Overview

Appearing for the first time in one volume, these trenchant letters tell the eloquent narrative of Orwell’s life in his own words.


From his school days to his tragic early death, George Orwell, who never wrote an autobiography, chronicled the dramatic events of his turbulent life in a profusion of powerful letters. Indeed, one of the twentieth century’s most revered icons was a lively, prolific correspondent who developed in rich, nuanced dispatches the ideas that would ...

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters

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Overview

Appearing for the first time in one volume, these trenchant letters tell the eloquent narrative of Orwell’s life in his own words.


From his school days to his tragic early death, George Orwell, who never wrote an autobiography, chronicled the dramatic events of his turbulent life in a profusion of powerful letters. Indeed, one of the twentieth century’s most revered icons was a lively, prolific correspondent who developed in rich, nuanced dispatches the ideas that would influence generations of writers and intellectuals. This historic work—never before published in America and featuring many previously unseen letters—presents an account of Orwell’s interior life as personal and absorbing as readers may ever see.

Over the course of a lifetime, Orwell corresponded with hundreds of people, including many distinguished political and artistic figures. Witty, personal, and profound, the letters tell the story of Orwell’s passionate first love that ended in devastation and explains how young Eric Arthur Blair chose the pseudonym "George Orwell." In missives to luminaries such as T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, Cyril Connolly, and Henry Miller, he spells out his literary and philosophical beliefs. Readers will encounter Orwell’s thoughts on matters both quotidian (poltergeists and the art of playing croquet) and historical—including his illuminating descriptions of war-shattered Barcelona and pronouncements on bayonets and the immanent cruelty of chaining German prisoners.

The letters also reveal the origins of his famous novels. To a fan he wrote, "I think, and have thought ever since the war began…that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism." A paragraph before, he explained that the British intelligentsia in 1944 were "perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history," prefiguring the themes of 1984. Entrusting the manuscript of Animal Farm to Leonard Moore, his literary agent, Orwell describes it as "a sort of fairy story, really a fable with political meaning…This book is murder from the Communist point of view."

Hardly known outside a small circle of Orwell scholars, these rare letters include Orwell’s message to Dwight Macdonald of 5 December 1946 explaining Animal Farm; his correspondence with his first translator, R. N. Raimbault (with English translations of the French originals); and the moving encomium written about Orwell by his BBC head of department after his service there. The volume concludes with a fearless account of the painful illness that took Orwell’s life at age forty-seven. His last letter concerns his son and his estate and closes with the words, "Beyond that I can’t make plans at present."

Meticulously edited and fully annotated by Peter Davison, the world’s preeminent Orwell scholar, the volume presents Orwell “in all his varieties” and his relationships with those most close to him, especially his first wife, Eileen. Combined with rare photographs and hand-drawn illustrations, George Orwell: A Life in Letters offers "everything a reader new to Orwell needs to know…and a great deal that diehard fans will be enchanted to have" (New Statesmen).

