalisations are linked to the ‘of courses’ and ‘etcs’. They all indicate how much the novelist understands and comprehends human nature: he is familiar with all human types and the boring predictability with which they come out with the same old kind of speeches and arguments, and from this lofty vantage point he is able to dispense weighty-sounding generalisations about human nature and the world at large.

  • There are two kinds of avaricious person – the bold, grasping type who will ruin you if he can, but who never looks twice at twopence, and the petty miser who has not the enterprise actually to make money, but who will always, as the saying goes, take a farthing from a dunghill with his teeth. (Chapter 4)
  • Like most ‘educated’ people , she knew virtually no history. (p.207)
  • In these country places there’s always a certain amount of suspicion knocking about. Not suspicion of anything in particular, you know; just generalized suspicion. A sort of instinctive rustic dirty-mindedness.
  • Do you know that type of bright — too bright — spinster who says “topping” and “ripping” and “right-ho”, and prides herself on being such a good sport, and she’s such a good sport that she makes everyone feel a little unwell? And she’s so splendidly hearty at tennis and so handy at amateur theatricals, and she throws herself with a kind of desperation into her Girl Guide work and her parish visiting, and she’s the life and soul of Church socials, and always, year after year, she thinks of herself as a young girl still and never realizes that behind her back everyone laughs at her for a poor, disappointed old maid? (p.281)
  • The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. (p.288)

Although Orwell overtly and explicitly in his writings describes himself as a Socialist and takes every opportunity to ridicule the rich, the exploiters etc, although in other words the content of all his writing is left-wing – its manner and tone are the result of intensive training at Britain’s premier school for its managerial elite, Eton, and then of five years as an officer in the British Empire’s Military Police.

The sweeping generalisations, the bored descriptions of every social type and their oh-so-predictable speeches, all indicate the supreme confidence of the classic public school product. And it is this essentially patrician manner which, ironically, partly accounts for his popularity among his many left-wing fans.

Comedy

Orwell can be very funny, specially when in broad, humorous Dickensian mode. Take the description of Sir Thomas as an ‘exceptionally brainless prawn’. The long section about Dorothy’s humiliations in the school is essentially downbeat and grim but contains comic touches which prevent it being really despairing.

The district pullulated with small private schools; there were four of them in Brough Road alone. Mrs Creevy, the Principal of Ringwood House, and Mr Boulger, the Principal of Rushington Grange, were in a state of warfare, though their interests in no way clashed with one another. Nobody knew what the feud was about, not even Mrs Creevy or Mr Boulger themselves; it was a feud that they had inherited from earlier proprietors of the two schools. In the mornings after breakfast they would stalk up and down their respective back gardens, beside the very low wall that separated them, pretending not to see one another and grinning with hatred. (Chapter 4)

Comedy is itself often rooted in the predictability of social ‘types’. This bitter feud is funny because it is in fact a familiar trope – the embittered neighbours feuding over long-forgotten trivialities. Similarly, Sir Thomas waffling on for so long that he constantly forgets what he set out to say. Or the sly, almost silent man-servant, Blyth. Or Dorothy’s own father’s immense selfishness, more concerned about his late breakfasts than his missing daughter. These are all stock types with expected attributes, which could almost come from a Restoration comedy, certainly from an 18th century comic novel. What lifts them above the level of stereotype is Orwell’s genuinely imaginative turns of phrase.

Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist. (page 204)

Even in small details Orwell reveals his debt to Dickens’s genius for anthropomorphising objects and giving them a character which slyly contributes to the scene or story. At Mrs Creevy’s penny-pinching school:

In honour of the parents’ visit, a fire composed of three large coals was sulking in the grate.

Pinching

An oddity in Orwell’s novels is the ubiquity of pinching. Apparently men signalled their sexual overtures to a woman by pinching her, particularly her arms and elbow. Thus Elizabeth, in Burmese Days, has to fight off the unwanted attentions of her employer.

  • The bank manager whose children Elizabeth taught was a man of fifty, with a fat, worn face and a bald, dark yellow crown resembling an ostrich’s egg. The second day after her arrival he came into the room where the children were at their lessons, sat down beside Elizabeth and immediately pinched her elbow. The third day he pinched her on the calf, the fourth day behind the knee, the fifth day above the knee. Thereafter, every evening, it was a silent battle between the two of them, her hand under the table, struggling and struggling to keep that ferret-like hand away from her. (Chapter 7)
  • She had come out of her bath and was half-way through dressing for dinner when her uncle had suddenly appeared in her room – pretext, to hear some more about the day’s shooting – and begun pinching her leg in a way that simply could not be misunderstood. Elizabeth was horrified. This was her first introduction to the fact that some men are capable of making love to their nieces. (Chapter 15)
  • Mr Lackersteen was now pestering Elizabeth unceasingly. He had become quite reckless. Almost under the eyes of the servants he would waylay her, catch hold of her and begin pinching and fondling her in the most revolting way. (Chapter 23)
  • Her aunt would be furious when she heard that she had refused Flory. And there was her uncle and his leg-pinching – between the two of them, life here would become impossible. (Chapter 24)

Pinching bums I heard of in the 1960s and 70s, and still gets reported today by scandalised feminists: but pinching a woman’s legs or arms or elbow? Anyway, the practice crops up here again, when the cad Warburton, supposed artist and bohemian, bumps into Dorothy in the village High Street.

  • He pinched Dorothy’s bare elbow – she had changed, after breakfast, into a sleeveless gingham frock. Dorothy stepped hurriedly backwards to get out of his reach – she hated being pinched or otherwise ‘mauled about’. (Chapter 1.3)
  • Dorothy was all too used to it – all too used to the fattish middle-aged men, with their fishily hopeful eyes, who slowed down their cars when you passed them on the road, or who manoeuvred an introduction and then began pinching your elbow about ten minutes later. (Chapter 3.6)

Pinching your elbow?

