George Orwell: A Life in Letters and Diaries
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A new Folio Society collection gives a unique insight into the life of George Orwell, and shows his devotion to north west London: Hampstead to Regent’s Park, Marylebone to St John’s Wood
“Orwell, what he said, what he wrote and what he stood for, remains astonishingly alive. The man and his writing are a vital point of reference in uncertain times, a touchstone,” says Peter Davison in the introduction of his edited collection, George Orwell: A Life in Letters and Diaries. Peter Davison OBE is the foremost authority on the life and works of Orwell, and this Folio Society book is his thirty-first volume devoted to the writer, completed with photographs, sketches and letter scans.
Born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India where his father worked for the civil service, he returned to England to attend Eton, before joining the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma. He became disillusioned by authority and left the force in 1927, deciding instead to travel England and explore poverty, observing and living as a tramp.
He worked as a teacher and in a bookshop, wrote articles for periodicals and began to make his mark as a writer.
In a letter to his literary agent, Leonard Moore in 1932, he contemplates his penname.
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“As to a pseudonym, the name I always use when tramping etc. is P.S. Burton, but if you don’t think this sounds a probable kind of name what about Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, H. Lewis Allways.
“I rather favour George Orwell.”
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As a bookshop assistant in Hampstead, Orwell lived in the flat above, where he wrote Keep the Aspidistra Flying (about a struggling poet living and working in a bookshop), and was loath to leave after only a few weeks, praising the landlady as “the non-interfering sort, which is so rare among London landladies”. Relocating to Kentish Town, he met his wife Eileen and married her the following year.
He writes in a letter to a friend: “She is the nicest person I have met for a long time. However, at present alas! I can’t afford a ring, except perhaps a Woolworth’s one.”
Correspondence and diary entries tell us a great deal about his experiences and opinions on current affairs. He wrote a letter to the editor of The Times in which he chastises the UK government’s decision to retaliate against Germany for chaining up British prisoners by doing the same: “It is unquestionable when one thinks of the history of the past ten years that there is a deep moral difference between democracy and Fascism, but if we go on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth we simply cause that difference to be forgotten.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t published.
His entries could be long and detailed, with descriptions of walks he had taken in the north of England and speeches he had heard, such as an account of his dismay at Oswald Mosley (British Union of Fascists) winning over the crowd. Other, pithier entries read simply “planted nasturtiums” or “fine, not very hot. One egg”.
Chapters are dedicated to his time abroad, joining the Spanish Civil War effort and year living in Morocco, where he wrote Coming Up For Air, and to service in the Second World War, when he was entered on a register for writers. During this time, he lived at various addresses in NW London: Dorset Chambers, Regents Park, Chagford Street, Marylebone, and Langford Court, St John’s Wood, and continued to write, but the “money situation” had become desperate.
The latter part of the book details his work at the BBC and the writing of Animal Farm and his struggle to get it published - “it is bad taste to attack the head of an allied government in that manner” and later, Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as the tragic demise of his wife and her heartbreaking final letter, which ends mid-sentence as she was wheeled into the operating theatre. His second marriage to Sonia Brownell and death soon after wrap up the biography, with his funeral beside Regent’s Park.
This is a deeply personal insight into the life and legacy of one of our most celebrated literary figures, and the closest thing we will find to an autobiography.
The Folio Society edition of George Orwell: A Life in Letters and Diaries is available exclusively from www.foliosociety.com