The Novels of George Orwell
Like many people, my first experience of George Orwell's writing was 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. The groundbreaking tale of a futuristic, dystopian world, with its haunting vision of what the future might hold, was like nothing I'd ever read before.
Earlier novels, including 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying', 'Burmese Days' and 'Animal Farm', grabbed my imagination too, but it was three works of non-fiction that really turned me on to the genius of George Orwell.
His description of the Spanish Civil War in 'Homage to Catalonia', his hard-hitting investigation into working class life, poverty and deprivation in 'The Road to Wigan Pier', and the particularly personal account of life on the margins in 'Down and Out in Paris and London', combined to make me a life-long fan of his work.
Since I always think of these last three volumes as being as much a part of the Orwell canon as his novels, I've included them here in this review of George Orwell, writer and novelist.
Listed in order of publication:
- Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
- Burmese Days (1934)
- A Clergyman's Daughter (1935)
- Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
- The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
- Homage to Catalonia (1938)
- Coming Up for Air (1939)
- Animal Farm (1945)
- Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Down and Out in Paris and London
In 1927, after resigning his post with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell's real name), returned to the family home in Southwold. He had decided to become a writer, and like all good writers, he set out to search for suitable subjects to write about.
Finding lodgings in London's Portobello Road, he sought out the poor and dispossessed, spending time with people whose lives would inspire part of his first published essay, 'The Spike' and which formed the second half of his first book, 'Down and Out in Paris and London.'
Early the following year, he was in Paris and though he had relatives there who occasionally helped out with financial aid, he soon found work washing dishes in French hotels and quickly came into contact with the excesses of the rich:
"Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food."
The second half of the book deals with Orwell's experiences living as a sort of vagabond in London - a result of his various excursions around the city when he'd first moved there. However, the first version of the finished book only included the Paris section. This was rejected by both Jonathan Cape and later (when Orwell had added the London chapters to the manuscript), by Faber & Faber.
When a family friend saw the manuscript, he passed it on to a literary agent who, in turn, decided to try the recently formed company of Victor Gollancz. 'Down and Out in Paris and London' was published to reasonable acclaim in 1933, though it wasn't until 1940, when Penguin picked it up, that the book became successful.
Based on his time in India, Orwell's hero John Flory is a rather melancholy figure whose work involves overseeing timber excavation. Set in the fictional district of Kyauktada, the plot revolves around the humdrum existence of British ex-pat regulars at the British club. When a young woman turns up to stay with her uncle, Flory tries to win her over, but local government corruption and the newcomer's distaste of Flory's apparent love of Burmese culture, only serve to drive a wedge between them:
Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror. She had sipped her drink and found that it tasted like hair oil. On a mat by her feet three Burmese girls lay fast asleep with their heads on the same pillow, their small oval faces side by side like the faces of kittens.
There is more than a hint of racism in a few of the characters, and Orwell was chastised in some quarters for his portrayal of the 'old colonials', but he maintained that while parts of the manuscript were complete fiction, others were simply observations made during his stay in Burma.
Gollancz wouldn't publish the book for fear of libel charges and it was eventually published in the US with some changes to the typescript to avoid possible identification of actual living people (nevertheless, several 'characters' in the book were identified in later years).
Though highly enjoyable, and in parts quite fascinating, 'Burmese Days' is a bit of a sad book - it tells of a time and place when respect for the common man is at a low ebb. And without giving too much away, Orwell's hero does not come out of it very well.
A Clergyman's Daughter
Orwell's second novel was a bit of an experiment that he was never terribly happy with. In fact, he left instructions that it should not be reprinted after his death, though he did agree that cheap copies might be made available so any royalties would benefit his family. Much of the novel is taken from a journal Orwell kept while picking hops in Kent during 1931.
The heroine, Dorothy, has a spell of amnesia after being treated rather badly by local lothario Mr Warburton. Vanishing from her home, Dorothy joins a group of hop-pickers and then finding herself with little money, is forced to stay in a hotel frequented by prostitutes. However, things improve and she obtains work as a teacher, but her teaching methods don't go down well and while there is the possibility of a 'better' life on the horizon, she eventually ends up back where she began, at the rectory.
It was slow work in the early morning, before the hops were dry
enough to handle. But presently the sun came out, and the lovely,
bitter odour began to stream from the warming hops, and people's
early-morning surliness wore off, and the work got into its stride.
Orwell's description of hop-picking is wonderful, and he clearly could not have described the process, the people and the conditions so vividly, had he not been through it himself. The novel is based on this period in Orwell's life, as well as his experience of teaching at two schools (from 1932), and his involvement with the curate at a nearby church.
It was during this period that Orwell got his first bout of pneumonia.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Orwell's third novel is partly inspired by a second-hand bookshop he worked in for eighteen months. The plot centres on Gordon Comstock, a man who shuns wealth and poverty but longs to succeed as an author. Orwell himself doesn't appear to have thought much of the novel and criticised it as being more of an exercise than anything else. The Writer Cyril Connolly wrote a scathing review of it, claiming it to be a 'savage and bitter' book.
Descriptions of poverty (again) are well-observed and realistically portrayed, and although his writing shows a marked improvement (particularly the representation of female characters, who come over as more authentic than previous books), as with 'A Clergyman's Daughter', Orwell was loathe to allow reprints.
Every night the same — back to the cold lonely bedroom and the grimy littered sheets of the poem that never got any further. It was a blind alley. He would never finish London Pleasures, he would never marry Rosemary, he would never set his life in order.
