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This is an extremely specific question, but I can find no resource that suggests that he went by Eric Blair except in his family life.
I am curious if he introduced himself as Orwell at gatherings, or in private life on the street.
Perhaps there is a letter or biography that I'm unaware of that would shed some light on this.
As you noted, he used Eric Blair in his family life even though he once wrote
It took me nearly thirty years to work off the effects of being called Eric
cited in Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Life and Art (2010)
and this private use is most graphically illustrated by his gravestone:
Attrib: Brian Robert Marshall [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
However, he also went by his birth name in other areas of his private life. Most obviously, this included people he knew before he adopted George Orwell as his pen name with the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London in January 1933, but it's more complicated than this. This Newsweek review of Bernard Crick's book George Orwell: A Life notes
His simultaneous use of two names during most of his adult life was one method of cultivating the Mystery around him; another was his habit of keeping different groups of friends very much apart. Crick says even years after Orwell's death people were often astonished to discover who else he knew.
At the same time, Crick
rejects the notion that Eric Blair (his real name) transformed himself into someone different called "George Orwell"
John Rodden, in George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation, also notes this tendency of Orwell / Blair to compartmentalize his life. This article elaborates further on this:
Over the years George Orwell would have his own life, seperate from Eric Blair. Orwell had his own set of friends, and Blair HIS own. It was part of Orwell's love of putting his life into compartments. Friends would talk about how Orwell would keep friends they had never met, as if Orwell made an effort to keep everybody from knowing everyone else.
Thus, how he was addressed at 'gatherings' would have depended on which set of acquaintances he was with.
When Orwell / Blair, after the death of his first wife, went to live on the Scottish island of Jura, the "locals knew him by his real name of Eric Blair". He also used his real name for legal purposes: for example,
Burmese Days, written by “George Orwell,” was copyright under his real name, Eric Blair.
Source: J. Meyers
The Wrongness Of Capital Punishment In A Hanging By George Orwell
The year is circa 1930 and the scene opens on a prison yard in Burma. George Orwell writes of his experience in this prison yard overseeing the hanging of a frail Hindu man and how the events he witnessed completely changed his outlook on capital punishment from retentionist to outspokenly abolitionist, even leading him to leave his job as execution overseer to later become a writer. In his classic short story “A Hanging”, George Orwell uses a variety of characters whose thoughts, words and deeds perfectly represent his abolitionist attitude towards capital punishment. The first character readers are introduced to is the condemned prisoner. Immediately Orwell uses this characters’ physical description and environment to invoke sympathy in&hellip
Honest, Decent, Wrong
"Animal Farm," George Orwell's satire, which became the Cold War "Candide," was finished in 1944, the high point of the Soviet-Western alliance against fascism. It was a warning against dealing with Stalin and, in the circumstances, a prescient book. Orwell had trouble finding a publisher, though, and by the time the book finally appeared, in August, 1945, the month of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the Cold War was already on the horizon. "Animal Farm" was an instant success in England and the United States. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection it was quickly translated into many languages and distributed, in some countries, by the United States government and it made Orwell, who had spent most of his life scraping by, famous and rich. "1984," published four years later, had even greater success. Orwell was fatally ill with pulmonary tuberculosis when he wrote it, and he died in January, 1950. He was forty-six.
The revision began almost immediately. Frances Stonor Saunders, in her fascinating study "The Cultural Cold War," reports that right after Orwell's death the C.I.A. (Howard Hunt was the agent on the case) secretly bought the film rights to "Animal Farm" from his widow, Sonia, and had an animated-film version produced in England, which it distributed throughout the world. The book's final scene, in which the pigs (the Bolsheviks, in Orwell's allegory) can no longer be distinguished from the animals' previous exploiters, the humans (the capitalists), was omitted. A new ending was provided, in which the animals storm the farmhouse where the pigs have moved and liberate themselves all over again. The great enemy of propaganda was subjected, after his death, to the deceptions and evasions of propaganda—and by the very people, American Cold Warriors, who would canonize him as the great enemy of propaganda.
Howard Hunt at least kept the story pegged to the history of the Soviet Union, which is what Orwell intended. Virtually every detail in "Animal Farm" allegorizes some incident in that history: the Kronstadt rebellion, the five-year plan, the Moscow trials, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Tehran conference. But although Orwell didn't want Communism, he didn't want capitalism, either. This part of his thought was carefully elided, and "Animal Farm" became a warning against political change per se. It remains so today. The cover of the current Harcourt paperback glosses the contents as follows:
** <: .break one>** As ferociously fresh as it was more than half a century ago, "Animal Farm" is a parable about would-be liberators everywhere. As we witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals through the lens of our own history, we see the seeds of totalitarianism in the most idealistic organizations and in our most charismatic leaders, the souls of our cruelest oppressors. **
This is the opposite of what Orwell intended. But almost everything in the popular understanding of Orwell is a distortion of what he really thought and the kind of writer he was.
Writers are not entirely responsible for their admirers. It is unlikely that Jane Austen, if she were here today, would wish to become a member of the Jane Austen Society. In his lifetime, George Orwell was regarded, even by his friends, as a contrary man. It was said that the closer you got to him the colder and more critical he became. As a writer, he was often hardest on his allies. He was a middle-class intellectual who despised the middle class and was contemptuous of intellectuals, a Socialist whose abuse of Socialists—"all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking toward the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat"—was as vicious as any Tory's. He preached solidarity, but he had the habits of a dropout, and the works for which he is most celebrated, "Animal Farm," "1984," and the essay "Politics and the English Language," were attacks on people who purported to share his political views. He was not looking to make friends. But after his death he suddenly acquired an army of fans—all middle-class intellectuals eager to suggest that a writer who approved of little would have approved of them.
Orwell's army is one of the most ideologically mixed up ever to assemble. John Rodden, whose "George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation" was published in 1989 and recently reprinted, with a new introduction (Transaction $30), has catalogued it exhaustively. It has included, over the years, ex-Communists, Socialists, left-wing anarchists, right-wing libertarians, liberals, conservatives, doves, hawks, the Partisan Review editorial board, and the John Birch Society: every group in a different uniform, but with the same button pinned to the lapel—Orwell Was Right. Irving Howe claimed Orwell, and so did Norman Podhoretz. Almost the only thing Orwell's posthumous admirers have in common, besides the button, is anti-Communism. But they all somehow found support for their particular bouquet of moral and political values in Orwell's writings, which have been universally praised as "honest," "decent," and "clear." In what sense, though, can writings that have been taken to mean so many incompatible things be called "clear"? And what, exactly, was Orwell right about?
Indifferent to his own person as Orwell genuinely was, his writing is essentially personal. He put himself at the center of all his nonfiction books and many of his essays, and he often used personal anecdotes in his political journalism to make, or reinforce, his points. He never figured himself as the hero of these stories, in part because his tendency to self-abnegation was fairly remorseless. But self-abnegation was perhaps the most seductive aspect of the persona he devised. Orwell had the rare talent for making readers feel that they were dealing not with a reporter or a columnist or a literary man—not with a writer—but with an ordinary person. His method for making people believe what he wrote was to make them believe, first of all, in him.
He was a writer, of course—he was a graphomaniac, in fact: writing was what he lived for—and there was not much that was ordinary about him. He was born, a hundred years ago, in Bengal, where his father was a sub-agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, and he came to England when he was one, and was brought up there by his mother. (The family name was Blair, and Orwell's given name was Eric.) Orwell's father visited the family for three months in 1907, engaging in domestic life with sufficient industry to leave his wife pregnant, and did not come back until 1912. By then, Orwell was boarding as a scholarship student at St. Cyprian's, the school he wrote about, many years later, in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys." He studied hard and won a scholarship to Eton, and it was there that he began his career in self-denial. He deliberately slacked off, finishing a hundred and thirty-eighth in a class of a hundred and sixty-seven, and then, instead of taking the exams for university, joined the Imperial Police and went to Burma, the scene of the essays "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant." In 1927, after five years in Burma, while on leave in England and with no employment prospects, he resigned.
He spent the next four years as a tramp and an itinerant worker, experiences that became the basis for "Down and Out in Paris and London," the first work to appear under the pen name George Orwell, in 1933. He taught school briefly, worked in a bookstore (the subject of the essay "Bookshop Memories"), and spent two months travelling around the industrial districts in the North of England gathering material for "The Road to Wigan Pier," which came out in 1937. Orwell spent the first half of 1937 fighting with the Loyalists in Spain, where he was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper, and where he witnessed the brutal Communist suppression of the revolutionary parties in the Republican alliance. His account of these events, "Homage to Catalonia," which appeared in 1938, was, indeed, brave and iconoclastic (though not the only work of its kind), and it established Orwell in the position that he would maintain for the rest of his life, as the leading anti-Stalinist writer of the British left.
During the war, Orwell took a job with the Indian section of the BBC's Eastern Service, where he produced and, with T. S. Eliot, William Empson, Louis MacNeice, and other distinguished writers, delivered radio talks, mostly on literary subjects, intended to rally the support of Indians for the British war effort. For the first time since 1927, he received the salary he had once enjoyed as a policeman in Burma, but he regarded the work as propaganda—he felt, he said, like "an orange that's been trodden on by a very dirty boot"—and, in 1943, he quit. He worked for a while as literary editor and as a columnist at the Tribune, a Socialist paper edited by Aneurin Bevan, the leader of the left wing of the Labour Party in Britain and a man Orwell admired. In 1946, after the success of "Animal Farm," and knowing that he was desperately ill with lung disease, he removed himself to one of the dankest places in the British Isles: the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland. When he was not too sick to type, he sat in a room all day smoking black shag tobacco, and writing "1984." His biographers have noted that the life of Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth in that novel is based in part on Orwell's own career (as he experienced it) at the BBC. Room 101, the torture chamber in the climactic scene, was the name of the room where the Eastern Service held compulsory committee meetings. Orwell (is it necessary to say?) hated committees.
His first wife, Eileen, with whom he adopted a son, died in 1945. He proposed to several women thereafter, sometimes suggesting, as an inducement, that he would probably die soon and leave his widow with a valuable estate but he struck out. Then, in 1949, when he really was on his deathbed, he married Sonia Brownell, a woman whose sex appeal was widely appreciated. Brownell had slept with Orwell once, in 1945, apparently from the mixed motives of pity and the desire to sleep with famous writers, one of her hobbies. The marriage was performed in a hospital room Orwell died three months later. He ended up selling more books than any other serious writer of the twentieth century—"Animal Farm" and "1984" were together translated into more than sixty languages in 1973, English-language editions of "1984" were still selling at a rate of 1,340 copies a day—and he left all his royalties to Sonia. She squandered them and died more or less in poverty, in 1980. Today, Orwell's gravesite, in a churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, is tended by volunteers.
Orwell has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, but there is no great mystery behind the choices he made in his life. He explained his motive plainly and repeatedly in his writing: he wanted to de-class himself. From his days at St. Cyprian's, and possibly even earlier, he saw the class system as a system of oppression—and nothing but a system of oppression. The guilt (his term) that he felt about his position as a member of the white imperialist bourgeoisie preceded his interest in politics as such. He spent much of his time criticizing professional Socialists, particularly the leaders of the British Labour Party, because, apart from the commitment to equality, there was not much about Socialism that was important to him. His economics were rudimentary, and he had little patience for the temporizing that ordinary politics requires. In 1945, after Germany surrendered, Churchill and the Conservatives were voted out and a Labour government came in (with Bevan as Minister of Health). In less than a year, Orwell was complaining that no steps had been taken to abolish the House of Lords.
He didn't merely go on adventures in class-crossing. He turned his life into an experiment in classlessness, and the intensity of his commitment to that experiment was the main reason that his friends and colleagues found him a perverse and sometimes exasperating man. His insistence on living in uncomfortable conditions, his refusal (despite his bad lungs) to wear a hat or coat in winter, his habit of pouring his tea into the saucer and slurping it noisily (in the working-class manner) struck his friends not as colorful eccentricities but as reproaches directed at their own bourgeois addiction to comfort and decorum. Which they were. Orwell was a brilliant and cultured man, with an Eton accent and an anomalous, vaguely French mustache, who wore the same beat-up tweed jacket nearly every day, made (very badly) his own furniture, and lived, most of the time, one step up from squalor. He read Joyce and kept a goat in the back yard. He was completely authentic and completely inauthentic at the same time—a man who believed that to write honestly he needed to publish under a false name.
Orwell's writing is effortlessly compelling. He was in the tradition of writers who—as Leslie Stephen said of Defoe—understand that there is a literary fascination in a clear recitation of the facts. There is much more to Orwell than this, though. As Christopher Hitchens points out in "Why Orwell Matters" (Basic $24), a book more critical of Orwell than the title might suggest, "Homage to Catalonia" survives as a model of political journalism, and "Animal Farm" and "1984" belong permanently to the literature of resistance. Whatever uses they were made to serve in the West, they gave courage to people in the East. The territory that Orwell covered in "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "The Road to Wigan Pier"—the lower-class extremes—was by no means new to nonfiction prose. Engels wrote about it feelingly in "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844" Jacob Riis studied it in "How the Other Half Lives." But Orwell discovered a tone—"generous anger" is the phrase he once used to describe Dickens, and it has been applied to him, but "cool indignation" seems a little more accurate—that has retained its freshness after seventy years.
Orwell's essays have recently been collected, with exceptional thoroughness, by John Carey (Everyman $35). The essay on Dickens, published in 1940, is weaker criticism than Edmund Wilson's "Dickens: The Two Scrooges," which came out the same year. But Orwell's essay on Henry Miller, "Inside the Whale," which also appeared in 1940, was original and unexpected. His personal essays, especially "Shooting an Elephant" and "Such, Such Were the Joys," are models of the form. Still, his qualities as a writer are obscured by the need of his admirers to claim for his work impossible virtues.
Honesty was important to Orwell. He was certainly quick enough to accuse people he disagreed with of dishonesty. But there is sometimes a confusion, when people talk about Orwell's writing, between honesty and objectivity. "He said what he believed" and "He told it like it was" refer to different virtues. One of the effects of the tone Orwell achieved—the tone of a reasonable, modest, supremely undogmatic man, hoping for the best but resigned to the worst—was the impression of transparency, something that Orwell himself, in an essay called "Why I Write," identified as the ideal of good prose. It was therefore a shock when Bernard Crick, in the first major biography of Orwell, authorized by Sonia Orwell and published the year of her death, confessed that he had found it difficult to corroborate some of the incidents in Orwell's autobiographical writings. Jeffrey Meyers, whose biography "Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation" came out in 2000, concluded that Orwell sometimes "heightened reality to achieve dramatic effects."
Crick has doubts that the event Orwell recounted in remarkably fine detail in "A Hanging"—he describes the condemned man stepping aside to avoid a puddle of water on his way to the scaffold—ever happened, and Meyers notes that, during his years as a tramp, Orwell would take time off to rest and write in the homes of family and friends, something he does not mention in "Down and Out in Paris and London," where the narrator is sometimes on the verge of death by starvation. Both Crick and Meyers suspect that "Shooting an Elephant" has fabricated elements. And everything that Orwell wrote was inflected by his predilection for the worm's-eye view. When biographers asked Orwell's contemporaries what it was really like at St. Cyprian's, or in Burma, or working at the bookshop, the usual answer was "It was bad, but it wasn't that bad."
