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The Lost Orwell, ed Peter Davison
The truth about Eric's dreadful aunt
Sunday 06 August 2006
As Julian Barnes wrote in Flaubert's Parrot, "If you love a writer, if you depend upon the drip-feed of his intelligence, if you want to pursue him and find him - despite edicts to the contrary - then it's impossible to know too much." I recall those wise words whenever I contemplate Peter Davison's stupendous 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell. It's certainly a feast, not just for scholars, but also for aficionados who find any crumb from the table irresistible.
However, Complete is a risky title and, in Orwell's case, one of the fascinating aspects of his life and oeuvre is the endless prospect of new and intriguing revelations. Not long after this collection appeared, fresh material emerged in the two centenary biographies of 2003 - letters, KGB files, family documents - and more followed. It is unsurprising, therefore, that some eight years after publication, the Complete Works requires an additional volume, and, as it's difficult to see interest in Orwell waning, others will surely follow.
Here are articles overlooked and letters newly unearthed, some from Orwell (Eric Blair to his family), some written to or about him - an oft-neglected biographical resource. Six revealing letters from his first wife, Eileen, and one from Georges Kopp, his Spanish Civil War commander, who was sweet on her, follow correspondence with his first French translator. Davison offers a good many notes, corrections and additions from various sources - small pieces added to this great "mosaic in progress".
Ironically, it is Eileen's letters to a friend rather than anything from Orwell which represent the book's most significant discovery. Not only do they bring her further out of the shadows concealing her since her untimely death in 1945, but also shed important light on the couple's complex relationship. She speaks openly about tensions in the marriage, their penurious life in remotest Hertfordshire and relations with her in-laws. "Eric's aunt came to stay and was so dreadful (she stayed two months) that we stopped quarrelling and just repined. Then she went away and now all our troubles are over."
She liked his father, but distrusted his elder sister (while still enjoying her company). As for people who pitied her for having to share his poverty and the demands of his writing career, "They haven't, I think, grasped that I am very much like Eric in temperament which is an asset once one has accepted the fact." She also shows herself as keen to have a son as he was - something not evident from the various biographies; another further confirms suspicions of an affair with Kopp. They also demonstrate that she helped Orwell with his work more than previously supposed, typing his manuscripts and puzzling over indecipherable emendations.
Orwell's correspondence with his French translator, René-Noël Raimbault, includes a comic exchange in which the author of Down and Out in Paris and London tries to explain the sexual expletives his British publisher expunged from the book. The unsqueamish French duly reintroduced the offending words in translation.
His 1945 Observer report from post-liberation Paris brings the first part of Down and Out closer to full circle. The once-colourful Latin Quarter street, the Rue du Pot de Fer (his "Rue du Coq d'Or") aswarm with drunks and trollops, where the half-starved down-and-out lived while slaving as a hotel dishwasher, was, he discovered, now desolate, haunted by hungry, frightened ghosts. Today it is a smart street of boutiques, cafés and patisseries.
The Raimbault letters illuminate Orwell's attitude to his recently published novel, A Clergyman's Daughter, which he came to regard as unworthy of republication. However, some passages in it, we learn, "quite pleased" him, especially the chapter set in Trafalgar Square, dismissed by many (notably Sean O'Casey) as a poor pastiche of the Nighttown chapter in Joyce's Ulysses. But Raimbault declares this "Walpurgis Night" passage "perfectly original", reminding him of "the great Goethe himself and certain pages of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine by our Flaubert".
At that time, Orwell was torn between elaborate, Joycean prose and the more straightforward, economical style of Somerset Maugham, whom he also admired. Maugham won (with assistance from Swift) and he went on to develop the windowpane prose for which he is now justly celebrated. Fascinatingly, too, he shared with Raimbault his enthusiasm for nursery rhymes. Although "total nonsense", he wrote, "they are so well known in England that they are quoted almost unconsciously when writing and they have exerted a big influence on some modern poets such as Robert Graves and T S Eliot." That list would certainly now include George Orwell, author of Animal Farm.
Early letters to his girlfriend Brenda Salkeld, the heroine of A Clergyman's Daughter, give us the lustful Orwell, which those preferring the image of holy St George should avoid reading. Later letters reveal that he regarded his marriage as open (he proposed a ménage a trois with her and Eileen) and probably explain his unprotesting acceptance of his wife's dalliance with Kopp.
His 1946 obituary of H G Wells underlines Orwell's undying admiration for the writer who inspired him as a boy with visions of other worlds. He particularly admired Wells's early novel The Sleeper Awakes, which he thought anticipated Huxley's Brave New World, and so emerges as a probable influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although the two men quarrelled irreconcilably in 1942, this last word on his old adversary shows how incapable Orwell was of sustaining a grudge.
Finally, Davison provides the complete list of names Orwell supplied the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office in 1949. He had compiled a notional list of highly-placed British pro-Nazis at the outbreak of the war; this new list was meant to suggest those not to be trusted to help counter anti-Western Soviet propaganda. (Communist persecution in Spain had convinced him that he would be soon liquidated if the Russians ever invaded.) Comically, the names included the anarchistic poet and sexologist Alex Comfort, Katherine Hepburn and Charlie Chaplin, but some, such as Peter Smollet and Alan Nunn May, were subsequently unmasked as Soviet spies. He was not to know that under a later Conservative administration, this department (abolished by a succeeding Labour government) liaised with the CIA. That was because, to Orwell, a return to Tory rule was unimaginable. As a prophet he could be brilliantly on target, but also astonishingly wide of the mark.
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