A Life in Letters

  George Orwell




  Peter Davison


  A Division of W. W. Norton & Company

  New York * London



  Title Page

  List of Illustrations


  From Pupil to Teacher to Author: 1911-1933

  Publishing, Wigan and Spain: 1934-1938

  From Morocco to the BBC: 1938-1941

  The BBC and the War: 1941-1943

  Journalism and the Death of Eileen: 1943-1945

  Jura: 1946 and 1947

  Hairmyres and Jura: 1948

  Cranham, University College Hospital, and Orwell's Death: 1949-1950

  New Textual Discoveries


  A Short List of Further Reading

  Biographical Notes



  Also by George Orwell


  List of Illustrations

  1.Blair family group ((c) Orwell Archive, University College London) 2.Rene-Noel Raimbault ((c) Collection Marie-Annick Raimbault) 3.Jacintha Buddicom with Dr and Mrs Noel Hawley-Burke ((c) Dione Venables) 4.Jacintha Buddicom ((c) Dione Venables)

  5.Norah Myles ((c) Margaret Durant)

  6.The Stores, Wallington ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 7.Eileen and Orwell at the Spanish front ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 8.Independent Labour Party Conference ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 9.Eileen in Morocco ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL)

  10.Orwell and Mahdjoub Mahommed ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 11.Three legionnaires visiting the Orwells in Morocco ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 12.Orwell with the Home Guard ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 13.Eileen ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL)

  14.Orwell and Richard ((c) Vernon Richards's Estate; image courtesy of Orwell Archive, UCL) 15.Orwell with catapult ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL) 16.Sonia Orwell ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL)

  17.Barnhill, Jura ((c) Orwell Archive, UCL)

  Sketches within the body of the text are Orwell's own drawings and are copyright The Estate of Sonia Brownell Orwell.


  George Orwell 'is in the peculiar position of having been a by-word for fifty years'. No, not Orwell of course, but Rudyard Kipling as described by Orwell. However, it is not far off the mark for Orwell himself. Orwell also wrote of Kipling, 'before one can even speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works'. This may be a little further from the mark but many of those who refer to Orwell seem not to have read much more than Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four, if those. The millions who have heard of Big Brother and Room 101 know nothing of their progenitor. Ignorance of Orwell is also to be found in academic circles and in what would regard itself as the higher reaches of journalism. When Professor Raymond B. Browne of Bowling Green University died he was credited by the Daily Telegraph with having launched 'popular culture' into the mainstream. Browne's Journal of Popular Culture was published in 1967, but Orwell was writing most intelligently about popular culture over twenty-five years earlier. Indeed, when Critical Essays was published in the United States in 1946 as Dickens, Dali and Others it was given the subtitle Studies in Popular Culture. At one extreme Orwell is canonised - hence the subtitle, The Making and Claiming of 'St. George' Orwell, of John Rodden's excellent study analysing The Politics of Literary Reputation (1989). At the other he is subjected to the vigorous wielding of the hatchet, something Scott Lucas does 'with remarkable efficiency' in his Orwell (2003) according to Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books, 19 June 2003. Where does poor old George stand? Professor Eagleton in his review of the three biographies of 2003, aptly titled, 'Reach-Me-Down Romantic', suggests that Orwell 'combined cultural Englishness with political cosmopolitanism, and detested political personality cults while sedulously cultivating a public image of himself'. Despite world-wide acclaim, Orwell saw himself as dogged by 'Failure, failure, failure'. 'Failure', as Eagleton says, 'was his forte.'