The point is not that Orwell made things up. The point is that he used writing in a literary, not a documentary, way: he wrote in order to make you see what he wanted you to see, to persuade. During the war, Orwell began contributing a "London Letter" to Partisan Review. In one letter, he wrote that park railings in London were being torn down for scrap metal, but that only working-class neighborhoods were being plundered parks and squares in upper-class neighborhoods, he reported, were untouched. The story, Crick says, was widely circulated. When a friend pointed out that it was untrue, Orwell is supposed to have replied that it didn't matter, "it was essentially true."
You need to grasp Orwell's premises, in other words, before you can start talking about the "truth" of what he writes. He is not saying, This is the way it objectively was from any possible point of view. He is saying, This is the way it looked to someone with my beliefs. Otherwise, his work can be puzzling. "Down and Out in Paris and London" is a powerful book, but you are always wondering what this obviously decent, well-read, talented person is doing washing dishes in the kitchen of a Paris hotel. In "The Road to Wigan Pier," Orwell gave the reader some help with this problem by explaining, at length, where he came from, what his views were, and why he went to live with the miners. Orwell was not a reporter or a sociologist. He was an advocate. He had very definite political opinions, and promoting them was his reason for writing. "No book is genuinely free of political bias," he asserted in "Why I Write." "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."
Here we arrive at the challenge presented by the "Orwell Was Right" button. Hitchens says that there were three great issues in the twentieth century, and that Orwell was right on all three: imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. What does this mean, though? Orwell was against imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Excellent. Many people were against them in Orwell's time, and a great many more people have been against them since. The important question, after condemning those things, was what to do about them, and how to understand the implications for the future. On this level, Orwell was almost always wrong.
Orwell thought that any Englishman who boasted of liberty and prosperity while India was still a colony was a hypocrite. "In order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation—an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream," he wrote in "The Road to Wigan Pier." Still, he did not believe that India was capable of complete independence, and was still saying so as late as 1943. At first, he had the idea that the British Empire should be turned into "a federation of Socialist states, like a looser and freer version of the Union of Soviet Republics," but eventually he arrived at another solution. In 1943, entering a controversy in the pages of the Tribune over the future of Burma, which had been invaded by Japan, he laid out his position. The notion of an independent Burma, he explained, was as ludicrous as the notion of an independent Lithuania or Luxembourg. To grant those countries independence would be to create a bunch of "comic opera states," he wrote. "The plain fact is that small nationalities cannot be independent, because they cannot defend themselves." The answer was to place "the whole main-land of south-east Asia, together with Formosa, under the guidance of China, while leaving the islands under an Anglo-American-Dutch condominium." Orwell was against colonial exploitation, in other words, but not in favor of national self-determination. If this is anti-imperialism, make the most of it.
Orwell took a particular dislike to Gandhi. He referred to him, in private correspondence, as a "bit of a charlatan" in 1943, he wrote that "there is indeed a sort of apocalyptic truth in the statement of the German radio that the teachings of Hitler and Gandhi are the same." One of his last essays was on Gandhi, written two years after India, and one year after Burma, became independent, and a year after Gandhi's assassination. It is a grudging piece of writing. The method of Satyagraha, Orwell said, might have been effective against the British, but he was doubtful about its future as a tactic for political struggle. (A few years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., would find a use for it.) He confessed to "a sort of aesthetic distaste" for Gandhi himself—Gandhi was, after all, just the sort of sandal-wearing, vegetarian mystic Orwell had always abhorred—and he attributed the success of the Indian independence movement as much to the election of a Labour government in Britain as to Gandhi's efforts. "I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure" was the most that he could bring himself to say.
Hitler, on the other hand, Orwell did find personally appealing. "I have never been able to dislike Hitler," he admitted, in 1940. Hitler, it seems, "grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life," which Orwell called the attitude of "nearly all Western thought since the last war, certainly all 'progressive' thought." This response—the idea that fascism, whatever might be wrong with it, is at least about the necessity of struggle and self-sacrifice—is not that far from the response of the relatively few people in England (there were more in France) who actively endorsed fascism.
Orwell was opposed to Nazi Germany. But he thought that Britain, as an imperial power, had no moral right to go to war against Hitler, and he was sure that a war would make Britain fascist. This is a theme in his novel "Coming Up for Air," which was published in 1939, and that winter he was urging friends to begin planning "illegal anti-war activities." He thought that it would be a good idea to set up an underground antiwar organization, in anticipation of what he called the "pre-war fascising processes," and predicted that he would end up in a British concentration camp because of his views. He kept up his antiwar agitation until August, 1939. Then, with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, he flipped completely. In "The Lion and the Unicorn," in 1941, he accused British antiwar intellectuals of "sabotage." They had become "Europeanized" they sneered at patriotism. (This from a man who, two years earlier, had been proposing an illegal campaign against government policy.) They had weakened the morale of the English people, "so that the Fascist nations judged that they were nt' and that it was safe to plunge into war. . . . Ten years of systematic Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed forces." The prediction of a fascist Britain had evidently been forgotten.
What were Orwell's political opinions? Orwell was a revolutionary Socialist. That is, he hoped that there would be a Socialist revolution in England, and, as he said more than once, if violence was necessary, violence there should be. "I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood," he wrote in "My Country Right or Left," in 1940. And a year later, in "The Lion and the Unicorn," "It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. . . . Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place." Orwell had concluded long before that capitalism had failed unambiguously, and he never changed his opinion. He thought that Hitler's military success on the Continent proved once and for all the superiority of a planned economy. "It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption," he wrote. "The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them."
A Socialist England, as Orwell described it, would be a classless society with virtually no private property. The State would own everything, and would require "that nobody shall live without working." Orwell thought that perhaps fifteen acres of land, "at the very most," might be permitted, presumably to allow subsistence farming, but that there would be no ownership of land in town areas. Incomes would be equalized, so that the highest income would never be greater than ten times the lowest. Above that, the tax rate should be a hundred per cent. The House of Lords would be abolished, though Orwell thought that the monarchy might be preserved. (Everybody would drink at the same pub, presumably, but one of the blokes would get to wear a crown.) As for its foreign policy: a Socialist state "will not have the smallest scruple about attacking hostile neutrals or stirring up native rebellions in enemy colonies."
Orwell was not a cultural radical. Democracy and moral decency (once the blood was cleaned off the pavement, anyway) were central to his vision of Socialism. His admirers remembered the democracy and the decency, and managed to forget most of the rest. When "Homage to Catalonia" was finally published in the United States, in 1952, Lionel Trilling wrote an introduction, which Jeffrey Meyers has called "probably the most influential essay on Orwell." It is a work of short fiction. "Orwell clung with a kind of wry, grim pride to the old ways of the last class that had ruled the old order," Trilling wrote he exemplified the meaning of the phrase "my station and its duties," and respected "the old bourgeois virtues." He even "came to love things, material possessions." A fully housebroken anti-Communist. It is amusing to imagine Orwell slurping his tea at the Columbia Faculty House.
Understanding Orwell's politics helps to explain that largely inaccurate prediction about postwar life "1984." There was, Hitchens points out, an enormous blind spot in Orwell's view of the world: the United States. Orwell never visited the United States and, as Hitchens says, showed little curiosity about what went on there. To the extent that he gave it any attention, he tended to regard the United States as vulgar, materialistic, and a threat to the English language. ("Many Americans pronounce . . . water as though it had no t in it, or even as though it had no consonant in it at all, except the w," he claimed. "On the whole we are justified in regarding the American language with suspicion.") He thought that, all things considered, Britain was better off as a client-state of Washington than as a client-state of Moscow, but he did not look on an increased American role in the world with hope. Since Orwell was certain that capitalism was doomed, the only future he could imagine for the United States was as some sort of totalitarian regime.
He laid out his view in 1947, in the pages of Partisan Review. There were, he explained, three possible futures in a nuclear world: a preëmptive nuclear strike by the United States against the Soviet Union a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, wiping out most of the race and returning life to the Bronze Age and a stalemate created by the fear of actually using atomic bombs and other weapons of mass destruction—what would be known as the policy of mutually assured destruction. This third possibility, Orwell argued, was the worst of all:
** <: .break one>** It would mean the division of the world among two or three vast superstates, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion. In all probability their structure would be hierarchic, with a semi-divine caste at the top and outright slavery at the bottom, and the crushing out of liberty would exceed anything that the world has yet seen. Within each state the necessary psychological atmosphere would be kept up by complete severance from the outer world, and by a continuous phony war against rival states. Civilizations of this type might remain static for thousands of years. **
Orwell's third possibility was, of course, the path that history took. Mutually assured destruction was the guiding policy of the arms race and the Cold War. Orwell himself coined the term "Cold War," and after his death he became a hero to Cold Warriors, liberal and conservative alike. But he hated the idea of a Cold War—he preferred being bombed back to the Bronze Age—because it seems never to have entered his mind that the United States would be a force for liberty and democracy. "1984" is, precisely, Orwell's vision of what the Cold War might be like: a mindless and interminable struggle among totalitarian monsters. Was he right?
Some people in 1949 received "1984" as an attack on the Labour Party (in the book, the regime of Big Brother is said to have derived from the principles of "Ingsoc" that is, English Socialism), and Orwell was compelled to issue, through his publisher, a statement clarifying his intentions. He was a supporter of the Labour Party, he said. "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive," he continued, "but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences."
The attitude behind this last sentence seems to me the regrettable part of Orwell's legacy. If ideas were to stand or fall on the basis of their logically possible consequences, we would have no ideas, because the ultimate conceivable consequence of every idea is an absurdity—is, in some way, "against life." We don't live just by ideas. Ideas are part of the mixture of customs and practices, intuitions and instincts that make human life a conscious activity susceptible to improvement or debasement. A radical idea may be healthy as a provocation a temperate idea may be stultifying. It depends on the circumstances. One of the most tiresome arguments against ideas is that their "tendency" is to some dire condition—to totalitarianism, or to moral relativism, or to a war of all against all. Orwell did not invent this kind of argument, but he provided, in "1984," a vocabulary for its deployment.
"Big Brother" and "doublethink" and "thought police" are frequently cited as contributions to the language. They are, but they belong to the same category as "liar" and "pervert" and "madman." They are conversation-stoppers. When a court allows videotape from a hidden camera to be used in a trial, people shout "Big Brother." When a politician refers to his proposal to permit logging on national land as "environmentally friendly," he is charged with "doublethink." When a critic finds sexism in a poem, she is accused of being a member of the "thought police." The terms can be used to discredit virtually any position, which is one of the reasons that Orwell became everyone's favorite political thinker. People learned to make any deviation from their own platform seem the first step on the slippery slope to "1984."
There are Big Brothers and thought police in the world, just as there are liars and madmen. "1984" may have been intended to expose the true character of Soviet Communism, but, because it describes a world in which there are no moral distinctions among the three fictional regimes that dominate the globe, it ended up encouraging people to see totalitarian "tendencies" everywhere. There was visible totalitarianism, in Russia and in Eastern Europe but there was also the invisible totalitarianism of the so-called "free world." When people talk about Big Brother, they generally mean a system of covert surveillance and manipulation, oppression in democratic disguise (unlike the system in Orwell's book, which is so overt that it is advertised). "1984" taught people to imagine government as a conspiracy against liberty. This is why the John Birch Society used 1984 as the last four digits in the phone number of its Washington office.
Orwell himself was a sniffer of tendencies. He, too, could blur moral distinctions among the things he disliked, between the BBC and the Ministry of Love, for instance he apparently thought of the Ministry of Love as the logical consequence of the mass media's "tendency" to thought control. His most celebrated conflation of dislikes is the essay, for many years a staple of the freshman-composition syllabus, "Politics and the English Language."
Degeneration via Imperialism: George Orwell on Imperialism in British India
During the nearly two centuries of British rule in India, many pieces of literature were written that dealt with a multitude of issues related to imperialism. Though many are great literary works, such as E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India, few have authentically captured the experience of imperial rule like George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Based on Orwell’s experience as an imperial officer in Burma, the novel follows the decline of an imperial officer who is at odds with the imperial ideology and system. It is set in the 1930s in the waning years of the British Empire and addresses many issues pertaining to that phenomenon (power shifts, loyalties, frictions, etc.). But the novel’s importance doesn’t rest on historical themes alone Orwell was a political writer, and each one of his books or essays had an intended message. Locating and understanding the message(s) of Burmese Days is the purpose of this brief paper. Ultimately, this essay will argue that Burmese Days is a novel of guilt and moral responsibility that sees imperialism as a degenerative force because it progressively weakens the freedom of the colonizer and the colonized until both suffer tragically.
From 1922-1927, Orwell was an imperial officer in Burma, which had been a province of British India since 1885. During those five years “he was responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men.” Not surprisingly, this left Orwell with feelings of guilt and hatred for empire, which he saw as tyrannical by the end of his service as an officer. After returning to Europe, he wrote, “The landscapes of Burma, which, when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the qualities of a nightmare, afterwards stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them.” Not only does one see the guilt Orwell feels for the things he did in Burma, but also the sense of responsibility to somehow reconcile his actions as a result. Carried out through the semi-autobiographical character James Flory, these feelings are present in and form the basis of Burmese Days.
The Ethics of Imperialism
In order to understand how imperialism affects the characters in the novel, it is first necessary to understand how Orwell views and presents imperial culture. Although there are many good examples that reveal Orwell’s thoughts on imperialism, some of the most poignant come from the beginning of the novel. For example, after Dr. Verswami (a native doctor and friend) questions Flory on why he called the British presence in Burma a lie, Flory responds by saying,
Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of robbing them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.
This quote shows that Flory, unlike his fellow Anglo-Indians, acknowledges and feels guilt for the injustices carried out by the British in the name of empire. More striking, however, is how he talks about the British presence in Burma as something that corrupts and torments the white officers. According to Flory, it is the fact that the actions of the British Empire are covered up by civilizing rhetoric that corrupts the Anglo-Indians, and not necessarily the actions themselves. Because they are corrupt, the officers are tormented into an endless justification of their actions. When read this way, it can then be said that under the guise of the civilizing mission—the white man’s burden—Orwell views the Europeans as slaves to the imperial ideology.
More of Orwell’s thoughts about imperialism are revealed soon after, when Flory expresses his opinion on the real reason for the British presence in Burma. He explains to the doctor that
the official holds the Burman down while the business man goes through his pockets. Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British? Or the other timber firms, or the oil companies, or the miners and planters and traders? How could the Rice Ring go on skinning the unfortunate peasant if it hadn’t the Government behind it? The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English….
Again, Flory talks about the façade of imperialism, only this time he talks about why exactly the British are lying through its civilizing rhetoric. In Flory’s eyes, the British are in Burma for one purpose: to provide business interests with more avenues of trade. In other words, the entire idea of empire is merely a tool that is used to justify and cover up the extraction of resources from the colonies by British businessmen. In this sense, both the British imperial officers and the natives are simply tools of empire, neither one making truly independent decisions. Because this system benefits no one in the colony itself, it is easy to see how and why the guilt of empire was difficult for Flory to handle.
