The Penguin Books’ edition of Essays was first published in 1984, as part of a general celebration of Eric that fateful year. The content was snaffled from four previously published volumes of essays, journalism and letters published in the late sixties. Many of these works are now available on the Internet (indeed, that’s where I first read his “Politics and the English Langauge” (1946)).
There are chilling, insightful accounts of poverty from his time down and out in Paris, of attending a hanging and of being an ineffectual policeman in Burma. He writes about the wars he’s been involved in – on the front in Spain and in London during the Blitz. There are toads and sport and murder, politics and political figures. Yet the most striking thing about this selection is how much Orwell had to say about writing.
As well as “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell discusses his own motivation for writing, his own time in a second-hand bookshop and as a reviewer, and his plea to us all to buy more books on the basis of their cost relative to cigarettes. There are essays on the work of Dickens, Kipling, Arthur Koestler, Tolstoy, Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, HG Wells, Wodehouse and WB Yeats. He also addresses more esoteric subjects: boys’ adventure weeklies, Habberton’s “Helen’s Babies”, Hornung’s “Raffles” books, the broadcast of poetry on the radio, governmental controls on writing, nonsense poetry, even the appeal of “good bad books”. Whatever his subjects, his work shows a broad and comprehensive reading, and a description of his own bookshelves proves his eclectic tastes.
It’s no surprise that there’s a strong political worldview underpinning much of his output. Orwell continually argues that good writing makes us care about the lot of the protagonists, and that this empathy with strangers must surely beg broader questions about our ways of life.
“[Dickens] is always preaching a sermon, and that is the final secret of his inventiveness. For you can only create if you can care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about. A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea.”
Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, in Essays, p. 75
But these essays are not just vehicles for his political ravings. Orwell is also good at showing his working, tying his ideas to his own practical, often gruelling, experience.
“[Kipling] is accused of glorifying war, and perhaps he does so, but not in the usual manner, by pretending that war is a sort of football match. Like most people capable of writing battle poetry, Kipling has never been in a battle, but his vision of war is realistic. He knows that bullets hurt, that under fire everyone if terrified, that the ordinary soldier never knows what the war is about or what is happening except in his own corner of the battlefield, and that British troops, like other troops, frequently run away.”
Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, ibid., p. 209.
Astute observations such as this, peppered by a wealth of top facts, make this a riveting and punchy read.
“The phrases and neologisms which we take over and use without remembering their origin do not always come from writers we admire. It is strange, for instance, to hear the Nazi broadcasters referring to the Russian soldiers as ‘robots’, thus unconsciously borrowing a word from a Czech democrat whom they would have killed if they could have lad hands on him.”
Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”, ibid., p. 211.
In fact, the essays are proof of the manifesto put forward in “Politics and the English language”. The plain style of the prose makes his arguments and ideas simple to follow and engage with. He avoids clichés in favour of vivid, new images, some of which don’t half stick in the mind. For examples, there’s the wartime coalition government, and the problems of it having moral purpose beyond achieving victory.
“It is at best a government of compromise, with Churchill riding two horses like a circus acrobat.”
Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”, ibid., p. 180.
Or there’s his description of a bathhouse for down-and-outs.
“It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our underwear were exposed: the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary garments, some of them mere collections of holes, held together with dirt.”
Orwell, “The Spike”, ibid., p. 8.
Note that his plain style is not devoid of any feeling or artistry, as some of his detractors have claimed. Orwell is all for clarity, but he’s also keen on the texture and depth of good writing.
“The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dicken’s writing is the unnecessary detail … The unmistakable Dickens touch, the thing nobody else would have thought of, is the baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. How does this advance the story? The answer is that it doesn’t.”
Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, ibid., pp. 68-9.
As a whole then, the essays show Orwell testing, re-examining and putting into practice a literary rather than political manifesto. Yes, Orwell’s politics inform his reading (he critiques Marx as he applies him to Dickens). But there are also glimpses of his reading affecting his politics and work.
For example, his essay on the work of Arthur Koestler was written in September 1944, before he’d written a similar conclusion to 1984:
“[Koestler’s] Darkness at Noon describes the imprisonment and death of an Old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who first denies and ultimately confesses to crimes which he is well aware he has not committed. The grown-upness, the lack of surprise or denunciation, the pity and irony with which the story is told, show the advantage, when one is handling a theme of this kind, of being a European. The book reaches the stature of tragedy, whereas an English or American writer could at most have made it into a polemical tract.”
Orwell, “Arthur Koestler”, ibid., pp. 272-3.
That his reading shapes his own ideas is important, because for all Orwell is persuasive he is not dictatorial. He has a case to put in each essay, yet I was struck by how much he seemed to engage response, as if each were concluded with the words, “But what do you think?”
This dialogue of ideas is partly, I suspect, because by puzzling out what these other writers are up to, Orwell seeks to make sense of his own stuff. But the range of his reading and the consistency of depth he applies to high literature and low are not merely a mark of inquisitiveness. They suggest Orwell is searching high and low for answers to questions nobody’s asking. This is backed up in his more political writing with his dissatisfaction with both sides of the argument – whether they’re factions warring with weapons or in the popular press.
“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old – generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently, two view-points are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another … The central problem – how to prevent power from being abused – remains unsolved.”
Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, ibid., pp. 47-8.
It is not just his dissatisfaction with the rigid (and petty) oppositions of party politics that struck a chord with me. It was also the realisation as I worked through the essays that Orwell’s radicalism wasn’t all it has been painted. Yes, he was a socialist, yes he fought for the communists in Spain, but it would be wrong to see him as a feverish revolutionary campaigning to tear down English institutions.
Perhaps his motives are best shown in “Such, such were the joys”, which undermines the vision of public school as some very heaven idyll. Orwell seems taken by the history and traditions of his own school, but speaks of endemic injustices, where boys are treated and punished differently depending on the wealth of their parents. He’s still perplexed and livid about the unfairness of being punished for things he hadn’t done or – in the case of bedwetting – that he had no control over.
We can follow this early sense of fair play into his accounts of a hanging or the shooting of an elephant, where he cannot see the sense behind the official response, and rails against acting solely to satisfy the baser cravings of the mob. It’s especially important that his anger is in part directed at his own complicity. This keen sense of justice for all, whatever their circumstances, also explains why he would become a vagabond to expose the misery of the poor.
How does this affect his assessment of other writers? Orwell applies the same innate sense of fair play to the politics implicit in writing. He critiques the worldviews expressed by the writers, and explores how they themselves address need and inequality. Yet he doesn’t just dismiss someone for being ignorant of the world around them – his defence of Wodehouse being a case in point. His sympathies are as all-embracing as the breadth of his reading. He enjoys light comedy and boys’ own “shockers”. He approves of poetry and propaganda. What he loves is work that provokes a response, than excites and engages as it entertains. And what concerns him is activity that does not engage with or empathise with other points of view, and that ultimately forces its meaning.
“It is not merely that ‘power corrupts’: so also do the ways of attaining power. Therefore, all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the OGPU, Lenin leads to Stalin, and would have come to resemble Stalin if he had happened to survive.”
Orwell, “Arthur Koestler”, ibid., p. 274.