Reviewing the recently released Orwell: A Life in Letters, David Pryce-Jones bizarrely calls the question “a puzzle that none of his biographers or critics have been able to solve.” His own answer? That a “sense of enjoying unfair advantages was enough to make rebels of a good number of Eton scholars,” including Orwell, which led to the “social masochism” that Pryce-Jones goes on to describe:
In the intensive effort to be déclassé, he well and truly put himself through it. Changing his real name of Eric Blair to George Orwell suggests the manufacture of a new and different personality fit for writing. A disturbing glee emerges from the accounts he gives of the hack journalism and flawed novels he is obliged to publish, all the while sinking lower and lower among down and outs. Cheap housing, grime and dirt, bad smells, and horrible duties in a kitchen are to him what country house settings and their trappings were to Jane Austen. Describing how close to death he was at one point in a Paris hospital, he makes sure that the reader is more attentive to the slumminess of the ordeal rather than the fact of his survival.
Uncomfortable and deprived of basic amenities, the houses he lived in were riddled with health hazards to someone with chronically weak lungs. Wherever he settled in the countryside, he set about growing vegetables and raising hens—Was this out of a genuine feel for nature, or role-playing about being poor and needy? Did he enjoy fishing for the sport, or because it is supposed to be how English proletarians spent their leisure time? As to money, he wrote to his friend the social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, “it will always be hand to mouth as I don’t see myself ever writing a best-seller.” Meeting up with him, [Cyril] Connolly was appalled that hardship had left “ravaged grooves that ran from cheek to chin” on his old school-friend’s face.
And, of course, he died far too young of untreated bouts of pneumonia that all but destroyed his lungs. But Pryce-Jones, I think, is being absurdly obtuse. There’s no mystery here at all. Orwell made it plain why he was a socialist in countless articles and reviews and books.
He viewed capitalism as horribly predatory for the poor and cared about them; he believed that ending private education could reduce all the quotidian cruelties that a rigid class system entails; he felt that only socialism could truly face down fascism; he was still naive enough to want to abolish the stock exchange because he wanted an economy that benefited the many and not the few; he passionately supported a robust welfare state on the lines of the post-war Labour government out of a patriotic love of his fellow countrymen and women. He despised Toryism, privilege and jingoism in all their manifestations. He was also, of course, a serious anti-Communist, which is why some now on the neoconservative right cannot fathom him.
Above all, I think, he believed that class numbed people to the lives of their fellow citizens. It wasn’t masochism that prompted him to slum it in London and Paris; it was a desire to understand what was actually going on by living more fully on the margins and writing about it with candor and freshness. His project was the fore-runner of the new journalism, as well as so much else. I don’t share Orwell’s socialism a bit, even though it is much more understandable from the viewpoint of someone surviving the 1930s and the war than it would be today. But I love him despite that, even as I read him in my Thatcherite teens. Because he was so much more than ideology. And so much more than just a writer.
Previous Dish on Orwell’s letters here.