BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
GEORGE ORWELL: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison
, August 21, 2010
For Orwell aficionados
A Life in Letters
by George Orwell
selected and annotated by Peter Davison
(London: Harvill Secker)
Hardcover: 544 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95
Reviewed by Bill James
G.K. Chesterton, in his essay David Copperfield, wrote: "When I was a boy, I could not understand why the Dickensians worried so wearily about Dickens, about where he went to school and where he ate his dinners, about how he wore his trousers and when he cut his hair."
Avid Orwellians will find questions of this nature answered in Davison's selection of Orwell's correspondence.
Here are business negotiations with publishers, housing arrangements (Wallington, Spain, Morocco, London, Jura), furniture, food supplies, gardening, candles and electricity, the care of poultry and goats, his wife's and his own health crises, his adopted baby son's clothing needs and toilet training, taxes, the challenge of finding a pair of shoes big enough to fit him, his tobacco requirements, and much, much more.
That "much, much more" includes references, of course, to the creation of novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The embedding of these references in the context of everyday duties reminds us that the production of works of genius absorbed a minute proportion of a life which, like most, was largely taken up with the mundane concerns of relationships, domestic arrangements, and scraping together enough income to live on.
Orwell is best remembered for his powerful, lonely and courageous exposure of Stalinism, and amongst all the quotidian ephemera of the letters, there are a number of comments which shed light on the events and thoughts underlying his prosecution of this battle in and through his famous publications.
There are complaints about the communist-inspired attempted censorship of Homage To Catalonia and Animal Farm.
There are references to what he calls "Stalino-Liberals" in institutions such as "peace" movements, the churches and the UK's National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL).
Their characteristic tactic was to magnify and condemn the slightest imperfections of liberal democracy, while ignoring or celebrating the vilest aspects of Soviet totalitarianism (the same tactic used today by rationalisers of Islamofascism).
And, finally, there are discussions of the famous list Orwell compiled describing suspected communist sympathisers, a number of whom were later revealed to have been NKVD agents.
Much of the material in the letters is repetitious, and sometimes Davison has summarised it rather than reiterating it verbatim.
The reason for the repetition is that Orwell had to laboriously type out the same news over and over for different correspondents, a task which has been miraculously obviated for us today by the Copy, Paste, Reply and Forward functions of our computers.
For Orwell aficionados keen to learn about the minutiae of their hero's life which cannot be found in the many biographies, or his own published novels and essays, there are three choices.
The first is to purchase the 20-volume Complete Works, also edited by Davison, which costs a hefty Â£UK750 pounds.
The second is to purchase this collection of letters, which enjoys the advantage of being easily available.
The third, and the one which I would recommend, is to buy the paperback four-volume Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism of George Orwell edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Brownell (Orwell's second wife), which was published 1968-1970, and is still procurable online, if not in bookshops.
Of course, if you can afford all three, then - lucky you!