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George Orwell: A Life in Letters

George Orwell: A Life in Letters

by George Orwell

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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


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).

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.

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Liveright Publishing Corporation
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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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