by Robert Pearce
History: The Journal of the Historical Association, July 1997
The depression of the 1930s spawned a number of minutely researched studies, establishing who the unemployed were, where they lived, in which industries they had worked, what age they were likely to be, and so on. A profile may be constructed of the typical unemployed person. Yet such `typical' figures never existed: there were only real-life, flesh-and-blood individuals. Small wonder, then, that historians often turn from impersonal and sometimes and statistical surveys to the personal but often idiosyncratic impressions of literary men. Three works have been more widely consulted than any others: Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole (1933), J. B. Priestley's English Journey (1934) and George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Of these, Orwell's book is probably the most widely read. John Stevenson calls it the `great classic of the semi-documentary literature on unemployment'.(1) Indeed, Orwell may well be more widely quoted -- and respected -- by historians than any other writer of the 1930s.
Wigan Pier made Orwell's name: as book of the month for the Left Book Club, it sold almost 44,000 copies, four times more than his previous four books combined.(2) It was a highly controversial work, so much so that publisher Victor Gollancz wrote a foreword dissociating himself from several of Orwell's opinions. Yet, from that day to this, almost every commentator has subscribed to a basic consensus: the autobiographical part II of the book is considered to be highly prejudiced and muddle-headed, needing to be treated with caution, while part I, on the other hand, is seen as an example of Orwell's finest documentary writing, containing reliable historical information. This verdict, however, has gone unchallenged for too long, and it will be argued here that the traditional judgements are topsy-turvy. Part II is honest and outspoken, while part I is highly suspect.
It is worth looking at Gollancz's foreword in some detail, because it established the general contours followed by later writers. He insisted that, in part I, Orwell had given a first-hand and first-class account of life in the north: `It is a terrible record of evil conditions, foul housing, wretched pay, hopeless unemployment and the villainies of the Means Test.(3) He could imagine no work more likely to convert people from apathy to socialist commitment. Yet he disagreed with over a hundred passages in part II. In particular, he resented Orwell's insistence that the middle classes were brought up to believe that the working classes smell and also his dismissal of those socialists who believed in birth control or vegetarianism or feminism -- or wore sandals or drank fruit juice -- as mere cranks likely to alienate ordinary people from the movement. At best, averred the publisher, Orwell had formulated half-truths, while his assertion that the essential aims of socialism were `justice' and `liberty' was far too vague to prescribe political action.
Reviews told a similar story. For instance, Walter Greenwood, in Tribune, contrasted the descriptions of living conditions, which were ,authentic and first rate', with Orwell's views on socialism, which provoked him `beyond endurance'. He could not remember `having been so infuriated for a long time'.(4) Arthur Calder-Marshall, in Time and Tide, found Orwell's critique of socialism `one-sided'; but he too praised the first part of the book: `Mr Orwell is detached. He writes of what he has seen. He does not exaggerate.' Even the communist Harry Pollitt, who trounced the book in the Daily Worker, could see some merit in its early chapters.(5)
Later writers have conformed to this pattern. Richard Rees, in 1961, judged that the first part of the book was `a straightforward account' containing `detached and realistic observation', while the second was `sometimes wildly unfair'.(6) In 1971 Dan Jacobson described the documentary portions as containing `accurate, concise information' distinguished by a refusal `either to inflate or aestheticize the ugly facts';(7) but in the remainder of the book, according to Edward Crankshaw, Orwell came close to `bumbling'.(8) In 1981 Stansky and Abrahams found the descriptive chapters `sympathetic' and `honest', as well as `angry', whereas Orwell the lecturer in part II was sometimes biased and mis-leading.(9)
Orwell's two major biographers have done only a little to alter prevailing views. Michael Shelden insists, quite rightly, that part I is not the `supposedly impersonal' work which many have depicted; but instead of investigating how Orwell's mind affects his writing, he contents himself with the truism that his personality brings the book to life.(10) Nor does Bernard Crick achieve much more. In his view, the book is `less a straightforward documentary than often supposed', a statement which seems to open up the prospect of assessing its historical reliability. But he also insists that `The Road to Wigan Pier Diary', found in Orwell's papers at his death, is `not necessarily a more literal record of "what actually happened" than the published book'.(11) Crick thus rules out of court or tries to -- one of the major pieces of evidence which might be compared with The Road to Wigan Pier in an effort to assess its true status.
I wish to argue that the Diary is more reliable -- that is, more literally true -- than the book; that part I of the completed work contains inaccuracies and fabrications, and that it is sometimes grossly subjective and even wildly misleading -- in short, that it should be treated with caution and scepticism by historians. Part 11, on the other hand, is not open to the same criticisms and should be accepted for what it purports to be.
Part II can be dealt with quickly. It is indeed, as critics have insisted, highly subjective. But in fact this is no reason for criticism, for it is an autobiographical sketch and therefore intended to be subjective. Orwell gave a candid account of his background and of his political views, producing a portrait, warts, prejudices and all.
