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Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.

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