Social history

So this is the kind of shabby genteel squalor in which a 1930s vicar lived – big cold empty church, a dwindling congregation, a sprawling vicarage he can’t afford to heat or run, gloomy rooms lined with mouldering wallpaper and rickety furniture. So this is what a flophouse in the Cut looked and smelt like – peeling wallpaper, damp sheets, unspeakable toilets. So this is what rural poverty looked like, 70-year-old men and women still having to labour for money, living in small filthy cottages whose windows and doors don’t close, drawing water by hand from a deep well.

Lots of the detail reminds us how very long ago 1935 was. The rectory has no hot water, no electricity, no radio or TV, no shower, no fridge or freezer, washing machine, tumble dryer or dishwasher. All household chores are hard, bloody work which have to be done by hand. Early in the morning and after dark the house is lit only by candlelight. What a life! In many, many ways Orwell’s world is closer to Dickens’s than to ours, and this helps explain the lingering influence of Dickens in his writing, not least in the juxtaposition of brutal social realism with broad humour.

Beauty

And yet, in the midst of all the squalor and poverty, the down-trodden humiliation of shabby-genteel life or plain beggary, Orwell is also capable of noticing and describing beauty.

Dorothy caught sight of a wild rose, flowerless of course, growing beyond the hedge, and climbed over the gate with the intention of discovering whether it were not sweetbriar. She knelt down among the tall weeds beneath the hedge. It was very hot down there, close to the ground. The humming of many unseen insects sounded in her ears, and the hot summery fume from the tangled swathes of vegetation flowed up and enveloped her. Near by, tall stalks of fennel were growing, with trailing fronds of foliage like the tails of sea-green horses. Dorothy pulled a frond of the fennel against her face and breathed in the strong sweet scent. Its richness overwhelmed her, almost dizzied her for a moment. She drank it in, filling her lungs with it. Lovely, lovely scent — scent of summer days, scent of childhood joys, scent of spice-drenched islands in the warm foam of Oriental seas!

Her heart swelled with sudden joy. It was that mystical joy in the beauty of the earth and the very nature of things that she recognized, perhaps mistakenly, as the love of God. As she knelt there in the heat, the sweet odour and the drowsy hum of insects, it seemed to her that she could momentarily hear the mighty anthem of praise that the earth and all created things send up everlastingly to their maker. All vegetation, leaves, flowers, grass, shining, vibrating, crying out in their joy. Larks also chanting, choirs of larks invisible, dripping music from the sky. All the riches of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song of birds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, mingling and ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Therefore with Angels and Archangels! She began to pray, and for a moment she prayed ardently, blissfully, forgetting herself in the joy of her worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered that she was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against her face. (Chapter 1)

This celebration of the natural world is not what most people associate with Orwell, but it is there, along with lots of other unexpected qualities in this strange, uneven, unfinished, wildly uneven but compellingly readable book.

To answer the question I asked myself at the start, Yes, I think it is definitely worth reading, for all sorts of reasons.


Credit

A Clergyman’s Daughter was published by Victor Gollancz in 1935. All quotes are from the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2000.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1940s – Inside the Whale and other essays
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)

By the roadside, just before you got to the jail, the fragments of a stone pagoda were littered, cracked and overthrown by the strong roots of a peepul tree. The angry carved faces of demons looked up from the grass where they had fallen. (Chapter 11)

Orwell served in the British Imperial Police Force in Burma from 1922 to 1927. He was efficient enough, won praise, but was considered an outsider by his colleagues. For example, he was one of the few officers to actually learn Burmese, becoming fluent, something they all considered odd.

In this, Orwell’s first novel, his deep familiarity with Burmese climate, flora & fauna, language and customs, is wonderfully evident throughout.

He acclimatized himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yaru d-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them – honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After
dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past. (Chapter 5)

Vivid, eh?

Characters

The novel is set in the small town of Kyauktada.

Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus. In 1910 the Government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of Progress – interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The population was about four thousand,
including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a Roman Catholic missionary respectively. (Chapter 2)

The novel opens, shrewdly, with a chapter describing a typical morning of the wily U Po Kyin, the grossly fat sub-divisional magistrate of Kyauktada, introducing us to his loyal servant, the pock-marked thief Ba Taik, and his thin, long-suffering wife, Ma Kin. I say shrewdly because this opening chapter gives an immediate flavour of the heat, the climate, the native food (which U Po Kyin greedily stuffs himself with), and the cunning mind-set of a successful Burman. A potted biography of U Po Kyin gives a handy snapshot of how Burma had evolved under British rule since the war of 1885.

Having established the foreignness of the setting, the novel’s remaining 24 chapters almost all focus on the small European population of the town. Chapter two sets the tone by describing the town’s sad little European ‘Club’, where a group of very bored, hungover white men consort and bicker. Very quickly Orwell captures the hatefulness, boredom and spite of English colonials. Later on we are told that there are precisely eight white people in the whole town – collectively referred to as the sahiblog. They include:

Macgregor, worthy middle-aged chap, Deputy Commissioner and secretary of the Club. Always trying to see the best of things, tactfully avoiding arguments, a teller of long boring anecdotes. Macgregor has been instructed by his superiors to suggest that a ‘native’ join the Club, it’s the way things are going, most other clubs have one or two natives etc. This mild suggestion causes a storm of protest from the other whites.

Ellis, local manager of a timber company, is a spiteful racist cockney with a real deep loathing and hatred of the locals who he freely calls ‘niggers’, to the other white men’s discomfort. In every situation Ellis is guaranteed to pull all conversations down to the lowest common denominator and use every possible excuse to vent his hatred, not only of Burmans, but of women (‘There was nothing that gave him quite so keen a pleasure as dragging a woman’s name through mud.’ Chapter 7). In a historically interesting passage Ellis not only takes the mickey out of Flory’s blooming love for Elizabeth, but also gives a cynical opinion of the British Empire as a last-chance marriage bureau for women who have failed to find a husband back home – which is in fact an accurate description of Elizabeth’s plight.

