Writing about George Orwell: An Autobiographical Introduction
In this study my intention is to discuss how and why George Orwell not only participated in but was also deeply influenced and shaped by the wars that he was involved in during his lifetime: the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the beginnings of the Cold War. But before doing so, as a preface it might be useful to account how it came about that I’ve been writing and thinking about George Orwell for more than seventy years, longer than Orwell’s sadly short life.
It began some months before he died in January 1950, aged only forty-six. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four when it was first published in my senior year in high school, as a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club to which my parents belonged. When growing up I also had an interest in the Spanish Civil War, sparked by my love of an album of its songs performed, if I remember correctly, by a chorus made up of German volunteers in the International Brigade.
The next step in my education was going to Yale where I became a history major, particularly interested in the history of Britain. I was fascinated by how British politics, society, culture, and the arts could mesh. In their own characteristic way they combined the ideological and the personal. This was reinforced by the generally Anglophile atmosphere at Yale. Although I was in no way involved with it, this was exemplified by the great publication project there of the letters of Horace Walpole. I became friends of graduate students who worked on that series. I was also much influenced by my classmate Russell Thomas, a nephew of the famous American editor, Maxwell Perkins, who seemed to be full of British literary gossip which we exchanged with others in our juvenile way over cups of tea in the Elizabethan Club or in a boozier fashion fueled by too much cheap sherry. There was also a lovely coincidence (I’ve always had a fascination with serendipity, a word invented by Horace Walpole). Bernard Knox, the teacher of a fantastic course on the Greek plays, had fought with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Also, I took an excellent seminar in my junior year taught by Leonard Krieger for those who were doing honors work in history. I’m not sure how it came about, but I wrote for it a paper on John Cornford who had fought and died in Spain, the great-grandson of Charles Darwin and son of the distinguished classicist Francis Cornford and his wife the poet Frances Cornford. It was also the occasion for my one slight brush with the McCarthyism of the period. In my paper I mentioned that Bernard Knox had been a military comrade of Cornford’s in Spain. It was no secret as he had written about this experience in the memorial volume published after Cornford’s death. Professor Krieger, who would be the only one who would see the paper, suggested that it was unwise to mention Bernard Knox in it as it might somehow get him in trouble in those 1950s Red Scare days.
My senior year would be largely devoted to writing my senior essay. I can’t quite remember how my topic evolved, but it was about four Englishmen and how they were involved in the Spanish Civil War: John Cornford, Julian Bell, Stephen Spender, and George Orwell. It was not expected that such a work would be based on archival sources. As undergraduates in those days, we wouldn’t travel for our research. In any case at that time hardly any primary material was available for any of these individuals. But there were sufficient printed sources for the purposes of my project. There was the Cornford memorial volume, and I spoke to Bernard Knox. Following Professor Krieger’s advice I did not mention him in my work. Even some years later he didn’t want to be identified by name as having fought in Spain. But eventually he published a series of excellent essays about the war. In one of them he mentioned that a Yale undergraduate had once exclaimed to him with excitement: “You’re my thesis!” It must have been me. Stephen Spender had published in 1951 his memoir, World Within World. He had not fought in the war but had been closely involved in it. Julian Bell, the son of Vanessa Bell and the nephew of Virginia Woolf, had gone to Spain as an ambulance driver but had been killed when a bomb hit his vehicle. There was a memorial book about him, and in the early 1950s the ever growing interest in Bloomsbury was beginning. Most important George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia had been reissued in 1952 just as I was embarking on my senior essay. It had not sold well when it had been originally published in 1938 as the Right, by definition, didn’t like it, and it also went against the then dominant Left interpretation of the war, much influenced by the Communist position. It is a brilliant and wonderful book, but its late success was helped by the Cold War. It was legitimately one of the Cold War’s weapons because of its intense anti-Communism based on the Russian undermining of the cause of the Republic in Spain. In my senior essay I wanted to assess the significance of these four men, their backgrounds, and how and why they were involved in the Spanish Civil War. To do so I found myself increasingly committed to that exploration and much enjoying finding out as much as I could about their life stories leading up to their going to Spain. Cornford and Bell had died in Spain; their lives were cut tragically short at a young age, Cornford at twenty-one, Bell at twenty-nine.
Orwell had died at forty-six in January 1950. Spender was still alive, and some years later I would meet him. Orwell had become world famous with the publication of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the considerable Orwell literature and the systematic publication of his work had hardly begun. In fact that provided part of the fun of my research as I found it quite enjoyable to be able to wander the stacks of the Yale Library and track down the relevant fugitive Orwell publications in various periodicals. My very first publication, other than columns I wrote for the Yale Daily News, was in the Yale Literary Magazine in March, 1953: “The Tragedy of George Orwell: A Biographical Note.” Though there were some errors and I would no longer agree with some of my interpretations, it reads fairly well so many years later.