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Larry Rohter
…[Orwell] was…a prolific letter writer, and a particularly captivating and thoughtful one at that, thanks partly to the wealth of experience he had acquired. George Orwell: A Life in Letters is a judiciously chosen selection of some of the most interesting of these casual writings, from a 20-year period that included both the Great Depression and World War II. Peter Davison, who selected and annotated the letters, was also the lead editor of Orwell's 20-volume Complete Works and has sought here to distill Orwell's essence, as man and thinker, into a more manageable size and format…we read not only letters that Orwell wrote, but also some he received, and even a handful that friends and colleagues wrote to one another about him.
Publishers Weekly
Orwell’s keen insight and acerbic wit reverberate throughout these selected letters, culled from more than 10 volumes to offer a comprehensive view of his life and personality. Ranging from 1911, during Orwell’s school days, until his death in 1950, the letters focus on his professional life in the 1920s and ’30s—years he spent in Burma and Paris—especially his time as a journalist in Spain and North Africa, his BBC employment during WWII, his productive years in Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his struggle with tuberculosis. While there are touching personal letters—for example to his first wife, Eileen—many in the collection dwell on European politics, British colonialism, WWII, as well as on literature and Orwell’s own novels. He comes across as unsentimental, his realism growing both out of profound compassion and, as he confesses in a letter to Henry Miller, a “sort of belly to earth attitude” that made him “feel uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green.” Editor Davison furthermore includes many letters to or about Orwell, providing useful perspective on the character of the man whom one admirer described as “less imperfect than anyone else I had ever met.” These insights, plus extensive footnotes and contextual information, make the book an unusually gratifying read for Orwell enthusiasts and casual readers alike. 28 illus. Agent: Bill Hamilton, A.M. Heath. (Aug.)
Daily Telegraph
“It is the portable Orwell, the condensed autobiography that Orwell never wrote…All [the letters] remain fresh, illuminating the complex paradox that was George Orwell.”
Mail on Sunday
“Beautifully edited…One of the glories of this volume is that it shows Orwell in the round, complete with all his human idiosyncracies and contradictions. [Peter Davison’s] attention to detail is nothing short of heroic…This is the authentic Orwell voice: wonderfully clear and fresh and forthright.”
New York Times Book Review
“[A] judiciously chosen selection of some of the most interesting of [his] casual writings…. The result is a much more rounded image of Orwell and his circle…”
William Giraldi - The New Republic
“This new edition of Orwell’s letters is imperative for anyone who wishes to earn a larger understanding of the twentieth century’s most potent essayist.”
Andrew Ferguson - The American Spectator
“Any Orwell admirer will be grateful for Davison’s industry in carving out manageable chunks from the millions of words Orwell wrote, and for all except the most fanatical, this will be plenty. There are pleasures and surprises on every page.”
James Lang - America: The National Catholic Weekly
“[Orwell’s] critique of the political and economic systems that create and justify poverty and his personal courage in the face of threats to freedom and injustice remain as relevant and inspirational for us today as they were in the years leading to and following World War II…. The George Orwell that Davison presents to us is an appealing one: indefatigable writer, generous friend, champion of the poor and oppressed, avid gardener and outdoorsman…. If Davison’s compilation of Orwell’s letters, which help fill out our understanding of this oft-caricatured writer, can draw readers more deeply into the life and catalogue of George Orwell, then he will have accomplished an important objective.”
Daniel P. King - World Literature Today
“In distilling the 1,700 letters written by Orwell, Davison set himself two goals: the letters should illustrate his life and hopes, and “each should be of interest in its own right.” This volume admirably fulfills this twofold mission; it is a tribute to Davison’s decades-long scholarship on Orwell’s life.”
Library Journal
Following the publication of his comprehensive diaries and 63 years after his death, this generous selection of English writer Orwell's (1903–50; Homage to Catalonia; Down and Out in Paris and London) letters was compiled by the indefatigable Orwell scholar Davison. Over 1,700 of Orwell's letters appear in The Complete Works (co-edited by Davison, 1998), from which this volume draws heavily. An earlier selection appeared in the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1968). Newly discovered letters are included here, as well as affectionate and witty correspondence written by Orwell's first wife, Eileen. Davison's chronological arrangement and accompanied introductory notes contextualize his subject's writing periods. Dating from 1911, the earliest letter is a short note that Eric Blair (Orwell) sent to his mother from St. Cyprian's School. Only two letters represent the 1920s when the author spent five years in Burma as a policeman and then worked at a series of menial jobs in England and Paris. Starting in 1932, though, his correspondence grew steadily. Davison describes Orwell's letter writing to friends, colleagues, and strangers alike as "businesslike." The many letters to his literary agent Leonard Moore offer fascinating details about writing projects, planned books, setbacks, and wrangling with publishers. The book supplies useful biographical notes on Orwell's correspondents, a time line, and an extensive index. VERDICT Orwell the man truly emerges in these revealing letters; this essential companion volume to the Diaries will be devoured by legions of Orwell fans and scholars.—Thomas Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A representative selection, culled from the 20-volume Complete Works, which Davison co-edited, of correspondence by and to 20th-century England's fiercest literary opponent of totalitarianism. There are very few letters from the childhood of Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) and none from the years as an imperial policeman in Burma that formed his anticolonial and socialist views; the collection really begins in 1934, not long after the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London introduced the 31-year-old author under the pen name George Orwell. Most are by Orwell himself, but gaps in the historical record are filled by correspondence from others. The letters of his first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, are particularly valuable; livelier and much more personal than the author's, they give intimate glimpses of the couple's home life and sometimes-fraught relationship. Their warmth makes palpable the awful loss inflicted by 39-year-old Eileen's death during surgery in 1945, a trauma only hinted at in Orwell's dignified, reticent account of the event. In general, he is a brisk, businesslike correspondent; among the few exceptions are affectionate references to his adopted son and a few emotional 1946 letters to his London neighbor Anne Popham, which add some nuance to the 2007 controversy over charges that Orwell's wooing style was aggressively close to rape. Readers seeking insights into the creation of Animal Farm or 1984 will find only a few scattered sentences, and nonfiction, such as The Road to Wigan Pier, is similarly referred to mostly in passing. The correspondence does convey Orwell's strong, principled political positions, especially his revulsion against fellow leftists who "set up a double standard of political morality, one for the U.S.S.R. and the other for the rest of the world." Grim letters chronicling the worsening tuberculosis that killed him remind us how prematurely we lost this ardent voice for a single standard of truthfulness and common decency. Illuminates Orwell's political convictions and gives fleeting but vivid glimpses of his personal qualities.
The Barnes & Noble Review