Mr Lackersteen, the big, coarse-faced manager of a timber firm. He likes getting drunk and ‘having a good time’, which means touching up the local women, which is why his wife, Mrs Lackersteen, almost never lets him out of her sight. Later, he tries it on with his own niece, spurring her desperation to find a husband and move out of his house.

Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police, a man of clipped speech and melancholy voice, always making sad jokes. ‘A fresh-coloured blond youth of not more than twenty-five or six – very young for the post he held. With his heavy limbs and thick white eyelashes he reminded one of a cart-horse colt.’ (Chapter 2) Has a habit of predictably saying ‘Lead on, Macduff’ when anyone enters a room or commences some activity.

Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer. He ‘was lying in one of the long chairs reading the Field, and invisible except for two large-boned legs and thick downy forearms.’ (Chapter 2)

Dr Veraswami, an Indian and the only doctor in the town.

But the main character turns out to be Flory,

a man of about thirty-five, of middle height, not ill made. He had very black, stiff hair growing low on his head, and a cropped black moustache, and his skin, naturally sallow, was discoloured by the sun. Not having grown fat or bald he did not look older than his age, but his face was very haggard in spite of the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look around the eyes… The first thing that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise – for it was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness. And at all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight. (Chapter 2)

We learn that Flory was bullied at school, keeps a black cocker spaniel named Flo, has a devoted servant – Ko S’la – who he grew up with, and keeps a beautiful mistress, the slender possessive Ma Hla May, who lets him have sex with her, passionlessly and dutifully, because she revels in the prestige and power of being the woman of a white man, especially the ability to boss about Flory’s long-suffering servants.

Flory has different opinions from the rest of the Europeans: he is supremely cynical about the worth of the empire, but more than that, he genuinely likes the native Burmans and is attracted to their culture and traditions. He has even learned their language when most Europeans barely bother to learn more than three words and get by on kicking servants. In this respect, he is quite obviously Orwell’s representative in the novel – up to a point.

Flory is good friends with Dr Veraswami – who the venomous Ellis nicknames ‘Very-Slimey’ – and on a number of occasions drops by his house for a chat in which the unctuous and anxious doctor always tries to please his troubled white friend. During one of these chats, Flory reluctantly promises to put his friend’s name forward for membership of the club reluctantly because he knows the arguments it will embroil him in.

For Flory’s problems is that he has to keep his perceptions of the beauty of the local scenery, the brightly-coloured birds and his love of the locals tightly buttoned up and kept rigorously secret, because it is so very contrary to the boorish, philistine codes of the pukka sahib. Flory is literally bursting with frustration to share his perceptions and experiences and the beauty he sees all around him with someone who will listen.

Then Mr and Mrs Lackersteen’s pretty young niece, 20-year-old Elizabeth, arrives in Kyauktada, and the story begins…

The plot

The plot has two strands:

1. The fat conspirator extraordinaire, taker of bribes and boundlessly ambitious U Po Kyin plots to discredit Dr Veraswami a) by writing anonymous letters to all the Europeans accusing him of innumerable scandals, and b) by fomenting a small rebellion in a distant village which he – U Po Kyin – will alert the authorities to and (arrange to) quell. In their gratitude the white men will invite him to join the Club, rather than the discredited doctor. As he explains to his slight, long-suffering wife, it will be the pinnacle of his career.

2. The hopeless love affair between shy, frustrated Flory and Elizabeth, young and freshly arrived from England. A chapter gives us her back story, namely that her father made a fortune during the Great War and so could afford to send her to a premium private school for young gels, where she acquired a taste for luxury and high living – but only for a brief year before Papa lost his fortune and she was sent to a succession of ever-dingier schools.

When poor Papa died, Mama was left with a pittance which she decided would go further if she moved to Paris where, after much self-indulgent dallying, she decides she will become an artist – in reality sinking into greater poverty surrounded by hangers-on spouting poetry and art and suchlike.

Shallow Elizabeth dreams only of being restored to her life among the rich and lovely and grows to loathe ‘highbrows’, their poverty and above all their futile pretensions. Elizabeth wants to marry a strong, noble, sunburned colonial god. When her Mama passes away, she receives a letter from her aunt in Burma and takes up the invitation to go and stay.

She arrives, is introduced to the bores and bigots and the Club. On virtually her first day she is menaced by a water buffalo, screams in terror, and Flory who happens to be passing comes to her rescue (knowing water buffalo are harmless). On the back of this he takes the role of showing her round, thinking he will interest her in local people and their culture.

But Elizabeth instinctively loathes the Burmans with their filth and revolting habits, and is unnerved to hear Flory spouting all the highbrow pretentious twaddle about ‘poetry’ and ‘beauty’ she associates with Parisian pretentiousness.

Flory, on the contrary, detests the traditional bric-a-brac of colonial life, the endless tedious conversations about tennis or dogs or guns or hunting. It is the colour and strange customs and ancient culture of Burma which attract him – and which Elizabeth loathes as ‘beastly’ and ‘high-brow’. It is a relationship based on mutual desperation and the central part of the book details with horrible stickiness their inevitable descent into an unhappy trap.

Flory and Elizabeth’s doomed romance

The middle half of the novel follows Flory’s feeble, dog-like attempts to show Elizabeth the local culture – taking her to a traditional pwe dance which she finds revolting, and into the home of a local notable, Li Yeik, which she finds filthy and where they serve revolting food and drink which makes her retch. (The description of their visit to the village festival and the performance of a pwe dancer are fascinating.) Orwell makes it perfectly, comically, tragically, clear they are at complete cross-purposes.

