George Orwell is best known as the author of “Animal Farm’’ and “1984.’’ That is unfortunate, because he was more talented as a journalist and essayist than as a novelist. (Reading his less famous novels will support this contention). All aspiring writers should read Orwell’s nonfiction, which has been compiled in various forms here and in his native England.
Doing so will reveal his unequalled capacity for independent thought, clear prose, nuanced views, sound political judgment, and unfailing moral commitment.
Those virtues are present in “A Life in Letters.’’ Extracted from more than 1,700 pages by leading Orwell expert Peter Davison, the correspondence contained in this book is directed to friends, family members, colleagues, and strangers. The best of it shows that Orwell had as brilliant and attractive a mind in private as he had in his published writing.
Contemplate this response to a correspondent who asked why Orwell’s writing was more complimentary about him after the two met. “Even if when I met you I had not happened to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet anyone in the flesh you realise immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas,” replied Orwell. “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 & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.”
Orwell’s letter simultaneously reveals candor, self-awareness, and an insistence on personal integrity. So many Washingtonians become co-opted and compromised by powerful figures in exchange for receiving access and flattery from their subjects. Orwell knew this temptation and deliberately counteracted it.
Orwell, WHO GREW UP MIDDLE CLASS, also had the rare ability to identify with members of the working class without romanticizing them. “The intellectuals who are at present pointing out that democracy and fascism are the same thing etc. depress me horribly,” he writes in one letter. “However, perhaps when the pinch comes the common people will turn out to be more intelligent than the clever ones.’’ But in another letter, he laments that “the working class in England and France have absolutely no feeling of solidarity with the coloured working class” in poor countries. He never condescended to the people he loved, subjecting them to the same scrutiny that he employed when writing about the upper class.
At other times, the writer’s less admirable qualities are evident here. He generalized about whole peoples, speaking at various times about “the Arabs” and “the Jews” as if these groups were monolithic entities devoid of variance and complexity. The best that can be said in his defense is that oversimplifications of this kind were nearly universal at the time.
Letters about Orwell written by his intimates — his first wife, especially — are included in this collection. Indeed, many of the letters focus not on Orwell’s writing but on his personal life. Much of it emphasizes his health, which was usually poor and led to his death at the young age of 46. These details humanize a great author. But they are repetitive and make for far less engaging and lasting reading than the many letters he wrote that illustrate the evolution of his political, social, and artistic thought but are absent from this book. Interested readers will have to look for other collections, released in Britain, that contain those valuable pieces.
Davison edited Orwell’s 20-volume “Complete Works’’ as well as his “Diaries,’’ published in the United States last year. He knows as much or more about Orwell than any other person, but in editing this book he made the regrettable decision to prioritize Orwell’s letters that disclose details of his personal life over details about his artistic choices. Almost nothing here, for instance, shows evidence of a creative process. Anyone hoping to discover how Orwell wrote “1984’’ or “Homage to Catalonia’’ will be disappointed.
Multiple biographies of the man have more insights into Orwell than does “A Life in Letters.’’ As it stands then, this book is purely for Orwell completists. And even they will be left with the feeling that they would have been better off reading one of the many terrific collections of Orwell’s nonfiction.