George Orwell toiled in poverty for many years, but after writing Animal Farm he had to start turning down invitations. In August 1947 the literary magazine The Strand asked him to write something for its pages and to give an account of his life. A prolific essayist and book critic, Orwell was at the time struggling with what would become his other masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. ("This bloody book," he called it, as illness slowed his progress.) He declined the magazine's invitation in, explaining that he was cutting back on hack work in order to complete his novel. Neither party, of course, could know that Orwell, who would die of tuberculosis in 1950, had only about a month of decent health left in his life.

Curiously, Orwell's reply letter nevertheless contains the requested biographical note. It has just been published for the first time, in George Orwell: A Life in Letters. Orwell mentions his formative experiences as an imperial policeman in Burma, tramping in London and Paris, investigating industrial poverty in northern England, and fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War. "As to politics," it reads, "I was always more or less 'left' " and "came to the conclusion that it is a duty to work for socialism even if one is not emotionally drawn to it, because the continuance of present conditions is simply not tolerable." On the other hand, Orwell declares his "horror of totalitarianism," finding communists to be little better than fascists. Squaring the circle, he concludes: "I have never belonged to a political party, and I believe that even politically I am more valuable if I record what I believe to be true and refuse to toe a party line."

This remarkable document tells you more or less everything you need to know about George Orwell. It is written in the clear, direct language that he considered the best antidote to insincerity and evasion. It reminds the Left and the Right — both of which need reminding — of his chief convictions: against totalitarianism and for socialism. It confirms that Orwell was indeed fallible, for, as editor Peter Davison notes, he either forgot about or elided his brief membership in the Independent Labor Party. At the same time, the manner in which that membership ended demonstrates his priorities: Orwell left the ILP at the beginning of World War Two because it remained pacifist in the face of German atrocities and aggression. Above all, the letter convinces us that Orwell is the rare public figure we can trust to write his own epitaph.