  I am inclined to think that Orwell had within his deepest self an unresolved conflict that made him so contradictory a character. He was ever in arms against organised religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church. He thought there was no afterlife. Yet he was married in church, had his adopted son Richard baptised, and wished to be buried, not cremated, according to the rites of the Church of England. For so rational a man it was strange that he should ask Rayner Heppenstall to cast a horoscope for Richard (21 July 1944); that he should believe he saw a ghost in Walberswick churchyard (16 August 1931); and discuss poltergeists with Sir Sachaverell Sitwell (6 July 1940), not to mention the quasi-religious conclusion to A Clergyman's Daughter (but that, after all, is 'only a novel'). Perhaps most telling is Sir Richard Rees recalling that Orwell had told him that it 'gave him an unpleasant feeling to see his real name in print': 'how can you be sure your enemy won't cut it out and work some kind of black magic on it?' Was this mere whimsy, or was it deeply felt? Not 'some enemy or other' but 'your enemy'. Who was that? The title of Rees's study sums up his subject perfectly: George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory (1961). He fled from triumph and sought refuge in 'Failure, failure, failure'.

  Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, Bengal, on 25 June 1903. His father, Richard Walmsley Blair was born in 1857 in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, where his father was the Vicar. Orwell's father served in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. His mother, Ida Mabel Limouzin, was born in 1875 at Penge, Surrey but her family had a long association with Burma. Indeed, there seems to be a curious survival of the Limouzin family in Moulmein, Myanmar, to this day, as Emma Larkin discovered a year or two ago. She found not only that Orwell was well (if covertly) remembered, but she noticed a street called Leimmaw-zin, 'the nearest Burmese pronunciation for "Limouzin"'. However, when she asked a passer-by to interpret the name, he confidently offered, 'Orange-Shelf Street' (Secret Histories, pp. 145-6).

  Orwell's parents married in the intriguingly-named church of St John in the Wilderness at Naini Tal on 15 June 1897. Orwell would surely have found that appropriate. Their first child, Marjorie, was born at Gaya, Bengal, on 21 April 1898. Ida Blair returned with her two children to live in England at Henley-on-Thames, in 1904. In 1907 Richard Blair took three months' leave at Henley. On 6 April 1908, Orwell's younger sister, Avril, was born. From 1908-11, Orwell attended a Roman Catholic day-school run by Ursuline nuns. He then boarded at St Cyprian's, a private preparatory school in Eastbourne where he would meet Cyril Connolly, who was to feature significantly in his later life. Orwell's essay, 'Such, Such Were the Joys' is based (sometimes loosely) on his experiences at St Cyprian's, but the school educated him well enough for him to enter Eton as a King's Scholar in May 1917.

  A letter that has only very recently come to light gives an account of his life thereafter from Orwell's point of view. The letter has not previously been published and I am very grateful to its owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) for permission to include it here. Orwell had been asked by Richard Usborne, the editor of the Strand, a monthly literary periodical published from January 1891 to March 1950, to contribute to the journal and to give some account of his life. As Orwell's last paragraph indicates, he felt far too busy to contribute - he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four - but despite that went to some trouble to respond to Mr Usborne. It was typical of Orwell, as some of the letters in this selection show, that he would go to great trouble to respond to correspondents whom he hardly knew - if at all. The letter to Richard Usborne was written from Barnhill, Jura, on 26 August 1947: Dear Mr Usborne,*

  Many thanks for your letter of the 22n
d. I will answer your queries as best I can. I was born in 1903 and educated at Eton where I had a scholarship. My father was an Indian civil servant, and my mother also came of an Anglo-Indian family, with connections especially in Burma. After leaving school I served five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, but the job was totally unsuited to me and I resigned when I came home on leave in 1927. I wanted to be a writer, and I lived most of the next two years in Paris, on my savings, writing novels which no one would publish and which I subsequently destroyed. When I had no more money I worked for a while as a dishwasher, then came back to England and did a series of ill-paid jobs usually as a teacher, with intervals of unemployment and dire poverty. (That was the period of the slump.) Nearly all the incidents described in Down and Out actually happened, but at different times, and I wove them together so as to make a continuous story. I did work in a bookshop for about a year in 1934-5, but I only put that into Keep the Aspidistra Flying to make a background. The book is not, I think, autobiographical, and I have never worked in an advertising office. In general my books have been less autobiographical than people have assumed. There are bits of truthful autobiography in Wigan Pier, and, of course, Homage to Catalonia, which is straight reporting. Incidentally Keep the A.F. is one of several books which I don't care about and have suppressed.

