As evidence of controversial government surveillance rockets around the globe, the adjective “Orwellian” is getting plenty of use. My bet is that many of those employing the term know little or nothing about the man behind the name. In fact, my bet is that most have no idea that “George Orwell” is a pen name, made-up name to mask the identity of Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25, 1903, in India to British parents.
As a journalist, editorialist, and book author, Orwell was frequently controversial. Today, 63 years after his death, he probably qualifies as iconic – unless “iconic” suggests saintly and uncomplicated. Orwell, who was definitely not saintly, was more like the polar opposite of uncomplicated.
Long-time Orwell scholar Peter Davison served as co-editor of the complete set of Orwell's letters, which fill 20 volumes. This new collection is meant to be accessible for lay readers who, realistically, will never peruse 20 volumes. Here is how Davison explains the thinking behind his winnowing for the current volume: “Firstly, the letters chosen should illustrate Orwell’s life and hopes, and secondly that each one should be of interest in its own right.”
Davison succeeds admirably, not only in his selection of letters, but also in the annotations and the mini-biographies of Orwell’s correspondents. As all first-rate letter collections must, the letters tell a story about their author, although usually the reader of the letters must fill gaps.
Orwell’s letters, despite the gaps, constitute a sort of autobiography. That is a welcome result because Orwell did not live long enough to write an autobiography. If he had been so inclined, it would have included many interesting scenes. Before earning his living as a writer, Orwell served five years in the nation of Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police; explored Paris while trying to seek meaning in his life after leaving the police force; did menial restaurant work that became part of the fabric of his book “Down and Out in Paris and London”; picked hops for pay in the English countryside; taught at the equivalent of high school and college levels; resided back in his parents’ home as an adult; fought for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war; and spent time in various hospital beds due to illnesses.
If anybody can analyze Orwell post mortem, Davison ought to be that person. The letters, personal diary entries studied by Davison, and Orwell’s published writings (which go far beyond his famous, anti-toltalitarian books “Animal Farm” and “1984”), suggest an individual beset by internal conflict about how to handle renown, about the value of political parties in a politicized nation, about marriage, about how to rear children, about organized religion, about the existence of an afterlife, and about how to measure success during an earthly life.
The conflicts shine through in some of the letters. For the most part, Orwell’s deepest emotions do not shine through. As Davison notes, “Orwell’s letters tend to be businesslike. This applies equally to friends and to his literary agent." But “businesslike” should not suggest Orwell as a cold person. He simply believed, as did many other literate men and women of his era, that pain should be expressed primarily in private. There is no doubt from other evidence that Orwell mourned at the deaths of his parents, his sister, and his first wife, who left him a widower, even as Orwell, who died before age 50, would leave his second wife a widow.
It is clear from Orwell’s letters that becoming a bestselling author did not equate with financial wealth. Orwell frequently wondered how to pay the bills, which sometimes led casual observers to consider him a dour man. He has been equated with his fictional character Benjamin, the name of the donkey in “Animal Farm.” Yet there is evidence in the letters that Orwell liked to laugh, and liked to bring out laughter in his friends.
There is no “typical” or “all knowing” Orwell letter to quote in summary. But I did find a charming a letter dated November 19, 1932, in which Eric Arthur Blair was trying to choose a pen name. He had used P.S. Burton while traveling tramp-like, but felt no resonance from that name as an author. So, he suggested to his publisher Kenneth Miles, H. Lewis Allways, and George Orwell, noting “I rather favour George Orwell.”
Circa 2013, no other name would seem right.