Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

George Orwell’s Letters, Essays, Journalism


Orwell 2I told my English teacher brother-in-law that I’d bought the four-volume 1968 edition of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, as edited by Sonia Orwell (volume 3 was unaccountably missing), and he glowed greenly with envy. ‘Tell me,’ he said ‘when you’ve finished reading them, if I need to stop hero-worshipping Orwell.’ He then demolished my status at the table as Top Literary Relative with a story about conferring with Philip Larkin before they attended Hull University’s Senate meetings, or something like that. (He was the student representative, Larkin was near retirement, but they seemed to get on.)

Dear brother-in-law, on the evidence of this collection I think you can continue to worship Orwell, but you might want to put on a stern face about his total lack of interest in what women think, say or do. Not that Orwell would care. These are fabulous volumes of his collected writing, and also include diaries and some scripts from Orwell’s radio broadcasts on the BBC’s Overseas Service to India during the Second World War. Orwell is honest, plain-speaking (plain-writing?), good-mannered in his business letters and scrupulously restrained in his letters of grumble (as opposed to letters of complaint). His default tone is ‘I bloody well WILL grumble though nothing will ever come of it’, and he is as hard-working and productive as writer as a man with creeping tuberculosis could ever be. Since we know that he’ll die before he’s 50, his reports and letters from the trenches and hospitals in the Spanish Civil War, from his damp and cold cottage, from London in the Blitz, have a strangely charmed effect: we know he’ll survive these, at least, but they still read dangerously.

Things I liked best:

  • Orwell’s eye for what people who were poor and unconsidered looked like, did and said. When he was working on the early shift at the BBC, he claimed that the sound of the massed ranks of charladies singing as they mopped the passages first thing in the morning was the only music the BBC had all day.
  • Orwell’s honest opinion about Stephen Spender and his poetry in print (rude, and dismissive), then explaining to Spender in a letter that that was because he hadn’t actually met Spender in person and would Spender like to do him a talk for the BBC?
  • Orwell’s eye for nature, spotting a heron flying over London’s Baker Street and a kestrel making a kill in the centre of Lord’s cricket ground. His remarks in his letters about what was and wasn’t growing well in his garden smack of the disappointed and possibly not very competent gardener, who feels passionately about the soil, but doesn’t understand its science.
  • The breath-taking nerve and risks that he took in his investigative journalism, only he didn’t really consider it as that, more as social research on the iniquities of capitalism. He was the original first-hand observer who slept in tramps’ dosshouses and picked hops for starvation wages in Kent.

The essays and letters and journalism are ordered chronologically, so, even though not every letter and essay and article is included (Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Diaries, and his edited letters: George Orwell: A Life in Letters are probably the best books to buy if you want everything Orwell wrote), they give a vivid sense of Orwell’s preoccupations and what kind of a person he was. I was also interested by Sonia Orwell’s editorship (with Ian Angus).

the fancy new edition

the fancy new edition

Sonia Orwell has been written about unkindly and kindly, and her gatekeeper role in Orwell’s literary legacy is summed up, I think, by her calling herself ‘Sonia Orwell’, when her married name was Mrs Eric Blair (Orwell was a pseudonym only, never his legal name). To use her late husband’s pen-name as her married name indicates a pretty firm grip on his life as a writer, which is, it is said, why she married him, in hospital. He died a few months later, and I hope she made his last months happy.  She’s certainly made many scholars and academics bitterly angry and upset because they couldn’t read what she thinks Orwell would not have wanted them to read, and she died in unhappy and impoverished circumstances because of this relentless upholding of his wishes. So, reading these volumes by looking for traces of editorial judgement was an interesting exercise in literary archaeology. Ian Angus was obviously the junior partner in their editorship in the late 1960s, so I assume that she took the lead, deciding what would be included and excluded, and what to explain in the footnotes, and the introductory material. The major omission in these volumes is that nowhere does it say anything about Orwell’s life before the first volume begins, not even his date of birth, or when he went to school. We begin with a few rather juvenile and uninteresting letters, and then into the deadpan horror of his essay ‘A Hanging’. His essays and long-form journalism are huge nuggets of richness in these volumes, but their length unbalances his short letters and slightly less short reviews.

Orwell is scrupulous in his reviews, speaking knowledgeably where he has knowledge, and saying bluntly that he can’t comment when he can’t. His review of Edith Sitwell’s study of Alexander Pope is the only attention he pays to a woman’s opinions in the three volumes I have: though I expect he listened to his first wife Eileen, his mother and his sister. This is perfectly normal for the period, but rather chilling to think about when wondering why and how Sonia Orwell did the editing.

George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1968).

Kate blogs two or three times a week at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

2 comments on “George Orwell’s Letters, Essays, Journalism

  1. Pingback: George Orwell the grumpy hard-worker | Kate Macdonald

  2. CJ
    January 18, 2016

    Thanks for this review. I am a big Orwell fan but have only gotten to read “selected essays” so I am glad to be able to anticipate so much more Orwellian pleasure.

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