Even at 560 pages, A Life in Letters is a mere sampling of Orwell's entire correspondence. Davison is well placed to make the selections. As the editor of 2012's George Orwell: Diaries, as well as the twenty-volume Complete Works, he has done more than any other scholar to illuminate Orwell's life and works. Here in the letters we have an Orwell whose guard is down: a man rather than a saint, conducting his business affairs, plodding through Henry James, exchanging news with friends, and saying of Nineteen Eighty-Four, "I ballsed it up rather." The letters reveal that if Orwell was awkward, parsimonious, and reserved, he could also be mischievous, expansive, and very kind. As biographer Bernard Crick reports, one friend described him as gentle and "almost excessively mild." Another said, "He had a slow disarming sort of smile which made us feel that he was interested in us yet amused by us in a detached impersonal sort of way."

No volume can resolve the contradiction between Orwell's genial nature in person and his penchant for ferocity on the page — his impatience with fellow travelers and liars, and his over-fondness for broad, raking fire. He attempted his own explanation in a 1938 letter to the poet Stephen Spender:

[W]hen you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labor M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes and are lost forever more.
Orwell was a study in class confusion. No Eton graduate derived more pleasure from goat farming or carpentry. He learned to drop his aitches among the tramps and defied convention by wearing shabby and casual clothing — only partly from necessity. (Crick recounts the way he once asked a housekeeper to economize and "dye his khaki Home Guard shirts and beret black and the overcoat brown — despite her protests that it would make him look like a fascist. It did. He had no color sense at all.") Orwell spent his later years on the Scottish island of Jura and wanted very much to blend in with the local farmers. But they always thought of him as a visiting gentleman.

Yet this desire to transcend class — to rebel against the upper and sample the lower, even while despising the "filthy" bits — is related to Orwell's lifelong commitment, in both word and deed, to simple decency. "It has been on my conscience for a long time that you once sent me a pot of jam for which I never thanked you," he wrote one of his admirers. In 1946, once his books had begun to generate real income, he began repaying a £300 loan that an anonymous benefactor had made via intermediary in 1938. When he crossed messages with his publisher about trying to hire a secretary to type the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he only hoped that the candidates had not been put to any trouble. As he lay dying of tuberculosis, suffering agonizing lung treatments and quarantined from his beloved son Richard, he poignantly described his lodgings as follows: "it is a nice hospital and everyone is extraordinarily kind to me." It's in these moments one sees clearly the society, an imperfect but organic one, that Orwell was determined to preserve from totalitarianism.

One of Davison's best decisions in editing this volume was to include letters from Orwell's first wife, Eileen Blair. She is every bit her husband's match, and a droll and witty correspondent too. "A typewriter ribbon is the longest thing in the world," she wrote to one of her friends. "It will go round every chair leg in a good sized house. So I've just discovered." Eileen died during a hysterectomy operation in 1945, at age thirty-nine. Her final letters to her husband, who was working in Europe as a war correspondent, are heartbreaking. The last entry is an unfinished letter to him that she was drafting as she awaited the operation — she had already been prepped for surgery and was wheeled away mid- sentence. Orwell was stoic to an almost terrible degree after losing her. But his grief does come through occasionally. "Each winter I find it harder and harder to believe that spring will actually come," he wrote to the novelist Arthur Koestler on the first anniversary of Eileen's death.

Orwell has been canonized many times over: for his integrity; his early and decisive rejections of communism, imperialism, and fascism; his willingness to point out his own shortcomings and generally to "face unpleasant facts." For these achievements he is rightly considered one of the giants of twentieth- century letters. Yet this volume, coupled with the diaries, reveals underneath all the mythology a man who contended with illness and loss during a brief, hard life. That he wrote anything of value after Eileen's death is extraordinary. That he wrote literature of genius is something like a miracle.

Michael O'Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His reviews and essays appear in The Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

Reviewer: Michael O'Donnell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871406910
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 8/5/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 510,996
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903–1950) wrote fiction, journalism, criticism, and poetry. His nine books include the classics Animal Farm and 1984.

Peter Davison edited the twenty volumes of Orwell’s Complete Works (with Ian Angus and Sheila Davison).

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