Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. George Orwell penned that terrific line, and its principle should be applied to him, as well. Few other non-fiction writers have been as canonized as Orwell. One critic said he wrote like an angel, while another called him the most influential political writer of the twentieth century.
Now we have a new work by which to assess Orwell. His diaries were included in the 20-volume "Collected Works of George Orwell," but they are presented alone here for the first time. Eleven diaries are included, varying in length and quality, from August 1931 to September 1949.
Let us be as clear as Orwell always was: Much of the material in the Diaries is unreadable to all but the most serious of Orwell completists. Half the book – literally, half – is comprised of Orwell’s recordings of the weather, his diet, gardening habits, and unremarkable conversations with unknown individuals. June 22, 1939’s entry is typical: “Cold all day & very windy. Dense mist in the morning. Did nothing in garden. 14 eggs.” Perhaps a biographer could make use of such quotidian entries, but it is hard to see how anyone else can profit from them.
Christopher Hitchens writes in the introduction – the last commissioned article penned by Hitchens before he died earlier this year – that the "Diaries" “furnish us with a more intimate picture of a man who, committed to the struggles of the mechanized and ‘modern’ world, was also drawn by the rhythms of the wild, the rural and the remote.” True enough, but intimacy does not equal insight. One could, for instance, read about a man’s bathroom habits without gaining any further understanding of his character. Some details are simply unnecessary.
The most that can be said about Orwell’s recordings of the ordinary aspects of his existence is that they show how much he simply loved to write, and how much he loved nature. But both facts were already well-known and do not require hundreds of pages to allow us to discern them.
Now, on to the good stuff. The two wartime diaries make for fascinating reading (not surprisingly, they have the fewest compilations of what kind of eggs Orwell enjoyed on any given day). Orwell lived in London during most of World War II, including during the Battle of Britain. Entries during this period have the author’s defining features on display, including unimpeachable intellectual honesty, concern about the degradation of truth, physical courage, and unpretentious writing.
From July 3, 1941, after the Soviet Union joined with the Allies to find Nazi Germany: “One could not have a better example of the moral and emotional shallowness of our time, than the fact that we are now all more or less pro-Stalin. This disgusting murderer is temporarily on our side, and so the purges, etc., are suddenly forgiven.” A good literary diary reveals insight into the writer’s work, and this entry foreshadows a theme in "1984" – the amnesia present when one’s enemy becomes one’s ally and vice versa.
Reading Orwell here one is also struck by how little he indulges romantic ideas about England’s survival against the Nazi onslaught, which anyone could be forgiven for doing. At one point he even complains about the first history of the Battle of Britain’s use of flowery language in describing the people’s survival. “This morning an air-raid warning about 3 a.m.,” he writes. “Got up, looked at the time, then felt unable to do anything and promptly went to sleep again.” Anyone doubting Orwell’s sincerity in portraying himself as unperturbed should consider that he never directly says that about himself, letting the recollections do the talking. In addition, Orwell volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where he was shot in the throat. (Unfortunately, the diaries from this period are still held in secret in Moscow).
All the traits that made Orwell so great can be found in the "Diaries." But they can also be found on a much greater scale in his essays and journalism, and without all the boring, useless material about the man’s everyday existence.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.