A man revealed

Correspondence from, to and about George Orwell gives emotional depth to the literary lion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 4:20pm

George Orwell: A Life in Letters
Selected and annotated by Peter Davison 
Liveright Publishing
4 stars

In a life that was relatively brief but exceedingly active, George Orwell was, among other things, a police officer in Burma, a dishwasher in France, a tramp in England, a combatant in Spain, a war correspondent in Germany and a farmer in the Hebrides. Like many people of his era - he was born in 1903 and died in 1950 - he was also a prolific letter writer, and a captivating and thoughtful one at that, thanks partly to the wealth of experience that he had acquired.

George Orwell: A Life in Letters is a selection of some of the most interesting of these casual writings, from a 20-year period that included both the Great Depression and the second world war. Peter Davison, who selected and annotated the letters, was also the lead editor of Orwell's 20-volume Complete Works and has sought here to distil Orwell's essence, as man and thinker, into a more manageable size and format.

Orwell was so closely identified with the great causes and conflicts of his day, his passion for literature is often overlooked

The letters appear a year after the publication of Orwell's diaries, which focused on the concrete and often mundane details of his daily life. This book has a bit of that, too, but more frequently serves as a platform for Orwell to expound on weightier topics, often in terms that still resonate. In 1944, for instance, he worried about "a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, i.e., there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted." He adds that for the same reason, "the exact sciences are endangered".

As its title suggests, George Orwell: A Life in Letters is quite a different enterprise from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, the four-volume work from 1968 that did much to solidify his posthumous reputation as a political clairvoyant. In the new collection, we read not only letters that Orwell wrote but also some he received, and even a handful that friends and colleagues wrote to one another about him.

The result is a much more rounded image of Orwell and his circle than that provided by the four-volume set, for which his widow, Sonia Brownell Orwell, was a co-editor. Among the chief delights in the new volume is a much sharper image of Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who died at 39 during surgery, just before the 1945 publication of Animal Farm, whose success would give Orwell his first taste of financial stability. She emerges here as a woman of sparkling wit and intelligence, remarking on her husband's "extraordinary political simplicity" and mordantly noting that "the English left is always spartan; they're fighting Franco to the last Spaniard".

The letters show Orwell was shattered by her death, but that he also embarked on an excruciatingly awkward campaign to woo a successor. "There isn't really anything left in my life except my work and seeing that Richard gets a good start," he writes to one prospect a year after his wife's death, referring to the son the couple adopted. "It is only that I feel so desperately alone sometimes. I have hundreds of friends, but no woman who takes an interest in me and can encourage me."

The final sections of A Life in Letters abound with other such moments of pathos. The reader knows that Orwell will die of tuberculosis, at the age of 46, in January 1950, and though he, too, suspects that will be his fate, he often pleads for more time. "I do want to stay alive at least 10 years, I've got such a lot of work to do, besides Richard to look after," he writes six months before his death

There are hints here, too, tantalising but frustrating, of books Orwell had in mind but never got to write. In 1940, he mentions that "I am sort of incubating an enormous novel, the family saga sort of thing", and, nine years later, talks of "a novel dealing with 1945 in my head now, but even if I survive to write it, I shouldn't touch it before 1950".

Because Orwell was so closely identified with the great causes and conflicts of his day, his passion for literature is often overlooked. The letters help rectify that imbalance: he refers often to books he is either reviewing or simply reading for pleasure, and his literary judgments are as idiosyncratic as his politics.

He had little use, for example, for Henry James, who "bores me unbearably", and thought F. Scott Fitzgerald was overrated: The Great Gatsby "seemed to me to lack point" and Tender is the Night "even more so", he wrote.

He championed the 19th-century writer George Gissing, talked up James Joyce's Ulysses, embraced Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead when it was published, and greatly admired Joseph Conrad, who had a "grown-upness and political understanding which would have been almost impossible to a native English writer at that time".

Perhaps the most intriguing letter here is one written nearly a quarter-century after Orwell's death by Jacintha Buddicom, a childhood playmate and love interest of the man she knew as Eric Blair. She writes that his use of their romance in the novel 1984 "absolutely destroys me", but also expresses regret for spurning him. "How I wish I had been ready for betrothal when Eric asked me to marry him on his return from Burma," she writes. "It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures, but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met."

The New York Times