Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 19 Jun 2020

Rereading George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters

When I first ‘discovered’ George Orwell in the early-70s, I rushed through the novels and then moved on to the reportage and essays. And it was then, in fact, that my love affair with Orwell really became serious, for it turned out that Orwell’s non-fiction, while sometimes having a distinctly political, even didactic purpose, was consistently better than his novels. It was also often extremely funny, written with crystal clarity and it had such an utterly distinctive voice – warm, humane, fundamentally decent, self-deprecating – that it rapidly became addictive. It was a voice one wanted to hear; it was a voice one missed.

And yet despite the millions of words that have been written about Orwell, the several excellent biographies, the fond memoirs and reminiscences, I still find him an enigmatic figure. Just how did Eric Blair, an upper-middle class, public school educated, colonial child (he was born in what was then British India in 1903) become George Orwell, novelist, critic, essayist, journalist and one of the quintessential English radicals? Somehow, the more one knows, the stranger the phenomenon becomes.

Above all else, Orwell is a man of contradictions. For all of his brief life – he died aged just 46 in 1950 – he battled ill-health and yet embraced poverty and a life lived in the most austere of conditions, often living in completely unmodernised country cottages or cheap flats. His first job was as a member of the Imperial police force in Burma. He tramped, slept rough and worked in the most menial of occupations – dishwasher, plongeur – in London and Paris. In 1937 he was wounded in the throat while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He fought as part of a tiny Marxist militia but would go on to become one of the fiercest and most far-sighted critics of Stalinist totalitarianism. He began his writing career as an avowedly ‘literary’ writer but loathed bohemians and arty types and ‘smelly’ vegetarians. ‘The fact to which we have got to cling,’ he once wrote, ‘is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive,’ and this may be as close to a personal credo as he ever came.  

When I want to hear a voice of sanity, a wise, witty, interested man considering whatever subject has struck him as of particular significance that day – boys’ weekly comics of the 1920s and 30s, garden toads, the cost of smoking cigarettes versus that of buying books, the ideal pub (The Moon Under Water) – I dip into Orwell’s essays. I always find things I haven’t spotted before, as well as dearly-loved lines that make me roar with laughter every time I read them. For although few critics seem to recognise Orwell as a comic writer (and he wasn’t one in any conventional sense of the term) he can be extremely funny, and his occasional rants of physical disgust – at squalor, deformity, illness, grotesqueness of one kind or another – are amongst the funniest things he wrote. He has a positively eighteenth-century relish for the grotesque.

But the Orwell I turn to perhaps most frequently after the essays are the four volumes first published in the late-1960s (by Secker & Warburg) and then in the 1970s by Penguin called George Orwell: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters.

These four volumes, edited and compiled by Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Orwell, and Orwell scholar and academic librarian Ian Angus, are masterpieces of their kind. They integrate Orwell’s diaries, letters and journalism chronologically so that this vast wealth of material offers a broad narrative of Orwell’s life and the personal, domestic and world events that shaped that life. I can’t immediately think of a comparable undertaking – certainly not one for a writer whose life somehow seems to cry out for this kind of treatment. And of even greater note is the fact that this is achieved with the lightest and least academic of touches. For decades these four volumes were the bedrock of Orwell scholarship, but first and foremost they are books designed to be read and read with pleasure.

If you find Orwell an attractive figure and want to know more about the man and his life then these four volumes offer a lifetime’s pleasure and instruction. They are not necessarily the best place to start with Orwell, however, and are probably better approached after sampling some of the fiction, some of the essays, and perhaps one of the excellent biographies (perhaps the first to be published, Bernard Crick’s magisterial George Orwell: A Life). I have found that brilliantly edited though they are, the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters make far greater sense once the general outline of Orwell’s life is already familiar.

Penguin now publish all the novels and the three non-fiction masterpieces (Down and Out in Paris and London; The Road to Wigan Pier; Homage to Catalonia) as well as four separate volumes covering the Essays, the Diaries, the letters (A Life in Letters) and the journalism (Seeing Things as They Are), but the old four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of the 70s is no longer in print, which frankly is something that Penguin should be ashamed of. Secondhand copies of the set are available but for battered old Penguins are sometimes obscenely expensive. There are also US paperbacks but I have never seen these in the flesh and they too are likely to be expensive.

Over the years few writers have fascinated me as much or as consistently as Orwell. His was an exemplary life in many respects and each time I return to him I find that despite being quintessentially a man of the Thirties – shaped by poverty, unemployment, the Depression, the rise of fascism and totalitarianism and the Second World War – what he has to say on virtually any topic he chooses almost always has startling contemporary relevance. But what I return for most frequently is that distinctive Orwell voice – its innate decency and humanity, its humour, its occasional outrage (and outrageousness) and most of all, its intransigent, unswerving respect for language and clear thinking. ‘Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane,’ he once said. Orwell offers a window through which I have never tired of looking and never will.


Alun Severn

June 2020


Orwell elsewhere on Letterpress


That George Orwell Look


Coming Up For Air by George Orwell


Critical Essays by George Orwell


The Girl From The Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling


George Orwell’s 1984 has been ‘pulped’


A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell


Orwell’s Message : 1984 and the Present by George Woodcock


Classic Covers: Denis Piper’s artwork for George Orwell’s novels


Animal Farm by George Orwell illustrated by Ralph Steadman


Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland


Search ‘Orwell’ for many more items about George Orwell