Take, for instance, the way Orwell railed against the `cranks' who gave socialism a bad name. Yes, the views are unfair. Why should he dislike fruit-juice drinkers and sandal-wearers, or even nudists and pacifists? Why should he make fun of men with `huge bottoms' (crammed so tightly into their khaki shorts that `you could study every dimple')?(12) (And what exactly did he mean when he described one of these big-bottomed men as `obscenely bald'?(13) The fact is that Orwell was simply being Orwell. A tall thin man, with a good head of hair and fond of beer and meat, he disliked bald little fat men who inclined to abstinence. He was able to condemn the consumption of fruit juice while at the same time castigating G. K. Chesterton for daring to disparage the drinking of tea.(14) Justly has Orwell been called an `anti-crank crank'.(15) Similarly, he disliked birth control. His abhorrence of `the sleek estranging shield'(16) annoyed many who were aware that overcrowding compounded the poverty of the unemployed and low paid.(17)
His views on socialism have often been criticized as naive. But Orwell was consciously playing advocatus diaboli.(18) He was also thinking out his political views almost for the first time and therefore, it may be thought, had a right to be naive. Even so, Stephen Ingle has recently praised his stress on decency, justice and liberty -- on socialism as essentially a movement of the exploited against their exploiters -- as a much-needed component for a rejuvenated Labour Party today.(19)
Part II could have been written by no one else. It is a personal statement, Orwell's credo from 1936. To argue that he should not have had such views is beside the point. His opinions may be infuriating, but they were his and he voiced them with characteristic fearlessness. Yet those very critics who insist that the Orwell of part II is prejudiced and unreasonable have nevertheless contrived to believe that in part I of the book he was the detached, objective observer, almost Isherwood's `camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking'. If they are right, then Orwell had achieved the most complete metamorphosis since Kafka's Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect! But it is surely they who are open to the real charge of naivete.
The first part of The Road to Wigan Pier is superbly written. It is also extremely candid: Orwell shares his doubts and uncertainties with us and is quite prepared to admit ignorance.(20) By these means he tends to disarm our critical faculties and win our confidence in an extremely `honest voice'.(21) But quality of prose is no guarantee of accuracy or honesty. Orwell was, of course, a novelist -- indeed, in Wigan he was checking the proofs of Keep the Aspidistra Flying -- and several portions of part I should be considered little more than fiction.
My case rests partly on the status of the `Diary'. Crick judges that `clearly' it was not a real, day-to-day diary but something that was `worked up afterwards -- complete with author's footnotes', perhaps a first attempt at presenting the material for publication.(22) Yet this seems extremely unlikely, partly because the Diary contains a good deal of extraneous information which Orwell would not have wanted in any published version. Indeed, Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, in preparing the manuscript for publication in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, felt constrained to omit not only Orwell's pencil drawings of coal-cutting, but, from 5 March 1936, two detailed recipes (for fruit loaf and sponge cake) given by a Mrs Searle.(23) Presumably Orwell, who was interested in traditional English cooking, wanted the recipes for his personal use, and therefore was treating the Diary very much as a personal record not intended for publication -- in short, as a real diary. He was often to be heard typing during his stay in the north,(24) and may well have been typing this text, along with other source material for the book. This may explain his rendering, in the Diary of the mining disease nystagmus as `"nyastygmus" or some such name'. (25) And why else would he have recorded personal messages for future research? On 7 March he wrote: `N.B. to look up the passage in Lissagary's [sic] History of the Commune' and then, half a dozen lines later, `N.B. to look up this passage'. Might Orwell have included such informal notes to add spurious authenticity to an account he intended to publish? Surely not. He was the most punctilious of authors, the sort of man who was `upset for days' when the proofreader at Tribune allowed `verbiosity' to appear in one of his articles,(26) and therefore the misspelling of Lissagaray's name betokens haste and a lack of reference books. The commonsense explanation is that he was writing quickly, with no intention of publishing the Diary.
There are two further reasons for rejecting Crick's interpretation. One is that there was no time for Orwell to write the Diary after leaving the north. At the end of chapter 2 of the published book, he describes himself as writing, in front of his comfortable coal fire, in April.(27) He was living at the general stores in Wallington, where he had moved on 1 April, within a couple of days of leaving Leeds. Hence there were only a few weeks in which he could have written the Diary; but, in a letter dated 20 April, he announced that he was about to start the book, having been too busy earlier fixing up the stores and `battling with the garden'.(28) Vegetable gardening was the thing he cared for most in the world, next to writing,(29) and sometimes it had to take precedence. It does seem therefore, pace Crick, that the Diary could not have been written after he left the north.
The second reason lies in a feature of the Diary to which Crick himself draws attention: the footnotes. Personal diaries may rarely contain footnotes, but Orwell's do not suggest that the typescript was anything other than a personal diary to be used as raw material for a later book. They were his means of updating the text, without troublesome rewriting, when he found new information. For instance, in the entry for 18 March he estimated that there were about fifty tubs in Barnsley public baths; later he learned that there were in fact only nineteen, and so he inserted this number, in ink, at the foot of the relevant typed page. And he would have been far more likely to learn the true figure in Barnsley than in the rural peace of Wallington! Similarly, he footnoted for the same day, 18 March, that the name of the man ejected from Barnsley Public Hall by Oswald Mosley's stewards was not `Hennessey', as he had originally written, but `Ellis Firth'. (The mistake owed a lot, wrote Orwell, to people being capricious with their aspirants.(30)) He had a long conversation with Firth on 20 March, when he would have learned his real name, and therefore it is virtually certain that the original, incorrect entry had been made on 18 or 19 March.
Of course, the Diary may not have been fully accurate -- no diary ever is -- but it is a primary source in the way that The Road to Wigan Pier is not. The Diary was written soon after the events it described, and it was written quickly and without a great deal of reflection. It is therefore likely to be more factually accurate than the finished book. Consequently, it may be used to help establish the historicity of Wigan Pier.