  As to politics, I was only intermittently interested in the subject until about 1935, though I think I can say I was always more or less 'left.' In Wigan Pier I first tried to thrash out my ideas. I felt, as I still do, that there are huge deficiencies in the whole conception of Socialism, and I was still wondering whether there was any other way out. After having a fairly good look at British industrialism at its worst, ie. in the mining areas, I came to the conclusion that it is a duty to work for Socialism even if one is not emotionally drawn to it, because the continuance of present conditions is simply not tolerable, and no solution except some kind of collectivism is viable, because that is what the mass of the people want. About the same time I became infected with a horror of totalitarianism, which indeed I already had in the form of hostility towards the Catholic Church. I fought for six months (1936-7) in Spain on the side of Government, and had the misfortune to be mixed up in the internal struggle on the Government side, which left me with the conviction that there is not much to choose between Communism and Fascism, though for various reasons I would choose Communism if there were no other choice open. I have been vaguely associated with Trotskyists and Anarchists, and more closely with the left wing of the Labour Party (the Bevan-Foot end of it). I was literary editor of Tribune, then Bevan's paper, for about a year and a half (1943-5), and have written for it over a longer period than that. But I have never belonged to a political party, and I believe that even politically I am more valuable if I record what I believe to be true and refuse to toe a party line.

  Early last year I decided to take a holiday, as I had been writing 4 articles a week for 2 years. I spent 6 months in Jura, during which time I did not do any work, then came back to London and did journalism as usual during the winter. Then I returned to Jura and started a novel which I hope to finish by the spring of 1948. I am trying not to do anything else while I get on with this. I do very occasionally write book reviews for the New Yorker. I mean to spend the winter in Jura this year, partly because I never seem to get any continuous work done in London, partly because I think it will be a little easier to keep warm here. The climate is not quite so cold, and food and fuel are easier to get. I have a quite comfortable house here, though it is in a remote place. My sister [Avril] keeps house for me. I am a widower with a son aged a little over 3.

  I hope these notes will be of help. I am afraid I cannot write anything for the Strand at present, because, as I have said, I am trying not to get involved in outside work. We have only 2 posts a week here and this letter won't go until the 30th, so I shall address it to Sussex.

  Yours sincerely George Orwell

  Although Orwell says he was never a member of a political party, he had either forgotten, or is glossing over, that for a short time he was a member of the Independent Labour Party. He wrote about joining in 'Why I Join the I.L.P.', 24 June 1938. He left when war broke out because it retained its pacifist stance. His forgetting might have been a wish for disassociation.

  Orwell makes only the briefest, indirect, reference in his letter to his first wife, Eileen. Typically for a man of his character and time, he does not harp on her loss in his letters, though there is no doubt he felt it keenly. Eileen O'Shaughnessy was born in South Shields in 1905. He and Eileen met at a party given by Mrs Rosalind Obermeyer at 77 Parliament Hill, London, in March 1935. For Orwell it was love at first sight. On leaving the party he told a friend, 'The girl I want to marry is Eileen O'Shaughnessy', something he also said to Mrs Obermeyer. Eileen was at the time reading for a master's degree in psychology at University College London. Despite the hard fact that Orwell was earning very little and his obvious prospects limited, they were married from Orwell's cottage in Wallington in the adjacent parish church on 9 June 1936. She died under anaesthetic at Newcastle upon Tyne on 29 March 1945.

  There is a very curious link between Orwell and Eileen that quite possibly neither may have realised. Both 'celebrated' the year 1984. The title of Orwell's novel, only chosen shortly before he sent his typescript to his publisher, Fredric Warburg, could obviously not have been known to Eileen, but did he know that she had written a poem to celebrate the centenary of her school, Sunderland High, called 'End of the Century: 1984'? It has three fourteen-line stanzas, entitled 'Death', 'Birth', and 'The Phoenix' and seems to have no obvious link with anything Orwell was to write. Her poem celebrates the past; Orwell's novel warns of the future.

