Twentieth-Century Bluesby Kathy Smundak
by George Orwell
edited by Peter Davison
It is hard to write a review of someone’s diaries without it turning into a review of the diarist himself. The critic, ideally, is not in the business of reviewing the content of the writer’s character. But in the case of diaries, it is precisely the writer’s identity that is on display. And if the diarist has allowed himself to be completely honest, there’s not even a stylistic mask to hide behind. Thus George Orwell’s Diaries would presumably reveal any discrepancy between Orwell the essayist and Orwell the man. Indeed, at one point, the book’s footnotes, by editor Peter Davison, helpfully point out the difference between a scene recorded in Orwell’s diary and its later representation in The Road to Wigan Pier. Moreover, Orwell reveals his own editorial process: “Virtually all that I wrote was written at least twice, and my books as a whole three times—in individual passages as many as five or ten times.” His diaries are not, of course, subject to this treatment. Yet the overall lack of discrepancy between his essays and his diaries is perhaps the greatest insight into Orwell’s character.
May Deiner, with whom Orwell stayed during his travels and investigation of industrial England, describes him as “such a real man … He hadn’t much to say unless he was talking about his books or the things that interested him, about the depression.” Deiner wrote in “Orwell Remembered,” “And yet you felt the warmth there, you felt the concern.” Orwell’s diaries are a reflection of this empathy, which he steadfastly channeled into his work as a journalist and critic.
Orwell’s diaries are deeply steeped in the events of the time, such that a productive reading of his diaries necessitates Davison’s footnotes, which identify and contextualize the litany of historical events and public figures. Orwell does not merely record, he interprets, he explores—the world of the migrant worker, that of the Northern miner (his diaries written while fighting in the Spanish Civil War are lost, almost certainly locked away in the NKVD archive)—and in doing so combats a general tendency to be “utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests.” (I would be remiss not to note Orwell’s anti-Semitism. In an early diary, he encounters a Jew and his disgust is palpable; later, he notes that Jews always have a way of making themselves conspicuous. While these prejudices should be acknowledged, a reading of the diaries that takes away only this bias is a poor one.) That his diaries are a steady account of living conditions, salaries, prices, reactions in pubs, tallies of street conversations, and analyses of propaganda and newspapers, is a testament to the extent to which, for Orwell, the political was personal.
The personal, on the other hand, is hardly present at all. It is one of Davison’s footnotes, for instance, that informs the reader of Orwell’s father’s death. Orwell makes no mention of it. Perhaps the closest Orwell gets to anything resembling intimate information is his response to his wife’s push for his emigration to Canada in the case of Germany’s invasion of England: “I will go if I have some function […] but not as a refugee, not as an expatriate journalist squeaking from a safe distance […] Better to die if necessary […]Not that I want to die; I have so much to live for, in spite of poor health and having no children.” Orwell’s feelings of despair, helplessness, and frustration occasioned by governmental lies, a rigidly capitalist class structure (he makes a reference to the 99 percent a full 60 years before its popular usage), and the inefficacy of the war effort are barely a personal problem, but rather a concern about the fate of the entire nation. His diaries are not a chronicle of his relationship with his wife or his parents, but of his relationship with England, the British Empire, and the European continent.
Diaries also displays the rather personal relationship between Orwell and Davison, editor of all 20 tomes of Orwell’s Complete Works. Evidence of Davison’s utter devotion to Orwell litters the diaries. You could even read this book as a portrait of a very loving, if one-sided, relationship. Davison has an encyclopedic knowledge of Orwell’s life and his treatment of these diaries is meticulous. He dutifully notes, for example, Orwell’s whereabouts on days that are not accounted for. Between July and August of 1939, Orwell kept track of newspaper headlines pertaining to the impending war. On August 10, 1939, Orwell jots down, “Anti-Hitler jokes in Eggs.” Perhaps the epitome of Davison’s comprehensiveness is the following wholly endearing footnote to this item: “Eggs, the official organ of the Scientific Poultry Breeders Association, a weekly founded in 1919. Orwell had been corresponding with the Association about feed for his hens around July 26-27, 1939.” The work is, palpably, a labor of love.
Discussion of Orwell’s Diaries would be incomplete without mention of the most surprising revelation about their author: When he is not making trenchant sociopolitical commentary, Orwell is chronicling his hens’ capricious output, the myriad moods of his goat, Muriel—Animal Farm, anyone?—and clipping helpful gardening articles from newspapers. Yes, the man behind 1984 could also have doubled as a Good Housekeeping columnist. At times, this reading can be dreary. The preponderance of these domestic entries in the years leading up to World War II also raises questions about the writer’s political and social engagement during this period. Orwell’s confession, on June 4, 1940, that “since 1934 I have known war between England and Germany was coming, and since 1936 I have known it with complete certainty,” comes as a surprise given the absence of any such reference in diary entries during those years. But perhaps we can look for an answer in an entry dated March 4, 1941: “Crocuses out everywhere, a few wallflowers budding, snowdrops at their best […] Now and again in this war, at intervals of months, you get your nose above water for a few moments and notice that the earth is still going round the sun.” As a soldier, journalist, and critic, he often felt powerless. In gardening, he found an escape.