Another example demonstrating Orwell’s presentation and judgement of imperialism in the novel comes from the end of an argument between Flory and Dr. Verswami. After the doctor claims that the British have brought to Burma more than banks and prisons, Flory states, “‘Of course I don’t deny that we modernise this country in certain ways. We can’t help doing so. In fact, before we’ve finished we’ll have wrecked the whole Burmese national culture. But we’re not civilising them, we’re only rubbing our dirt on them.”’ On the one hand, Flory admits that the British presence in Burma has, indeed, modernised the country. On the other hand, Flory does not see modernisation as a good thing because it is destroying the indigenous Burmese culture. In his opinion, the British are bringing nothing more valuable to the Burmese than what already exists in their culture. The British merely have the resources to impose rhetoric of civilization and superiority onto the indigenous population. Again, Orwell raises questions of guilt and moral responsibility through his protagonist. If what the British are imposing is not better than what the Burmese already have, how can one justify the actions of empire? Further, if the British are conscious of that fact that what they are imposing is not better than what the Burmese already have, why are imperial officers imposing it? From this, it can then be said that the imperial officer, in Orwell’s in interpretation, is not a free individual because he is not able to make logical or ethical decisions.
Orwell’s judgement of imperialism as a degenerative force is best represented through James Flory, who is driven by his feelings of guilt and moral responsibility to a tragic end. In this sense, Flory can be seen as a tragic hero it is his strong ethical consciousness that is the cause of his deterioration and, ultimately, his death by suicide. One way the deterioration takes place is through the relationship he has with Dr. Verswami. As previously mentioned, Flory is unlike the other Europeans with regard to his views of empire and the guilt he feels as a result. But the disparity is widened by the friendship between the two men because it is the cause of much discussion and conflict within the local European Club. For example, when it is suggested that a spot in the Club should be given to a native resident of the city in which it resides, every member makes a negative comment on the matter except Flory. This doesn’t go unnoticed, and once Flory leaves the discussion, Westfield (the District Superintendent of Police) says, “‘He’s a bit too Bolshie for my taste. I can’t bear a fellow who pals up with the natives. I should wonder if he’s got a lick of the tarbrush himself.’” Flory’s feelings become clear on the matter in the next scene when he speaks to the doctor about visiting his house. He says, “‘Such a glorious holiday from them … from my beloved fellow Empire-builders. British prestige, the white man’s burden, the pukka sahib sans peur et sans reproche—you know. Such a relief to be out of the stink of it for a little while.’” The fact that this scene takes place at the doctor’s house has the effect of making the views of Flory and the other European men very distinct.
Yet, even though Flory is known to be friendly with Verswami and other indigenous Burmese, he does not challenge or question the opinions of the Europeans when they insult the doctor or other natives. Instead, Flory’s opinions remain hidden—at times, even from Verswami—because of the corruption of empire. For instance, after the doctor questions Flory’s views on empire because he only expresses them in private, Flory responds by saying, “Sorry, doctor I don’t go in for proclaiming from the housetops. I haven’t the guts. I ‘counsel ignoble ease’, like old Belial in Paradise Lost. It’s safer. You’ve got to be a pukka sahib or die, in this country. In fifteen years, I’ve never talked honestly to anyone except you. My talks here are a safety valve a little Black Mass on the sly, if you understand me.” Although Flory disagrees with the racist views of the other members of the Club, he claims that he is kept from expressing them because of the nature of empire. The tragedy of this is that his moral conscience becomes nothing but a burden because he cannot act on it.
However, what Flory tells the doctor is only part of the tragedy. The next part of it is revealed when the argument graduates to the possibility of Verswami being elected into the Club. After the doctor explains how being elected to the Club would help him escape attacks from U Po Kyin, the narrator claims “[Flory] knew that in all probability, if he had the courage to face a few rows with Ellis, he could secure Dr. Verswami’s election to the Club.” This quote reveals that acting on moral responsibility is not completely out of Flory’s hands. If he had the courage, not only could he challenge the other pukka sahibs’ views of the natives—and their views of empire—but he could also help his only friend to avoid scandal and hardship by electing him to the Club. In this sense, Flory is not forced to be silent solely by circumstances that are out of his control, but by a fear of being further distinguished apart from the rest of the Europeans. This leaves him with a sense of guilt that remains with him and tortures him throughout the novel. In short, it is the imperial ideology that keeps Flory crippled from acting on his morals, making his tragic flaw the ethics that also make him a hero.
Unfortunately, when Flory does decide to speak up for the doctor, it is too late to be of any help. When the times comes for the election of a native to be made, U Po Kyin’s plan to ruin Verswami has already had detrimental effects on his reputation among the Europeans. Furthermore, Flory’s decision is driven less by moral responsibility than it is by convenience. For example, after realizing that the election was essentially in his power to decide, Flory stands up in order to nominate the doctor. The narrator describes his thoughts in the following sentences:
But oh, what a bore, what a nuisance it was! What an infernal uproar there would be! How he wished he had never given the doctor that promise! No matter, he had given it, and he could not break it. So short a time ago he would have broken it, en bon pukka sahib, how easily! But not now. He had got to see this thing through. He turned himself sidelong so that his birthmark was away from the others. Already he could feel his voice going flat and guilty.
At this point in the novel, Flory has deteriorated significantly since the beginning of the story. His relationship with Elizabeth (a young European woman whom he has been courting) is almost surely over, which makes him self-pitying and desperate. From this quote, it is clear that Flory nominates the doctor only because he sees that has nothing to lose. The promise he made to the doctor is more of a burden to him now than anything else, but in his current situation, his relationship with the doctor is the only thing he has left. Therefore, even though he feels guilty about breaking away from the other pukka sahibs, he chooses to speak up and nominate the doctor. Unfortunately, Flory acts too late, for U Po Kyin’s plans to ruin the doctor and Flory have already been set into motion. Herein lies the tragedy: it is only when Flory’s fate has been determined by circumstances of empire that he has enough courage to speak out against it.
Corrosive and Damaging Effects of Imperialism
Beyond the downfall of Flory, the idea of imperialism as a degenerative force is demonstrated through Orwell’s representation of empire as a parasite that, in the end, benefits neither the Europeans nor the Burmese. In essence, this is what Orwell sees as corrosive and damaging at the heart of imperial culture. For instance, during a comparison between the freedom of men in England and Burma, the narrator writes,
Everyone is freeing England we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.
This quote clearly shows that even the Europeans in Burma do not benefit from empire. In fact, participating in empire-building is more detrimental than anything else for, in taking away the freedom of the Burmese, the British are giving up their freedom as well. And in giving up freedom, the British are simultaneously giving up power. Therefore, one reason Orwell sees imperial culture as corrosive and damaging is that it is detrimental even to the men who are given the task of carrying out the business of empire.
Another example of empire’s universally detrimental effects comes from a poignant scene in which Elizabeth sees Eurasians for the first time. Both confused and appalled by what she sees, Elizabeth asks Flory questions regarding the condition of the Eurasians in Burma. In response to a question about their options for work, Flory’s says, “The Europeans won’t touch them with a stick, and they’re cut off from entering the lower-grade Government services. There’s nothing they can do except cadge, unless they chuck all pretension to being Europeans. And really you can’t expect the poor devils to do that. Their drop of white blood is the sole asset they’ve got.” Caught at the peripheries of both the British and the Burmese, the Eurasians are social outcasts. They are the ultimate symbols of Empire because even though they possess assets of both groups, they benefit from neither. The little prestige the Eurasians get from being half European is offset by the fact that they live as beggars. In short, the Eurasians—whose very existence owes itself to empire—signify another group that is negatively affected by the realities of imperial culture.
The indigenous Burmese are the final group that Orwell claims do not benefit from Empire. Of all the characters in the novel, none faces the consequences of empire more than Dr. Verswami does. For instance, when the narrator is describing the results of Flory’s death, he writes, “The first and most important of them was that Dr. Verswami was ruined, even as he had foreseen. The glory of being a white man’s friend—the one thing that saved him before—had vanished. Flory’s standing with the other Europeans had never been good, it is true but he was after all a white man, and his friendship conferred a certain prestige. Once he was dead, the doctor’s ruin was assured.” Due to the nature of imperial culture, Verswami’s status in the community was reliant on his friendship with Flory. As Flory’s standing changed within the club, so did the doctor’s chance of being nominated to it. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the physical death of Flory also marks the symbolic death of Verswami. If empire is detrimental to the empire-builders themselves, then can one not expect it to be detrimental to the natives as well? The case of Verswami is important because it is representative of the fact that, like all other groups under the influence of imperial culture, the indigenous Burmese cannot benefit from empire.
Of course, there is one exception that proves the imperial rule: U Po Kyin. Of all the characters in the novel, British or native, U Po Kyin is the only one that benefits from imperial culture. For instance, after his plan is realized and Flory commits suicide, U Po Kyin is elected to the Club. He is even promoted and given a medal from the Indian Government soon after. However, when looked at more closely, the case of U Po Kyin is less optimistic. Undeniably, U Po Kyin does gain prestige and membership into the Club, but if his gains are merely imperial gains, then they are superficial at best. In other words, because his gains only mean something within the realm of imperial culture, it cannot be said without question that U Po Kyin benefits from empire.
How imperialism is judged and portrayed in Burmese Days is hard to deny. In the eyes of Orwell, imperialism is detrimental because it impairs the freedom of the British and indigenous Burmese alike, causing society—and the individuals within in it—to suffer. The novel’s themes of guilt and moral responsibility that are embodied in Flory’s character are a direct result of Orwell’s own experiences as an imperial officer in Burma. For this reason, it should not come as a surprise that Burmese Days reveals many truths about the imperial experience of British India in the 1930s. In fact, Orwell’s intimate understanding and presentation of empire shows that even a novel can be a valuable tool to the historian of imperialism.
 James Flory in George Orwell, Burmese Days (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1934), 277.
 The argument of this essay was influenced by a number of scholars, most notably Jeffrey Meyers, who argue that all of George Orwell’s works are themed around morality, responsibility, and commitment. In making my argument, I hope to add to the scholarship of the past and present that closely analyzes the politics of Orwell. For a brief introduction into this scholarship, see Jeffrey Meyers, A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975).
 Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007),
 Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Life and Art (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2010), 23.
Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the
burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you
come to think of it.
When Chesterton wrote his introductions to the Everyman Edition of
Dickens's works, it seemed quite natural to him to credit Dickens with
his own highly individual brand of medievalism, and more recently a
Marxist writer, Mr. T. A. Jackson, has made spirited efforts to turn
Dickens into a blood-thirsty revolutionary. The Marxist claims him as
'almost' a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as 'almost' a Catholic, and
both claim him as a champion of the proletariat (or 'the poor', as
Chesterton would have put it). On the other hand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in
her little book on Lenin, relates that towards the end of his life Lenin
went to see a dramatized version of THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH, and found
Dickens's 'middle-class sentimentality' so intolerable that he walked out
in the middle of a scene.
Taking 'middle-class' to mean what Krupskaya might be expected to mean by
it, this was probably a truer judgement than those of Chesterton and
Jackson. But it is worth noticing that the dislike of Dickens implied in
this remark is something unusual. Plenty of people have found him
unreadable, but very few seem to have felt any hostility towards the
general spirit of his work. Some years later Mr. Bechhofer Roberts
published a full-length attack on Dickens in the form of a novel (THIS
SIDE IDOLATRY), but it was a merely personal attack, concerned for the
most part with Dickens's treatment of his wife. It dealt with incidents
which not one in a thousand of Dickens's readers would ever hear about,
and which no more invalidates his work than the second-best bed
invalidates HAMLET. All that the book really demonstrated was that a
writer's literary personality has little or nothing to do with his
private character. It is quite possible that in private life Dickens was
just the kind of insensitive egoist that Mr. Bechhofer Roberts makes him
appear. But in his published work there is implied a personality quite
different from this, a personality which has won him far more friends
than enemies. It might well have been otherwise, for even if Dickens was
a bourgeois, he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might
truthfully say a rebel. Everyone who has read widely in his work has felt
this. Gissing, for instance, the best of the writers on Dickens, was
anything but a radical himself, and he disapproved of this strain in
Dickens and wished it were not there, but it never occurred to him to
deny it. In OLIVER TWIST, HARD TIMES, BLEAK HOUSE, LITTLE DORRIT, Dickens
attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been
approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and,
more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so
completely that he has become a national institution himself. In its
attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like
the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful
tickling. Before I was ten years old I was having Dickens ladled down my
throat by schoolmasters in whom even at that age I could see a strong
resemblance to Mr. Creakle, and one knows without needing to be told that
lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that LITTLE DORRIT is a favourite
in the Home Office. Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking
everybody and antagonizing nobody. Naturally this makes one wonder
whether after all there was something unreal in his attack upon society.
Where exactly does he stand, socially, morally, and politically? As
usual, one can define his position more easily if one starts by deciding
what he was NOT.
In the first place he was NOT, as Messrs. Chesterton and Jackson seem to
imply, a 'proletarian' writer. To begin with, he does not write about the
proletariat, in which he merely resembles the overwhelming majority of
novelists, past and present. If you look for the working classes in
fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole. This
statement needs qualifying, perhaps. For reasons that are easy enough to
see, the agricultural labourer (in England a proletarian) gets a fairly
good showing in fiction, and a great deal has been written about
criminals, derelicts and, more recently, the working-class
intelligentsia. But the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make
the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do
find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as
objects of pity or as comic relief. The central action of Dickens's
stories almost invariably takes place in middle-class surroundings. If
one examines his novels in detail one finds that his real subject-matter
is the London commercial bourgeoisie and their hangers-on--lawyers,
clerks, tradesmen, innkeepers, small craftsmen, and servants. He has no
portrait of an agricultural worker, and only one (Stephen Blackpool in
HARD TIMES) of an industrial worker. The Plornishes in LITTLE DORRIT are
probably his best picture of a working-class family--the Peggottys, for
instance, hardly belong to the working class--but on the whole he is not
successful with this type of character. If you ask any ordinary reader
which of Dickens's proletarian characters he can remember, the three he
is almost certain to mention are Bill Sykes, Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp. A
burglar, a valet, and a drunken midwife--not exactly a representative
cross-section of the English working class.
Secondly, in the ordinarily accepted sense of the word, Dickens is not a
'revolutionary' writer. But his position here needs some defining.
Whatever else Dickens may have been, he was not a hole-and-corner
soul-saver, the kind of well-meaning idiot who thinks that the world will
be perfect if you amend a few bylaws and abolish a few anomalies. It is
worth comparing him with Charles Reade, for instance. Reade was a much
better-informed man than Dickens, and in some ways more public-spirited.
He really hated the abuses he could understand, he showed them up in a
series of novels which for all their absurdity are extremely readable,
and he probably helped to alter public opinion on a few minor but
important points. But it was quite beyond him to grasp that, given the
existing form of society, certain evils CANNOT be remedied. Fasten upon
this or that minor abuse, expose it, drag it into the open, bring it
before a British jury, and all will be well that is how he sees it.
Dickens at any rate never imagined that you can cure pimples by cutting
them off. In every page of his work one can see a consciousness that
society is wrong somewhere at the root. It is when one asks 'Which root?'
that one begins to grasp his position.
The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively
moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in
his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational
system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in
their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist,
or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that
Dickens's attitude is at bottom not even DEStructive. There is no clear
sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he
believes it would make very much difference if it WERE overthrown. For in
reality his target is not so much society as 'human nature'. It would be
difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the
economic system is wrong AS A SYSTEM. Nowhere, for instance, does he make
any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like
OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with
living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to
suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of
course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again
from the remarks about Bounderby's will at the end of HARD TIMES, and
indeed from the whole of Dickens's work one can infer the evil of
LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It
is said that Macaulay refused to review HARD TIMES because he disapproved
of its 'sullen Socialism'. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word
'Socialism' in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian
meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as 'Bolshevism'. There is
not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic indeed,
its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is
that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be
rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been
morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well
enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social
criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this,
unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole 'message' is
one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would
behave decently the world would be decent.