Let us now return to the contention that episodes in part I of Wigan Pier should be considered as fiction rather than fact. Perhaps the best example is the opening of the book: the passage on the infamous tripe shop run by the despicable Brookers. Anyone beginning the first chapter is unlikely to stop before reaching its end, as one revolting -- but fascinating -- detail succeeds another. We learn that Orwell's bedroom, which he shared with three other lodgers, `stank like a ferret's cage' in the morning;(31) that Mr Brooker had a `peculiarly intimate, lingering manner of handling things', so that the slices of bread and butter which he cut always had black thumb-prints on them; and that Mrs Brooker had a habit of wiping her mouth with bits of newspaper, which would litter the floor for hours, and an even more nauseating habit of repeating the same self-pitying phrases over and over again. One can well believe the rumour that blackbeetles swarmed over the tripe in the cellar. Certainly, the kitchen table was rarely cleaned: Orwell used to `get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day'. Small wonder, one may think, that he decided to leave when he found a full chamber pot under the breakfast table. The place, he wrote in a superb litotes, was beginning to depress him.
The same commentator who has called the book a work of `passionate, almost painful honesty' has also noted the `Dickensian accumulation of detail' in the tripe shop chapter.(32) This whole episode does seem fanciful, and indeed Orwell substantially embroidered the much more sober account given in the Diary. `At supper you still see the crumbs from breakfast':(33) this was the rather prosaic origin of his arresting phrase about getting to know individual crumbs by sight. Let me give a few more examples. First, one of the permanent lodgers in the house was an unemployed man called Joe who liked the portentous phrase `matrimonial chains is a big item'. Yet, in fact, Joe lodged not with the Brookers, but at a much better establishment, where Orwell first stayed in Wigan.(34) Second, in the book Orwell is pretty certain that the slovenly Mrs Brooker's ailments were merely a symptom of overeating, while in the Diary he describes her as being ill with a weak heart.(35) Third, in the book, Mr Brooker did most of the household and shop work (except cooking and laundering, tackled by the fiancee of one of his sons), performing all his tasks with `the speed of a slow-motion picture'. Yet in the Diary, the fiancee and a daughter-in-law `do practically the whole work of the house and shop'.(36) Fourth, in the book Orwell left the tripe shop on the spur of the moment, as the full chamber pot appeared; but in the Diary the unemptied pot appeared on 21 February and yet he continued to lodge at the same house for another week, before leaving for his next, prearranged port of call.(37) Fifth, Orwell called his landlords the Brookers, yet in the Diary they are referred to as the Forrests (the `Fs' in the published version). Orwell was remarkably reluctant to change people's names, even when he knew he was being libellous.(38) May he not therefore have used a fictional name because, as he well knew, his account contained too many fictitious elements to be considered factual?
The last sentence has been deliberately left as a question. No one can really know the answer. But what is certain is that significant doubts exist about the historical value of the opening of The Road to Wigan Pier. Historians ought to regard it as too suspect to be valuable. And yet Orwell insisted that the tripe shop `must be fairly normal as lodginghouses in the industrial areas go';(39) and he even judged that the `disgusting' Brookers, who to his mind were more like `blackbeetles' than real people, exist in their `tens and hundreds of thousands,' being `characteristic by-products of the modern world'.(40) Such judgements are totally unacceptable and render the opening of the book not merely of doubtful validity but positively misleading. The truth of the matter is that the tripe shop had a reputation for being probably the worst lodging-house in Wigan.(41) The Diary concedes that it was `appreciably dirtier and very smelly' compared with his first lodgings in the town, but the book ignored this more respectable establishment.(42)
Orwell went to Wigan `partly because I wanted to see what massunemployment is like at its worst, partly in order to see the most typical section of the English working class at close quarters'.(43) These were not easy aims to reconcile, and in the first chapter of the book Orwell certainly did not fulfil them. He came up with an exaggerated and fictionalized version of the worst conditions in Wigan and then, perversely, described them as typical. The fact is that it was very difficult for him to judge what was typical or exceptional during his brief stay. Nowhere in Wigan Pier did he say how long he had been in the north, but he gave the general impression that he was there for much longer than was actually the case: `For some months I lived entirely in coal-miners' houses.'(44) In fact, he stayed in the north of England from around 5 February to 26 March, and he was not staying in miners' houses all that time. He had wanted to stay longer, `6 months or a year',(45) but had been unable to do so. In all probability, therefore, he could not learn enough about the north to fill a whole volume, so that part II originated as a space-filler.
The rest of Wigan Pier reads less like a novel than does the description of the tripe shop. Nevertheless, there are additional passages which a historian might well decide to discount, as well as numerous factual inaccuracies of which we should be made aware.
At the end of chapter 1 is an episode which has been praised by almost all Orwell commentators. Shelden, for instance, considers the prose `stunning'.(46) As a train took him away from Wigan, Orwell saw a young woman:
I had time to see everything about her -- her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say `It isn't the same for them as it would be for us,' and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her -- understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.(47)
We are all likely, on aesthetic grounds, to endorse Shelden's opinion; but what matters to an historian is not the quality of the prose but the accuracy of the portrayal. Something similar is certainly recorded in the Diary, but in key details it is different:
Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was.(48)
One may prefer the Road to Wigan Pier version as literature, but there is every reason to judge the first-written version the more accurate. The Diary account at least avoids specious speculation about the woman's age and history. (Could not she have been older than she seemed? Orwell himself estimated the age of the lodger, Joe, at twenty-eight, only to find subsequently that he was forty-three.(49) And did Wigan contain no spinsters?) Crick finds the Diary version `flatter', which one can certainly accept, but he also -- for reasons unexplained -- finds it less plausible that `the girl' catches his eye.(50) In both accounts we should doubt Orwell's ability to find the mind's construction in the face and to empathize with people from backgrounds very different from his own.