Then Flory has the idea of taking Elizabeth hunting, and this is the kind of thing Elizabeth expected: guns and beaters and manly men shooting things. Again, this is a riveting chapter full of brilliant descriptions of local birds and wildlife and climaxing in the gripping, cruel shooting of a leopard. (Hunting was much written about at this period: think of Hemingway’s classic account of a month on safari, The Green Hills of Africa, 1935). This is precisely the kind of thing the shallow brainless Elizabeth imagined when she thought of ‘India’ and its glamour. Over the body of the dead leopard she and Flory find they are holding hands; it is only a matter of time till he proposes to her.

That night at the Club Flory takes Elizabeth onto the veranda and is on the verge of proposing when her aunt interrupts by shouting from indoors. In fact, in a memorable development, before her aunt can appear on the veranda there is a minor earthquake which throws everyone off their feet, making all the women, native and European, scream. No-one is actually hurt but everyone assembles back inside the Club for a night of strong drink and yarning. The proposal moment is lost…

The arrival of Verrall

And lost forever because the next day a new arrival appears, the incredibly haughty, superior, supercilious Lieutenant the Honourable Verrall, son of a Lord, who has spent his career in India perfecting his polo playing. Verrall is a really superb creation, as effortlessly rude to the other Europeans as he is to the natives. He makes his mark immediately at the Club by giving the native butler a sound kicking and then refusing to apologise or even acknowledge the other members when they remonstrate with him.

Predictably, Elizabeth falls for this stiff, handsome, uncaring philistine – I pictured him as Edward Fox in Day of the Jackal – and drops Flory like a brick. It doesn’t help that her aunt helpfully lets slip the night after the successful hunt, that Flory keeps a native mistress. (In fact we know that Flory has painfully dumped Ma Hla May a week or so earlier. She made a big scene and returns to blackmail money out of him; in his eyes this makes someone telling Elizabeth about Ma Hla horribly unfair, though we readers may think the general point remains true – he is the kind of man who took a native mistress.)

Elizabeth cuts Flory dead and the devastated lonely man returns to his timber plantation up country where he throws himself into his work (the description of which is itself interesting). In fact, after barely two weeks he is so obsessed with her that he goes back down to Kyauktada, and has the bright idea of getting the leopard skin stylishly cured and giving it to her.

Predictably, this all goes wrong. The native charged with curing the leopard skin makes a dreadful hash of it, producing a scorched stinking skin which Flory foolishly persists on giving to Elizabeth – who naturally recoils. Their meeting, at Mrs Lackersteen’s house, is memorably embarrassing and Flory finds himself limited to the shallowest polite conversation before being more or less turfed out. Mrs Lackersteen orders the servants to burn the stinky leopard skin.

But meanwhile Elizabeth’s cause with Verrall is not prospering. We know this because the author has told us that Verrall has a record of dallying with attractive young gels and then dropping them. Hence they go riding together and – it is strongly hinted – might be doing the deed of darkness deep in the jungle. But, in his clipped, overbred way, Verrall drops never a hint of matrimony. Though he’s a cad and a bounder etc (it is emphasised that he leaves not only a string of broken hearts but also massive debts to all the local traders wherever he sojourns), in some ways Verall is the most attractive character in the book: he gets his way without whining or complaining.

The pretend rebellion

U Po Kyin’s toy rebellion goes ahead in some remote village; it turns out to involve just eight villagers. Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer, is involved in ‘suppressing’ it and, when one of the ‘rebels’ runs away, unwisely shoots, hitting him in the stomach and killing him. Nonetheless, U Po Kyin rather ludicrously claims the benefit and prestige of having tipped off the authorities.

Flory returns from his station to the Club for the vote at start of June about whether to admit a native. Ellis is ranting against ‘niggers’. Flory steels himself to keep his promise to his friend Veraswami and nominates him as a member. The others all start attacking him, Ellis with virulent racist hatred, when they are interrupted by natives mooring a boat by the river bank (the Club is right by the wide River Irrawaddy) and bringing up a body wrapped in local cloth. It is Maxwell. He has been hacked to pieces by the brothers of the native he shot dead a week earlier. For the first time an air of real tragedy descends on what till now had been at times a fairly brittle social satire.

Next day Ellis is walking from his bungalow to the club and Orwell gives us a running stream of his thoughts which are phenomenally angry and racist. God he wishes there’d be some trouble, a real riot, because then they could call the Military Police out and massacre the brutes; kill scores, hundreds of ’em. That would teach ’em a lesson – and so on. (As a matter of historical curiosity, in an earlier conversation at the Club, Ellis is seen defending Colonel Dyer who, notoriously, ordered the killing of some 400 protesters in the Amritsar massacre of 13 April 1919. It is not so much the reference as the context Orwell puts around it which, fascinatingly, helps you see that there would have been many Brits who whole-heartedly supported Dyer.)

An inoffensive Burman carrying bags passes him, prompting a psychopathic wish to attack and hurt him. Next he sees five schoolboys coming towards him, smiling and when they reply in broken English to his salvo of abuse, Ellis snaps and hits one of them in the face with his stick. That one goes down and the other four attack Ellis but he is surprisingly strong, fights them off and makes it to the club veranda. (In a a brief exasperated sentence Orwell adds that, later on, a local doctor administers some foul concoction to the boy’s eyes, thus successfully him.)

The real riot

That night a huge crowd of Burmans, several thousand strong, surrounds the Club calling for Ellis to be sent out. Macgregor staunchly goes out to try and restore calm but is subject to a bombardment of stones and the crowd turn really ugly. The whites (and their terrified servants) barricade the Club, locking all windows and doors, and there’s the real possibility the mob will storm the building and it would only take blood to be drawn on either side to spark a massacre. All the whites panic, Ellis abusing everyone in sight, Mr Lackersteen drinking himself unconscious, the memsahibs wailing – all want to know where the damn military police are.