Naturally this calls for a few characters who are in positions of
authority and who DO behave decently. Hence that recurrent Dickens
figure, the good rich man. This character belongs especially to Dickens's
early optimistic period. He is usually a 'merchant' (we are not
necessarily told what merchandise he deals in), and he is always a
superhumanly kind-hearted old gentleman who 'trots' to and fro, raising
his employees' wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out
of jail and in general, acting the fairy godmother. Of course he is a
pure dream figure, much further from real life than, say, Squeers or
Micawber. Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who
was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the
first place. Mr. Pickwick, for instance, had 'been in the city', but it
is difficult to imagine him making a fortune there. Nevertheless this
character runs like a connecting thread through most of the earlier
books. Pickwick, the Cheerybles, old Chuzzlewit, Scrooge--it is the same
figure over and over again, the good rich man, handing out guineas.
Dickens does however show signs of development here. In the books of the
middle period the good rich man fades out to some extent. There is no one
who plays this part in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, nor in GREAT EXPECTATIONS--
GREAT EXPECTATIONS is, in fact, definitely an attack on patronage--and
in HARD TIMES it is only very doubtfully played by Gradgrind after his
reformation. The character reappears in a rather different form as
Meagles in LITTLE DORRIT and John Jarndyce in BLEAK HOUSE--one might
perhaps add Betsy Trotwood in DAVID COPPERFIELD. But in these books the
good rich man has dwindled from a 'merchant' to a RENTIER. This is
significant. A RENTIER is part of the possessing class, he can and,
almost without knowing it, does make other people work for him, but he
has very little direct power. Unlike Scrooge or the Cheerybles, he cannot
put everything right by raising everybody's wages. The seeming inference
from the rather despondent books that Dickens wrote in the fifties is
that by that time he had grasped the helplessness of well-meaning
individuals in a corrupt society. Nevertheless in the last completed
novel, OUR MUTUAL FRIEND (published 1864-5), the good rich man comes back
in full glory in the person of Boffin. Boffin is a proletarian by origin
and only rich by inheritance, but he is the usual DEUS EX MACHINA,
solving everybody's problems by showering money in all directions. He
even 'trots', like the Cheerybles. In several ways OUR MUTUAL FRIEND is a
return to the earlier manner, and not an unsuccessful return either.
Dickens's thoughts seem to have come full circle. Once again, individual
kindliness is the remedy for everything.
One crying evil of his time that Dickens says very little about is child
labour. There are plenty of pictures of suffering children in his books,
but usually they are suffering in schools rather than in factories. The
one detailed account of child labour that he gives is the description in
DAVID COPPERFIELD of little David washing bottles in Murdstone & Grinby's
warehouse. This, of course, is autobiography. Dickens himself, at the age
of ten, had worked in Warren's blacking factory in the Strand, very much
as he describes it here. It was a terribly bitter memory to him, partly
because he felt the whole incident to be discreditable to his parents,
and he even concealed it from his wife till long after they were married.
Looking back on this period, he says in DAVID COPPERFIELD:
It is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so
easily thrown away at such an age. A child of excellent abilities and
with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt
bodily or mentally, it seems wonderful to me that nobody should have made
any sign in my behalf. But none was made and I became, at ten years old,
a little labouring hind in the service of Murdstone & Grinby.
And again, having described the rough boys among whom he worked:
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this
companionship. . . and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and
distinguished man crushed in my bosom.
Obviously it is not David Copperfield who is speaking, it is Dickens
himself. He uses almost the same words in the autobiography that he began
and abandoned a few months earlier. Of course Dickens is right in saying
that a gifted child ought not to work ten hours a day pasting labels on
bottles, but what he does not say is that NO child ought to be condemned
to such a fate, and there is no reason for inferring that he thinks it.
David escapes from the warehouse, but Mick Walker and Mealy Potatoes and
the others are still there, and there is no sign that this troubles
Dickens particularly. As usual, he displays no consciousness that the
STRUCTURE of society can be changed. He despises politics, does not
believe that any good can come out of Parliament--he had been a
Parliamentary shorthand writer, which was no doubt a disillusioning
experience--and he is slightly hostile to the most hopeful movement of
his day, trade unionism. In HARD TIMES trade unionism is represented as
something not much better than a racket, something that happens because
employers are not sufficiently paternal. Stephen Blackpool's refusal to
join the union is rather a virtue in Dickens's eyes. Also, as Mr. Jackson
has pointed out, the apprentices' association in BARNABY RUDGE, to which
Sim Tappertit belongs, is probably a hit at the illegal or barely legal
unions of Dickens's own day, with their secret assemblies, passwords and
so forth. Obviously he wants the workers to be decently treated, but
there is no sign that he wants them to take their destiny into their own
hands, least of all by open violence.
As it happens, Dickens deals with revolution in the narrower sense in two
novels, BARNABY RUDGE and A TALE OF TWO CITIES. In BARNABY RUDGE it is a
case of rioting rather than revolution. The Gordon Riots of 1780, though
they had religious bigotry as a pretext, seem to have been little more
than a pointless outburst of looting. Dickens's attitude to this kind of
thing is sufficiently indicated by the fact that his first idea was to
make the ringleaders of the riots three lunatics escaped from an asylum.
He was dissuaded from this, but the principal figure of the book is in
fact a village idiot. In the chapters dealing with the riots Dickens
shows a most profound horror of mob violence. He delights in describing
scenes in which the 'dregs' of the population behave with atrocious
bestiality. These chapters are of great psychological interest, because
they show how deeply he had brooded on this subject. The things he
describes can only have come out of his imagination, for no riots on
anything like the same scale had happened in his lifetime. Here is one of
his descriptions, for instance:
If Bedlam gates had been flung open wide, there would not have issued
forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. There were men
there who danced and trampled on the beds of flowers as though they trod
down human enemies, and wrenched them from their stalks, like savages who
twisted human necks. There were men who cast their lighted torches in the
air, and suffered them to fall upon their heads and faces, blistering the
skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire,
and paddled in it with their hands as if in water and others who were
restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On
the skull of one drunken lad--not twenty, by his looks--who lay upon
the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came
streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot, melting his head
like wax. . . But of all the howling throng not one learnt mercy from, or
sickened at, these sights nor was the fierce, besotted, senseless rage
of one man glutted.
You might almost think you were reading a description of 'Red' Spain by a
partisan of General Franco. One ought, of course, to remember that when
Dickens was writing, the London 'mob' still existed. (Nowadays there is
no mob, only a flock.) Low wages and the growth and shift of population
had brought into existence a huge, dangerous slum-proletariat, and until
the early middle of the nineteenth century there was hardly such a thing
as a police force. When the brickbats began to fly there was nothing
between shuttering your windows and ordering the troops to open fire. In
A TALE OF TWO CITIES he is dealing with a revolution which was really
about something, and Dickens's attitude is different, but not entirely
different. As a matter of fact, A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a book which
tends to leave a false impression behind, especially after a lapse of
The one thing that everyone who has read A TALE OF TWO CITIES remembers
is the Reign of Terror. The whole book is dominated by the guillotine--
tumbrils thundering to and fro, bloody knives, heads bouncing into the
basket, and sinister old women knitting as they watch. Actually these
scenes only occupy a few chapters, but they are written with terrible
intensity, and the rest of the book is rather slow going. But A TALE OF
TWO CITIES is not a companion volume to THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. Dickens
sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and
that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he
says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will
follow. He repeats this over and over again. We are constantly being
reminded that while 'my lord' is lolling in bed, with four liveried
footmen serving his chocolate and the peasants starving outside,
somewhere in the forest a tree is growing which will presently be sawn
into planks for the platform of the guillotine, etc., etc., etc. The
inevitability of the Terror, given its causes, is insisted upon in the
It was too much the way. . . to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it
were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown--
as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to
it--as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the
misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous,
had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain
terms recorded what they saw.
All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could
record itself, are fused in the one realization, Guillotine. And yet
there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a
blade, a leaf, a root, a spring, a peppercorn, which will grow to
maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this
horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and
it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.
In other words, the French aristocracy had dug their own graves. But
there is no perception here of what is now called historic necessity.
Dickens sees that the results are inevitable, given the causes, but he
thinks that the causes might have been avoided. The Revolution is
something that happens because centuries of oppression have made the
French peasantry sub-human. If the wicked nobleman could somehow have
turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge, there would have been no
Revolution, no JACQUERIE, no guillotine--and so much the better. This is
the opposite of the 'revolutionary' attitude. From the 'revolutionary'
point of view the class-struggle is the main source of progress, and
therefore the nobleman who robs the peasant and goads him to revolt is
playing a necessary part, just as much as the Jacobin who guillotines the
nobleman. Dickens never writes anywhere a line that can be interpreted as
meaning this. Revolution as he sees it is merely a monster that is
begotten by tyranny and always ends by devouring its own instruments. In
Sydney Carton's vision at the foot of the guillotine, he foresees Defarge
and the other leading spirits of the Terror all perishing under the same
knife--which, in fact, was approximately what happened.
And Dickens is very sure that revolution is a monster. That is why
everyone remembers the revolutionary scenes in A TALE OF TWO CITIES they
have the quality of nightmare, and it is Dickens's own nightmare. Again
and again he insists upon the meaningless horrors of revolution--the
mass-butcheries, the injustice, the ever-present terror of spies, the
frightful blood-lust of the mob. The descriptions of the Paris mob--the
description, for instance, of the crowd of murderers struggling round the
grindstone to sharpen their weapons before butchering the prisoners in
the September massacres--outdo anything in BARNABY RUDGE. The
revolutionaries appear to him simply as degraded savages--in fact, as
lunatics. He broods over their frenzies with a curious imaginative
intensity. He describes them dancing the 'Carmagnole', for instance:
There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing
like five thousand demons. . . They danced to the popular Revolution song,
keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. . .
They advanced, retreated, struck at one another's hands, clutched at one
another's heads, spun round alone, caught one another, and spun around in
pairs, until many of them dropped. . . Suddenly they stopped again, paused,
struck out the time afresh, forming into lines the width of the public
way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped
screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance.
It was so emphatically a fallen sport--a something, once innocent,
delivered over to all devilry.
He even credits some of these wretches with a taste for guillotining
children. The passage I have abridged above ought to be read in full. It
and others like it show how deep was Dickens's horror of revolutionary
hysteria. Notice, for instance that touch, 'with their heads low down and
their hands high up', etc., and the evil vision it conveys. Madame
Defarge is a truly dreadful figure, certainly Dickens's most successful
attempt at a MALIGNANT character. Defarge and others are simply 'the new
oppressors who have risen in the destruction of the old', the
revolutionary courts are presided over by 'the lowest, cruellest and
worst populace', and so on and so forth. All the way through Dickens
insists upon the nightmare insecurity of a revolutionary period, and in
this he shows a great deal of prescience. 'A law of the suspected, which
struck away all security for liberty or life, and delivered over any good
and innocent person to any bad and guilty one prisons gorged with people
who had committed no offence, and could obtain no hearing'--it would
apply pretty accurately to several countries today.
The apologists of any revolution generally try to minimize its horrors
Dickens's impulse is to exaggerate them--and from a historical point of
view he has certainly exaggerated. Even the Reign of Terror was a much
smaller thing than he makes it appear. Though he quotes no figures, he
gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in
reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was
a joke compared with one of Napoleon's battles. But the bloody knives and
the tumbrils rolling to and fro create in his mind a special sinister
vision which he has succeeded in passing on to generations of readers.
Thanks to Dickens, the very word 'tumbril' has a murderous sound one
forgets that a tumbril is only a sort of farm-cart. To this day, to the
average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of
severed heads. It is a strange thing that Dickens, much more in sympathy
with the ideas of the Revolution than most Englishmen of his time, should
have played a part in creating this impression.
If you hate violence and don't believe in politics, the only remedy
remaining is education. Perhaps society is past praying for, but there is
always hope for the individual human being, if you can catch him young
enough. This belief partly accounts for Dickens's preoccupation with
No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood
than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since,
in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated,
no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child's point
of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read DAVID
COPPERFIELD. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so
immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been
written BY A CHILD. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and
sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom
into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been
able to stand both inside and outside the child's mind, in such a way
that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according
to the age at which one reads it. Look, for instance, at the scene in
which David Copperfield is unjustly suspected of eating the mutton chops
or the scene in which Pip, in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, coming back from Miss
Havisham's house and finding himself completely unable to describe what
he has seen, takes refuge in a series of outrageous lies--which, of
course, are eagerly believed. All the isolation of childhood is there.
And how accurately he has recorded the mechanisms of the child's mind,
its visualizing tendency, its sensitiveness to certain kinds of
impression. Pip relates how in his childhood his ideas about his dead
parents were derived from their tombstones:
The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was
a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and
turn of the inscription, 'ALSO GEORGIANA, WIFE OF THE ABOVE', I drew a
childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five
little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were
arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory
of five little brothers of mine. . . I am indebted for a belief I
religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with
their hands in their trouser-pockets, and had never taken them out in
this state of existence.
There is a similar passage in DAVID COPPERFIELD. After biting Mr.
Murdstone's hand, David is sent away to school and obliged to wear on his
back a placard saying, 'Take care of him. He bites.' He looks at the door
in the playground where the boys have carved their names, and from the
appearance of each name he seems to know in just what tone of voice the
boy will read out the placard:
There was one boy--a certain J. Steerforth--who cut his name very deep
and very often, who, I conceived, would read it in a rather strong voice,
and afterwards pull my hair. There was another boy, one Tommy Traddles,
who I dreaded would make game of it, and pretend to be dreadfully
frightened of me. There was a third, George Demple, who I fancied would
When I read this passage as a child, it seemed to me that those were
exactly the pictures that those particular names would call up. The
reason, of course, is the sound-associations of the words (Demple--
'temple' Traddles--probably 'skedaddle'). But how many people, before
Dickens, had ever noticed such things? A sympathetic attitude towards
children was a much rarer thing in Dickens's day than it is now. The
early nineteenth century was not a good time to be a child. In Dickens's
youth children were still being 'solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where
they were held up to be seen', and it was not so long since boys of
thirteen had been hanged for petty theft. The doctrine of 'breaking the
child's spirit' was in full vigour, and THE FAIRCHILD FAMILY was a
standard book for children till late into the century. This evil book is
now issued in pretty-pretty expurgated editions, but it is well worth
reading in the original version. It gives one some idea of the lengths to
which child-discipline was sometimes carried. Mr. Fairchild, for
instance, when he catches his children quarrelling, first thrashes them,
reciting Dr. Watts's 'Let dogs delight to bark and bite' between blows of
the cane, and then takes them to spend the afternoon beneath a gibbet
where the rotting corpse of a murderer is hanging. In the earlier part of
the century scores of thousands of children, aged sometimes as young as
six, were literally worked to death in the mines or cotton mills, and
even at the fashionable public schools boys were flogged till they ran
with blood for a mistake in their Latin verses. One thing which Dickens
seems to have recognized, and which most of his contemporaries did not,
is the sadistic sexual element in flogging. I think this can be inferred
from DAVID COPPERFIELD and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. But mental cruelty to a
child infuriates him as much as physical, and though there is a fair
number of exceptions, his schoolmasters are generally scoundrels.
