The lesser-known Orwell: are his novels deserving of reappraisal?
George Orwell has a gift for the unusual and the memorable that means that even his half-forgotten novels are well worth discovering once again
Amidst all of the horror, tedium and confusion that has accompanied the beginning of 2021, there is one small glimmer of good news: (much of) the work of George Orwell has come out of copyright, 71 years after his premature death at the age of 46. By way of contrast, the works of PG Wodehouse remain in the clutches of its literary estate until 2045, and even the books of that quintessential Edwardian novelist EM Forster will lurk in copyright until 2040, somewhat unbelievably. But if any enterprising film studio fancies producing a new film of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm or even Down and out in Paris and London, they can now do so, gratis. And, on a smaller level, any opportunistic chancer could potentially make a few pounds by dashing off their own 500-word introduction to one of Orwell’s books, putting it on Amazon as a download, and (potentially) reaping the profits.
Of course, the release of the Orwell estate from copyright isn’t quite as straightforward as it might appear. As his biographer DJ Taylor notes in this typically thorough article, different US and UK laws mean that American publishers and filmmakers must wait another decade before they can even begin using his work freely, and many of the posthumous letters, essays and revised versions of the novels, published long after Orwell’s death, will remain in one form of copyright or another for decades. So, the original editions of the novels and essays published in Orwell’s lifetime will be fair game, in Britain at least, but everything else he wrote should be approached with a degree of caution. The uninformed might even call such a situation “Orwellian”, if they believed that a mild degree of confusion when it comes to copyright laws can really be compared to the totalitarian state so memorably described in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Yet whether the wider availability of Orwell’s work leads to a reappraisal remains to be seen. Of course, the major work remains canonical, and cited on a daily basis in virtually every context imaginable, appropriately or otherwise. It seems unlikely that virtually any well-read man or woman is a stranger to his two most famous novels, which have established him, even seven decades after his death, as one of the bestselling writers in the English language. But once-popular works such as The Road to Wigan Pier are now in danger of falling into obsolescence, as the social circumstances that Orwell describes seem less and less relevant to a 21st-century readership, and even his great work of Spanish Civil War reportage Homage to Catalonia might be dismissed as a period piece, written with undeniable fire and conviction but saying little to a contemporary audience.
Priestley conducted his travels from a chauffeur-driven car, while Orwell subjected himself to filthy evenings in slum bed
This would be a harsh and rather glib judgement, but many writers have faced worse. The book that suggested Wigan Pier, JB Priestley’s English Journey, was once hugely influential, even being credited with winning Labour the 1945 election, and is now regarded as a quaint piece of social commentary. That Priestley conducted his travels from a chauffeur-driven car, while Orwell willingly subjected himself to filthy evenings in slum bed and breakfasts and hostels, is a telling distinction between the two writers and their approaches: it is also undeniably true that Priestley died at 89, a grand old man of letters, and that Orwell’s premature death was one brought on by the tuberculosis that had affected him for years before his death. Yet Priestley is now remembered mainly for An Inspector Calls, and Orwell remains an iconic figure, beloved by millions. His canonisation was made explicit by a statue of him by Martin Jennings being erected outside Broadcasting House in 2017, complete with the phrase “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
Yet it is doubtful that many of his admirers have read his earlier novels, namely Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air. All four were brought out by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, between 1934 and 1939, and each of them is autobiographical in nature. Burmese Days draws on Orwell’s faintly unlikely time in Burma in the Twenties with the Indian Imperial Police, and A Clergyman’s Daughter uses both his life with his family in Southwold (which appears faintly disguised in the novel as “Knype Hill”) and his days tramping for its narrative. Keep the Aspidistra Flying finds Orwell mining his experiences in the lower reaches of the London literary scene, including his time working in a bookshop in Hampstead, and Coming Up For Air, written while Orwell was recuperating in Marrakesh, is suffused with an intense nostalgia for an England that may never have really existed, but is of a piece with the fascination, and repulsion, for the tenets of “Englishness” that Orwell wrote about over and over again in his essays and reportage.