For Verrall had arrived with a detachment of a hundred and fifty military police – but he and Westfield have been gone several days on a mission to track down Maxwell’s killers. Flory has bright idea of creeping out the back of the Club and swimming down the river to alert the police. He does so, easily evading the handful of Burmans in the back garden, and within minutes is emerging a few hundred yards downstream to realise the police haven’t come to help because they themselves are engulfed in the mob, having waded into them with only sticks.

Flory manages to struggle through to the (Indian) NCO of the police and instructs him to a) struggle free of the mob b) rally his men c) issue firearms d) fire over the heads of the crowd. As soon as they let fly the first volley, the entire crowd falls to the ground. Another and they are up and running away.

I found this scene extremely convincing, and a reminder that Orwell himself personally was in charge of this kind of force and had had to handle tricky situations. Quick assessment, quick decision, quick action save the day. The police advance on the Club whence the last few Burmans are fleeing and liberate the whites. Flory is very much the hero of the hour – though there is an element of comedy in that out of nowhere U Po Kyin has attached himself to the police and is trying to claim half the credit for quelling the riot.

Flory enjoys being hero for an hour. Next day finds he is respected by everyone, Elizabeth is looking at him with new respect, Ellis has his come-uppance as during the siege he swore and insulted all the other whites, specially the unforgiving Mrs Lackersteen.

In a simple but poetic (symbolic) touch, as the last of the rioters had dispersed the previous night, the long-awaited monsoon had broken and it began to rain tumultuously. That evening Flory and Elizabeth meet at the Club and, amid the din of the rain, she seems favourable to him again, but breaks away to go inside. Flory had arranged to return to his lumber camp and sets off.

Verrall decamps

Elizabeth had been hesitant because she is genuinely torn between dashing Verrall and now-heroic Flory. Trouble is Verrall hasn’t been seen at the club for several days and, typically, hasn’t contacted her. The days pass as Mrs Lackersteen and Elizabeth wait timidly at the Club for the reappearance of Verrall. Imagine their horror when, on the third morning, out of the torrential rain appears a bumptious youth in uniform who announces that he is the new head of the military police. ‘Yes, that other chappy, Verall, he’s just leaving by train now.’ The women run out into a rickshaw and get it driven through the pelting rain to the station – only to watch the train puffing out of sight. Such a cad is young Verall that he not only packed and left, loading up his horses and saddles, in secret, but actually ordered the stationmaster to send the train off ten minutes earlier, the better to avoid a sticky scene.

The women digest this blow to their ambitions (the whole plot thread of Mrs Lackersteen encouraging her niece to clamp on to the nearest available man has a very calculating, feminine Jane Austen feel to it). It is Saturday. That evening the chaplain arrives for his six-weekly visit. Next morning the entire white community will (reluctantly) go to church, and Flory will come back into town for the event. Both the women have, without saying anything explicit, completely reversed their view about him, now that Flory has reverted to being the only eligible bachelor in town. The lovely Mr Flory!

Tragic denouement

Next morning the whites assemble for the six-weekly visit of the chaplain and Sunday prayers. Elizabeth looks radiant and when Flory asks whether Verrall has left, she confirms it, and looks doe-ishly into his eyes. It is now a sure thing that they will get married. Flory’s mind drifts off during the service into fantasies of living in a beautiful bungalow, decorated by Elizabeth’s fair hand, with flowers everywhere and a piano – a piano! – when… he is awoken by a rumpus at the door.

It is Ma Hla May, his ex-mistress, looking more raddled and ragged than ever, screeching at the top of her voice, accusing Flory of having used her and kicked her out, demanding he pay her the money he (foolishly) promised her and then – horror of horrors – she begins to tear at her clothes with a view to stripping naked, the ultimate in self-abasement and shaming behaviour.

Since she’s yelling in Burmese none of the whites understand a word but they definitely get the gist. Flory turns white then a cringing yellow. Elizabeth looks at him and for the first time sees how old and raddled and worn and pathetic he is – and for the first time really sees how ugly his birthmark makes him. And Flory sees all this pass through her eyes. Ma Hla May is man-handled out the church by two Eurasians, but the damage is done.

The service staggers to a conclusion and Flory leaves immediately, his ears burning, his mind reeling. Looking back he sees all the others making for the Club, leaving Elizabeth slightly apart. He quickly runs over to her and begs forgiveness, begs her pardon, asks if she will consider him again, in a year, in five years, in ten years. He has previously pleaded with her (on the night he gave her the wretched botched leopard skin) but now he reaches new depths of humiliating abasement. But Elizabeth coldly insists there was never any understanding between them, says he revolts her, and hurries off.

Flory staggers to his bungalow in a daze, rejects the breakfast laid on by his faithful servant, drags his dog Flo into his bedroom, locks the door, then shoots first the dog, then himself through the heart. The servants panic at the shots and call Dr Veraswami, who confirms that his best friend is dead. He writes a death certificate saying it must have been ‘accidental death’, cleaning his revolver etc, a last service to his friend.

So that is that. Throughout its course I wasn’t sure how it would end, but it turns out to be quite a dark tragedy – rather against the grain of some of the social satire and the lush descriptions.

Tying up loose ends

The short last chapter makes a comprehensive round up of all the remaining characters, tying up all the loose ends. (In this respect – a sad final chapter after the agonised main character has melodramatically committed suicide in a sweaty colonial setting – reminds me very much of Graham Greene’s The Heart of The Matter where we are witness through two hundred long pages to Scobie’s agonised pangs of conscience leading up to his suicide – and then in the sad postscript discover that everyone knew about his silly infidelity anyway, and didn’t much care.)

Same here. Despite Dr Veraswami’s efforts to cover up his friend’s suicide, Flory quickly just becomes another story of the sad so-and-so who killed himself because of girl trouble. The good doctor sinks very low now in social esteem, his one solid white friend being dead and U Po Kyin’s continued campaign of anonymous letters attacking him take their effect. Orwell details the precise extent of his degradation as he is demoted and switched to a stinking third-rate hospital in sweltering Rangoon.

