Diaries have always been a record of what the writers feel, not just what they see and do. Whether it is the overwhelmingly intimate confidences of a Virginia Woolf or the more event-packed memoirs of Pepys and Boswell; the I, and the I’s emotions lie at their heart. Inwardness is the point, largely.
Inwardness is entirely not the point in the dozen diaries kept at different times by George Orwell, and now collected in a single volume by his longtime editor Peter Davison. It is what is outside that he sets down; rigorously, exclusively. If there are dozens of dozens of notes about weather and egg production on the crofts he worked, in a retreat from his London life; and daily citations of war and political developments from the newspapers, there is no mention of his father dying, only an occasional reference to his wife and intimate partner Elaine, nothing about her death or his grief over it; no account of the intimate struggles of writing his books (other than once or twice noting that he was on a second draft of “1984.”)
And so: no “I am?” To the contrary: “I look, therefore I am.” Or at least a writer’s “I am”; the writer who insisted on grounding the spacious and biting thoughts of his essays as well as the prophetic imaginings of his novels upon facts, not just collected but painfully undergone. For him the unobserved life was not lived; and reading the farm journals that compose half of this massive volume, with their planting, fertilizing, setting of a scythe, pulling a cow out of a ditch, it can seem that if Orwell died at 56 of consumption, he lived — by the sheer number of things he records — twice as long as his life. Immortality for this religious skeptic was lived facts (followed by the imaginative and polemic use he made of them.) And each account of the seeming bucolics of stacking barley or trapping a fish has a touch of darkness to it, odd equivalent of one more bead in the rosary of a dying believer.
The hundreds of pages of farm journals can seem repetitive and overlong. Many of the other journals, though, are richly rewarding, even if much of their material found its way into Orwell’s published work. His wartime diaries, written in London, give a notable account of his political evolution. His passions at first are radical; he hopes that the trauma of war will lead to a social revolution. He denounces the ruling establishment as secret sympathizers with Fascism and Nazism, if only from hatred of Communism; and ascribes the early military setbacks to its lack of a will to fight (Churchill, he allows, is a partial exception). He deplores the failure to be as unscrupulous as the Germans; “People don’t have scruples when they are fighting for a cause they believe in.” We are not to take this altogether seriously; or in fact we are, but only in the sense that Orwell’s truths crept forward contradiction by contradiction; his was the crabwalk of one who wrote entirely by conviction and never let himself be captured by his own.
The dogmatism of the left, though, also repelled him. He excoriates its early pacifism (which ends when Hitler attacked Russia), and writes that “If you accept government you accept war, and if you accept war you must in most cases desire one side or the other to win. I can never work up any disgust over bishops blessing the colors of regiments, etc. All that kind of thing is founded on a sentimental idea that fighting is incompatible with loving your enemies.” And in a vintage Orwellism¸ he continues: “Actually you can only love your enemies if you are willing to kill them in certain circumstances.”
There are all manner of striking details and observations — among themthe bourgeois attitudes of themine union’s officials, and the prodigious quantity of meat at even the poorest miners’ tables.
Two of the early diaries number among Orwell’s brilliant investigations by ordeal. There is a buoyant account of picking hops with a variegated bunch, some of them drifters, others farm workers for whom hop picking, hard as it was, represented a vacation from the ordeal of their regular jobs. Orwell writes of the work, of the vagrant lives of his fellow pickers — one woman told him of sleeping next to a sow to keep warm — and above all of their companionship and generosity. One of the young pickers recites a poem; and Orwell sets down the reaction in a wonderfully delicate sentence. “The others did not laugh at him much.”
The cheerfulness of the hops diary contrasts with the darker diary of life with the coal miners, source for “The Road to Wigan Pier.” (Davison, the editor, had the genial idea of comparing equivalent passages; the diary exerpt is fresher and more vital than the book, extraordinary as that is.)
There are all manner of striking details and observations — among them the bourgeois attitudes of the mine union’s officials, and the prodigious quantity of meat at even the poorest miners’ tables — as well as a brilliant description of Orwell’s ordeal crawling through the mine shafts.
Though he does not set down his work on particular books, Orwell does write an account of failing powers during his long, ultimately fatal stay in hospitals:
“You realize what a deterioration has happened inside your skull. At the start it is impossible to get anything on to paper at all. Your mind turns away to any conceivable subject rather than the one you are trying to deal with, and even the physical act of writing is unbearably irksome. Then, perhaps, you begin to be able to write a little, but whatever you write, once it is set down on paper, turns out to be stupid and obvious. You have also no command of language, or rather you can think of nothing except flat, obvious expression: a good, lively phrase never occurs to you.”
It is the most poignant, and the most personal passage in the diaries. Their massive seining of facts was, after all, in service to his writing; and here we see the light starting to fade. No emotion expressed, of course; only careful looking and recording.