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Orwell on Freedom

George Orwell, with an introduction by Kamila Shamsie
Harvill Secker


Orwell on Freedom, by George Orwell, with an introduction by Kamila Shamsie, Harvill Secker, £9.99, 201 pp, ISBN: 978-1787301405
Orwell on Truth, by George Orwell, with an introduction by Alan Johnson, Harvill Secker, £9.99, 197 pp, ISBN: 978-1787300521

“Such a shame, she was a good old stick” was George Orwell’s reaction, as reported by one acquaintance, shortly after he had learned of the death of his wife during what was supposed to have been a fairly minor operation. If we are charitable we will take this as a classic example of English understatement and stiff upper lip. Whatever the case, Orwell was soon on the hunt again. He was by no means well and knew he might not have long to live; he needed a companion, and particularly a mother for his infant son, Richard. It is believed that in the period after his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s, death he interviewed a number of women to see if they might be interested in filling the position that had become vacant. One of these was Anne Popham, whom he asked to marry him the day after meeting her for the first time at a literary dinner. She turned him down – though in the nicest possible way. He then wrote her a letter, half apologising for and half renewing his proposals. And then another one, which included this passage:

You are young and fresh and you have had someone you really loved (Popham’s boyfriend was killed in the war) ... If you still feel you can start again and you want a handsome young man who can give you a lot of children, then I am no good to you. What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.

That position, the widow of a literary man, eventually went to Sonia Brownell, whom Orwell married three months before his death in January 1950. Orwell’s fame, and the large earnings which were eventually to flow from it, came only at the end of his life, with the publication of Animal Farm and, particularly, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everything we know about him suggests that had he lived he wouldn’t have had much use for a fortune, being a man of rather extravagantly puritan disposition. His widow, however, was a more sociable sort and would certainly have known how to spend it, but, for reasons which remain obscure she doesn’t seem to have seen all that much of her late husband’s money and died, in relatively poor circumstances, in 1980.

Copyright on the Orwell or Brownell estate does not run out for a few years yet (January 2021) and in the meantime there seems to be very little fall-off in the appeal of the brand. The latest publications, two short, attractively produced anthologies of his writings arranged around the themes of freedom and truth come with short introductions from the Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie and the former Labour Party minister Alan Johnson.

Shamsie is measured in her valuation of Orwell (in contrast to the characteristically hyperbolic endorsement, from the late Christopher Hitchens, that appears as a blurb on the Truth volume – “Orwell told the truth”). She is not happy about either his relative equanimity over the fact that much British wealth derived from colonial exploitation, or his attitudes towards women. But she concludes that this is

never reason not to read him, or not to praise his contributions to the novel, and to intellectual life. He serves as a reminder, in this age of anger and offence, that the presence of a contradiction or a limitation is hardly reason to dismiss or denounce a writer’s work.

Orwell’s notion of truth led him, in a letter written in 1937, to complain about the “frightful lies” (and there probably were lies) being told by the left-wing press in England about the Spanish Civil War. It was desperately necessary, he wrote, to get people to “see through the humbug that is talked about ‘fighting against Fascism,’ or the next thing we know we will find ourselves fighting another imperialist war (against Germany) ... and then another ten million men will be dead before people grasp that Fascism and so-called democracy are Tweedledum and Tweedledee”. Just a few years later Orwell’s perception of the truth had changed so radically that he was desperate to serve in the war that in 1937 he had warned against. Not only that, but he expressed himself particularly annoyed by those fools who kept saying that fascism and bourgeois democracy were at bottom pretty much the same thing.

Alan Johnson is on the money when noting the absurdity of Orwell’s nostrum (in “Why I Write”) that “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality”. There is evidence to suggest that Eric Blair’s personality was on the whole a rather mild and kindly one, but the famous essays written by George Orwell are chock-full of personality – and it is a cocksure one that some people, then and now, have found hard to take. However, even where the judgments are dodgy and the condemnations unfair, the Orwell essay was always a tour de force and remains, as Johnson, who first encountered him at school, reminds us, a great introduction to the activity of thinking about politics. These two robust and handsome anthologies of short extracts can be read with pleasure by everyone but would make a great present in particular for a young person who will soon be of voting age.