U Po Kyin’s plans succeed. He is indeed elected a member of the Club where he turns out to be agreeable company, having the tact to only rarely attend and when he does, turns out to be an excellent bridge player. Orwell pushes the satirical point home by having U Po Kyin promoted by the authorities for his role in repressing the ‘rebellion’ and the riot, and then invited to a durbar, where the Great British Empire in all its pomp includes him in a list of loyal servants given royal awards. However, he dies of a stroke a few days later, leaving his poor widow agonising about his probable tribulations in the Burmese afterlife.

And Elizabeth is at her wit’s end – Verrall abandoned her, Flory turned out to be a hopeless beast before squalidly killing himself – and all the time the wretched Mr Lackersteen continues his campaign of pinching, fondling and trying to kiss her whenever Mrs Lackersteen’s back is turned. If she returns to England she will be penniless, oh what to do? At which point kindly Mr Macgregor proposes to her and is accepted. After marriage, he becomes even more human and contented, while she ascends to her rightful position, a fiery preserver of white privilege, a despiser of native culture, keeping a beady eye on the Civil Service List to see who is up and who is down, and a terror to her servants.

Thus the British Empire in all its glory.


Anti-imperial

Is the book by any chance anti-imperial? Just a bit.

He had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code. In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you
sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they ARE
greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. (Chapter 5)

But it’s not just where the subject is overtly discussed – which is only in half a dozen or so places – quite obviously the entire book, insofar as it a downbeat description of colonial life in a small station in British India, is implicitly critical.

We can assume a lot of the characterisation and the psychology is fairly accurate, in fact Orwell was so worried about the risk of libel – having based the town and some of the characters on a real place and real people – that he had it published in America first to test out the waters, and it was initially turned down by his British publisher. In the event, people who’d known him in Burma felt he’d let the side down but nothing worse happened.

The book critiques the Empire in at least three ways:

  1. overt analysis/criticism as quoted above, where Flory, for example, explicitly states the Empire is nothing but institutionalised robbery
  2. by portraying through the opinions and actions of the white characters a variety of types or shades of racist thought and action
  3. but above all, structurally – by which I mean that the entire book shows how absolutely everyone in it, all the whites and all the natives, are caught in the imperial power structure, are defined as either rulers or ruled, and how this determines almost every aspect of their lives, from the grandest schemes to the tiniest details of contempt and humiliation

The arguments for and against Britain’s presence in India are presented in a set-piece debate between the cynic Flory and the devoted loyalist Dr Veraswami in chapter 3.

‘Seditious?’ Flory said. ‘I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.’

The novel as a whole is a powerful indictment not because of the explicitly anti-imperial reflections of poor unhappy Flory, but because of the penetrating details of imperial life which it depicts, often as asides.

For example, it is in the briefest of references that we learn that the eight or so villagers U Po Kyin paid to stage a fake ‘rebellion’ in fact end up brutally sentenced, to fifteen years in prison, floggings and so on. With a handful of exceptions – servants and mistresses – the Burmese are just a background throng against which the adventures of ‘real’ i.e. white people take place. The blinding of the Burmese boy, the ruination of Ma Hla May, the sentences meted out to the ‘rebels’ – all are mentioned but deliberately briefly to implicate the readers themselves in the imperialist ideology of only taking white people seriously.

We, in our times, are so continually exposed to unanswerable post-colonial propaganda about how awful and racist the British Empire was, that it is a relief – and much more powerful – to see it described in detail by someone who was there, and so to realise that it was made out of people like you and me. Some are bastards. Some are decent. Some try to improve things. Some ruthlessly exploit their superior position.

All are caught in the ideology and social structure of their time which requires them to go along with the more or less overt exploitation and humiliation of the native peoples they ‘rule’, all living with a greater or lesser degree of bad conscience, all internalising it into guilt feelings like Flory (and as Orwell himself did, as he confesses in The Road To Wigan Pier), or externalising it into vicious bigotry and thoughtless violence, like Ellis and Verrall.

This fictional depiction of empire makes a much more compelling anti-imperial case than many of the anti-imperial histories I’ve read recently, because it is subtler, and shows how the insidious consequences of imperial rule poisoned all social relations, and the characters of all those involved.

Tourist info

Orwell’s local knowledge treads a fine line between being genuine insider tips and occasionally becoming a bit too explanatory – the tone sometimes reminds you of the ‘old India hand’, keen to explain this that or the other about colonial life to the new boy.

  • Every European in India is ex officio, or rather ex colore, a good fellow, until he has done something quite outrageous. It is an honorary rank. (Chapter 2)
  • It is a disagreeable thing when one’s close friend is not one’s social equal; but it is a thing native to the very air of India. (Chapter 3)

This keenness to explain extends to numerous details of Burma life:

  •  All European food in Burma is more or less disgusting – the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong, the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. (Chapter 4)
  • There is no Burmese word for to kiss. (Chapter 4)
  • In India it is in some way evil to spend a day without being once in a muck-sweat. It gives one a deeper sense of sin than a thousand lecheries. In the dark evening, after a quite idle day, one’s ennui reaches a pitch that is frantic, suicidal. Work, prayer, books, drinking, talking – they are all powerless against it; it can only be sweated out through the pores of the skin. (Chapter 4)
  • The meal was pretentious and filthy. The clever ‘Mug’ cooks, descendants of servants trained
    by Frenchmen in India centuries ago, can do anything with food except make it eatable. (Chapter 4)

Generalisations

As you can see, Orwell likes generalisations. It’s a common habit of his factual prose as well, the paragraph which leads towards a sententious moral. Once I’d noticed this sententiousness it put me in mind of his contemporary, Graham Greene (born in 1904 to Orwell’s 1903). Orwell is not as completely addicted to spouting quotable mottos as Greene, but it reminds you that they both come from the same public school, administrative class, which was taught above all other things, to sound authoritative.