Except for the universities and the big public schools, every kind of
education then existing in England gets a mauling at Dickens's hands.
There is Doctor Blimber's Academy, where little boys are blown up with
Greek until they burst, and the revolting charity schools of the period,
which produced specimens like Noah Claypole and Uriah Heep, and Salem
House, and Dotheboys Hall, and the disgraceful little dame-school kept by
Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt. Some of what Dickens says remains true even
today. Salem House is the ancestor of the modern 'prep school', which
still has a good deal of resemblance to it and as for Mr. Wopsle's
great-aunt, some old fraud of much the same stamp is carrying on at this
moment in nearly every small town in England. But, as usual, Dickens's
criticism is neither creative nor destructive. He sees the idiocy of an
educational system founded on the Greek lexicon and the wax-ended cane
on the other hand, he has no use for the new kind of school that is
coming up in the fifties and sixties, the 'modern' school, with its
gritty insistence on 'facts'. What, then, DOES he want? As always, what
he appears to want is a moralized version of the existing thing--the old
type of school, but with no caning, no bullying or underfeeding, and not
quite so much Greek. Doctor Strong's school, to which David Copperfield
goes after he escapes from Murdstone & Grinby's, is simply Salem House
with the vices left out and a good deal of 'old grey stones' atmosphere
Doctor Strong's was an excellent school, as different from Mr. Creakle's
as good is from evil. It was very gravely and decorously ordered, and on
a sound system with an appeal, in everything, to the honour and good
faith of the boys. . . which worked wonders. We all felt that we had a part
in the management of the place, and in sustaining its character and
dignity. Hence, we soon became warmly attached to it--I am sure I did
for one, and I never knew, in all my time, of any boy being otherwise--
and learnt with a good will, desiring to do it credit. We had noble games
out of hours, and plenty of liberty but even then, as I remember, we
were well spoken of in the town, and rarely did any disgrace, by our
appearance or manner, to the reputation of Doctor Strong and Doctor
In the woolly vagueness of this passage one can see Dickens's utter lack
of any educational theory. He can imagine the MORAL atmosphere of a good
school, but nothing further. The boys 'learnt with a good will', but what
did they learn? No doubt it was Doctor Blimber's curriculum, a little
watered down. Considering the attitude to society that is everywhere
implied in Dickens's novels, it comes as rather a shock to learn that he
sent his eldest son to Eton and sent all his children through the
ordinary educational mill. Gissing seems to think that he may have done
this because he was painfully conscious of being under-educated himself.
Here perhaps Gissing is influenced by his own love of classical learning.
Dickens had had little or no formal education, but he lost nothing by
missing it, and on the whole he seems to have been aware of this. If he
was unable to imagine a better school than Doctor Strong's, or, in real
life, than Eton, it was probably due to an intellectual deficiency rather
different from the one Gissing suggests.
It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always
pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is
hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to
any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and
his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's
school being as different from Creakle's 'as good is from evil'. Two
things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and
Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a
'change of heart'--that, essentially, is what he is always saying.
If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a
reactionary humbug. A 'change of heart' is in fact THE alibi of people
who do not wish to endanger the STATUS QUO. But Dickens is not a humbug,
except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries
away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that
Dickens is not IN THE ACCEPTED SENSE a revolutionary writer. But it is
not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be
just as 'revolutionary'--and revolution, after all, means turning things
upside down--as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at
this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding
of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like 'I wander through each
charted street' than in three-quarters of Socialist literature. 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
viewpoints 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. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath
the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that
tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at
work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the
moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more
dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee.
The central problem--how to prevent power from being abused--remains
unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is
an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. 'If men would behave
decently the world would be decent' is not such a platitude as it sounds.
More completely than most writers, perhaps, Dickens can be explained in
terms of his social origin, though actually his family history was not
quite what one would infer from his novels. His father was a clerk in
government service, and through his mother's family he had connexions
with both the Army and the Navy. But from the age of nine onwards he was
brought up in London in commercial surroundings, and generally in an
atmosphere of struggling poverty. Mentally he belongs to the small urban
bourgeoisie, and he happens to be an exceptionally fine specimen of this
class, with all the 'points', as it were, very highly developed. That is
partly what makes him so interesting. If one wants a modern equivalent,
the nearest would be H. G. Wells, who has had a rather similar history
and who obviously owes something to Dickens as novelist. Arnold Bennett
was essentially of the same type, but, unlike the other two, he was a
midlander, with an industrial and noncomformist rather than commercial
and Anglican background.
The great disadvantage, and advantage, of the small urban bourgeois is
his limited outlook. He sees the world as a middle-class world, and
everything outside these limits is either laughable or slightly wicked.
On the one hand, he has no contact with industry or the soil on the
other, no contact with the governing classes. Anyone who has studied
Wells's novels in detail will have noticed that though he hates the
aristocrat like poison, he has no particular objection to the plutocrat,
and no enthusiasm for the proletarian. His most hated types, the people
he believes to be responsible for all human ills, are kings, landowners,
priests, nationalists, soldiers, scholars and peasants. At first sight a
list beginning with kings and ending with peasants looks like a mere
omnium gatherum, but in reality all these people have a common factor.
All of them are archaic types, people who are governed by tradition and
whose eyes are turned towards the past--the opposite, therefore, of the
rising bourgeois who has put his money on the future and sees the past
simply as a dead hand.
Actually, although Dickens lived in a period when the bourgeoisie was
really a rising class, he displays this characteristic less strongly than
Wells. He is almost unconscious of the future and has a rather sloppy
love of the picturesque (the 'quaint old church', etc.). Nevertheless his
list of most hated types is like enough to Wells's for the similarity to
be striking. He is vaguely on the side of the working class--has a sort
of generalized sympathy with them because they are oppressed--but he
does not in reality know much about them they come into his books
chiefly as servants, and comic servants at that. At the other end of the
scale he loathes the aristocrat and--going one better than Wells in this
loathes the big bourgeois as well. His real sympathies are bounded by Mr.
Pickwick on the upper side and Mr. Barkis on the lower. But the term
'aristocrat', for the type Dickens hates, is vague and needs defining.
Actually Dickens's target is not so much the great aristocracy, who
hardly enter into his books, as their petty offshoots, the cadging
dowagers who live up mews in Mayfair, and the bureaucrats and
professional soldiers. All through his books there are countess hostile
sketches of these people, and hardly any that are friendly. There are
practically no friendly pictures of the landowning class, for instance.
One might make a doubtful exception of Sir Leicester Dedlock otherwise
there is only Mr. Wardle (who is a stock figure the 'good old squire')
and Haredale in BARNABY RUDGE, who has Dickens's sympathy because he is a
persecuted Catholic. There are no friendly pictures of soldiers (i.e.
officers), and none at all of naval men. As for his bureaucrats, judges
and magistrates, most of them would feel quite at home in the
Circumlocution Office. The only officials whom Dickens handles with any
kind of friendliness are, significantly enough, policemen.
Dickens's attitude is easily intelligible to an Englishman, because it is
part of the English puritan tradition, which is not dead even at this
day. The class Dickens belonged to, at least by adoption, was growing
suddenly rich after a couple of centuries of obscurity. It had grown up
mainly in the big towns, out of contact with agriculture, and politically
impotent government, in its experience, was something which either
interfered or persecuted. Consequently it was a class with no tradition
of public service and not much tradition of usefulness. What now strikes
us as remarkable about the new moneyed class of the nineteenth century is
their complete irresponsibility they see everything in terms of
individual success, with hardly any consciousness that the community
exists. On the other hand, a Tite Barnacle, even when he was neglecting
his duties, would have some vague notion of what duties he was
neglecting. Dickens's attitude is never irresponsible, still less does he
take the money-grubbing Smilesian line but at the back of his mind there
is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is
unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the
Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is
simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply
Bumble and the Circumlocution Office--and so on and so forth. What he
does not see, or only intermittently sees, is that Coodle and Doodle and
all the other corpses left over from the eighteenth century ARE
performing a function which neither Pickwick nor Boffin would ever bother
And of course this narrowness of vision is in one way a great advantage
to him, because it is fatal for a caricaturist to see too much. From
Dickens's point of view 'good' society is simply a collection of village
idiots. What a crew! Lady Tippins! Mrs. Gowan! Lord Verisopht! The
Honourable Bob Stables! Mrs. Sparsit (whose husband was a Powler)! The
Tite Barnacles! Nupkins! It is practically a case-book in lunacy. But at
the same time his remoteness from the landowning-military-bureaucratic
class incapacitates him for full-length satire. He only succeeds with
this class when he depicts them as mental defectives. The accusation
which used to be made against Dickens in his lifetime, that he 'could not
paint a gentleman', was an absurdity, but it is true in this sense, that
what he says against the 'gentleman' class is seldom very damaging. Sir
Mulberry Hawk, for instance, is a wretched attempt at the wicked-baronet
type. Harthouse in HARD TIMES is better, but he would be only an ordinary
achievement for Trollope or Thackeray. Trollope's thoughts hardly move
outside the 'gentleman' class, but Thackeray has the great advantage of
having a foot in two moral camps. In some ways his outlook is very
similar to Dickens's. Like Dickens, he identifies with the puritanical
moneyed class against the card-playing, debt-bilking aristocracy. The
eighteenth century, as he sees it, is sticking out into the nineteenth in
the person of the wicked Lord Steyne. VANITY FAIR is a full-length
version of what Dickens did for a few chapters in LITTLE DORRIT. But by
origins and upbringing Thackeray happens to be somewhat nearer to the
class he is satirizing. Consequently he can produce such comparatively
subtle types as, for instance, Major Pendennis and Rawdon Crawley. Major
Pendennis is a shallow old snob, and Rawdon Crawley is a thick-headed
ruffian who sees nothing wrong in living for years by swindling
tradesmen but what Thackery realizes is that according to their tortuous
code they are neither of them bad men. Major Pendennis would not sign a
dud cheque, for instance Rawdon certainly would, but on the other hand
he would not desert a friend in a tight corner. Both of them would behave
well on the field of battle--a thing that would not particularly appeal
to Dickens. The result is that at the end one is left with a kind of
amused tolerance for Major Pendennis and with something approaching
respect for Rawdon and yet one sees, better than any diatribe could make
one, the utter rottenness of that kind of cadging, toadying life on the
fringes of smart society. Dickens would be quite incapable of this. In
his hands both Rawdon and the Major would dwindle to traditional
caricatures. And, on the whole, his attacks on 'good' society are rather
perfunctory. The aristocracy and the big bourgeoisie exist in his books
chiefly as a kind of 'noises off', a haw-hawing chorus somewhere in the
wings, like Podsnap's dinner-parties. When he produces a really subtle
and damaging portrait, like John Dorrit or Harold Skimpole, it is
generally of some rather middling, unimportant person.
One very striking thing about Dickens, especially considering the time he
lived in, is his lack of vulgar nationalism. All peoples who have reached
the point of becoming nations tend to despise foreigners, but there is
not much doubt that the English-speaking races are the worst offenders.
One can see this from the fact that as soon as they become fully aware of
any foreign race they invent an insulting nickname for it. Wop, Dago,
Froggy, Squarehead, Kike, Sheeny, Nigger, Wog, Chink, Greaser,
Yellowbelly--these are merely a selection. Any time before 1870 the list
would have been shorter, because the map of the world was different from
what it is now, and there were only three or four foreign races that had
fully entered into the English consciousness. But towards these, and
especially towards France, the nearest and best-hated nation, the English
attitude of patronage was so intolerable that English 'arrogance' and
'xenophobia' are still a legend. And of course they are not a completely
untrue legend even now. Till very recently nearly all English children
were brought up to despise the southern European races, and history as
taught in schools was mainly a list of battles won by England. But one
has got to read, say, the QUARTERLY REVIEW of the thirties to know what
boasting really is. Those were the days when the English built up their
legend of themselves as 'sturdy islanders' and 'stubborn hearts of oak'
and when it was accepted as a kind of scientific fact that one Englishman
was the equal of three foreigners. All through nineteenth-century novels
and comic papers there runs the traditional figure of the 'Froggy'--a
small ridiculous man with a tiny beard and a pointed top-hat, always
jabbering and gesticulating, vain, frivolous and fond of boasting of his
martial exploits, but generally taking to flight when real danger
appears. Over against him was John Bull, the 'sturdy English yeoman', or
(a more public-school version) the 'strong, silent Englishman' of Charles
Kingsley, Tom Hughes and others.
Thackeray, for instance, has this outlook very strongly, though there are
moments when he sees through it and laughs at it. The one historical fact
that is firmly fixed in his mind is that the English won the battle of
Waterloo. One never reads far in his books without coming upon some
reference to it. The English, as he sees it, are invincible because of
their tremendous physical strength, due mainly to living on beef. Like
most Englishmen of his time, he has the curious illusion that the English
are larger than other people (Thackeray, as it happened, was larger than
most people), and therefore he is capable of writing passages like this:
I say to you that you are better than a Frenchman. I would lay even money
that you who are reading this are more than five feet seven in height,
and weigh eleven stone while a Frenchman is five feet four and does not
weigh nine. The Frenchman has after his soup a dish of vegetables, where
you have one of meat. You are a different and superior animal--a
French-beating animal (the history of hundreds of years has shown you to
be so), etc. etc.
There are similar passages scattered all through Thackeray's works.
Dickens would never be guilty of anything of that kind. It would be an
exaggeration to say that he nowhere pokes fun at foreigners, and of
course like nearly all nineteenth-century Englishmen, he is untouched by
European culture. But never anywhere does he indulge in the typical
English boasting, the 'island race', 'bulldog breed', 'right little,
tight little island' style of talk. In the whole of A TALE OF TWO CITIES
there is not a line that could be taken as meaning, 'Look how these
wicked Frenchmen behave!' The only place where he seems to display a
normal hatred of foreigners is in the American chapters of MARTIN
CHUZZLEWIT. This, however, is simply the reaction of a generous mind
against cant. If Dickens were alive today he would make a trip to Soviet
Russia and come back to the book rather like Gide's RETOUR DE L'URSS. But
he is remarkably free from the idiocy of regarding nations as
individuals. He seldom even makes jokes turning on nationality. He does
not exploit the comic Irishman and the comic Welshman, for instance, and
not because he objects to stock characters and ready-made jokes, which
obviously he does not. It is perhaps more significant that he shows no
prejudice against Jews. It is true that he takes it for granted (OLIVER
TWIST and GREAT EXPECTATIONS) that a receiver of stolen goods will be a
Jew, which at the time was probably justified. But the 'Jew joke',
endemic in English literature until the rise of Hitler, does not appear
in his books, and in OUR MUTUAL FRIEND he makes a pious though not very
convincing attempt to stand up for the Jews.
Dickens's lack of vulgar nationalism is in part the mark of a real
largeness of mind, and in part results from his negative, rather
unhelpful political attitude. He is very much an Englishman but he is
hardly aware of it--certainly the thought of being an Englishman does
not thrill him. He has no imperialist feelings, no discernible views on
foreign politics, and is untouched by the military tradition.
