by Robert Pearce
History Today, Oct 1997
Orwell has long fascinated historians. It is probably true to say that the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, published by Penguin in 1970, are among the most well-thumbed paperbacks on many modem historians' shelves. Yet Orwell was a stickler for the correct use of language: he was, for instance, 'upset for days' when the proof-reader at Tribune allowed 'verbiosity' to appear in one of is articles. We may be sure, therefore, that he would have disapproved of a mere selection of his work being described as the collection. In fact, the real collected essays, journalism and letters (edited by Professor Peter Davison in eleven volumes and totalling no less than 6,000 pages) are due to be published shortly by Random House/Secker & Warburg. They contain material previously only available in the Orwell archive at University College London. There is truly a feast of Orwelliana in prospect.
But why are historians so interested in Orwell's works? One answer is that Orwell had an uncanny knack of being involved with important events and processes. He was simply there. He worked in the Raj, observing and experiencing what he believed to be the insidious corruption of both rulers and ruled inherent in imperialism. He was in the doss houses of Paris and London, and in the Wigan lodgings during the Depression, experiencing the seamy under-side of empire and the unacceptable face of capitalism. He also took up the sword against Fascism in Spain, and thereafter wielded a mighty pen against totalitarian rule in general. Even the Ministry of Truth, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was to some extent modelled on the BBC, where he worked for a time during the Second World War. He wrote out of first-hand experience, generally painful, mining the bedrock of his own knowledge and memory. Another answer is the sheer range of his interests, which is truly remarkable. Only abstract philosophy -- which he said should be banned by law -- fell outside his intellectual span. He was, to use his own typically expressive phrase, an 'elastic brow', matching his expertise in literature with an informed knowledge of pulp fiction, boys' comics and saucy seaside postcards. Indeed he was a pioneer of the study of popular culture and thus of social history. In short, he was surely one of the most remarkably broad-sighted and acute historical witnesses of our country and our world in the first half of the twentieth century. Certainly there was no more dedicated writer in Britain than George Orwell, until his death from tuberculosis at the age of forty-six. In hospital towards the end of his life, when his right arm was put in plaster, he quickly learned to write with his left hand. Those who knew him expected no less. Only death could stop him.
There are two further reasons why historians admire Orwell. The first is that, by depicting a nightmare world in which the past is not studied, he showed the vital necessity for research far more convincingly than any historian has ever done. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows, above all, that the past must be investigated as fully and as objectively as possible. If it is not, and if we are dependent on our feeble memories, autocrats like Big Brother will dictate history to us to justify the current party line and cement their political domination. 'Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan in Oceania, 'controls the future: and who controls the present controls the past'. It follows that history -- the real study of the past - safeguards us against totalitarianism.
The past does matter, accuracy is vital, even chronology can be crucial: this is Orwell's message. The notion that propagandist lies were being accepted as truth in the 1930s, and would pass into history, made him feel as if the very ground beneath his feet were giving way. Better to shoot people, he once said, than tell lies about them. To mark his rebellion, Winston Smith decided to drink a toast. He drank not to the confusion of the Thought Police, to the death of Big Brother, to humanity or to the future -- estimable though these were -- but to the most fundamental thing of all, 'to the past'.
The final reason for Orwell's popularity is his 'windowpane' writing. After a long apprenticeship of unceasing effort, he made himself into a brilliant prose stylist. He believed that what can be said can be said clearly, and with freshness and elegance as well. He was the man who made political writing into an art, in the process becoming the fiercest opponent of cant, jargon and mystification. To some, he is one of the great intellectual heroes of the twentieth century, a man of scrupulous intellectual honesty who fought a duel against lies, mobilising the English language superbly in the process.
Orwell saw the need for disinterested, accurate history; he also himself produced first-hand accounts which are now used as historical source materials. How tempting, therefore, to imagine that his own writings constitute accurate, disinterested texts, especially when they are presented with the skill of a great writer. 'I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes', he wrote in Homage to Catalonia. 'Still, I have done my best to be honest'. The result of such humility is that Orwell establishes a very honest voice (much as, in the political sphere, Stanley Baldwin did around the same time). But we must be on our guard. Such an honest voice could surely tell the most convincing lies. Does Orwell live up to the high standards of honesty and accuracy which he prescribed?