Orwell obviously wrote and rewrote the passage to attain the desired effect. He also changed the context of the incident and its date. In reality, he saw the woman in the middle of February, perhaps the coldest time of the year, when one might expect people to be gloomier than usual: certainly Orwell himself sometimes found it hard to believe in February that winter was not going to be permanent.(51) Instead, he is able to draw a contrast: `This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold.'(52) According to his `almanac' it was spring(53) -- thus even the weather was conspiring against the suffering humanity of Wigan. There was a more wholesome aspect to life, though one which by contrast merely emphasized the grimness of industrialism: from his carriage Orwell spied rooks copulating. This was an incident which, as the Diary shows, he observed on 2 March in Sheffield, but he judged it would have greater artistic impact presented out of true sequence.
Orwell's transformation of the Diary shows considerable literary skill; but the result should not be accepted as being literally true by historians. Orwell had no compunction in altering details from real experience: in the introduction to the French edition of Down and Out in Paris and London he noted that he had not felt it necessary to describe events in the order in which they took place and that his characters were not real people but `representative types of the Parisian or Londoner'.(54) (The rest, of course, was completely true.) Similarly, he may well have intended the woman at the drain-pipe as a representative figure from the north of England. If she were not literally as he presented her, Orwell might well have defended his depiction as being `essentially true'.(55)
A similar passage occurs where Orwell describes the caravan-dwellers. There were perhaps 1,000 people living in `about 200 caravan-dwellings' in Wigan for want of better accommodation.(56) One woman's face in particular stayed in his memory: `a worn skull-like face on which was a look of intolerable misery and degradation. I gathered that in that dreadful pigsty, struggling to keep her large brood of children clean, she felt as I should feel if I were coated all over with dung.'(57)
This is a powerful passage, but also a most unconvincing one. First, it depends on Orwell's mind-reading ability: he did not ask her feelings, he simply `gathered' them. Second, she felt as Orwell might have felt, not if he were in her position -- an arguable proposition -- but if he were covered with dung. Since Orwell, so far as we know, had not been in this condition, the comparison, while perhaps effectively emotive, is logically meaningless.
In the Diary, there is comparable confusion. Indeed, he commits a classic doublethink: `I gathered that she felt as I would feel if I were coated all over with dung. All the people however seemed to take these conditions quite for granted.'(58) Orwell had made two incompatible statements and accepted both of them as true.
He wished to give the lie to those -- the `fat-bellied bourgeoisie', for example, and `the old ladies in Brighton'(59) -- who argued that slum-dwellers, knowing no other conditions, were quite happy with the slums. He also wanted to prick the consciences of his middle-class readers by pointing to the conscious suffering of the unemployed and low-paid, thereby combating the callous `they get used to it' idea. Hence his depictions of the two women, at the drain-pipe and in the caravan. Yet he could not avoid evidence that, at least to some extent and some of the time, people do get used to it. When he asked a miner when the housing shortage first became acute, he received the reply, `When we were told about it'.(60) He himself commented, with reference to the sheer ugliness of northern cities, that `Northerners have got used to that kind of thing and do not notice it.'(61) In short, he veered from an excessive and overemotional sympathy to a rather cold, dispassionate appraisal. The book is marked -- and marred -- by this ambivalent emotional attitude. What he did not do is what most critics have insisted was almost his trademark: that is, provide a clear and objective description of what he actually saw.
His account of conditions down the mines shows this ambivalent attitude. This is not a matter of criticizing his descriptions in chapter 2 of Wigan Pier. Admittedly he conflated into a single episode three trips down different mines (and, understandably, he omitted certain incidents, such as knocking himself out by failing to duck low enough); but he wrote a peculiarly graphic account of his own experiences, as he made his way slowly and very painfully to and from the coal face. The real question is the relevance of Orwell's experiences to the miners who regularly worked underground. Did they `get used to it'? The answer is that they clearly did. Orwell, in fact, found that they could actually run underground where he could do no more than stagger. Indeed, miners told him it was easier to run than walk `when you have the hang of it,'(62) His superb description of travelling underground was therefore not particularly relevant to what a miner experienced, and his conclusion now sounds rather lame: `It is quite a mistake to think that they enjoy it.'(63)
Much of the value of Wigan Pier seems to lie in the details Orwell provides of miners' wages and stoppages, and of the appalling accident rate down the pits, as well as in his account of the housing and diets the northemers experienced. There are no fictional episodes in these sections of the book, but unfortunately there are a number of factual errors and minor fabrications, and the overall impressions created are sometimes erroneous.
The factual errors in Orwell's account are not always easy to spot. Who would doubt, for instance, his statistics about miners' pay? He wrote that he had before him `five pay-checks belonging to a Yorkshire miner, for five weeks (not consecutive) at the beginning of 1936', and he then proceeded to average out the weekly gross pay, as well as the deductions made by the mining company. In the new edition of the complete works, Peter Davison has shown that Orwell got his sums wrong: the average net earnings per week were 9 1/2d less than he had calculated.(64) Davison has amended the text to eliminate the error. Such mistakes, of course, are easily committed, especially since -- and this fact Orwell did not share with his readers -- each of the pay-slips in his possession (now preserved in the Orwell archive) was for two men. But it is not so easy to understand why he insisted that they were for early 1936 when, in reality, one bore no date at all and the others were dated 5 March 1935, 12 March 1935, 2 April 1935 and 7 January 1936.(65)
Orwell seems to be scrupulously accurate. Is not this the effect of his parenthetical statement that the pay-checks were not for consecutive weeks? Surely a man prepared to admit such a gratuitous detail has absolutely nothing to hide. Yet, in fact, his account is slapdash. His figure for net earnings is wrong; at least three of the five pay-slips do not relate to the year he states; nor do their earnings totals support his contention that the miners earned more in the winter than in the spring, when trade slackened.(66) The total for 2 April was higher than that for 12 March or 7 January.
