George Orwell was a huge influence on me when I was younger. I read Nineteen Eighty Four as a thirteen year old and thought it was quite possibly the greatest thing I’d ever been exposed to up until that point, with the possible exception of the first Ramones album. I went on to read all of his books throughout my teens and early adulthood. Like Alan Johnson and countless others, I fetishised the low-rent lifestyle of Gordon Comstock, the protagonist from Keep the Apidistra Flying; I imagined myself in my future adult life documenting a whole strata of society as expertly as Orwell does in The Road to Wigan Pier; I fantasised about a destiny in which I might risk my life for liberty in foreign climes, as Orwell himself did when he went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, brilliantly documented in Homage to Catalonia.
I hadn’t read any Orwell for years and years, certainly not since my thirtieth birthday, until I recently decided to read everything again, all the books, all the essays, the diaries, the letters. I anticipated enjoying this process before I went in, but I remain surprised at how much Orwell has to offer us all, still. His essays I enjoyed profoundly. I think no one has yet managed to top Orwell as a political writer and he puts most of those commentating today on the subject (myself included) to shame. Part of this was his use of simple, direct language; part of it was that despite having firm political views he never descended to the level of a polemicist. He always wanted the truth to win out, even if that meant countering something he had previously maintained. It is because of this, I believe, that he has been championed as “one of our own” by those both on the right and the left – and denounced across the political spectrum for the same reason.
I decided I want to review the whole of his body of his work, however, as much as the essays are brilliant I quickly figured out that there is no way to review all of them in any sort of sensible way. So I have elected to stick to discussing his nine full-length books, the six novels and three non-fiction works, split into three lots of three. I will review them chronologically, as they originally appeared in print. So I start here with Down and Out in Paris and London, and his first two novels, Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter.
In the spring of 1928, Orwell moved to Paris. Although I have not read anything appraising his specific reasons for doing so, I suspect it was for the same reason many artists and writers were doing the same thing at the time: because the city was cheap due to the rut the franc was in and because (feeding directly from the first reason) it was teeming with artists of all stripes. Also, Orwell spoke fluent French, an ability that helped him get several articles published in Le Monde during his stay there, his first experience of having his work promulgated. But for the most part, Orwell’s time in Paris appears to have been spent in fairly dire poverty and it is the documenting of this that makes up the first half of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).
When I first read the book in my teens, I recall that I liked the first half, the Paris half, much more than the second, London set half. This was mostly because I had a romantic view of Paris (a view I still have, if I was being honest) and the idea of emulating Orwell’s life in the French capital deeply appealed to me. The adventures with Boris, the Russian ex-noble émigré, the nights spent in the bistro at the foot of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux, drinking red wine until the wee hours with various madmen and miscreants, sounded impossibly appealing. As for the terrible jobs Orwell endured at the time, well, I had only had jobs of a similar calibre myself at the time, so that aspect of it all didn’t seem that off putting.
Reading it now as a forty-one year old, I found the second half of Down and Out in Paris and London much more interesting. When Orwell writes about London, he clearly feels a lot more comfortable, a lot more able to discuss the mechanics and underlying reasons for the poverty he comes across and indeed, that he experiences directly. As a result, we are treated to what is best about Orwell’s style: his ability to convey the visceral with remarkable clarity. When he describes the stench of the sheets in the first doss house he stays in upon his return to England from France, one almost experiences the same sensations in a sort of communion with Orwell. It is this ability to transmit the everyday, commonplace horrors of extreme poverty that elicits in the reader an empathy for the plight of the poor very few writers of the left have ever managed, before or subsequently, that is what I admire most in Orwell’s writing.
Previous to his experiences at the bottom end of Paris and London, Orwell worked as a policeman in Burma for almost five years. His experiences as part of the imperialist machine are fantastically documented in essays such as A Hanging (1931) and Shooting of an Elephant (1936), and between those two works in his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). The novel follows the adventures of John Flory, a thirty-five year old teak merchant who has been in the east for a long time; certainly longer than his sanity has been able to withstand. He has grown to detest the Empire and all it stands for. Of course, being a pukka sahib at the time essentially forbids him from discussing this fact with others who have the same colour of skin that he has. So instead he downloads his seditious ideas with Dr Veraswami, an Indian doctor who lives nearby. Far from sympathising with Flory’s anti-British viewpoint, Veraswami is decidedly pro-Empire and talks endlessly of the good things imperialism has brought to Asia. He seems to regard Flory’s feelings as a by-product of having lived in the east too long, away from England and all her delights; a sort of jungle inspired delirium. Veraswami is an internalised racist and loves to talk about the greatness of Britain and what he sees as the corresponding wretchedness of his own race.
