The private world of Orwell

“I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life”. Orwell’s unflinching task to right wrongs and give suffrage to the otherwise unrepresented was an ambition endemic to all of his published works. On the basis of his collected Diaries, we see that this was as well, a deeply personal and private intention of his. His most intimate and unguarded reflections are contained in Davison’s collection of the author’s various diaries across the final two decades of his life, and serve both as insight into Orwell’s personality and a lens into a turbulent and troubled historical epoch. In a refreshing departure from the realms of academia published on the Second World War though, the accounts given are characteristically measured and tempered by Orwell’s un-likened blend of honest transparency and more subtle political bias which in its ‘private world’ of the journal becomes, in the context of Orwell’s other work, almost uniquely illuminated.

The revelation of Orwell’s most private thoughts though never risk showing an hypocrisy which often materialises in the unguarded, unedited pieces of other writers. The ‘domestic’ Orwell is as determined as his published counterpart it seems, and on the back of Davison’s collection the author’s reverential status is unthreatened. His unique brand of political and social insight blends with his characteristic eccentricity to present an image of the familiarly contradictory, yet profoundly likeable figure. He recounts such tales as his communal shave in the waters of Trafalgar Square, an almost pedant-like measure of the number of eggs that his hens have laid, as well as still managing a firm-grasp upon wider events. In one entry of August 1939, just a month before the outbreak of war, he records a number of newspaper clippings, which transfer almost without hesitation between the profoundly serious – reports of German mobilization in Poland – and the profoundly ridiculous – ‘Potato & tomato said to have been successfully crossed in U.S.S.R’. Despite his worldliness and growing dislike for English colonialism given by his service in Burma, his distinct brand of English-eccentricity remained undiminished. He retained, it would appear, an almost remarkable juvenility at times and it is with evident delight that he recalls other slow-news fodder as ‘‘How to make Macon’, i.e., how to cure mutton as a substitute for bacon’.

Though it may be tempting to present George Orwell as the familiar, uncle-like figure of English Literature, the occasionally harsh and biting tone of his prose would serve as a warning against such undermining of the severity of the author’s mission. He appears justifiably dismissive of the uncaring upper-class, the ‘rich swine’ who refuse to allow the use of their empty West End houses for the bombed-out victims of the Luftwaffe. In the same entry, we see why Orwell, although widely-respected, remains divisive: ‘When you see how the wealthy are still behaving, in what is manifestly developing into a revolutionary war, you think of St. Petersburg in 1916’. Despite the reckoning of imminent upheaval though, Orwell remains saddened throughout by its lack of materialisation. He bemoans the apparent apathy across British society, seeing that there was ‘no turbulence left’, and yet, ever contradictory, was the same figure that saw fit to live out his post-war years in a distant backwater of the British Isles. Orwell’s honesty of tone though, seems to convince that this ‘retirement’ of sorts was motivated by the failure to act of others, rather than from any trace of his own hypocrisy. At the height of the war, the fervour which fuelled his decision to fight fascism in Spain still remained conscious: ‘It is impossible even yet to decide what to do in the case of German conquest of England. The one thing I will not do is to clear out…’. It is almost impossible to contend that these words, if called upon, would not have been enacted.

The diary does not merely give a fuller, more-rounded face to Orwell however and also serves a purpose to the historian. His criticism of the government of the age for its lack of expediency offers an interesting alternative to the clichéd and classic account of whole scale unity in the face of the Nazi threat: ‘One has almost lost the power of imagining that the Allied governments can ever take the initiative’. He criticises his employer too, the BBC, in a sense that would not seem out of place today, describing it’s frustrating bureaucracy and petty infighting as delivering an ‘atmosphere… something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum’. Orwell is also forward-looking in reading of the intricacies of the media at the time, and of the need for politicians to engage with it. His keen eye for impartiality in this task even allows him on one occasion to critique the Russian leader, Stalin, in his reply to Churchill: ‘It was nevertheless a magnificent fighting speech, just the right counterpart to Churchill’s, and made it clear that no compromise is intended’. Orwell remains throughout his diary, as with his other work, fitful and unresting in his role as conscious consumer. This same keen scope for reflection also arguably lent itself to his prophetic abilities, most profoundly developed in 1984, and his proximity to war and its entailed lies and falsehoods as given through propaganda certainly seem to have sculpted Orwell’s wider sensibilities. His Diaries present an image of a world where complacency is impossible if one is to avoid the pervasive presence of apathy: ‘You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion either. We are all drowning in filth’. Such an environment transfers almost without question to the world of Winston Smith, and more distantly, albeit marginally, to our own world today. Elsewhere, Orwell quotes another journalist, Connolly, who argued that ‘intellectuals tend to be right about the direction of events but wrong about their tempo, which is very true’. Again, the comparison to 1984, and to the post-1984 world is bridged almost without thought.

Though Orwell’s task for honesty and for reflection remained at the heart of his literary talent, it may be seen from the concluding entries of his fifth and final domestic diary that it also contributed, in part to his struggle with illness in his latter days and eventual death. By October 1947, Orwell was forced to typewrite his manuscripts for his most famous work from his bed, due to illness, and he referred to his masterpiece in one telling entry as this ‘bloody book’. As Orwell’s own constructed world seemed to haunt Orwell’s final years, it survives in this ability to haunt today. Despite the gravity of Orwell’s need for ‘private worlds’ which his skill for prose had given him though, even in the final months of his life he retained his familiar eccentricity – ‘Everything is brought by hand – none of those abominable rattling trolleys which one is never out of the sound of in a hospital’. Although it is important to revere Orwell’s political insight and eye for prophecy, it remained, even in the end, his ability and talent for detail that won out.

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