How appropriate that the political moralist George Orwell (1903-50) should be published by a company called Liveright! Orwell, who despised every form of careerism, instinctively gravitated to the kind of quiet rural existence that we associate with ancient Greek philosophers or Anglican clergyman of the 18th century. Certainly, these diaries reveal that the author of “Animal Farm” was happiest cultivating his garden, observing the weather, enjoying the beauty of spring flowers and watching over the health of his hens.
These days, there are many reasons “Why Orwell Matters,” to recall the little book by the late Christopher Hitchens, who introduces “George Orwell Diaries” (and whose name on the cover, in an instance of bad taste, is significantly larger than that of the editor, Peter Davison). Orwell is a saint of journalism, a major satirical novelist, a master of the modern essay. Nonetheless, even the heartiest Orwell aficionado is likely to find these diaries a letdown. Apart from perhaps 100 good pages, they are repetitive, relatively trivial and surprisingly dull.
Orwell’s surviving diaries begin in the early 1930s, when he was tramping around England, sleeping rough and picking hops and going down mines and generally chronicling the life of the poor. One night, he writes, “it came out that of about fifteen people round the fire, everyone except myself had been in prison.”
While staying in working-class Wigan, Orwell happens upon a woman, “youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. . . . At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen.” As Davison reminds us, Orwell expanded this entry into a noted passage of “The Road to Wigan Pier,” but diminished something of its emotional sharpness.
All this is, obviously, terrific material, and compulsively readable. So, too, are entries such as this early one, for Aug. 27, 1931: “At about eight in the morning we all had a shave in the Trafalgar Square fountains, and I spent most of the day reading Eugenie Grandet .” This last is a short French novel by Balzac, and Orwell the hobo adds that it “was the only book I had brought with me.” (It seems an odd choice for a man trying to pass as a Cockney.) Orwell goes on:
“The sight of a French book produced the usual remarks — ‘Ah, French? That’ll be something pretty warm, eh?’ etc. Evidently most English people have no idea that there are French books which are not pornographic. Down and out people seem to read exclusively books of the Buffalo Bill type. Every tramp carries one of these, and they have a kind of circulating library, all swapping books when they get to the spike [i.e. workhouse].”
In such a passage, one detects the first sign of Orwell’s fascination with popular culture, a fascination that led to the groundbreaking essays on seaside post cards (“The Art of Donald McGill”), pulpy crime fiction (“Raffles and Miss Blandish”), the adventure stories of childhood (“Boy’s Weeklies”) and the genius of Rudyard Kipling and P.G. Wodehouse. Unfortunately, this is virtually the only time that Orwell even mentions a work of literature. You would never know from the subsequent diaries that he read anything except seed catalogues and newspapers.
As pointed out in the introduction, the diaries kept during the time Eric Blair — Orwell’s real name — was fighting in the Spanish Civil War are now either lost or reposing, forgotten, in some governmental archive. So there are no pages here presenting the raw material for “Homage to Catalonia.” Instead, a typical entry from the late 1930s — for “Domestic Diary Volume I,” when Orwell was living in the village of Wallington — reads: “Raining most of the day, & cold. 14 eggs.” A typical entry from “Domestic Diary Volume II” is a tad livelier: “There was evidently some rain during last night. This morning overcast & rather chilly, then from 4-6 in the afternoon heavy rain.” Entries from the “Diary of Events Leading Up to the War” are, by comparison, almost angst-ridden: “Very windy, & raining lightly most of the day. Too wet to do anything outside.” These agricultural reports are only occasionally interrupted by short summaries of world events, taken from the wireless or newspapers.
Once hostilities with Germany break out, Orwell grows more interesting again. He describes the Phony War, the Blitz and the declining morale of the bomb-weary Londoners, and he quotes news, rumors and absurdities from the newspapers, such as this letter written by Margot Asquith, Lady Oxford: “Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining . . . in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.” Comments Orwell, confirming his flair for prophecy: “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exist.”
Throughout the diaries, Orwell regularly displays a copy editor’s passion for exactness and accuracy: “I have seen no bomb crater deeper than about 12 feet.” He records the first uses of the word “blitz” as a verb. He acidly calculates that there are “still 2,000 racehorses in England, each of which will be eating 10-15 lb. of grain a day. I.e. these brutes are devouring every day the equivalent of the bread ration of a division of troops.”
Eventually, the sickly Orwell lands a job as a “Talks Assistant in the Overseas Service of the BBC,” where he broadcasts propaganda. The work is demoralizing: “I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.” After two years, he resigns for medical reasons, the war ends, his wife, Eileen, dies unexpectedly and he moves to a small island of the Inner Hebrides called Jura.
In the later 1940s, Orwell works on “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — about which the diaries say virtually nothing substantial — and he goes back to digging in his garden, counting his eggs and fishing. Entries once more assume a familiar cast, as with this one for April 13, 1947: “Fine all day, but colder than yesterday.” Perhaps these observations about the weather ultimately inspired the chilling first sentence of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Right up to the end, Orwell kept recording the life around him, down to the clinical details of his hospital care for tuberculosis. He died in 1950 from a burst artery in his lungs. He was 46.
If you’re a fanatical, make that truly fanatical Orwellian, you’ll want to pick up this expertly edited and annotated edition of the writer’s diaries. Anyone else would do better to reread “Down and Out in Paris and London” or a good collection of Orwell’s wonderfully astringent essays. Some books are less equal than others.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
Edited by Peter Davison
Liveright. 597 pp. $39.95