What to do next with my life? I couldn’t decide whether to go to law school or graduate school in history, so I decided to do neither and instead did a second BA in history at King’s College Cambridge—the Bloomsbury college. Although I did not do any work on Bloomsbury then, that was one of the reasons I wished to go there. One had the pleasure of having E. M. Forster living in the college and frequently having lunch with undergraduates. And also by chance I became a member of a group who met fairly frequently at the home of Frances Cornford to have earnest discussions presided over by the wonderful Mrs. Cornford. I can’t remember if I told her that I had written about her son, but in any case we didn’t have any discussion about him. After Cambridge I thought I would go into publishing, but probably fortunately I did not find a decent job and I decided to do a PhD in history, a decision I have never regretted. I wrote a political thesis, subsequently published, on the British Liberal Party towards the end of the nineteenth century and the question of who would lead it after William Gladstone. One aspect of the history of the party at the time was the question of who would succeed Alfred Tennyson as poet laureate, but that material would not fit into my dissertation. At this point I met William Abrahams, poet, novelist, editor. I told him about that material and that resulted in my first academic publication, a joint article by us on the poet laureate issue published in History Today. Doing that had gone so well that he asked what we might write together next, and I showed him my senior essay on the four Englishmen and Spain. We went forward with that idea, secured a publishing contract, and embarked on the work. We did research on all four men. It became apparent that the four would not fit together easily, and so we decided to write a book about the two who had died in Spain, Cornford and Bell, with full cooperation and essential help by their families, although they were not authorized biographies. That was published in 1966 as Journey to the Frontier. Although we had cordial meetings with Stephen Spender, we decided not to write about him as he clearly wanted us to be discreet about the homosexual side of his life. A major part of his involvement with Spain was the difficult task of enabling his lover to leave the International Brigade. That meant we wouldn’t go forward with that part of the project. Orwell, who had gone on to a much better known career after Spain, was obviously different from the other three.
To begin with, we did primary research on Cornford, Bell, and Orwell. We were in touch with the many still surviving relevant figures in their lives. For Orwell the two most important were his literary executor, Sir Richard Rees, and his executor, his widow Sonia Brownell Orwell. Rees provided the impetus for what turned out to be our first Orwell book, The Unknown Orwell, published in 1972. He said to understand Orwell we needed to find out more about Eric Blair before he adopted his nom de plume (he never legally changed his name from Eric Arthur Blair). The Unknown Orwell ended with the first use in 1933 of his writing name George Orwell as the author of his first book Down and Out in Paris and London. Rees also said that we shouldn’t take too seriously Orwell’s wish in his will that there not be a biography of him. In any case we never intended to write about his total life but just about him through the Spanish Civil War, our original conception. Our termination would be the Spanish experience and what led up to it in his work and life.
Our research in the early 1960s went very well. We spoke to quite a few who had known him over the years. Cyril Connolly who had been with him at his prep school, St. Cyprian’s, and his public school, Eton, was very helpful as I recount in the text that follows, and we were in touch with other Eton contemporaries. Through the India office we established contact with those who were with him in the police in Burma. We had cordial meetings with Sonia Orwell who was very encouraging and urged us to be in touch with Orwell’s sister, Avril, whom we visited in Scotland. At that point Sonia didn’t seem that interested in her late husband. The Orwell Archive had been established at University College, London. It did not contain then much primary manuscript material but was very useful as it had gathered together his many publications in various periodicals. As neither the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1968) nor the twenty-volume George Orwell: The Complete Works (1986, 1987, 1998) had been published yet, it was immensely useful to have so many of the pieces printed in so many periodicals available in one place. Although our work would obviously have biographical aspects, it was not a biography, particularly as it would stop after Spain. Sonia Orwell raised no objection at that point.
But then disaster struck after the publication of Journey to the Frontier in 1966. Sonia Orwell had always had a troubled relation with Orwell’s late request that there not be a biography of him. The biographical question was now much more on her mind, and she was much more involved with the Orwell world. He had become increasingly well-known after the publication of Animal Farm, and his fame and the money his estate was earning was continuing to grow in the years after his death. At some point she did appoint his friend Malcolm Muggeridge to write a biography of him. It might have been that she knew he would never do it, and hence it was a way of putting off quite a few other aspirant biographers. There had been the possibility of other biographers selected with her approval, most notably Richard Ellmann, but he ultimately declined. When we were in touch with her, ready to go forward with writing about Orwell after the publication of Journey to the Frontier, she said that clearly our intent was biographical. At that point we had not committed ourselves to what approach we would take. She said we could only go ahead with her permission if she could read what we’d written and have the power of totally controlling what we might publish. That was clearly unacceptable, so we determined to proceed on our own and as we thought best. We were banned from the Archive but we had done research in it earlier, and it still didn’t have, as it does now, much original material. And there were quite a bit of primary sources available elsewhere. We also had material in the form of documents and verbal and written reminiscences from those who had known him. As Sonia had a mixed reputation among quite a few of these individuals, her disapproval was unlikely to affect their relationship with us. Ultimately lawyers read the manuscript of our two Orwell books and made sure that we did not use quotations beyond what would be acceptable through the policy of fair usage, that is, we would not violate copyright restrictions. We were reprimanded by Orwell’s agent, Mark Hamilton, for quoting two very short complete works of art, Orwell’s first two publications in a local newspaper, his intensely patriotic short poems written as a schoolboy during the First World War. Ironically we had unearthed them. He said he would refrain from taking legal steps against us. Such action might have led to legal expenses, but it would also have given the book a fair amount of publicity.
The Unknown Orwell, published in 1972, received a lot of attention, most of it highly favorable including a fine review by Cyril Connolly. It and its successor, Orwell: The Transformation, published in 1979, both made the short list for the American National Book Award. Sonia published a letter saying our first book was full of errors, and she would make them known but she never did so. In reaction to that book she appointed Bernard Crick to write Orwell’s biography. When it was finished she tried to prevent its publication. He had an ironclad guarantee for publication so her efforts were unsuccessful. In effect we unlocked the Orwell biography logjam. There have now been quite a few excellent biographies with more to come as well as innumerable studies of him. Reading Orwell, thinking about him, writing about him, has been a major part of my life ever since I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949.