Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed (edited by Peter Davison)6 May 2008
A few years ago, Penguin Press released a series of four books that each take one of George Orwell’s works and place it in the context of selected letters, articles, essays written by Orwell which relate to the subject of the book. I’ve split this review of the four books into two parts, with this one focusing on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed.
Orwell in Spain
The central text in Orwell in Spain is Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of his time as a volunteer soldier in Barcelona and the Catalan area of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party’s contingent, a group of two dozen or so British volunteers who were allied with the Workers’ Part of Marxism Unification (given as POUM, the Spanish-language abbreviation, in the text). Orwell sent several months in the front line and was finally invalided away from the front when he was shot in the neck — the bullet just barely missed his carotid artery, and the only lasting effect of the wound was a paralysis of one of his vocal cords. (People often told him how lucky he was to have survived, but Orwell usually responded by saying something to the effect of how it would have been even luckier not to have been shot in the first place.) Even after being invalided away from the front, Orwell’s troubles were merely beginning. He was very nearly arrested for being part of a militia that had been declared ‘illegal’ by the anti-Franco forces — the Spanish Communist Party was in the sway of the Soviet Union and was attempting to eradicate rival communist and anarchist groups — and he and his wife Eileen (who had accompanied him) had to flee Spain only a few steps ahead of the Spanish police.
The Spanish Civil War is a very confusing period of 20th-century history, and Orwell was writing for an audience which often had only the most general knowledge of what was going on in Spain at the time. But as the letters and articles emphasise, Orwell’s intent in writing Homage to Catalonia was not merely to denounce Franco and the Fascists, but to criticise the Communist forces in Spain for what he saw as their betrayal of the working classes AND to castigate the press (particularly the English leftist press) for its refusal to entertain any possibility that the Spanish Communists and their Soviet allies could be just as guilty of betrayal and deceit as the monarchists and the Fascists. Orwell’s experiences in Spain also had a direct influence on the writing of 1984. On a personal level he was very concerned with the case of Georges Kopp, a fellow soldier and friend who had been imprisoned by the Spanish police, tortured in an attempt to get him to sign a false confession, and subjected to a special type of punishment which involved being locked in a confined space with a horde of large rats. On a literary level, Orwell’s writings on the Spanish Civil War reveal some of the ideas that would later end up in books like 1984 — one example being the famous ‘two and two are five’ equation that would become so crucial to Winston Smith’s fate in that particular book.
Orwell and the Dispossessed
The central story in this collection is Down and Out in Paris and London, a predominantly autobiographical account of Orwell’s time ‘slumming it’ as a restaurant dishwasher (plongeur) in Paris and a tramp in London in the mid-1930s. The book is a grim account of a grim life, as Orwell describes in great detail the backbreaking labour and low wages of the staff at a fashionable hotel and his struggles in a small cafe — and includes stomach-turning accounts of the utter filthiness of the kitchens in which he worked. The writings that deal with his time in as a tramp in London and the Home Counties are equally grim, presenting a grinding, depressing life of poverty and homelessness in the capital city that still bears a strong resemblance to conditions that exist today. His criticisms of charitable organisations and city-run lodging houses for the poor and indigent are particularly trenchant, and remain so 70 years later.
Down and Out in Paris and London is a fascinating read in its own right, but this volume also contains some of Orwell’s articles, essays, and reviews on popular subjects of the time. He analysed boys’ school stories (such as the Greyfriairs stories that feature Billy Bunter), compared British detective fiction to American ‘pulp mags’, and examined the political leanings of the serial novels published in women’s magazines. There are also a few essays about Orwell’s other ‘slumming journeys’, including one where he joined a group of East End residents who travelled out of London to pick hops for a fortnight and another where he attempted to get himself sentenced to prison for drunk and disorderly conduct. In general, the material collected in Orwell and the Dispossessed focuses on the author’s observations of those who for one reason or another are deprived of choices in their own lives and societies — with subjects as diverse as the poor of India and Morocco, British schoolchildren, and the unfairly persecuted P.G. Wodehouse. And although the theme of this volume is not quite as solid and unified as that of Orwell and Spain, the compilation is a good collection of some of Orwell’s nonfiction writing.