In fact I think their sententiousness is part of the appeal of both writers, though admittedly to rather different audiences: they both sound so wise and experienced, ultimately because they are capable of generating such authoritative sounding generalisations.

But as with Greene, not all of these, on a moment’s reflection, are totally persuasive.

  • No Englishman ever feels himself in real danger from an Oriental. (Chapter 6)
  • When one does get any credit in this life, it is usually for something that one has not done. (Chapter 6)
  • Meanwhile, Flory’s proposal went no further. One cannot propose marriage immediately after an earthquake. (Chapter 15)
  • As it was, everyone except the two women detested him [the Honourable Verrall]  from the start. It is always so with titled people, they are either adored or hated. If they accept one it is charming simplicity, if they ignore one it is loathsome snobbishness; there are no half-measures. (Chapter 18)
  • Like all sons of rich families, he [Verrall] thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. (Chapter 18)
  • She was italicizing every other word, with that deadly, glittering brightness that a woman puts on when she is dodging a moral obligation. (Chapter 19)

Similarly, Orwell assumes the reader is familiar with experiences, feelings and sensations which, in fact, we often aren’t.

  • He had called out eagerly, appealingly, as one does when one is conscious of looking a fool. (Chapter 16)
  • Mrs Lackersteen left him standing up in the drawing-room, feeling lumpish and abnormally large as one does at such times. (Chapter 19)
  • Ko S’la had the art, so necessary in a bachelor’s servant, of undressing his master without waking him. (Chapter 19)
  • Envy is a horrible thing. It is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it, no elevating it into tragedy. It is more than merely painful, it is disgusting. (Chapter 20)
  • There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways. (Chapter 23)

These kinds of generalisations are coercive: they push you into accepting the values of the fiction, and they have a secondary role in nudging you to accept the higher wisdom of the author. Whatever their merit as statements about human nature, their immediate function is to suck you into the fiction and bolster the author’s authority. Thus, to some extent, all those fans of either Greene or Orwell who worship them as ‘great writers’, have to some extent been suckered by their rhetorical devices.

Etc etc

Orwell has an odd tic, which is his use of ‘etc etc’ when impatiently summarising a point of view he thinks is tiresomely obvious.

In his journalism he often caricatures opposing points of view by quoting a stream of their most obvious arguments before, rather insultingly tailing off with ‘etc etc’, as if everyone knows and is bored of them. A kind of ‘argument from boredom’.

But it is unusual to find a novelist doing this with his characters in a fiction. Thus:

  • Ellis the bigot: ”My God, I should have thought in a case like this, when it’s a question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you’d have the decency to back me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor IS your best pal. I don’t care if you choose to pal up with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to
    Veraswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God, it’s a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you’d like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god, he’d go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little –!’ etc.
  • Of the note Ellis the bigot composes: ”In view of the cowardly insult recently offered to our Deputy
    commissioner, we the undersigned wish to give it as our opinion that this is the worst possible moment to consider the election of niggers to this Club,’ etc, etc.
  • Describing Elizabeth’s mother’s prattle in Paris: ‘How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply EVERYTHING. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The letter Mrs Lackersteen writes to Elizabeth from Burma: ‘Of course, this is a very small station and we are in the jungle a great deal of the time. I’m afraid you will find it dreadfully dull after the DELIGHTS of Paris. But really in some ways these small stations have their advantages for a young girl. She finds herself quite a QUEEN in the local society. The unmarried men are so lonely that they appreciate a girl’s society in a quite wonderful way, etc., etc.’
  • Francis the Eurasian’s interminable recounting of his life story: ”Of my father, sir, I remember little, but he was very choleric man and many whackings with big bamboo stick all knobs on both for self, little half-brother and two mothers. Also how on occasion of bishop’s visit little half-brother and I dress in longyis and sent among the Burmese children to preserve incognito. My father never rose to be bishop, sir. Four converts only in twenty-eight years, and also too great fondness for Chinese rice-spirit very fiery noised abroad and spoil sales of my father’s booklet entitled The Scourge of Alcohol, published with the Rangoon Baptist Press, one rupee eight annas. My little half-brother die one hot weather, always coughing, coughing,’ etc., etc.
  • The native butler at the Club excitably recounting earthquake stories: ”Oh, sir, but 1906 was bigger! Very bad shock, sir! And big heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing, that is Buddhist bishop, madam, which the Burmese say mean bad omen for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease. Also in 1887 my first earthquake I remember, when I was a little chokra, and Major Maclagan sahib was lying under the table and promising he sign the teetotal pledge tomorrow morning. He not know it was an earthquake. Also two cows was killed by falling roofs,’ etc, etc.
  • Elizabeth avoiding saying anything meaningful to Flory: She helped him to pick up the table, chattering all the while as gaily and easily as though nothing had happened: ‘You have been away a long time, Mr Flory! You’re quite a stranger! We’ve so missed you at the Club!’ etc., etc.
  • A sample gravestone from the white cemetery: ‘Sacred to the memory of John Henry Spagnall, late of the Indian Imperial Police, who was cut down by cholera while in the unremitting exercise of’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The official and completely untrue account of an affray Ellis is in:  ‘The boys had attacked Mr Ellis without any provocation whatever, he had defended himself,’ etc., etc. (Chapter 22)

It is a kind of journalistic short hand, which is unusual in a novel. It also, perhaps, has a slightly coercive effect, as in ‘You know all this stuff already, why do I need to blether on?’