The first time I read 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' I didn't like it much, but a novel like this one bears up to a second and third reading, as I have since discovered. Orwell's prose is fascinating and his work clearly improves with each new project.
The Road to Wigan Pier
At the beginning of 1936, Victor Gollancz asked Orwell to consider an investigative project that would explore unemployment and social conditions in northern England. Over a period of three months, Orwell undertook to spend time living in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where he immersed himself in the work, social and everyday lives of working class people.
...we are mistaken when we say that ’It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums...She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.
As well as passages of descriptive prose, Orwell included details of wages, rents and other items, such as the 'stoppages' that were deducted from miners' wages.
The second half of the book deals with Orwell's own upbringing, beliefs and opinions - particularly relating to Socialism. This did not go down so well with his publisher Victor Gollancz, who thought the book worked better with only the first half, however, a compromise was reached and 'The Road to Wigan Pier' was published via the 'Left Book Club' (which Gollancz was involved with) in 1937 with an clarifying introduction.
Homage to Catalonia
At the end of 1936, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, intending to join the fight against Fascism. As a correspondent for the 'New Leader' (a socialist newspaper), he joined the POUM (the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) and went on to fight on the Aragon front for over three months.
Given that he wasn't in the best of health (and was also wounded during the conflict), I think it's a sign of Orwell's commitment to his beliefs that he put himself in what was clearly a perilous position. It's also rather sad that when the book was published (not by Gollancz, due to Orwell's criticism of the communists in Spain), it sold a mere 900 copies. In fact, the book didn't begin to do well until more than a decade later when it was published in the US.
To my dismay I found that we were taught nothing about the use of weapons. The so-called instruction was simply parade-ground drill of the most antiquated, stupid kind; right turn, left turn, about turn, marching at attention in column of threes and all the rest of that useless nonsense which I had learned when I was fifteen years old.
Coming Up for Air
In 1938, Orwell was once again in poor health. In Marrakesh with his first wife (Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who he'd married in 1935), he wrote 'Coming Up for Air'. The story is nostalgic, concerning the desire for youth and yearning for things past. The main character, George Bowling, sets off on a bid to recapture something of his own formative years, but the trip is fraught with negativity. Everything he encounters - people, places - are changed beyond recognition, giving the novel a prevailing sense of gloom.
I stood for a moment, wondering what had happened to it. Then I saw what it was - all the trees were gone from round its edge. It looked all bare and different, in fact it looked extraordinarily like the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. Kids were playing all round the edge, sailing boats and paddling, and a few rather older kids were rushing about in those little canoes which you work by turning a handle.
Again, this is a novel I enjoyed far more on a second reading. Putting it in context with what was going on in Orwell's life at the time, also aided my appreciation of it.
The novel came out in June 1939 and was the last of Orwell's books to be published by Victor Gollancz.
Orwell's desire to fuse political and creative ideas in his fiction resulted in ''Animal Farm', an allegorical satire inspired by events in Russia (from 1917 onwards), and what he saw as a vicious dictatorship in the Stalin era (curiously, in Britain, Stalin was quite popular during the mid 1940's).
The plot follows the inept Farmer Jones, whose animals decide they can do a better job of running the farm than he can, and take matters into their own hands (hooves, trotters etc). They take over, learn to read and start trading with the outside world. Inevitably, some animals (the pigs) elect themselves as leaders and, as the 'rebellion' moves forward, the animals gradually take on the characteristics of their human enemies.
For the first few minutes the animals could hardly believe in their good fortune. Their first act was to gallop in a body right round the boundaries of the farm, as though to make quite sure that no human being was hiding anywhere upon it; then they raced back to the farm buildings to wipe out the last traces of Jones's hated reign.
I read this book as a teenager and have since read it several times. I've also seen various movie and theatrical productions of it and each new production seems to uncover something new to say about the narrative. The story is a simple one - a tactic Orwell deliberately used so anyone would be able to understand the symbolism. The book did well on publication under its original title: 'Animal Farm - A Fairy Story', (Secker and Warburg, 1945), though several publishers had turned it down because it might upset Britain's' relations with the Soviets. The subtitle was dropped after the second edition.
Orwell's fusion of political and creative writing reached its climax with the dystopian future world of his final novel. Many of the ideas and concepts he created in ' Nineteen Eighty-Four' are now a part of our language - Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak and others are classic references to the authoritarian state that Orwell's hero Winston Smith finds himself in.
Smith works in the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites documents in order that they match Big Brother's latest version of the truth. He begins to investigate what the real truth is and meets a similar-minded individual in the shape of Julia. Naturally, things start to go wrong and Smith is arrested by the Thought Police...
‘You are afraid,’ said O’Brien, watching his face, ‘that in another moment something is going to break. Your especial fear is that it will be your backbone. You have a vivid mental picture of the vertebrae snapping apart and the spinal fluid dripping out of them. That is what you are thinking, is it not, Winston?’
'Nineteen Eighty-Four' is Orwell's scariest, most fascinating book and has arguably had the most impact of all of his writing. Concepts such as Big Brother are all around us: CCTV, hidden cameras, phone tapping etc are commonplace now. Even the good old Internet, with its constantly updated and changing facts, figures and information, sounds suspiciously like Newspeak.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Orwell wrote much of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' at Barnhill on the island of Jura. It was published in June 1949 by Secker and Warburg. Orwell married Sonia Brownell in October of the same year, but he died on 21st January 1950, at the age of only 46.