Temperamentally he is much nearer to the small noncomformist tradesman
who looks down on the 'redcoats', and thinks that war is wicked--a
one-eyed view, but after all, war is wicked. It is noticeable that
Dickens hardly writes of war, even to denounce it. With all his
marvellous powers of description, and of describing things he had never
seen, he never describes a battle, unless one counts the attack on the
Bastille in A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Probably the subject would not strike
him as interesting, and in any case he would not regard a battlefield as
a place where anything worth settling could be settled. It is one up to
the lower-middle-class, puritan mentality.
Dickens had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it, and in
spite of his generosity of mind, he is not free from the special
prejudices of the shabby-genteel. It is usual to claim him as a 'popular'
writer, a champion of the 'oppressed masses'. So he is, so long as he
thinks of them as oppressed but there are two things that condition his
attitude. In the first place, he is a south-of-England man, and a Cockney
at that, and therefore out of touch with the bulk of the real oppressed
masses, the industrial and agricultural labourers. It is interesting to
see how Chesterton, another Cockney, always presents Dickens as the
spokesman of 'the poor', without showing much awareness of who 'the poor'
really are. To Chesterton 'the poor' means small shopkeepers and
servants. Sam Weller, he says, 'is the great symbol in English literature
of the populace peculiar to England' and Sam Weller is a valet! The
other point is that Dickens's early experiences have given him a horror
of proletarian roughness. He shows this unmistakably whenever he writes
of the very poorest of the poor, the slum-dwellers. His descriptions of
the London slums are always full of undisguised repulsion:
The ways were foul and narrow the shops and houses wretched and people
half naked, drunken, slipshod and ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many
cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon
the straggling streets and the whole quarter reeked with crime, and
filth, and misery, etc. etc.
There are many similar passages in Dickens. From them one gets the
impression of whole submerged populations whom he regards as being beyond
the pale. In rather the same way the modern doctrinaire Socialist
contemptuously writes off a large block of the population as
Dickens also shows less understanding of criminals than one would expect
of him. Although he is well aware of the social and economic causes of
crime, he often seems to feel that when a man has once broken the law he
has put himself outside human society. There is a chapter at the end of
DAVID COPPERFIELD in which David visits the prison where Latimer and
Uriah Heep are serving their sentences. Dickens actually seems to regard
the horrible 'model' prisons, against which Charles Reade delivered his
memorable attack in IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO MEND, as too humane. He
complains that the food is too good! As soon as he comes up against crime
or the worst depths of poverty, he shows traces of the 'I've always kept
myself respectable' habit of mind. The attitude of Pip (obviously the
attitude of Dickens himself) towards Magwitch in GREAT EXPECTATIONS is
extremely interesting. Pip is conscious all along of his ingratitude
towards Joe, but far less so of his ingratitude towards Magwitch. When he
discovers that the person who has loaded him with benefits for years is
actually a transported convict, he falls into frenzies of disgust. 'The
abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the
repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if
he had been some terrible beast', etc. etc. So far as one can discover
from the text, this is not because when Pip was a child he had been
terrorized by Magwitch in the churchyard it is because Magwitch is a
criminal and a convict. There is an even more 'kept-myself-respectable'
touch in the fact that Pip feels as a matter of course that he cannot
take Magwitch's money. The money is not the product of a crime, it has
been honestly acquired but it is an ex-convict's money and therefore
'tainted'. There is nothing psychologically false in this, either.
Psychologically the latter part of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is about the best
thing Dickens ever did throughout this part of the book one feels 'Yes,
that is just how Pip would have behaved.' But the point is that in the
matter of Magwitch, Dickens identifies with Pip, and his attitude is at
bottom snobbish. The result is that Magwitch belongs to the same queer
class of characters as Falstaff and, probably, Don Quixote--characters
who are more pathetic than the author intended.
When it is a question of the non-criminal poor, the ordinary, decent,
labouring poor, there is of course nothing contemptuous in Dickens's
attitude. He has the sincerest admiration for people like the Peggottys
and the Plornishes. But it is questionable whether he really regards them
as equals. It is of the greatest interest to read Chapter XI of DAVID
COPPERFIELD and side by side with it the autobiographical fragments
(parts of this are given in Forster's LIFE), in which Dickens expresses
his feelings about the blacking-factory episode a great deal more
strongly than in the novel. For more than twenty years afterwards the
memory was so painful to him that he would go out of his way to avoid
that part of the Strand. He says that to pass that way 'made me cry,
after my eldest child could speak.' The text makes it quite clear that
what hurt him most of all, then and in retrospect, was the enforced
contact with 'low' associates:
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this
companionship compared these everyday associates with those of my
happier childhood. But I held some station at the blacking warehouse
too. . . I soon became at least as expeditious and as skilful with my hands
as either of the other boys. Though perfectly familiar with them, my
conduct and manners were different enough from theirs to place a space
between us. They, and the men, always spoke of me as 'the young
gentleman'. A certain man. . . used to call me 'Charles' sometimes in
speaking to me but I think it was mostly when we were very
confidential. . . Poll Green uprose once, and rebelled against the
'young-gentleman' usage but Bob Fagin settled him speedily.
It was as well that there should be 'a space between us', you see.
However much Dickens may admire the working classes, he does not wish to
resemble them. Given his origins, and the time he lived in, it could
hardly be otherwise. In the early nineteenth century class animosities
may have been no sharper than they are now, but the surface differences
between class and class were enormously greater. The 'gentleman' and the
'common man' must have seemed like different species of animal. Dickens
is quite genuinely on the side of the poor against the rich, but it would
be next door to impossible for him not to think of a working-class
exterior as a stigma. In one of Tolstoy's fables the peasants of a
certain village judge every stranger who arrives from the state of his
hands. If his palms are hard from work, they let him in if his palms are
soft, out he goes. This would be hardly intelligible to Dickens all his
heroes have soft hands. His younger heroes--Nicholas Nickleby, Martin
Chuzzlewit, Edward Chester, David Copperfield, John Harmon--are usually
of the type known as 'walking gentlemen'. He likes a bourgeois exterior
and a bourgeois (not aristocratic) accent. One curious symptom of this is
that he will not allow anyone who is to play a heroic part to speak like
a working man. A comic hero like Sam Weller, or a merely pathetic figure
like Stephen Blackpool, can speak with a broad accent, but the JEUNE
PREMIER always speaks the equivalent of B.B.C. This is so, even when it
involves absurdities. Little Pip, for instance, is brought up by people
speaking broad Essex, but talks upper-class English from his earliest
childhood actually he would have talked the same dialect as Joe, or at
least as Mrs. Gargery. So also with Biddy Wopsle, Lizzie Hexam, Sissie
Jupe, Oliver Twist--one ought perhaps to add Little Dorrit. Even Rachel
in HARD TIMES has barely a trace of Lancashire accent, an impossibility
in her case.
One thing that often gives the clue to a novelist's real feelings on the
class question is the attitude he takes up when class collides with sex.
This is a thing too painful to be lied about, and consequently it is one
of the points at which the 'I'm-not-a-snob' pose tends to break down.
One sees that at its most obvious where a class-distinction is also a
colour-distinction. And something resembling the colonial attitude
('native' women are fair game, white women are sacrosanct) exists in a
veiled form in all-white communities, causing bitter resentment on both
sides. When this issue arises, novelists often revert to crude
class-feelings which they might disclaim at other times. A good example
of 'class-conscious' reaction is a rather forgotten novel, THE PEOPLE OF
CLOPTON, by Andrew Barton. The author's moral code is quite clearly mixed
up with class-hatred. He feels the seduction of a poor girl by a rich man
to be something atrocious, a kind of defilement, something quite
different from her seduction by a man in her own walk of life. Trollope
deals with this theme twice (THE THREE CLERKS and THE SMALL HOUSE AT
ALLINGTON) and, as one might expect, entirely from the upper-class angle.
As he sees it, an affair with a barmaid or a landlady's daughter is
simply an 'entanglement' to be escaped from. Trollope's moral standards
are strict, and he does not allow the seduction actually to happen, but
the implication is always that a working-class girl's feelings do not
greatly matter. In THE THREE CLERKS he even gives the typical
class-reaction by noting that the girl 'smells'. Meredith (RHODA FLEMING)
takes more the 'class-conscious' viewpoint. Thackeray, as often, seems to
hesitate. In PENDENNIS (Fanny Bolton) his attitude is much the same as
Trollope's in A SHABBY GENTEEL STORY it is nearer to Meredith's.
One could divine a great deal about Trollope's social origin, or
Meredith's, or Barton's, merely from their handling of the class-sex
theme. So one can with Dickens, but what emerges, as usual, is that he is
more inclined to identify himself with the middle class than with the
proletariat. The one incident that seems to contradict this is the tale
of the young peasant-girl in Doctor Manette's manuscript in A TALE OF TWO
CITIES. This, however, is merely a costume-piece put in to explain the
implacable hatred of Madame Defarge, which Dickens does not pretend to
approve of. In DAVID COPPERFIELD, where he is dealing with a typical
nineteenth-century seduction, the class-issue does not seem to strike him
as paramount. It is a law of Victorian novels that sexual misdeeds must
not go unpunished, and so Steerforth is drowned on Yarmouth sands, but
Orwell On Trial
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I don’t want to sound like a sap, but George Orwell has always meant everything to me. And I know I’m not alone in this (not that I would care much if I were). There is, first, the figure of the battling freelance hack, living in a cold-water walk-up and terrified of running out of tobacco. I’ve moved on from that, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t think I can be sent back to it at any moment. Second, and a bit harder to emulate, is the image of a man who could turn his pen to almost anything—whether it was Tolstoy or Dickens, or the experience of being a tramp, a coal miner, or a soldier. Third, and finally, because it’s the most difficult to aspire to, there is the example of the lonely dissident who set his whole grit and fiber against “the smelly little orthodoxies” that are the pox of the 20th century. Orwell was frequently poor, always brave, usually unwell, and (almost) never self-pitying. As a result of his uncompromising style, both in life and on the page, his work still breathes with a defiant and ironic spirit that, even in my stout and decadent phase, I continue to use as a lash on my well-padded shoulders.
So, underneath that odor of rectitude, was Orwell a rat fink and a creep after all? According to a recent disclosure from the files of the British bureaucracy, he may have acted as an informer for the government. In the last years of his life, he composed a shitlist of 86 people whom he regarded as actual or potential Communist sympathizers, and passed this list along to a shadowy official body called the Information Research Department (I.R.D.), which was a secret arm of the Foreign Office. Names appearing on the list included Michael Redgrave, George Bernard Shaw, and John Steinbeck. Orson Welles is said to be on it, as is Christopher Hill, once the master of Balliol College, Oxford, and England’s most distinguished living Marxist historian. We won’t know the whole roster until everyone on it is dead, because British secrecy laws are so strict. But that there was such a list is not to be doubted.
Orwell the police spy? You may imagine the way the roof fell in on the British intelligentsia, who have been used for so long to employing the term “Orwellian” as a synonym for writerly integrity, as well as for a vision of a state-dominated future. All right, then—which was it to be?
Let’s take a look at the list again. Redgrave, Shaw, and Steinbeck are still well-known names. Others are more obscure. Who now remembers Kingsley Martin, the then editor of the celebrated weekly The New Statesman, for which I used to toil? Or Solly Zuckerman, later Lord Zuckerman, the scientific adviser to the British government? Tom Driberg, once a pal of mine and known to a huge but anonymous circle as the most flamboyant gay cruiser in the House of Commons, is still a minority taste.
But at the time, which was 1949, these and others formed part of a large and soft intellectual “left,” some of it not all that soft, which thought of the Soviet Union as being generally on the progressive side of history. The only writers who really felt that this opinion was evil as well as untrue were a few on the extreme right and a few (like Orwell) on the extreme left. The pro-Communists tended to hate Orwell and his friends more, because they were harder to denounce as reactionaries and enemies of the people.
When I was at Oxford (where the master of my college was that same Christopher Hill), we used to play a harmless cocktail-hour game called Recruit, where we would try to guess which fellow student would be invited to have one of those gruesome off-the-record glasses of sherry and “approached” to help out Her Majesty’s government. Our guess was almost invariably correct.
And there was another game we all used to play, called Sellout. Actually, I sometimes play it still, with trusted friends. And you, too, can have hours of fun. Simply imagine your own country invaded and occupied by a totalitarian power. Who, of the people you know, could be counted on to resist? And who—ah, now we get to the fun part—would find excuses to collaborate, or even to betray? As it happens, Orwell used to play a version of this pastime with his friend and literary executor, Richard Rees. According to Rees, they would discuss “who was a paid agent of what,” and estimate “to what lengths of treachery our favorite bêtes noires would be prepared to go.”
In his much-loved recollections, both of being a bullied schoolboy and of being an unhappy colonial policeman, and in his deathless fiction about the nightmare of a totalitarian state, Orwell evinced a special horror of and contempt for the informer, the teacher’s pet, the sneak, the favor seeker, the stool pigeon. (“ ‘That’s the one you ought to be taking, not me!’ he shouted. . . . ‘Give me a chance and I’ll tell you every word of it . . . He’s the one you want. Take him, not me.’ ”) This is an image of the man and the author which has become very important to a whole generation. What was he doing cozying up to state officials and snoopers?
Orwell seems to have been playing the games of Recruit and Sellout simultaneously. He “gave” or “named” names, said everyone from Frank Johnson, the editor of the Tory Spectator, to Michael Foot, former leader of the Labour Party (and also at one time Orwell’s editor). All decided to revel in the apparent “irony” of the situation. Conventional rightists rejoiced that Orwell had had the sound patriotic sense to help out the undercover cops. And conventional leftists professed shock at the old libertarian’s having become a patsy. Tougher types, who had always hated Orwell for his anti-Communism, growled that they had suspected him of McCarthyism the whole time. And born-again McCarthyites sarcastically welcomed the news of a late convert. I am sure the same predetermined positions will soon be taken in America.
Well, this is all nonsense and slander. It’s exactly the kind of unanimity among the orthodox that Orwell faced in his own lifetime. It’s a pleasure and a duty to give it the lie.
For one thing, Orwell named no names and disclosed no identities. The papers show quite clearly that he gave only his opinion, and only that about people already in public life. Furthermore, they show that he gave it only to a woman whom he regarded as a trusted friend and to whom he had once proposed marriage. Finally, he said no more in “private” than he had long been saying in public.
One might also make the defense that when approached by the I.R.D. he was on his deathbed, in the last stages of tuberculosis. But there is something sentimental and shallow about this excuse that makes me want to discard it. I think he would have said the same thing to anybody at any time. As it happens, though, the person sent to see him in his isolated sanatorium was an intriguing woman named Celia Kirwan. She was, to begin with, the sister-in-law of Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, another man whose hatred of Stalin had been crystallized during the war in Spain. She was, furthermore, a person of heterodox leftist opinions. And Orwell had once entreated her to marry him. I can see him telling her who was, and was not, a fool when it came to the hold of Stalin on the liberals and the bien-pensants.
I’m not sure I can be so forgiving of the authorities, for using a personal friend to approach a dying and lonely man. As it happens, we know that Orwell had had at least two previous brushes with the men in the pin-striped suits. In the late 1930s, when he was offered a job on a newspaper in India, the colonial bureaucrats at the India Office ran a vetting process on him. They reported to the relevant editor that Mr. Orwell had “definite strength of character” in any case where there might be “a conflict of views.” They recommended making “the arrangement as tentative as possible until you are able to satisfy yourself that he fits into the picture.” To themselves, they noted that “making use of him is difficult.” During the war, the Ministry of Information gave its opinion to London publisher Jonathan Cape that Orwell’s Animal Farm would be only an embarrassment to Britain’s relations with the gallant Russian ally.