In other ways, too, Orwell's account in Wigan Pier is misleading. The `budget which was made out for me by an unemployed miner and his wife,'(67) whose weekly allowance was 32s, turns out -- like so many similar `transcriptions' by other investigators -- not to be completely accurate. The true list survives in Orwell's papers. For some reason Orwell had divided the original `Insurance -- 5d' into `Union fees -- 3d' and `Insurance (on the children) -- 2d'. Perhaps he asked the couple for further information. More significant is that he altered the stated expenditure. He changed `Blam [sic], and Flour -- 3s 8d' to `Flour -- 3s 4d'.(68) This time Orwell's sums were correct: discovering that the given expenditure of the couple exceeded their income by 4d, he doctored their list accordingly.
In his description of `scrambling for coal' he exaggerated the scale of the spectacle he witnessed. He described a `couple of hundred men' waiting for the coal trucks to arrive, which `a hundred men' tried to board. A second train then appeared, and only fifty men failed to get on either.(69) But in the Diary the numbers are significantly reduced. There were `not less than a hundred men' at the beginning, and `50 or 70' rushed for the first train; and in the end `only a few men' failed to get on a train.(70) Similarly, the amount of coal shifted by a filler -- nearly one and a half tons in the Diary -- is inflated to approaching two tons in the book.(71) In these instances Orwell seems to have exaggerated for effect. Similarly, he described leaving an appalling lecture by a clergyman in Sheffield: `I found it physically impossible to sit it out, indeed my feet carried me out, seemingly of their own accord, before it was half-way through.'(72) This passage nicely emphasizes the need of the unemployed for somewhere to shelter, for the hall was thronged and Orwell alone left so quickly. But it is not convincing. How could he know, when he left, how much of the lecture remained? In fact, his Diary shows that he stayed to hear the whole of the talk, leaving only during the questions that followed.(73) To employ a phrase Orwell used about Dickens, he was telling `small lies to emphasize what he regards as a big truth'.(74)
Yet Orwell did not consistently exaggerate in Wigan Pier. He quoted the story of a miner who `fell seven hundred feet, and they wouldn't never have collected t'pieces only he were wearing a new suit of oil-skins'; but the depth of the mineshaft has receded from the figure of 1,200 feet quoted, with identical accompanying words, in the Diary.(75) In the book the miner with nystagmus had to collect his pension by bus once a week, while in the Diary he had the inconvenience of visiting the colliery twice a week by tram.(76)
Perhaps the best way of accounting for these discrepancies is by sheer inefficiency. Orwell was too often slapdash in his methods. How else can we explain the transcription errors which litter the book?(77) He badly misquoted a work on which he relied to a large extent, The Coal Scuttle by Joseph Jones.(78) Orwell's eight-line quotation from the book contains three errors: a hyphen has been included by mistake in the first sentence and the final sentence has been repunctuated. These are minor slips. More serious is that Orwell has included his own precis as part of the quotation. Jones had written that `One sometimes hears of miners earning substantial sums when working in peculiarly fortuitous circumstances. Such good fortune is rare today, but any such sums, if earned, would be included in these figures.'(79) Orwell rendered this as: any particularly high earnings would be included.'(80)
Walter Greenwood thought that Orwell was trying his readers' patience by including lengthy factual descriptions of the houses in the north.(81) Historians, however, are likely to applaud these detailed notes, compiled with the aid of a tape measure.(82) We are told the number and size of rooms, cost of rent and rates, whether the windows open, distance to lavatory, etc., etc. But even here Orwell was not always completely accurate. He insisted that he was merely `transcribing' extracts from his notebooks,(83) but in fact he rarely did so. His original notes were generally longer than those presented in the book, where details have sometimes been omitted or reworded. In his description of a house in Mapplewell, near Barnsley, for instance, he omitted the line `Reasonably clean and tidy as far as can be in circumstances.'(84) It was also remarkably slapdash of him to preface a description of three houses with the words `Here are one or two from Barnsley'!(85)
Further evidence of Orwell's unscholarly methods is provided by Lissagaray's History of the Commune. Twice Orwell reminded himself, in the Diary, to check the book. In Wigan Pier he corrected his previous mis-spelling of the author's name: otherwise, he included, virtually word for word, the Diary paraphrase which he had perhaps half-suspected might be inaccurate.(86) And it was. He correctly remembered several details from the book, but badly misinterpreted their significance. He argued that men were executed who wore a watch or had intelligent faces because the authorities wanted to identify the ringleaders behind the Commune and automatically assumed that they would be of `better class', a status that could be judged from their appearance. Orwell's main point was that middle-class people were so indoctrinated to believe in their own superiority that they would have taken the lead. But this is not what Lissagaray was saying at all. Galiffet, an officer who had been insulted by the Communards' press, was merely taking revenge by choosing victims arbitrarily. Anyone who stood out, regardless of social class, was liable to be shot. On 26 May 1871 he chose eighty-three men and three women to be executed, including those described by Orwell. Someone was chosen because he had a broken nose, not a particularly middle-class trait. Two days later, he shot no fewer than 111 people, all of whom had white hair.(87) Orwell had misinterpreted the incident very badly, presumably because he did not check his source.
