George Orwell: A Life in Letters (Peter Davison) book review, 2010

29th May 2010

George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Harvill Secker, rrp £20

I didn’t expect to well up with tears reading Orwell: A Life in Letters – but several times, against the grain of my own nature, and against the grain of Peter Davison’s richly absorbing selection of Orwell-generated and Orwell-related correspondence, which satiates more generally with fact than feeling, I did so.

The first moment came early on, catching me – as I imagine it may do many readers – by surprise. Professor Davison, whose landmark contributions to Orwell studies need little introduction, albeit more ongoing praise, has arranged the material so that, four pages into the opening selection (From Pupil To Teacher To Author: 1911-1913), he jumps forward in time to 1972, and a letter written by Jacintha Buddicom to a relative. Orwell’s early youth, which has been rushed over with a startling lack of scholarly ceremony, recedes into the distant past.

Jacintha, his one-time close childhood friend, writes: “After the publication last year of The World of George Orwell for which I wrote the opening essay, I am now writing a short monograph of my own on the subject (they edited out most of the important bits) in the hope of ridding myself of a lifetime of ghosts and regrets at turning away the
only man who ever really appealed on all levels.”

What follows is so emotionally unsparing, though sparingly written, that to read it feels like eavesdropping on the closest, most quietly whispered confidence. Twenty-two years after Orwell’s death, just before which (as this collection will reveal) the pair corresponded in a belated burst of half-reconciliation, Jacintha mourns the fact that
she wasn’t ready to marry Eric when he proposed upon his return from Burma – at a time when their growing intimacy had been shattered by a premature attempt on his part to push her for a full physical relationship.

Bitterness, as well as regret, is recorded here, the bitterness fermented by what she saw as the vengeful portrait of her (as Julia) in Nineteen Eighty-Four. She felt “destroyed” by his public betrayal, and refers to the dell full of bluebells where Julia and Winston meet.

“We always wandered off to our special place when we were at Ticklerton which was full of bluebells. They die so quickly if you pick them so we never did but lay amongst them and adored their heavy pungent scent.”

It’s the detail of that last line that I find so poignant. In that remembered shared decision not to pick the bluebells but to lie among them, savouring their smell, is captured all the aromatic sweetness of blossoming youth, its tenderness, delicacy, sensitivity and still-lingering innocence. Jacintha here recalls the experience so
keenly that it lives on in her, while becoming emblematic of the way Orwell, as she saw it, trampled on her feelings, or plucked their experiences apart. The reader gets a swift, almost unbearable glimpse of paradise lost.

Already the inclusion of this letter has caused excitement among those far more acquainted than I am with what is known and unknown about Orwell’s life and work – giving evidence, as it does, as to the strength of feeling he had for Jacintha. My own fascination is the more basic one that lies with Prof Davison’s decision to set down a
decent, but by no means exhaustive, selection of letters side by side – allowing us to form our own judgements about what we read. The annotations are meticulous in points of contextual and biographical information, but there’s no attempt to supply a running commentary about Orwell’s interior life, or for that matter his development as a
writer. We must piece together our own assessment based primarily on “externals” – passing remarks, references to matters-at-hand, the arduous churn of toil and intention.

If a newcomer to Orwell’s correspondence is initially disappointed that here are to be found few notable expatiations on politics and art – the kind of sustained thinking aloud that so brilliantly animates the essays – the cumulative effect of reading such disparate day-to-day material, which ranges across most of the distinct chapters of his life – Wigan, Spain, Morocco, wartime London, Jura – delivers its own swathe of insights. Orwell wasn’t writing for a wider public here so, for all the now-dated formality of his letters, the tone feels relatively unguarded. BBC-baiters will relish, for instance, his insider’s assessment of the corporation as “mixture of whoreshop and lunatic asylum”. And the longer you look, the more you notice. As with Jacintha’s passing evocation of a lost world, much is said in the
casual aside. Orwell’s life was famously crowded with adventurous incident – but it’s the incidental detail that gives “A Life in Letters” its identity and value.

There are more than a few delightful “who knew?” moments. Maintaining a fastidious and dry – at times drily funny – style throughout his letter-writing career, Orwell makes for a fine chronicler of his own otherworldly foibles while imbuing his reports with a certain kind of boyish obliviousness. There’s a sublime confirmation of his Stan
Laurel tendencies in his description, to Brenda Salkeld in 1934, of nearly dying of cold “the other day when bathing, because I had walked out to Easton Broad not intending to bathe, & then the water looked so nice that I took off my clothes & went in, & then about 50 people came up & rooted themselves to the spot. I wouldn’t have minded that, but
among them was a coastguard who could have had me up for bathing naked, so I had to swim up and down for the best part of half an hour, pretending to like it.”

Was there a strong romantic downside to that off-hand, aloof, gauche manner? In endeavouring to secure a female companion in the wake of his wife Eileen’s death, he combines a cool matter-of-factness with an ardency of need that makes his desperation, loneliness and confusion all the more involuntarily pronounced.

One smiles, but also slightly shudders, to realise that Orwell was writing a letter – and attending to business – on his wedding day in June 1936 (“Curiously enough I am getting married this very morning – in fact I am writing this with one eye on the clock & the other on the Prayer book”, he informs Denys King-Farlow). And one notes, thanks to
the inclusion of chatty letters from Eileen to various parties, that their early days of wedlock were far from bliss-filled thanks to her husband’s workaholic tendencies (“I cried all the time.. Partly because Eric had decided that he mustn’t let his work be interrupted & complained bitterly when we’d been married a week that he’d only done two good days’ work out of seven.”) Was Spain the making of their marriage? Davison allows us to conclude as much. “You really are a wonderful wife,” Orwell gaily notes in a grateful missive in April 1937 – as if conscious of that fact for the first time.

Eileen comes across as never less than delightful. If Orwell was, as we glean him to be here, determined, diffident, at times vexingly difficult, one admires her indulgence of his ingrained eccentricities and writerly fixations. I loved the affectionate vignette of their rough crossing from Gibraltar to Tangier, when Orwell walked around “the boat with a seraphic smile watching people being sick and insisted on my going into the Ladies cabin to report on the disasters
there” (p117). And how about the nugget of marital comedy in Morocco contained in the wincing allusion to “a copper tray four feet across” which “will dominate us for the rest of our lives” (Marjorie Dakin
later flashes back a conspiratorial wink of sympathy: “My heart goes out to you over the four-foot tray”)?

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what lies in this volume for the attentive reader. In broad terms this collection will help counter the received idea of Orwell as a lone figure. He was far more single-minded about keeping the hand-to-mouth journalism going, and securing his literary ambitions, than some might allow, but there’s
little sense of sour anti-sociability amid all the strenuous devotion.

This was a life lived in connection with many other people (93 names appear in the biographical guide to correspondents and relations). And it does something, to cite George Bowling in Coming Up For Air, “to
your heart and guts” when you see, unfolding in real-time, those connections being broken.

The inconclusive abruptness of the last words written by Eileen from her Newcastle on Tyne hospital bed, just before she died under anaesthetic, leaving Orwell biting back the grief and holding their newly adopted baby Richard, are once again emotionally searing in their unplanned, spontaneous succinctness: “This is a nice room – ground floor so one can see the garden. Not much in it except daffodils & I think arabis but a nice little lawn. My bed isn’t next
the window but it faces the right way. I also see the fire & the clock.” And you try to picture it for yourself, the flowers, the fire and the clock – as he must have done.

Dominic Cavendish. Written for the embryonic Orwell Society website, 2010.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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