It didn’t matter to Orwell whether or not his views coincided with what the government wanted to hear. (He was the same with commerce. When the Book-of-the-Month Club wanted to take the difficult bits out of 1984, he threatened to cancel the serialization at what would have been a cost to his impoverished self of nearly $90,000.) He was not trying to ingratiate himself with the people who had held up publication of his books. Celia Kirwan describes how during her hospital visit he gave her the names of friends, such as Franz Borkenau, who could be counted upon—“the worthwhile writers on the anti-Communist front.” Later he sent her a Sellout list he had compiled with Richard Rees and Arthur Koestler. “Anyway, he gave me a few names, and I gave them to my department. And it was as simple as that.”
She does not quite say if he understood what “department” she was working for, but she speaks the truth when she reminds us that in giving her the list “he was only giving me the names of various people who were already very well known to anybody who studied Communism. It wasn’t as if he was revealing the names of spies.”
That last observation is worth underlining. Nothing that Orwell discussed with his old flame was ever used for a show trial or a bullying “hearing” or a blacklist or a witch-hunt. He wasn’t interested in unearthing heresy or in getting people fired or in putting them under the discipline of a loyalty oath. He just wanted to keep a clear accounting in the battle of ideas.
And it’s quite difficult to remember now how intense that battle was. When Orwell was dying, the Stalinization of Eastern Europe was just getting under way. The Polish workers’ leaders Henryk Ehrlich and Viktor Alter—once a cause célèbre but now forgotten—had recently been framed and executed by the Communists. A new order was being proclaimed by the very people who had signed a military and political alliance with Hitler just a few years before (a treaty Stalin honored in the spirit and the letter). Whether inflamed by terminal tubercular fever or not, Orwell was not mistaken in viewing this development as a matter of life and death.
His public writings, which are completely consistent with his private, or “secret,” ones, display an acid contempt for the Communists who had betrayed their cause and their country once before and might do so again. Just to give a flavor of the ideological combat, here is what he wrote about the highly respected Professor J. D. Bernal, one of the leading physicists of the century and at the time one of its leading apologists for Stalin: “In 1939, the Moscow radio denounced the British naval blockade of Germany as an inhuman measure which struck at women and children, while, in 1945, those who objected to some ten million German peasants being driven from their homes were denounced by the same radio as pro-Nazis. So that the starvation of German women and children had changed from a bad action into a good one, and probably the earlier starvation had become good with the passage of time. We may assume that Professor Bernal was in agreement with the Moscow radio on both occasions.”
Death of truth: when propaganda and ɺlternative facts' first gripped the world
History stopped in 1936 – after that, there was only propaganda. So said George Orwell of an era when the multiple miseries of the Great Depression were compounded by the ruthless media strategies of Hitler and Stalin
Last modified on Thu 24 May 2018 16.37 BST
Truth was the first casualty of the Great Depression. Reflecting the anguish of the time, propaganda was manufactured on an unprecedented scale. As economic disaster threatened to trigger shooting wars so, as George Orwell said, useful lies were preferred to harmful truths. He went further, declaring that history stopped in 1936 after that there was only propaganda.
This was a characteristic exaggeration but it points to the universality of state deception. The very term Depression aimed to mislead: President Hoover employed it as a euphemism for the standard American word for financial crisis, “Panic”. Hence the poet WH Auden’s verdict that this was a “low dishonest decade”, a conclusion he reached in a New York dive on 1 September 1939 while attempting to “undo the folded lie … the lie of Authority.” It was the end of a decade in which, as Auden wrote elsewhere: “We have seen a myriad faces / ecstatic from one lie.”
Of course, to lie is human, and official mendacity had been practised throughout the ages. But it was developed intensively during the first world war, notably under the direction of Lord Northcliffe, founder of the popular press in Britain and portrayed in Germany as “the father of lies”. Particularly effective were his attacks on the Kaiser, who was portrayed (in a leaflet dropped behind German lines) as marching with his six sons, all in full military regalia, past a host of outstretched skeletal arms, the caption reading: “One family which has not lost a single member.”
A British cartoon lampooning Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914. Illustration: Rex/Shutterstock
Northcliffe’s efforts had dire consequences for Europe. Ultra-nationalists claimed that Germany had not been defeated by force of arms in 1918, but stabbed in the back by political criminals after being fatally weakened by fiendish British propaganda. This Hitler compared to poison gas, which corroded civilian morale and induced German soldiers to “think the way the enemy wanted them to think”. The myth that the Fatherland had fallen victim to a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy became a key element in the Nazi creed. Hitler determined to manufacture his own poison gas. To be effective, he wrote in Mein Kampf, propaganda must harp on a few simple slogans appealing to “the primitive sentiments of the broad masses”.
But propaganda, like advertising, only strikes chords when the conditions are right. For all his ranting, Hitler could never have won widespread support if he had not been able to exploit the multiple miseries of the Depression. After 1929, Germans were receptive to his assertion that their sufferings were the evil fruits of the rotten Weimar system. The problem was not economic but political, he insisted, and it could only be solved by the restoration, under his leadership, of German might: “The key to the world market has the shape of the sword.” His means of grasping that sword was the Nazi party, which he organised entirely “to serve the propaganda of ideas”.
Once in power, Hitler deployed all the resources of the state and of modern technology to control German minds. He used terror and theatre, Dachau and Nuremberg. He communicated with hypnotic directness through the new media of radio and cinema – Leni Riefenstahl’s repellent film Triumph of the Will transformed propaganda into art. And Hitler engaged Josef Goebbels to impose ideological uniformity on Germany.
He earned his nickname, “Mahatma Propagandhi”. Nazism, Goebbels declared, was an all-embracing creed and “the propagandist must be the man with the greatest knowledge of souls”. Every field of German life was to be ploughed and harrowed. Goebbels attacked “decadent” art and supervised the burning of books purloined from public libraries, “intellectual brothels”. The press was regulated. The church was intimidated. Academe succumbed to discipline. The rector of Göttingen University said that he was “proud of the new appellation – barbarians”. According to the rector of Freiberg University, Martin Heidegger, “The Führer himself, and he alone, is Germany’s reality.”
Sharing this view, Goebbels presided over the immolation of national culture. Students were instructed in “Aryan biology”, “German mathematics” and “Nordic physics”. Einstein and Freud were reviled. So was Emanuel Lasker, who had become the world chess champion by employing, in Goebbels’ eyes, low semitic cunning to deprive Nordic players of “their legitimate rights”.
German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Stalin’s assault on reality was equally grotesque, though it scarcely seemed more so than his policy of exporting grain when millions of Russian peasants were starving. He, too, insisted that the truth was what he said it was, endorsing the bogus science of the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, denouncing the mathematician Nikolai Luzin as a wrecker, and killing astronomers for taking a non-Marxist line on sunspots. Conjuring with the dialectic, Stalin maintained that the greatest saboteurs were those who committed no sabotage and that the monstrous apparatus of Soviet repression assisted the withering away of the state.
This driver of the locomotive of history shunted backwards as well as forwards: he created unpersons, expunging former acolytes such as secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda from photographs, and warned the revolutionary, politician and the late Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, that if she misbehaved he would make someone else Lenin’s widow. He put on elaborate charades to fool foreign travellers and fellow travellers: useful idiots who inferred the success of communism from the failure of capitalism.
Soviet propaganda poster. Illustration: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Moreover, Stalin suborned western journalists such as Walter Duranty, who famously wrote of the Ukraine famine in the New York Times: “There is no actual starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” Some journalists did report it accurately, though among them Malcolm Muggeridge, who also recorded – the axiom of the age – a Russian censor’s exclamation: “You can’t say that because it’s true.”
Truth was further occluded by faith and fear. In the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, Arthur Koestler observed some of the worst horrors of the famine but affirmed they were products of the capitalist past, whereas the few hopeful signs pointed to a communist utopia. Even in the gulag, Eugenia Ginzburg wrote, people refused to believe the evidence of their senses: “Anything that appeared in a newspaper carried more conviction with them than what they saw in the street.”
In the shadow of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB, the most hardened sceptic paid lip service to the veracity of the newspaper Pravda (Truth) – lying, Russians joked, like an eyewitness. Universal mendacity, said Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was the only safe form of existence.
Against a background of turmoil and stress, propaganda dissolved certainties and warped perceptions. “I believe everything but the facts,” said the Moscow-based British journalist Alfred Cholerton. Reality became plastic, like Salvador Dalí’s clocks. Power created hallucinations, dreams of golden mountains. Dual consciousness flourished, which Orwell dubbed doublethink. To quote that penetrating student of Marxism, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski:
At public meetings, and even in private conversations, citizens were obliged to repeat in ritual fashion grotesque falsehoods about themselves, the world, and the Soviet Union, and at the same time to keep silent about things they knew very well, not only because they were terrorised but because the incessant repetition of falsehoods which they knew to be such made them accomplices in the campaign of lies inculcated by the party and the state.”
Even those who recognised Stalin’s tyranny for what it was did not necessarily want to tell the party faithful. “If you deprive them of their illusions,” said Roberta Gropper, a communist member of the Reichstag who fled to Russia and was imprisoned before being handed back to Hitler, “you rob them of their last hope.”
Soviet leader Stalin insisted the truth was what he said it was. Photograph: Hulton Getty
The world was especially confused by the show trials choreographed by Stalin during the Great Purge. The crimes to which the defendants confessed were so fantastic that their guilt seemed inconceivable. Yet, as the economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The speeches of the prisoners made me feel they somehow believe their confessions to be true”. He was baffled, as was Thomas Mann, who called the trials “ugly riddles”.
A number of well-informed observers took the charges at face value, while others dismissed the entire proceedings as a cruel piece of agitprop. In a typically revolting image, the French novelist Céline said the Soviets had dressed up a turd and tried to present it as a caramel. Many foreigners, lacerated by more immediate troubles, took the clash of opinion as a licence to withhold judgment. They found it impossible to determine the truth in a world dominated by what Pasternak called “the inhuman power of the lie”.
Seeing things straight was made even more difficult in the west by revelations about the activities of British propagandists during the first world war. Americans found evidence that they had been inveigled into the conflict by a transatlantic campaign of deception, which strengthened the isolationist case during the 1930s. Britons discovered that there was no substance to most of the more lurid atrocity stories – about crucified soldiers, raped nuns, dismembered babies and, notoriously, about the German factory for rendering corpses into fat.
The Labour politician Arthur Ponsonby gave voice to the widespread outrage: “The injection of the poison of hatred into men’s minds by means of falsehood is a greater evil in wartime than the actual loss of life.” In consequence, people were reluctant to credit stories of genuine atrocities emanating from Hitler’s Germany. When the News Chronicle printed a circumstantial account of the horrifying brutality of guards at Sachsenhausen in 1938, Hilaire Belloc wrote that this “example of lying on the anti-Nazi side” made it impossible “to believe anything from that quarter without corroborating testimony”.
As a result of the exposure of its crude fabrications, British propaganda was relatively genteel during the 1930s – typified by the British Council, the BBC, cinema newsreels and the Times. These organs of the establishment manipulated opinion discreetly, but effectively. Rex Leeper, head of the Foreign Office press department, who wanted to transform all Fleet Street into “a gramophone repeating the FO dope”, even boasted that he could turn the public mind around in three weeks. This was optimistic, but the government got its message across, playing down the Depression, talking up the monarchy (while orchestrating a conspiracy of silence about Edward VIII’s relationship with Mrs Simpson) and supporting the appeasement policy. In late August 1939, the BBC’s director general suggested relaying “to Germany ‘the famous song of the nightingale’ in Bagley Woods as a token of Britain’s peace-loving intentions”.
5 Allen Ginsberg Was A Card-Carrying Member Of NAMBLA
Allen Ginsberg already has a place in history. His poem &ldquoHowl&rdquo challenged the very definition of literature, and his place among the Beat poets has captured the imaginations of generations of thinkers. But we usually try to not to mention his time with NAMBLA.
The North American Man/Boy Love Association is a group that campaigns to give adult men the legal right to have sex with young boys, and Allen Ginsberg was one of their most eager members. He insisted it wasn&rsquot about pedophilia. NAMBLA, he said, was a &ldquoforum for reform,&rdquo and he joined it &ldquoin defense of free speech.&rdquo
The &ldquoreform&rdquo he wanted, though, was more than a little creepy. He wanted to legalize child pornography. He accused the government of an &ldquoincompetent linkage of pornography and violence.&rdquo He thought we should be more like the ancient Greeks, saying, &ldquoIntergenerational love was a social practice praised by philosophers.&rdquo
And he didn&rsquot stop there&mdashhe also tried to convince people that there is &ldquono universal consensus on &lsquoconsent.&rsquo &rdquo  That might sound intellectual, but let&rsquos be honest about what he meant. Coming from a member of NAMBLA, that&rsquos just a fancy way of saying, &ldquoHow do you know eight-year-olds aren&rsquot asking for it?&rdquo
Famed English author George Orwell continually questioned all “official” or “accepted” versions of history. As World War II drew to a close in Europe, Orwell had his own doubts about the Allied account of events and he posed the following question in his book Notes on Nationalism, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear… Is it true about the gas ovens in Poland?”
Most people know of George Orwell for his anti-utopian work 1984 and for the political fable Animal Farm. Few know that he struggled for years to find his voice, living as a vagabond, and writing with small success and in considerable poverty. Like Jack Kerouac he found success late in life and then died not long after. And like Kerouac, he ‘dropped’ out of society and would often vanish, wandering across the English countryside in his journey of self-discovery. As a voice of dissent during wartime, Orwell’s literary attack against oppressive society — both on the Right, but especially on the Left — was a precursor to the later Beat Movement that rose to challenge the reigning American culture during the later postwar Eisenhower years.
George Orwell (1902-1950) was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, born to English parents living in India. As a young boy, he was sent to England and schooled at Eton on a scholarship. In his school days memoir, Such, Such were the Joys, he recounts the class-borne tirades unleashed by tyrannical instructors and the snobbery and jeers of his much richer peers. Upon reaching adulthood, Orwell returned to the East, becoming a member of the Imperial Police Force. Because he wanted to write and because over five years time he came to see up close that European colonialism was “very largely a racket,’ Orwell quit the police department. An explanation of his disgust is neatly summed up in perhaps one of the best essays written in the English language, Shooting an Elephant.
In the story’s famous opening lines, Orwell recounts “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” The 25-year-old Englishman finds himself at the mercy of a hooting crowd of Burmese villagers eager to see him shoot an elephant gone “must”. But Orwell, for various reasons, recoils at shooting such a “large beast”. However, feeling the pressure of the villagers as well as that of having to live up to the code of the British Raj — where the white man must never be laughed at by natives — Orwell ends up shooting the elephant to avoid looking like a fool. Having to perform such “dirty work of the Empire” embittered Orwell as his true sympathy was with the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Shortly after this incident, Eric Arthur Blair quit his post, renounced king, empire and his father, and returned to England. There he assumed a new literary identity, George Orwell. He chose the penname Orwell after a river in England near where his parents had resettled upon his father’s retirement. He chose George because of its commonality as an English name — the everyman of society.
Upon landing on British shores, and struggling to achieve his literary voice, Orwell dropped out of middle class bourgeois society so that he could live in the company of the working class and poor. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, documents the years he lived in utter poverty. It is a darkly, comical memoir about learning how to survive on just a few francs or shillings a day. There are parts that remind one about Jack Kerouac’s scrupulous attention to hoarding sandwiches for the bus journeys in On the Road.