There are far more errors and inaccuracies -- and fabrications -- in The Road to Wigan Pier than historians have ever realized. But, it may be argued, such minor matters do not detract from the overall picture Orwell painted. Do occasional blemishes really matter? What about the broad brushstrokes?
There are several problems with such a defence. First, it implies, to use Orwell's own blunt words, that a big truth can be built on small lies, a concept which most historians would find it hard to accept -- as did Orwell himself in his political maturity, after the sobering experiences of the Spanish Civil War. Second, it ignores the falsity of several of Orwell's major arguments in the book.
At the very end of part I Orwell praised working-class homes. Where the male breadwinner was in steady work and drawing good wages, `you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not so easy to find elsewhere'.(88) He then waxed lyrical about `the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best', with Father on one side, Mother on the other, `the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat', etc. It was this `memory of working-class interiors -- especially as I sometimes saw them in my childhood before the war, when England was still prosperous -- that reminds me that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in'.(89) His minor factual inaccuracies are mere peccadilloes compared to this, for nowhere did Orwell give any concrete examples to support such an idealized image. Far from it. Memories of the tripe shop are still fresh in readers' minds, and not only of the tripe shop but of houses with subsiding floors, of houses which were infested with dry rot and bugs and in which were scenes of `indescribable squalor' and smells that were `almost unbearable'.(90) He did not describe a clean house, let alone a comfortable one. Perhaps that is why Orwell looks to his memories of the period before the war. But who can swallow this `memory' of pre-1914 working-class homes? After all, Orwell (or Blair as he was then) had been only eleven years old when the war broke out; and in part II he related how, from the age of about six, his parents had forbidden him to play with working-class children.(91) Hence, his judgement seems to stem from nothing more reliable than hazy memories of a pre-war idyll -- when, according to George Bowling in Coming Up For Air, it was summer all year round -- which, of course, never existed. Perhaps Orwell was striving for an up-beat ending to part I, though it is unlikely that he really felt so positive after his experiences in Lancashire and Yorkshire. He wrote in a more candid private letter that `it is dreadful to see how the people have collapsed and lost all their guts in the last ten years.'(92)
Another of Orwell's fallacious arguments is that social conditions in Britain were going from bad to worse. He does not merely state that things were bad in the north in 1936: he regularly implies that they were much worse than ever before, and in particular that they had declined from the standards that existed before 1914. Orwell insisted that, on average, English people were physically declining and had been doing so `for a long time past', even in rural areas: `Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my childhood's gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud.' The Great War was partly to blame, but so was tinned food, `in the long run ... a deadlier weapon than the machine gun'.(93) The reality, of course, was quite different. People were healthier and were living longer in 1936 than ever before in British history. A far higher percentage of men were fit to fight in 1939 than in 1914. And if there were fewer unemployed before 1914, real wages for many full-time manual workers in the 1900s were lower than the dole for those forced to live on it in the late 1930s. Standards of nutrition may have been bad in 1936; Orwell quoted the judgement of the expert Sir John Boyd Orr that twenty million people were underfed. But incensed though Orr was with current standards of nutrition, he had to admit that they were `better than the picture of pre-war days. Since then the national dietary [standard] has improved ... Accompanying that improvement in diet, there has been a corresponding improvement in national health.'(94) This was the sort of perspective Orwell never achieved, with the result that Wigan Pier can be dangerously misleading unless read sceptically.
There are sins not only of commission in Wigan Pier, but also of omission. George Orwell, like every other author, had blind spots, aspects of reality of which -- because of his temperament or upbringing -- he was largely unaware or which did not seem important enough to find their way into his writings. The Road to Wigan Pier therefore could not possibly be a full account of Orwell's stay in the north. Hence it is worthwhile briefly to draw attention to those areas of life on which the book does not touch.
Orwell took little interest in the textile industry: for him, Wigan was a mining town, although in fact cotton was equally important with coal in its economy. Nor did he do more than allude to the role of women workers.(95) Most notable of all, perhaps, is that he depicts no cheerful people, says virtually nothing of pubs, and alludes to sport only very briefly. Nor is religion mentioned. The only joke in the book, if such it can be called, is about a man refused the dole on the grounds that he had a job `carting firewood', whereas in reality he had been doing a moonlight flit from his lodgings with his furniture.(96) Yet it seems that the omission of all jollity from the book was the result not so much of a blind spot as of self-censorship.
