THOUGHTS ON: George Orwell: A Life in Letters

by George Orwell, Peter Davison (Editor)Orwell Cover

Born at the start of the 20th century, George Orwell was a complex character who lived through tumultuous times. He was foremost among the great intellectual writers and thinkers of his day, renowned for tackling issues like poverty, totalitarianism and the surveillance state, and is today most widely remembered for two novels: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Throughout his life Orwell was a great letter writer. Fortunately for us, many recipients kept his correspondence, thus enabling Professor Peter Davison, an ex-president of the Bibliographical Society, to select and annotate an extensive assortment from private collections.

Orwell didn’t write an autobiography – in fact he wasn’t at all keen on the thought of a biographer poking around in his life – so this volume from Penguin Modern Classics, along with The Orwell Diaries (published in 2009), has been of great significance to Orwellian scholars and historians of the period.

As a correspondent he was prone to be formal, even when writing to friends, and he went to great trouble always to reply, even during times of ill health – often composing complicated missives to people he barely knew.

Some of his comments seem eerily pertinent to modern anxieties, such as those over fake news and unprincipled media magnates:

“…the most elementary respect for truthfulness is breaking down, not merely in the Communist and Fascist press, but in the bourgeois liberal press which still pays lip-service to the old traditions of journalism. It gives one the feeling that our civilization is going down into a sort of mist of lies where it will be impossible ever to find out the truth about anything.”

Letter to Charles Doran, 26th November 1938

While this collection is undoubtedly compelling to Orwell enthusiasts (myself included), it will perhaps be less fascinating to those with only a passing interest in the man and his works. If you count yourself among the latter, I would suggest you read Jeffrey Meyers’ authoritative 2001 biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, which is both readable and well-researched. After which, you may well decide to move on to the Letters and Diaries.

Orwell lost his long-running battle with tuberculosis on 21st January 1950. However, his insightful essays, polemical journalism and often controversial fiction has continued to stimulate debate and enthral each fresh generation up to the present day. This collection of his letters offers an absorbing insight into the thoughts of an intensely private man.

“I always disagree […] when people end by saying that we can only combat Communism, Fascism or what-not if we develop an equal fanaticism. It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but on the contrary by using one’s intelligence.”

Letter to Sir Richard Rees, 3rd March 1949

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11 replies

  1. Very pertinent quotes you’ve chosen, but then much of Orwell is still pertinent, now as ever.

  2. “It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself…”

    Wise counsel that many need to hear these days!

  3. Great review! George Orwell is a very unique person, I really enjoy his works but I feel like I’m more of a person with a passing interest in him, so this book might not be for me. The biography you mentioned however, looks wonderful!

    • I think you need to be quite a committed reader of Orwell to wade through the entirety of Letters, although some people probably dip into parts of the collection. I read Wintery Conscience when it was first released in 2000 and thought it very good – probably one of the best. Anyhow, hope you find it interesting should you decide to read it.

  4. So nothing is ever so new as it seems. “The mist of lies” that hides the truth (as Orwell saw it). This recalls Philip Roth’s quotation about writing fiction in the sixties (which I recently posted on “Dactyl Review),” about how American reality “stupefies, sickens, infuriates,” how it is an embarrassment to the fiction writer, who is trying to make it credible. Nathaniel Rich comments on this, “it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now.” Then again, I lived through the turmoil of the sixties in the U.S., and to me this was even worse than The New Age of Trumpery.


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