If I had to read one of them to the exclusion of the others, it would be Keep the Aspidistra Flying. It is Orwell’s funniest book, with pitch-perfect satirical observations on the pretension of minor poets, the seediness of Thirties bookshops and the way in which champagne socialists can assuage their guilt at their wealth by having dire works of literature published as a favour to their badly-off friends. It features a well-judged central character, the “well educated and reasonably intelligent” Gordon Comstock, who turns his back on the “money god” and a well-paid career in advertising copy in order to pursue his Craft, and probably Orwell’s best-drawn female character in Gordon’s girlfriend Rosemary, who is portrayed with understanding and sympathy, to say nothing of her understandable frustration at Comstock’s many foibles.
By the time that its ironically happy ending – complete with aspidistra, which has become a symbol of bourgeois fulfilment – comes around, one has read that most unlikely of things, a George Orwell romantic comedy. Even though the author denounced it – “I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100 or so” – it bears repeated reading today, and none other than Norman Mailer called it “perfect from the first page to the last”.
I would much rather read any of Orwell’s novels again than the oeuvre of DH Lawrence
The other novels are harder to love. Burmese Days is a richly evocative portrait of the dying days of the Anglo-Indian era, but its protagonist Flory is a vacillating bore, the native characters little more than caricatures and, compared to its precursor A Passage to India, is all too clearly the work of an inexperienced novelist. It is better, however, than Orwell’s strangest book, A Clergyman’s Daughter, which features an unlikely combination of social realism and Joycean experimentation, and is as ungainly and disjointed as that might imply; its titular protagonist Dorothy Hare resembles no woman so much as the unlikely spectacle of Orwell in a dress. DJ Taylor accurately draws comparisons between its all-pervasive sense of persecution and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but many readers might agree with its author’s description of it as “bollocks”.
Coming Up For Air, his last “realistic” novel, offers a vivid, almost intense sense of nostalgia for a vanished England, but its thin storyline and insipid characterisation make it an ultimately minor offering. Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare its protagonist George Bowling’s unsuccessful journey back to his Thameside childhood home of “Lower Binfield” with Patrick Hamilton’s superior Hangover Square, whose hapless anti-hero becomes similarly fixated with a visit to Maidenhead; it is not revealing too much of either novel’s plot to divulge that both odysseys end in disappointment and disillusionment.
If Orwell had never written the books that he is best remembered for, it is likely that he would occupy a similar position in contemporary literary estimation to Hamilton, that of a man-of-letters whose brilliance was only seldom displayed in his full-length literary work. He was never especially enamoured of his lesser novels, either attempting to suppress their republication altogether or casually damning them, such as his description of Burmese Days that it was “unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details” and little more than fictionalised reportage.
Yet a writer is not always an especially accurate judge of their own work. Even minor Orwell is still a great deal more interesting than many canonical works by major writers – I would much rather read any of his novels again than the oeuvre of DH Lawrence, for instance – and what I hope the wider and unrestricted availability of his work might lead to is a reappraisal of some of the stranger and more esoteric themes, characters and storylines in his early fiction.
Orwell has a gift for the unusual that means that even his half-forgotten novels are worth re-discovering
Whether it is the vile Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin in Burmese Days, attempting to infiltrate Anglo-Indian society through flattery and blackmail, or the charming but immoral Warburton in A Clergyman’s Daughter – “People in the town said that he was a ‘proper old rascal’; young girls were afraid of him, not without reason” –, to say nothing of the sheer oddness of that novel’s third chapter, told entirely in dialogue and owing a substantial debt to Ulysses, Orwell has a gift for the unusual and the memorable that means that even his half-forgotten novels are well worth discovering once again. And, as a long and tiresome lockdown is once again under way, it is hard not to sympathise with their protagonists’ shared dreams of escape – or to feel, alas, that such a flight from harsh reality remains a highly unlikely prospect for us all.
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