A series of novels and memoirs followed, such as The Road to Wigan Pier, a narrative of time Orwell spent living in an English mining town trying to get a close look at the travails the miners faced in their workaday, hand-to-mouth existence. Other books appeared in the years right before World War II, including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter”, and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” It was in these years that Orwell became a leftist — albeit its sharpest critic — when civil war broke out in Spain. Orwell traveled there and fought on the Loyalist side against Franco in Spain. Homage to Catalonia is the result of his experiences there. Seeing firsthand the deception and human betrayal of the communists turning on one another in the name of brotherhood, and his early understanding of the paranoid totalitarianism of Stalin, Orwell became an avowed anti-Communist. He was no conservative however, and swore allegiance to no party. He considered himself a socialist until his death, yet other socialists would have nothing to do with him. He considered politics a hoax and politicians liars who speak out of both sides of their mouths.
Shocked at how easily the West embraced communist Russia as an ally shortly after the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany during World War II, Orwell encapsulated the duplicity of world leaders in “Animal Farm,” a work that was suppressed until just after the war ended, for fear of angering the Soviets. It became an instant best seller and catapulted Orwell onto the world stage. He followed up in 1949 with the anti-utopia ,” a warning to the world that blind faith in our leaders will rob mankind of its soul. Orwell wrote the novel while living on the wild Scottish island of Jura, in a house that had little comforts like running water or electricity. An inveterate smoker, he died of tuberculosis, his health ruined from his days in the Burmese jungle, worsened by years of poverty, and aggravated by a bullet wound to the throat during the Civil War in Spain.
Orwell’s importance was not as a clairvoyant, but as a writer. A broader discussion about concepts like “double-speak” and “Big Brother” would be better expanded elsewhere. Rather than parse what Orwell means in relation to the current state of world affairs since the September 11 terrorist attacks, I would prefer to leave you with some good advice Orwell gives to all writers. One of his most important essays is “Politics and the English” language. In this essay he attacks the rhetoric of politics. The real value is not so much his entreaty to be skeptical about supposed saviors and panaceas, but how to be a good writer. In short, here is Orwell’s admonition to keep language in thought and action pure and honest — something that would especially make our friend Jack Kerouac smile:
I. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
II. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
III. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
IV. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
V. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
Orwell wrote Animal Farm at a time of global crisis as a warning about oppressive state power. Its message is as relevant as ever, says the New Statesman editor in a new introduction to the seminal book.
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In December 1936, George Orwell arrived in Catalonia as a volunteer in the struggle to defend the Spanish republic against the violent insurgency led by General Francisco Franco and his nationalist allies. The Spanish Civil War, as with today’s long, harrowing Syrian war, was a theatre of great power rivalry. The nationalists (or Falangists) were backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and the leftist republican government by Stalin’s Soviet Union. The conflict became a rallying cause for the anti-fascist left across Europe and idealistic volunteers such as Orwell went to Spain to fight on the front line – principally in the pro-republican International Brigades – against the forces of reactionary nationalism.
Orwell arrived in Catalonia with his wife, Eileen, and through associates in the Independent Labour Party made contact with the far-left Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), or POUM. He received some rudimentary military training and then served with the Lenin division of the POUM militia on the Aragon front, on “a quiet sector of a quiet front” as he later wrote, where one morning he was shot by a sniper in the throat and almost died. He returned to Barcelona, and during his convalescence in the spring and early summer of 1937, he witnessed the terror unleashed against the anti-Stalinist POUM and its supporters by the republican government. Orwell and his wife were forced to flee the country in fear of their lives. Andrés Nin, leader of the POUM, was imprisoned, tortured and later executed.
Orwell’s experiences in Spain (he did not know the country well before going there, and did not fully understand the origins of the conflict between the POUM and the republicans) hardened his scepticism of leftist authoritarianism: he was convinced that the Communist Party of Spain was taking its orders directly from Moscow. The betrayals and internecine conflict he witnessed, and the later refusal of the New Statesman, under the storied editorship of Kingsley Martin, to publish “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, Orwell’s eyewitness account from Catalonia, reinforced his contempt for left-wing “orthodoxy sniffers”, as he called them, and for British fellow travellers of the Soviet Union.
Something foul had happened in Spain, he believed, and the actions of the republicans in persecuting other anti-fascist factions, such as the POUM, had betrayed a noble cause and, in many ways, mimicked the worst excesses of the Falangists. He was profoundly disillusioned and yet, after his return to England, he would draw on his experiences in Catalonia and on a more general sense of political disenchantment to write the great counter-revolutionary novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that transformed his fortunes late in life (he died from tuberculosis aged 46 in January 1950) and by which he shall always be remembered.
The Orwell we know today, celebrated as a truth-teller, a clear-eyed scourge of totalitarianism and a prophet of our new age of fake news, surveillance capitalism and the bio-surveillance state, is not the Orwell who struggled to find an audience for his writings from and about Spain – Homage to Catalonia (1938) sold fewer than a thousand copies in his lifetime. He was a freelance journalist and author who, before going to Spain, had published three minor realist novels and two works of essayistic reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). He didn’t go to university and, having spent five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, he had been scrambling to make a living as a writer after returning to England. He had more talent and resolution, but initially none of the smart literary connections of his old friend Cyril Connolly, a belletrist and metropolitan sophisticate whom Orwell (then Eric Blair) had met many years before when they were both at St Cyprian’s prep school in East Sussex and then Eton.
Orwell was a rebel but never a revolutionary. “He was a conservative in everything except politics,” Norman MacKenzie, a writer, academic and an old friend of Orwell’s, once said to me. He has been claimed by both the left and right as one of their own – because his politics are so hard to categorise. Early in his career he was a self-described “Tory anarchist” and later he called himself a democratic socialist, but, as he wrote in Wigan Pier, he was less interested in “proletarian solidarity” or the “dictatorship of the proletariat” than in what he called “common decency”.
Orwell is a kind of border stalker, moving across ideological divides, cussedly independent, forging his own way. He was a conservative fascinated by the habits and rituals of English life, which he celebrated and anatomised in his essays and personal pieces, and a radical who loathed empire and public schools, and longed for a socialist transformation of society. The start of the Second World War was the moment at which he made peace with England and his own conflicted sense of Englishness. Here was a just national cause following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, in which he could finally believe.
He particularly admired the patriotism of the ordinary man and woman, and contrasted this with the anti-patriotism of the bien pensant bourgeois left, whose “book-trained” socialism he denounced in The Road to Wigan Pier and then again in “The Lion and the Unicorn”, his wonderful book-length essay completed in 1940 during the Nazi bombing raids on London. Eileen, in a letter to a friend, said of “The Lion” that, “George has written a little book… explaining how to be a socialist though Tory”. This captures well the essence of what I find so attractive in Orwell’s complex politics: this simultaneous desire to conserve and to reform.
Threaded through everything he wrote, whether reflecting on his unhappy experiences at prep school or the compromises he made in the service of the empire as a colonial policeman in Burma, was his contempt for authoritarian control. He hated the bullying boarding-school headmaster just as much as he did the Stalinist apparatchik or racist colonial overlord. Like Edmund Burke, Orwell believed that violent revolution served too often as a gateway to tyranny. He was an anti-utopian and, unlike many of his intellectual peers, he was never beguiled by the Soviet experiment.
Animal Farm is a book about a revolution that can be read as a parable of the Russian Revolution and the terror and oppression that followed in its wake, culminating in the show trials and purges of the 1930s. Orwell was an admirer of Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm is a Swiftian satire in the spirit of Gulliver’s Travels. It is written as if for older children, and the pellucid, plain prose – Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that political writing should aspire to the condition of art – has a magical readability, like the best fairy tales.
The revolution begins on Manor Farm, deep in the southern English countryside, the “sleekest” landscape in the world, as Orwell described it in the long, final paragraph of Homage to Catalonia. One day the animals rise up against Mr Jones, the indolent, drunken farmer, and they drive him, his wife and their staff off the land. They lock the gates: the renamed Animal Farm is now their domain, a closed non-human world with its own rules and regulations and egalitarian ethos. The animals even have their own version of the “Internationale”, a stirring call to solidarity, “Beasts of England”. They draw up their Seven Commandments of Animalism, a moral guide for the good life, the last of which is: “All animals are equal.”
What could possibly go wrong?
The leaders of the revolution are two highly intelligent and cunning pigs, Napoleon and Snowball. Their actions are guided by the philosophy of a wise and ancient pig, Old Major, who dies early in the book but not before delivering a rousing speech about the need for all animals to escape from human oppression. He addresses his fellow farm animals as “comrades” and has a direct message for them: “And among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”
If Major is meant to be Karl Marx (or perhaps he is Lenin), then Napoleon and Snowball are surely Stalin and Leon Trotsky. But whether Orwell intended so explicitly to recast the leading figures of the Russian Revolution and its chief ideologue as pigs on an English farm matters less than the grand sweep of the narrative, which can be read both as an indictment of the inevitable corruptions of revolutionary politics and as a tightly plotted allegorical entertainment, rich in intrigue, humour, pathos and subtle characterisation. I am especially fond of Boxer, a kind and loyal old carthorse, and, for different reasons, Squealer, a malign pig and propagandist who betrays all confidences as he seeks to ingratiate himself with the farm’s new power brokers. We have all met his type and they are thriving in the era of anonymous Twitter accounts and online shaming.
One October day, Mr Jones launches a failed attempt to take back control of the farm. He and a group of local farmers, who have been plotting – where else than in the pub? – are confronted and beaten back by the animals in what is subsequently legendised as the Battle of the Cowshed. But far from being a liberation, this victory begins only a period of darkness. The leaders of the revolution are divided over how to run the farm and each has his own faction. Napoleon wants to consolidate power and security – one could call it his version of socialism in one farm – while Snowball, as Trotsky did, aspires to foment widespread rebellion, carrying the spirit of the revolution to neighbouring farms and beyond. Snowball loses the internal power struggle and is banished. Napoleon becomes the authoritarian ruler of the farm, bolstered by a network of spies and informers, and soon we are told by the omniscient narrator that the animals “worked like slaves”. Later, the seventh commandment is amended from “All animals are equal” to “Some animals are more equal than others” – one of the most unforgettable clarifications in modern literature.
Animal Farm’s appeal is timeless: it speaks to the political moment at which it was written, in 1944, during the Second World War, as the United Kingdom was engaged in an existential struggle against fascism, while also transcending it because of the grace of the storytelling and the power and simplicity of its political message. There is a reason the adjective “Orwellian” has such universal resonance: Orwell understood something fundamental about the malign effects of oppressive state power and about how political language can be distorted and manipulated so that falsity is claimed as truth, even in liberal democracies – especially in liberal democracies just listen to the bluster of Donald Trump. He knew that history could be rewritten or forgotten – and this repelled him.
Orwell was working on Animal Farm when the Soviet Union remained an essential ally engaged in a heroic rearguard against Nazism on the Eastern Front, in what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War. But unlike, say, HG Wells and other leading progressives of the time, Orwell never had any illusions about Stalinism: he foresaw that what lay ahead was, as he wrote in a profile of his friend Arthur Koestler, a disillusioned former communist and author of the novel Darkness at Noon, “bloodshed, tyranny and privation”.
As a novelist, Orwell could be heavy-handed and programmatic, and sometimes, as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), his novel about an impoverished writer that was informed by his early failures in literary London, bitterness seeps through the pages like an ink stain. The trajectory of Animal Farm, from the idealism of the initial uprising to its inevitable betrayal once the unity between Napoleon and Snowball fractures, is predictable. And yet, one is still endlessly surprised, on rereading, by the subtle shifts in mood and the sympathy one has for the plight of most of the animals as they slowly begin to realise that the revolution has not liberated them from servitude and exploitation that the revolution has been betrayed.
Orwell is not renowned for his humour and yet Animal Farm is very funny, as the best satire is – consider the sheep on the farm bleating inanely about “Four legs good, two legs bad”, or consider Napoleon, as time passes, assuming the characteristics of the humans he once despised. He ends up (hilariously, ridiculously) wearing Mr Jones’s old bowler hat and, much later, he and several other senior pigs are observed conspiring with local farmers, “but already it was impossible to say which was which”.
Orwell wrote Animal Farm quickly over a four-month period but then could not find a publisher for it. TS Eliot, the editorial director of Faber & Faber, was a conservative, but was one of many who haughtily rejected the book. “We have no conviction… that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time,” he wrote. It was also rejected by Collins (“too short”), Victor Gollancz, who had commissioned The Road to Wigan Pier, and Jonathan Cape (“too anti-Soviet”).
In the end, Fredric Warburg of Secker & Warburg agreed to take on Animal Farm, on the condition that he could also publish Orwell’s subsequent work. This turned out to be a shrewd business decision since his next book was Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian satire that became a bestseller once more after Donald Trump, whom the novelist Philip Roth mocked as the “boastful buffoon”, won the US presidency in 2016.
Animal Farm was eventually published in August 1945, a week after the United States had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, heralding the gloom and paranoia of the nuclear age. By this time, the Allies were victorious in Europe and the Soviet Union had contributed extensively, as well as millions of lost lives, to the vanquishing of Nazism. But the message of Animal Farm was not triumphant. Beware, it said, nothing good will come from communist revolution or the totalitarian mind.
It was mostly favourably reviewed, notably by Cyril Connolly, and the initial print run of 4,500 copies sold out within a few days, as did subsequent print runs. Orwell, after years of relative neglect, found himself feted and in demand. The book also broke through in the US. It was an American Book of the Month Club selection, which meant 540,000 copies were printed, and was reviewed by the celebrated critic Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker, who said it was “absolutely first rate” and predicted that Orwell would emerge as one of “the ablest and most interesting writers that the English have produced in this period”. A few weeks before his death on 21 January 1950, Orwell, now mortally sick, said darkly: “I’ve made all this money and now I’m going to die.”
In the 1950s, the CIA used Animal Farm as a source of anti-Soviet propaganda and circulated huge numbers of copies. It was of course banned in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and even today it is outlawed in many oppressive states, though is freely available in China.
I first read Animal Farm as a teenager in the 1980s, during the Cold War (a phrase popularised by Orwell), when the threat of nuclear annihilation shadowed all our imaginations, and life behind the Iron Curtain, as Churchill called it, seemed as menacing as it was unknowable. I couldn’t work out whether Orwell was on the political left or right, and I read the cultural critic Raymond Williams’s short book on him to help me decide. It did not help.
What I understood then, though my own politics were inchoate, was that Orwell was on the side of freedom and truth-telling. You could say he was of the left, but not with or on the left. He did not believe in the inevitability of progress, or the desirability of “book-trained” socialism, or in the pursuit of absolute equality. But he did believe in common decency.
As I write this in the spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic is deepening and accelerating, and yet social solidarity is flourishing even as we are compelled to “socially distance” from one another. More than ever, it seems, in the depth of global crisis, the common decency of strangers can bring comfort and inspiration as it did for so many during the darkest period of the Second World War, when George Orwell was writing Animal Farm and much of the world was in the grip of tyranny.
“Animal Farm”, with an introduction by Jason Cowley, is published by Macmillan Collector’s Library on 7 January 2021, as part of a series of new editions of Orwell’s works.
This feature is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Ian Hislop, John Gray, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.