In honour of the National Archives‘ recent release of the Security Service files on Eric Blair — AKA George Orwell — it’s only fitting to post my thoughts on the fine four-volume collected set of Orwell’s journalism, letters, and essays.
The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus
Volume 1 – An Age Like This: 1920-1940
In the essay ‘Why I Write’, which opens this volume, George Orwell analyses the various factors that affected and influenced his choice of subjects in his early years as a journalist. He mentions his time in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and the cruelties he witnessed there, he hints at the years of extreme poverty he experienced when he first started to take up journalism and fiction writing, he speaks of his decision to go to Spain and join the volunteers who were fighting against Franco. He even includes a little poem that he wrote in 1935 in which he attempted to sort out his conflicted feelings on contemporary life, which ended with the lines:
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
And as it stands, ‘An Age Like This’ is a more than apt choice for the title of this first volume of his collected essay, letters, and journalistic writings.
Much of the first volume consists of letters to friends and business associates, along with a number of short freelance pieces in which Orwell explored in great depth the life of the poorer sections of the working class, as well as the outright destitute. It’s in this volume where his diaries and notes for The Road to Wigan Pier can be found, along with several short stories including ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (both of which came from memories of his time with the police in Burma). There are also a number of notable essays on literary topics, particularly a lengthy essay which looks at the works of Charles Dickens and another which examines the political leanings found in the boys’ weekly papers which produced Billy Bunter and the other ‘school story’ characters that were popular at the time. In addition to the letters, notes, and essays, ‘An Age Like This’ includes book reviews that Orwell wrote for literary periodicals like Time and Tide and the New English Weekly. The reviews of books which dealt with the Spanish Civil War — of which Orwell, unlike most other reviewers of his day, had first-hand experience — are especially noteworthy, even though the books that Orwell was reviewing have all but faded into obscurity these days.
And yet I think it’s in the letters where Orwell really comes to life. There are enough footnotes to keep the letters from being completely confusing, though some familiarity with the time period does make them easier to read. Letters to T.S. Eliot and Victor Gollancz (founder of the Left Book Club, which published several of Orwell’s early books), letters to family members and close friends, all cover the initial span of time when Orwell was trying to find his footing as an author and a journalist. As with any collection of letters, it’s the development of ideas and opinions that is so interesting to watch unfold…and with Orwell, there is never a shortage of ideas and opinions to keep an eye on.
Volume 2 – My Country Right or Left: 1940-1943
The essay ‘My Country Right or Left’ was actually the very last piece in Volume 1, but since it was written in 1940 it works quite well as the title of the second collection of Orwell’s writings. In that essay, Orwell wrote that the night before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, he dreamt that war had already been declared and that in the dream he was fully prepared to fight for his country even if doing so seemed diametrically opposed to his distaste for the existing British government under Neville Chamberlain. And as might be expected, the writings from 1940-1943 that are included in this volume are dominated by the war and Orwell’s opinions on how well or badly it was going at the time.
In the early years of the war, Orwell’s wife Eileen worked for the government’s Censorship Department and Orwell himself was anxious to secure some kind of work for the war effort as well. He joined the Home Guard, but his ill health kept him out of the military and the more physically taxing of wartime jobs. Eventually, he found a position in London with the BBC’s Eastern Section, broadcasting to India. His letters reveal his dissatisfaction with his work, which he saw as little more than the production of propaganda (an experience which he later put to good use for the hero of 1984) designed to keep India and the remaining British possessions in East Asia loyal to the British war effort. During and shortly before his time with the BBC, he kept a running wartime diary, the two parts of which are included at the very end of this volume. The wartime diary is an intriguing summary of news reports and general public observation written by someone who had a keen eye for the media’s ability to ‘spin’ the truth of the war. Though the diaries themselves were not published in any form until well after his death, it’s possible to compare them to his journalism at the time and see where he drew upon notes he had made from some weeks ago.
This volume ends with Orwell’s resignation from the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, the left-wing weekly newsmagazine. But within ‘My Country Right or Left’ are some of his most powerful pieces of writing, including three-part polemic ‘The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ and the retrospective ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’. These years saw Orwell at his most fiery, and his critical analyses of England, Englishness, and English socialism still manage to have resonance well over half a century after they were written.
Volume 3 – As I Please: 1943-1945
‘As I Please’ was the title of the weekly column that Orwell wrote for Tribune from 3 December 1943 until 15 February 1945, so it’s fitting that it should serve as the title of the volume which encompasses those particular years. As the title suggests, most of the columns weren’t centred on any particular topic; instead, they were often collections of observations about everyday life and politics, sometimes on issues related to the war and other times on far more mundane topics.
The majority of the entries in this volume are the ‘As I Please’ columns, but there are other essays and letters as well from the later years of the war. Orwell’s essays touch upon such diverse subjects as the difference between British and American crime novels (epitomised by the ‘Raffles’ stories and the now-forgotten No Orchids for Miss Blandish), anti-Semitism in Britain (written in February 1945), and a defence of author P.G. Wodehouse (who at the time was under fire over his ‘propaganda’ broadcasts from Nazi Germany). All in all, this was one of the busiest periods in Orwell’s writing career, for in the midst of his usual literary responsibilities he was also attempting to find a publisher for Animal Farm. One of the final entries in this volume is a short introduction that was meant for the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, a fascinating little note for anyone who enjoyed reading the original book. There’s definitely a lot to explore in Volume 3, and though it covers a shorter span of time than the two volumes before or the volume after there’s no shortage of material to get through and return to over and over again.
Volume 4 – In Front of Your Nose: 1945-1950
‘In Front of Your Nose’ is the title of an essay Orwell wrote in 1946 — it contains the line, ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.’ And while Orwell could rarely be accused of ignoring what was in front of his nose, the final years of his life were marked by a number of different personal and professional struggles. His wife Eileen died in March 1945, leaving him to care for their adopted son Richard, and in the following years he was increasingly unwell with the tuberculosis that had plagued him for much of his adult life. Though he married his close friend Sonia Brownell in late 1949, and continued to work on ideas for new short stories and essays, by the end of the year he was planning to travel to a sanatorium in Switzerland for further tuberculosis treatments. On 21 January 1950, he died at the age of 46.
The time period covered in Volume 4 saw the publication of both Animal Farm (August 1945) and 1984 (June 1949). Many of the letters in ‘In Front of Your Nose’ were written during the times when he wasn’t well enough to write professionally, so the letters are for the most part the only record we have of what he was thinking about and attempting to work on during his low points. But there are several essays and book reviews in this volume, including another set of ‘As I Please’ columns for the Tribune and several pieces written for the Observer. Some of the more memorable pieces in this volume are the long essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, a frankly gruesome account of his time at public school, and the shorter ‘How the Poor Die’, an equally gruesome reminiscence of the time he spent in a charity hospital in France, known only as Hôpital X. (‘How the Poor Die’ reads almost like a sequel or companion-piece to Down and Out in Paris and London — Orwell spares no details here.) The final pieces of writing collected here are fragments from a manuscript notebook that Orwell kept by him in the last year of his life, and it’s a little sad to read them and think that some of the fragments might have been turned into another short story or possibly even a book if their author had lived.
The four-volume set contains most all of the written ephemera that any fan of Orwell’s works could ask for. His struggles to publish and eke out a living, his willingness to endure all kinds of squalid conditions for the sake of finding out the ‘real’ side of things in the best traditions of investigative journalism…all the bits and pieces are here in these pages, leaving it up to the reader to piece together the fragments of a writer whose pen-name has (for good or for ill) taken on a life and meaning of its own.