Joy of descriptions

I was taught at school and university to consider novels as tracts of moral philosophy, to assess the rightness or wrongness of characters’ actions, thoughts etc, and to work up long analyses of the various moral ‘issues’ raised. We were also taught to hunt for the symbolism to be found in many novels, the use of imagery to reinforce ideas or themes. Later I was attracted by ideas around structuralism and narratology, analysing texts out into their component parts, like taking a machine to pieces to see how it works.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken more to the purely sensual qualities of books: drawn to the combination of intelligent insight and style (which you get in good history books), or to the sheer pleasure and sensuality of the descriptions, to be found in fiction. To my great surprise this book, by the generally puritanical Orwell, turns out to be awash with sumptuous descriptions. It is a surprisingly sensuous and physical read.

The morning sunlight slanted up the maidan and struck, yellow as goldleaf, against the white face of the bungalow. Four black-purple crows swooped down and perched on the veranda rail, waiting
their chance to dart in and steal the bread and butter that Ko S’la had set down beside Flory’s bed.

They walked on and came to the jail, a vast square block, two hundred yards each way, with shiny concrete walls twenty feet high. A peacock, pet of the jail, was mincing pigeon-toed along the parapet. Six convicts came by, head down, dragging two heavy handcarts piled with earth, under the guard of Indian warders. They were long-sentence men, with heavy limbs, dressed in uniforms of coarse white cloth with small dunces’ caps perched on their shaven crowns. Their faces were greyish, cowed and curiously flattened. Their leg-irons jingled with a clear ring. A woman came past carrying a basket of fish on her head. Two crows were circling round it and making darts at it, and the woman was flapping one hand negligently to keep them away…

The bazaar was an enclosure like a very large cattle pen, with low stalls, mostly palm-thatched, round its edge. In the enclosure, a mob of people seethed, shouting and jostling; the confusion of their multi-coloured clothes was like a cascade of hundreds-and-thousands poured out of a jar. Beyond the bazaar one could see the huge, miry river. Tree branches and long streaks of scum raced down it at seven miles an hour. By the bank a fleet of sampans, with sharp beak-like bows on which eyes were painted, rocked at their mooring-poles…

‘Look!’ Flory was pointing with his stick to a stall, and saying something, but it was drowned by the yells of two women who were shaking their fists at each other over a basket of pineapples. Elizabeth had recoiled from the stench and din, but he did not notice it, and led her deeper into the crowd, pointing to this stall and that. The merchandise was foreign-looking, queer and poor. There were vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-coloured prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coconuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugar-cane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills, glazed earthenware jars four feet high, Chinese sweetmeats made of garlic and sugar, green and white cigars, purple prinjals, persimmon-seed necklaces, chickens cheeping in wicker cages, brass
Buddhas, heart-shaped betel leaves, bottles of Kruschen salts, switches of false hair, red clay cooking-pots, steel shoes for bullocks, papier-mache marionettes, strips of alligator hide with
magical properties. Elizabeth’s head was beginning to swim. At the other end of the bazaar the sun gleamed through a priest’s umbrella, blood-red, as though through the ear of a giant. In front of a stall four Dravidian women were pounding turmeric with heavy stakes in a large wooden mortar. The hot-scented yellow powder flew up and tickled Elizabeth’s nostrils, making her sneeze.

There are lots of passages like this, making the book a surprisingly voluptuous description of the ‘mysterious East’.

Beauty

In particular, I was struck by how beautiful Orwell finds things, particularly the flora and fauna. Again and again he describes birds and flowers with an accuracy and delight which is infectious. He repeatedly uses the word ‘beautiful’.

There was a stirring high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible, they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it. Flo rested herself against the roots and growled up at the invisible creatures. Then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch. It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours.

The canoes, each hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, glided swiftly, hardly rippling the dark brown water. Water hyacinth with profuse spongy foliage and blue flowers had choked the stream so that the channel was only a winding ribbon four feet wide. The light filtered, greenish, through interlacing boughs. Sometimes one could hear parrots scream overhead, but no wild creatures showed themselves, except once a snake that swam hurriedly away and disappeared among the water hyacinth.

The pigeon rocked itself backwards and forwards on the bough, swelling out its breast feathers and laying its coralline beak upon them. A pang went through Flory. Alone, alone, the bitterness of being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something – bird, flower, tree – beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. (Chapter 4)

Flory went outside and loitered down the compound, poking weeds into the ground with his stick. At that hour there were beautiful faint colours in everything – tender green of leaves, pinkish brown
of earth and tree-trunks–like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small, low-flying brown doves chased one another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald-green, curvetted like slow swallows. (Chapter 6)

Ten yards away a little cock the size of a bantam, was pecking vigorously at the ground. He was beautiful, with his long silky neck-feathers, bunched comb and arching, laurel-green tail. There
were six hens with him, smaller brown birds, with diamond-shaped feathers like snake-scales on their backs.

Everyone squatted down round the leopard and gazed at him. They stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s, and squeezed his broad pugs to bring out the claws, and pulled back his black lips to examine the fangs.

It was the night of the full moon. Flaring like a white-hot coin, so brilliant that it hurt one’s eyes, the moon swam rapidly upwards in a sky of smoky blue, across which drifted a few wisps of yellowish cloud. The stars were all invisible. The croton bushes, by day hideous things like jaundiced laurels, were changed by the moon into jagged black and white designs like fantastic wood-cuts. By the compound fence two Dravidian coolies were walking down the road, transfigured, their white rags gleaming. (Chapter 15)

He noticed that Verrall’s pony was a beautiful Arab, a mare, with proud neck and arching, plume-like tail; a lovely milk-white thing, worth several thousands of rupees. (Chapter 16)

Even people can be beautiful.

Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling. (Chapter 1)

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or -three, and perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several
gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny, straight, slender body was a contourless as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil came into the room with her. (Chapter 4)

There is also a kind of beauty in the precision and careful vocabulary with which Orwell describes ugliness – poverty, slums, gravediggers and so on – I could give many examples – but they tend to be outweighed by the lush. It is these richly exotic and full and positive descriptions which I’ll remember.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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