The answer is no. This is relatively easy to establish. For instance, his unforgettable depiction of his prep school, St Cyprian's at Eastbourne, in Such, Such Were the Joys, differs in significant ways from those of the other Old Boys, including Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton, Henry Longhurst, Gavin Maxwell and Alaric Jacob. Only in Orwell's account was the headmaster an uninhibited sadist; and only he depicted his wife, 'Flip' (Mrs Vaughan Wilkes), as the sort of woman beneath whose tyrannical gaze even Big Brother might have quailed. There are substantial reasons for judging the account to be misleading and inaccurate and for believing that Orwell himself had a far more rewarding time at the school than he ever admitted.
Similarly The Road to Wigan Pier contains numerous errors of fact and of interpretation, perhaps the grossest of which was the judgement that the disgusting lodging house run by the Brookers -- where the bedroom stank like a ferret's cage in the morning and where a full chamber pot once appeared under the breakfast table -- was typical of the accommodation available in the industrial north. There is convincing evidence that this lodging house was the very worst that Wigan had to offer. In fact, Orwell came up with an exaggerated and fictionalised version of the worst conditions in Wigan and then, perversely, described them as normal. He often over-generalised in this manner, elevating his own experience into a social norm. In The Lion and the Unicorn (1940) he even gave an account of the national character which was, in some ways, a depiction of himself.
Scratch the surface of Orwell's documentary writings and we often find passages which more properly belong in his novels. We also find a man of remarkable prejudices. 'Little fat men' seemed to earn his wrath merely by being little and fat, especially if they inclined towards baldness or had vegetarian or teetotal leanings. Orwell, of course, was tall and thin, with a thick head of hair, a meat-eater and beer-drinker.
Sometimes, as he himself said of Dickens, Orwell used small lies to tell what he regarded as a big truth. He had no qualms about this. The first duty of a writer, he insisted, is that he should not 'falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts'. Mere literal truthfulness was less important. When someone pointed out to him that a piece of information in one of his articles was not true, he brushed aside the objection with the assertion that it was 'essentially true'. In other words, he wanted it to be true, even though it was false. Hence Orwell was guilty of a moment of 'doublethink'. Factual accuracy is important for everyone: our political freedom and our integrity as individuals depend on it; but the imaginative writer enjoys a special dispensation and has liberty to bend the truth in a good cause. He was guilty of the sort of double standard which he was so quick to spot -- and condemn -- in Salvador Dali and others. In short, he sometimes wrote with more artistry than honesty.
Orwell has feet of clay. Of course he does. If he -- or other historical witnesses -- were Isherwood's 'camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking', then not only would life be intolerably dull, but historians would be out of a job. We have to investigate Orwell's writings as historical source material with as full a knowledge as possible of his conscious purposes (especially his commitment to democratic socialism and to high aesthetic standards) and his unconscious traits (especially his puritanism and his pessimism: his first recorded word, as an eighteen-month old baby, had been 'beastly'). The historian must therefore be a biographer. indeed it is the very complexity of Orwell's writings which makes him such an intriguing and challenging historical witness. Small wonder that so many professional historians await the real complete essays, journalism and letters with pleasurable anticipation. There is hard work and illumination ahead.
But what of Orwell's more general contemporary relevance? This is a massive topic, but two issues are particularly pertinent. The first is political. We could ask how, if he were alive today, Orwell would respond to such issues as 'New' Labour, the growth of the European Union, etc, etc. Would he damn Political Correctness as one of the 'smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls'? Questions like this are sometimes relatively easy to answer. We know, for instance, what he would think of the National Lottery, since one existed in Oceania: for the Proles, it was 'their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant'.
Yet Orwell always made clear the connection between mere opinions and historical circumstances, and so such questions are ultimately unhistorical and fruitless. His central political concern, however, is timeless. He tried to reconcile the need for collective action to remedy society's ills with the dangers to personal freedom implicit in the growth of the state. The year 1984 has come and gone, but this danger is surely as great now as it ever was. Orwell did not solve the problem. How could he? He made it clear that there is no final solution. But he also pointed to the unceasing, and potentially fruitful, battle to preserve or rediscover human decency.
Equally important is the pre-eminence Orwell gave to language. He teaches that we must all strive for clarity of expression, so that the meaning chooses the word and not the word the meaning, against the debasing standards of the media, the public relations experts and the politicians -- indeed of all those who would seek to convince not by logical argument but by appeal to our emotions or our cupidity -- and of the academic pundits whose impenetrable verbiage sometimes prevents us from seeing what is in front of our nose. All too often, he insisted, language 'is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind'. We must therefore accept no authorities, even if, in the process, Orwell himself is dethroned.
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