  Over 1,700 letters by George Orwell are included in Vols X-XX of The Complete Works of George Orwell and in The Lost Orwell. This figure does not include the many letters he wrote in reply to readers of Tribune, nor the many dozens of internal memoranda he wrote making programme booking arrangements whilst working for the Indian Section of the BBC Overseas Service, 1941-43. The Complete Works and The Lost Orwell also include many letters written to Orwell or about him and, most particularly, letters by his wife, Eileen. This compilation is, therefore, only a small proportion of what is available.

  In making this selection I have had two principles in mind. Firstly, that the letters chosen should illustrate Orwell's life and hopes; and secondly that each one should be of interest in its own right. Most of the letters are given in full, but I have cut the lengthier passages that repeat what is printed elsewhere. As Orwell's horizons narrowed in his last couple of years as a result of increasing illness and confinement to hospitals and Jura, even though his circle of friends grew rather than narrowed, there is more repetition and hence more excisions.

  It is surprising how many people saved letters that Orwell wrote to them. Inevitably what has survived varies over the years and sometimes, in order to tell the story of Orwell's life, one must rely on letters sent to Orwell. A notable example of this last is the important correspondence with Ihor Szewczenko regarding the publication of the Ukrainian version of Animal Farm from 11 April 1946 onwards. Even if one wished to include an equal number of letters from each year of Orwell's adult life, mere survival defines what can be chosen for inclusion. Thus, and most obviously, there are no extant letters from the five years Orwell spent in Burma.

  Despite exhaustive searches by Ian Angus and the editor in the preparation of The Complete Works, material about Orwell, including valuable letters, still comes to light - hence, of course, The Lost Orwell. It has been gratifying to be able to include here a few letters - and important ones - for the first time. I am especially grateful to the owners of the 'new' letters for allowing their inclusion. I am also grateful to those who have acquired already published letters for permission to include them here; their names are given in the notes to their letters. Rumours abound that a further batch of letters to Eleanor Jaques was initially offered for sale by Bonhams in 20
09 and then withdrawn.

  Orwell's letters tend to be businesslike. This applies equally to friends as to his literary agent. He is quick to apologise if he feels he has been slow in explaining some action or has neglected some social pleasantry - such as on 24 December 1934 when he regrets not writing earlier to send Christmas greetings to Leonard Moore, adding 'Please remember me very kindly to Mrs Moore'. Even the letters that have come to light to Eleanor Jaques, Brenda Salkeld, and Lydia Jackson are short on endearments although his wish for a loving relationship is plain. The deaths of Eileen, his father and mother, and his sister Marjorie were all deeply felt by him, but he is reticent about expressing his pain. This is not a mark of coldness of character but how those brought up in the first half of the twentieth century expected to be seen to behave, at least publicly. Pain and suffering were thought to be relative and given that experienced by millions in the two 'Great' wars, personal loss, especially natural loss, was felt in context. One suffered in silence. Orwell can strike the casual observer as dour. His close friends likened him to his creation Benjamin, the donkey of Animal Farm. But, as David Astor told the editor, when he was depressed or troubled he would telephone Orwell and ask him to meet him in a local pub because he knew Orwell would make him laugh, would cheer him up. One can almost put this dourness into financial terms. Orwell was often poor - see his letters responding to Jack Common's pleas for even small sums of money when Orwell was in French Morocco. He even speaks of making do for much of 1936 at The Stores by living on potatoes. Animal Farm earned him good royalties but when he died, and before the huge royalties that flooded in from Nineteen Eighty-Four, at his death he was shown to have PS9,909 at probate - perhaps some PS250,000 today, the cost of a modest house. But, at the time, he was owed PS520 that he had lent to friends: George Kopp PS250; Paul Potts PS120; Sonia PS100; Inez Holden PS75; and Jack Common PS50.

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