I’ve made all this money… and now I’m going to die: Terrified of annoying Stalin, lily-livered British publishers almost ditched Animal Farm. It made TB-ridden George Orwell rich — but not for long
BOOK OF THE WEEK
ORWELL: THE NEW LIFE
by D. J. Taylor (Constable £30, 608pp)
George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four came within a whisker of never seeing the light of day.
Severely ill with TB in the winter of 1947, the skeletal 44-year-old author told his publisher Fred Warburg that, in the event of his death, he must destroy the unfinished manuscript without showing it to anyone.
Then, suddenly, with death looming, a frenzy took hold of him to get the book finished. Propped up in bed with a typewriter on his lap in his rain-lashed cottage seven miles up a dirt track on the Hebridean island of Jura, coughing up blood, hacking his lungs out, chain-smoking and breathing the fumes of a defective paraffin heater, he bashed out a finished copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four came within a whisker of never seeing the light of day. George pictured in 1943
This is the novel that would give the world Big Brother, doublespeak and Room 101, and which foresaw with incredible clarity the totalitarian surveillance societies of the future.
It was set in a dystopia in which, as D.J. Taylor puts it in this excellent biography, ‘the past is only useful, or even tolerated, if it does the present’s bidding’. (Sound familiar?)
That ‘typing orgy’ worsened Orwell’s condition. From that moment on, his life would be a steady descent from sanatorium to hospital to a deathbed marriage to Sonia Brownell, to death a few weeks later in January 1950.
He would not live long enough to see the novel’s astonishing and abiding success, which Sonia would curate and guard. ‘I’ve made all this money and now I’m going to die,’ he remarked with understandable moroseness, in one of his final conversations.
He nearly wasn’t ‘George Orwell’, either. Born Eric Blair in 1903, he toyed with various literary pseudonyms, including ‘Kenneth Miles’, ‘P. S. Burton’ and ‘H. Lewis Allways’. His eventual choice (thank goodness) was inspired by the River Orwell, near where he grew up in Suffolk with his conventional parents whom he classified as ‘Lower Upper Middle Class’.
Socialist though he was, ever-keen to divest himself of the trappings of his upbringing by living among the down-and-outs and unemployed in Paris, London and Wigan, he could never shake off the snobberies he’d absorbed during his upbringing and schooling at Eton. In a Wigan slum where he lodged, he was shocked to find ‘the beds not done till five in the afternoon’.
Taylor was already the acknowledged expert on George Orwell, thanks to his Whitbread Award-winning Orwell: The Life in 2003. Since then, he has discovered new letters written by Orwell and his first wife, Eileen, stashed away in various attics, hinting at previously unknown interludes, such as his possible extra-marital love affairs with his old flame Brenda Salkeld, to whom he continued to write passionately long after his marriage, and with the novelist Inez Holden — hence this New Life, 120 pages longer than the first one.
It’s a tour de force of documentary evidence combined with decades of thinking about every facet of the author who fascinates him. Having read both versions, I now feel as if I’ve lived every second of Orwell’s life, twice, and that I’ve been so up close that I’ve caught his germs and smelled what one friend of his described as ‘the faint sweetish smell coming from his mouth’. Yuck.
In this updated biography, Taylor takes us even closer into Orwell’s inner life, though he stresses that the extent of his affairs will never be known.
He quotes a heartbreaking comment Eileen made in her final letter to her husband, just before she had an operation for a tumour while he was away in Paris that was going to cost 40 guineas. She would die on the operating table.
Born Eric Blair in 1903, he toyed with various literary pseudonyms, including ‘Kenneth Miles’, ‘P. S. Burton’ and ‘H. Lewis Allways’
‘What worries me,’ she wrote, ‘is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.’ Had Orwell stamped on and wiped out her self-esteem to that extent? When he first met her at a London party, she was a promising young PhD student, but she gave it all up to become his wife, helpmate and skivvy. The nicest comment he ever made about her was that ‘she wasn’t a bad old stick’. But he was devastated by her death, so he clearly had loved her dearly.
Both Eileen and Orwell were ill for most of their married life, in their freezing, damp accommodation. Being shot in the neck while fighting with the Republican POUM (communist party) militia in Spain during the Spanish Civil War didn’t help Orwell’s future health.
As Taylor writes, he had a habit of lighting a cigarette and smoking it as he stood leaning against the parapet of the trench. This proved an irresistible target for a nationalist sniper. His height of 6ft 4in saved his life; ‘an average-sized Spaniard would have been shot in the head.’
He never looked after himself properly. Back home in their damp cottage in Hertfordshire, one evening, when Eileen was going out, she left shepherd’s pie for him in the oven and some eels on the floor for the cat. When she came home, the pie was untouched and Orwell had eaten the eels.
Though in some ways fastidious, Orwell was at his happiest in shabby cords in his muddy smallholding, looking after his goat, planting potatoes, harvesting blackberries and relishing every detail of the wildlife.
This is the novel that would give the world Big Brother, doublespeak and Room 101, and which foresaw with incredible clarity the totalitarian surveillance societies of the future
That ‘typing orgy’ worsened Orwell’s condition. From that moment on, his life would be a steady descent from sanatorium to hospital to a deathbed marriage to Sonia Brownell (pictured), to death a few weeks later in January 1950
George pictured with his adopted stepson Richard Blair in 1946. For most of his working life, Orwell was a jobbing hack, earning £3 a week, bashing out brilliant but not lucrative articles, essays and novels as he coughed and smoked
More strongly than ever, in this New Life, Taylor gives us a flavour of Orwell’s delight in both nature and the company of children. There’s a charming description of his stint as headmaster of two small prep schools, taking the boys on nature rambles to trap marsh gas in jam jars.
Unable to conceive their own child, he and Eileen lavished affection on their son, Richard, whom they adopted in 1942.
The important thing to remember about Orwell was that he wasn’t famous until four years before he died. Animal Farm (published in 1945) was the making of him; that, too, nearly didn’t see the light of day, as British publishers were terrified of annoying Stalin with such a devastating allegory of communism.
For most of his working life, Orwell was a jobbing hack, earning £3 a week, bashing out brilliant but not lucrative articles, essays and novels as he coughed and smoked.
There was no one to beat him when it came to conveying the working conditions of hop-pickers, prisoners, restaurant workers and miners. Taylor suggests, though, that a lot of Orwell’s material was stage-managed and burnished. He did like to pile on the woe.
Of Wigan, he only wrote about the poverty and filth. He also had a way of comparing working-class things to quite grand items from his own world: a man’s face was like ‘roquefort’, and belching chimneys were like ‘Burgundy bottles’.
Sometimes, Taylor gives us too much information; this book is very long, at 540 pages, and I could have done without the incident in which Orwell dropped a tray of eggs to the floor and they all broke.
I didn’t need to know, yet again, about his ‘negative sputum count’, which appears in both versions.
But there’s no doubt that if you read this definitive book, you’ll almost feel you’ve been George Orwell himself.
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