Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orwell Remembered

Orwell would have hated this book.

He requested that no biography of him be written, but he was too important a figure for that wish to be respected. This book, however, is not a biography as such, but a collection of reminiscences by people who knew him. As the title indicates, it's more about the man than his works.

There are 52 selections organized chronologically as they apply to Orwell, with the first being a few diary jottings by his mother when he was a baby, and the last being obituaries written by two prominent friends.

The pieces vary in length, none of them longer than 14 pages. Many of them are drawn from transcripts of BBC programs, in particular a three-part special, Orwell Remembered, televised in 1984. Other sources are letters, interviews, and excerpts from the autobiographical musings of others.

Among the many luminaries who counted Orwell as a friend and whose words appear here are Alfred Ayer, Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, V.S. Pritchett, Richard Rees, Steven Runciman, Julian Symons, and George Woodcock.

However, many other selections come from relative unknowns, and include childhood playmates and school friends, Orwell's sister, his brother-in-law, his niece, a former girlfriend, co-workers, other adult acquaintances, and so on. In the introduction one of the editors, Bernard Crick, says: "I found that the evidence of ordinary respondents, by which I mean those people who were not professional writers, was often the more rewarding..."

Reading the many views expressed in the book give it a much more intimate feel than a typical biography, especially when some are less than complimentary. It is also worth noting that they do not always agree among themselves. Stephen Spender said that Orwell "disliked for instance the poetry of T.S. Eliot very much," while Canadian poet Paul Potts wrote that he "loved Eliot's poems, hoped their author thought well of him."


One of the obituaries reprinted in the book was written by V.S. Pritchett. In it he states that Orwell "wrote the best appreciation of Dickens in our time." This seems to me a remarkable accomplishment for a person who was not a traditional academic, and got me thinking about the connection between the two men.

Orwell shared with Dickens a childhood experience that was never fully exorcised. Dickens's well-known shame over his father's incarceration in debtors prison and his own miserable time in a blacking factory have parallels in Orwell's sensitivity about his own family's lack of social status as well as his hatred of an "expensive and snobbish" boarding school he began attending at the tender age of eight.

With his family unable to afford full school fees, his attendance was made possible only by virtue of a scholarship, a fact he was often reminded of. The rich boys were favoured, the headmaster and his wife cruel, the education substandard, and so on. It was exactly the kind of school that he read about in Thackeray.

Orwell denounced his experiences there in "Such, Such Were the Joys," and although he claimed the school was not "a sort of Dotheboys hall," he gave enough examples to make the article Dickensian in content if not in style. "The scholarship boys," he writes, "were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas."

There has been much discussion about Orwell's account, which was published posthumously, but questions about its accuracy seem beside the point. He nursed his hatred of the place for the rest of his life.