The Diary is notably `lighter' in tone. His first landlady in Wigan, Mrs H, was of `merry disposition' and her son `seems fairly happy'. He also included a section on pubs (which employed singers and dancers, some of whom were said to be very immoral) and working men's clubs (with `a good knockabout comedian whose jokes were of the usual twins-mother-in-law-kippers type, and pretty steady boozing'). His original notes referred to the existence of 160 pubs in Wigan, one to every 540 of the population.(97) There is also more about working-class political organizations in the Diary, and a speech by Wal Hannington of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement at Wigan Co-op hall was described. Orwell was surprised by the amount of communist feeling: there were loud cheers when Hannington announced that if England and the USSR went to war, the latter would win. The audience was `rough ... but very attentive', in sharp contrast to Orwell's judgement in the book that the working class had `grown servile'.(98)
The notes he made while in Wigan also recorded details of the religious life of the town. There were about forty churches, with sixty clergy. The Anglicans had twelve churches, compared with the Roman Catholics' six, but there were more Catholics than Protestants among the population. He judged that `not half the population made any kind of observance'; but, even so, his omission of these details from the finished book created a misleading impression. And who could judge from the book that, in Orwell's opinion, the `general health in Wigan appears fairly good'?(99)
Some may think that this critique of The Road to Wigan Pier is unduly harsh and negative. But I have not been arguing that the book is of no historical value; simply that historians must begin with doubts about all historical sources and must seek to isolate fictitious and inaccurate elements. Orwell's work should be assessed as critically as that of any other author. Yet too often he has been quoted uncritically and treated with indulgence. This is because of at least two factors: his seductive, window-pane prose style and `honest voice', and his insistence in his own writings that accuracy is paramount. Orwell, of course, was the man who, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, provided a better justification for studying history than any historian has yet devised. History studied as objectively as possible, and not prescribed by any party line, was to his mind an essential bulwark against totalitarian dictatorship. Indeed, he once wrote that it was worse to lie about people than to shoot them; and, despite his deep contempt for Stalin, he went so far as to change the proofs of Animal Farm to pay fitting tribute to the Russian leader's bravery during the Second World War.(100) Such an acute appreciation of the historian's craft, however, has all too often disarmed historians of their critical faculties.
Orwell set high standards; but we should not automatically assume that he always lived up to them. In The Road to Wigan Pier he fell distinctly short of them. He had feet of clay. Once this is recognized, the positive work of extracting the historically valuable aspects of the book can truly begin -- and we can judge whether (to borrow a phrase from P. G. Wodehouse) he was clay `all the way up'.
The author is grateful to Professor Peter Davison for advice in connection with this article and to his colleagues Alan Farmer and Robert Poole for commenting on an earlier draft.
(1) John Stevenson, British Society 1914-45 (Harmondsworth, 1984) [hereafter Stevenson, British Society], p. 476.
(2) Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life (Harmondsworth, 1982) [hereafter Crick, Orwell], p. 311.
(3) George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, ed. J. Meyers (1975) [hereafter Critical Heritage, ed. Meyers], pp. 91-9.
(4) Tribune, 12 March 1937.
(5) Time and Tide, 20 March 1937. P. Stansky and W. Abrahams, Orwell: The Transformation (1981) [hereafter Stansky and Abrahams, Transformation], p. 166. For other reviews, see Meyers, ed., Critical Heritage, and David Rankin, `The Critical Reception of the Art and Thought of George Orwell', unpublished Ph.D. thesis (London University, 1965), esp. pp. 119-25.
(6) Richard Rees, George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory (1961) [hereafter Rees, Orwell], pp. 49-50.
(7) The World of George Orwell, ed. Miriam Gross (1971) [hereafter World of Orwell, ed. Gross], p. 61.
(8) Ibid., p. 119.
(9) Stansky and Abrahams, Transformation, pp. 162, 139, 171.
(10) Michael Shelden, Orwell (1992) [hereafter Shelden, Orwell], p. 254.
(11) Crick, Orwell, pp. 318, 280.
(12) George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Harmondsworth, 1962) [hereafter Orwell, Wigan Pier], p. 152.
(13) Ibid. (emphasis added).
(14) Ibid., p. 156.
(15) Stansky and Abrahams, Transformation, p. 200.
(16) Rees, Orwell, p. 38.
(17) In particular he was taken to task by a young nurse who described how heartbreaking it was `to deliver babies, bathe them and watch them for 14 days and then leave them to the tender mercies of a half-starved mother, and out-of-work father, in a dirty filthy house along with 6 or 7 lousy rickety brothers and sisters, knowing that in less than a year the baby's condition will be as bad as that of the other children'. University College London, Orwell Archive [hereafter Orwell MS], Box 11, Amy Charlesworth to Orwell, 26 May 1937. Orwell did not change his mind, but he did make a friend of the nurse.
(18) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 151.
(19) Stephen Ingle, George Orwell: A Political Life (Manchester, 1993), esp. pp. 51-4.
(20) e.g. Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 22, 37.
(21) See Robert Pearce, `Truth and Falsehood: George Orwell's Prep School Woes', Review of English Studies, xliii (1992) [hereafter Pearce, `Truth and Falsehood'], 371.
(22) Crick, Orwell, p. 280.
(23) See the original typescript in Orwell MS, Box 1/30.
(24) See e.g. Remembering Orwell, ed. Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick (1984), p. 129.
(25) George Orwell, `The Road to Wigan Pier Diary' [hereafter Orwell, `Diary'], The Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (4 vols., Harmondsworth, 1970) [hereafter CEJL], 11 Feb. 1936, i. 199.
(26) T. R. Fyvel, `The Years at Tribune', in World of Orwell, ed. Gross, p. 114.
(27) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 20.
(28) CEJL, i. 246-7, Orwell to Rees, 20 April 1936.
(29) Ibid., ii. 29.
(30) Orwell, `Diary', 18 March 1936, p. 233.
(31) All references in this paragraph are to Orwell, Wigan Pier, ch. 1.
(32) J. R. Hammond, A George Orwell Companion (1982), pp. 116-17.
(33) Orwell, `Diary,' 21 Feb. 1936, p. 209.
(34) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 8-9; `Diary,' 11 Feb. 1936, p. 200.