Flory’s relationship with Veraswami is one of the two key ones that Burmese Days revolves around. The other is Flory’s courting of Elizabeth Lackersteen, the niece of another local, white businessman. Despite the two of them being a total mismatch (Flory is a sensitive soul, with a keen sociological interest in Burmese culture; Elizabeth is a racist snob who finds even being in close proximity with the locals a horror show), Flory and Elizabeth come close to becoming engaged. That is until a police lieutenant named Verrall comes to town and steals Elizabeth’s affections. Verrall is a real treat, a classic Orwell villain. A member of the upper class who sees no responsibility towards those of less esteemed birth within his own culture, Verrall certainly suffers no sense of white man’s burden. He seems to regard the Burmese population as something less than human. Despite his class (his father is a Lord) Verrall doesn’t come from wealth, something that does nothing to stop him from having an extravagant lifestyle. He seems to feel that the lower classes, and by that I mean the white Englishmen who fill out the ranks of the lower pukka sahibs, essentially exist to pick up the tab left in the wake of people like himself.
I have a few criticisms of the novel. First and foremost, Orwell relies on a rather clumsy Deus ex machina (what amounts to pretty much a literal one) to keep Flory from proposing to Elizabeth at the close of a key scene. He is about to pop the question when along comes an earthquake. It would have been much better for Flory simply to have not had the courage to propose and left it there; it would have been a plot and character driven reason for the rest of the book to have proceeded with. Also, the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, the suicide feeling like something Orwell should have reconsidered.
A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), Orwell’s next book, is an incredibly underrated novel; I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone describe it as their favourite Orwell work, as a for instance. Perhaps this is because it was roundly dismissed by the author himself, who described it once in a letter to a friend as “tripe” and explained that he had only had it published because he needed the money. This is a shame since it is Orwell’s most experimental work (particularly the infamous Chapter Three, Part One with its echoes of Joyce) and is overall far superior to Burmese Days in both conception and execution. Orwell’s first novel has the feeling of something he needed to get off his chest, a reckoning with the past; A Clergyman’s Daughter feels much more in line with Orwell’s subsequent writing and experiences, with its fictionalisations of his own experiences of poverty. In particular, the hop picking section of Dorothy’s exodus from her upbringing, which echoes Orwell’s own experiences doing the same, something he had written about extensively in his diaries from the early thirties. Plus, while I enjoyed Verrall as a character very much, Dorothy’s father, the Rev. Charles Hare, is even better as far as classic Orwell villains go. Like Verrall he is a selfish person who feels that his birth entitles him to a better line of credit than his bank balance would otherwise allow. His complete inability to empathise at all with his deeply neurotic daughter, never mind his creditors, is clearly meant to enrage the reader (it worked on me).
I found the first chapter of the book engrossing, with its telling of poor Dorothy’s attempts to carry the burden of Knype Hill’s various vultures on her back alone, desperate to keep it from her father whom she knows cannot (or will not) face reality. But each of the book’s five parts is distinctive, one of its chief joys: the sudden shift in tone introduced in the second chapter with Dorothy’s sudden appearance, shed of all memories, on the Old Kent Road; chapter three, which details the depths of Dorothy’s homelessness (with clear autobiographical details from the author); the fourth chapter, where Dorothy goes to work at the girls school for Mrs Creevy, a horrid creature that you sense was based directly on someone Orwell had encountered; and the final portion of the book in which Dorothy is back to her old life, only this time stripped of her religious faith.
One criticism throughout the years given to A Clergyman’s Daughter has been the way it deals with faith and in particular the way in which Dorothy’s rather fervent form of it at the start of the novel simply disappears under the strain of her amnesia, never to return even slightly. I suppose it is felt that this is a rather brusque reading of how faith affects people; me, I rather like this handling of the subject. Dorothy becomes, in effect, a different person when she unconsciously abandons her home and in doing so her faith becomes forgotten like everything else. The point is, why would it not be? Why would religious faith be more durable than anything else Dorothy might have believed when she was the rector’s daughter?
I really like the ending of the novel, the way that Dorothy returns to the fold as if nothing at all had happened and life goes on pretty much as normal. Yes, her father thinks less of her but he’s also learned the difficulty of living without her there to take care of the encumbrances of life for him. This felt realistic and in fact the only way the novel could have really ended. I think when you feel like this, by the way, the novel in question has been entirely successful in an artistic sense; when you think that the denouement provided is the only one possible.
A Clergyman’s Daughter was Orwell’s first attempt at exploring the theme of extreme poverty in novel form. He would examine this theme further in his next book, Keep the Apidistra Flying, first in print the following year.