(35) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 6-7; `Diary,' 15 Feb. 1936, p. 203.
(36) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 10; `Diary,' 17 Feb. 1936, p. 205.
(37) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 15; `Diary', pp. 213, 216.
(38) Pearce, `Truth and Falsehood', 370.
(39) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 14.
(40) Ibid., p. 16.
(41) Crick, Orwell, p. 282.
(42) Orwell, `Diary', 15 Feb. 1936, p. 203; for an allusion to the first lodgings see Wigan Pier' p. 42.
(43) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 106.
(44) Ibid., p. 136; see also pp. 53 and 60, where he sounds like a seasoned expert. In 1947 he wrote that he `spent many months ... studying the conditions of the miners in the north of England': CEJL, iii. 456. This is bad enough, but at least he did not write `many years', as Stansky and Abrahams would have us believe (Transformation, p. 136).
(45) CEJL, i. 187, Orwell to Connolly, 14 Feb. 1936.
(46) Shelden, Orwell, p. 256.
(47) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 16-17.
(48) Orwell, `Diary', 25 Feb. 1936, p. 203.
(49) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 9.
(50) Crick, Orwell, p. 287.
(51) CEJL, iv. 173.
(52) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 16.
(53) Ibid., p. 17.
(54) CEJL, i. 138.
(55) See Pearce, `Truth and Falsehood,' 385.
(56) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 54. The official figure, according to the notes in Orwell MS, Box 1/29, was 180 caravans, of which he saw about 100.
(57) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 56.
(58) Orwell, `Diary,' 15 Feb. 1936, p. 202.
(59) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 62, 78.
(60) Ibid., p. 57.
(61) Ibid., p. 97.
(62) Orwell, `Diary', 19 March 1936, p. 235.
(63) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 26.
(64) George Orwell, Complete Works (Harmondsworth, 1989), p. 38.
(65) Should Davison not have corrected the net earnings in a footnote rather than in the text? Once you begin the process of tinkering with texts, it is hard to know where to stop. Should we change `at the beginning of 1936' to something more accurate? Crick has examined the pay-checks (Orwell, p. 283), and noted that three of them are rubber-stamped `Death Stoppage', `just as he said in the book', but he did not draw attention to the incorrect dates.
(66) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 36.
(67) Ibid., p. 83.
(68) Orwell's pencil notes, Orwell MS, Box 1/29, indicate that he thought `blam' was a mistake for balm, or yeast. He missed out one stage in the reasoning. Balm is not yeast, but a misspelling of barm, which does indeed mean yeast.
(69) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 91-2.
(70) Orwell, `Diary', 20 Feb. 1936, pp. 207-8.
(71) Ibid., 21 March 1936, p. 239; Wigan Pier, p. 29.
(72) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 72.
(73) Orwell, `Diary', 3 March 1936, p. 219.
(74) CEJL, iii. 117.
(75) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 39; `Diary', 13 Feb. 1936, p. 202.
(76) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 42-3; `Diary', 7 March 1936, pp. 223-4.
(77) On p. 38 Orwell's `fourpence' was `4d' in the original. There is an error in the quotation from Somerset Maugham on p. 113: `an' should precede `sensitive nostril'. There are two errors in his version of Lawrence's `Climbing Up' on p. 147: there should be a hyphen in `half way' and a comma after `I tell you'. Orwell has omitted `an' before `imperialist' in the quotation from Prince Mirsky, p. 158. There are two misquotations from John Beevers on p. 168: in the first passage `an' should come before `automobile', while the second passage should begin with `He' not `Man'.
(78) He owed to Jones his statistics for death and injury rates in the mining and shipping industries and the comparison between casualties in the pits and those sustained in a minor war: Joseph Jones, The Coal Scuttle (1936) [hereafter Jones, Coal Scuttle], p. 23. Compare this with Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 39. Orwell described Jones as mayor of Barnsley; perhaps it might have weakened the miners' case for better wages if he had described him, as he described himself in his book, as the president of the Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain.
(79) Jones, Coal Scuttle, p. 15.
(80) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 36.
(81) Tribune, 12 March 1937.
(82) World of Orwell, ed. Gross, p. 61.
(83) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 47.
(84) Ibid., pp. 48-9; Orwell MS, Box 1/29, notes and narratives re Wigan Pier.
(85) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 48.
(86) Ibid., p. 44.
(87) Lissagaray, History of the Commune of 1871, trans. Eleanor Marx Aveling (1886), pp. 396, 498.
(88) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 104.
(89) Ibid., p. 105. Christopher Small, The Road to Miniluv (1975), pp. 122-3, compares this passage with Orwell's caricatures of Dickens's writing.
(90) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 47-8.
(91) Ibid., pp. 109-10.
(92) CEJL, i. 259, Orwell to H. Miller, 26 Aug. 1936.
(93) Orwell, Wigan Pier, pp. 87-8.
(94) Ibid., p. 68; Stevenson, British Society, p. 206.
(95) Beatrix Campbell, `Orwell -- Paterfamilias or Big Brother?', Inside the Myth, ed. Christopher Norris (1984), pp. 126-38.
(96) Orwell, Wigan Pier, p. 70.
(97) Orwell, `Diary', 11 Feb. 1936, p. 200; 13 March 1936, p. 227; 15 March 1936, p. 229; Orwell MS, Box 1/29.
(98) Orwell, `Diary', 11 Feb. 1936, p. 201; Wigan Pier, p. 111.
(99) Orwell MS, Box 1/29.
(100) CEJL, iii. 241, 407.
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