Review of A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
By: Michael A. Arnold

Lockdown has been a strange experience, hasn't it? My sleeping schedule has become so badly affected, for one thing, that I am genuinely worried about returning to normal life after all this. To help myself along, and keep myself occupied, I have given myself a few projects. One of these projects has been forcing myself do regular exercise, another has been rereading the monolithic (1,400 pages total) collection of George Orwell's essays published by Everyman Library. It has been a good companion during this very strange time, and if this collection does not have all of Orwell's essays it has basically all of them.

Over the past few weeks I've have read this huge book while cooking, while working out, or while doing something generally important — and through heavy use its leaves are now yellowed and its thick cover is marked by things like mud, paint (I think), and some olive oil stains. There will be people who will probably hate me for saying something like this, but I think Orwell is one of those writers where it is somehow appropriate to beat up his books through a lot of use. As a writer, so often characterised by his subjects: downtrodden people struggling against society in one way or another — be it the penniless poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the hopeless (literally, he is without hope) Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty–Four, or the working class and unemployed people found in the pages of his non–fiction books, or the soldiers in his memoir Homage to Catalonia about the Spanish Civil War, where he fought and was shot in the throat. His books are often explicitly political, but about people living in a world of austerity or war, or both — so they often have this grimy atmosphere that makes beating them up a bit fitting, I think.

He is also one of those writers who has a kind of cult about him. It is common to hear of people reading him to learn how to write a style of journalism that cuts through any kind of pretence, almost as if he is some kind of prophet or was somehow just born with an ability to see the truth behind a wall of government lies. Politics aside for a moment, Orwell has 'a voice' in his essays that is unmistakably his own, and it's a voice that feels somehow very familiar. When you read enough of him it can almost feel like you actually know him in a personal way, and it starts to feel a bit like a letter from a friend who often has something interesting to say. Like a good, earnest friend with something important on his mind, at no point as you read him do you feel like he is talking down to you, or trying to be too clever and show off, which is the impression you can sometimes get from writers. Orwell is always writing with the attitude that if you are a reasonably intelligent person then you should be able to completely understand whatever he is saying. This is as true of his essays describing working class life or English cooking as it is when he is discussing more highbrow subjects like Marxist literary theory or left–wing philosophy, and various other things too numerous to fully list here. During the course of Orwell's journalistic career he penned thoughts on basically every subject, from book reviews, to actually being a book reviewer, to thoughts on war, nationality, poverty, and propaganda, to essays on toads, childhood memories, and how to make a good cup of tea. Not all of these essays will appeal to everyone — he wrote a lot defending Englishness, and as a dedicated coffee drinker who despises tea, I could not have cared less about his essay on brewing it, but the range of Orwell's writing and the keen interest he took in the world is one of the things that makes his writing so interesting.

The critic Lionel Trilling once said that the best thing about Orwell was that he was not a genius, but instead he shows what people can do with a bit of honesty, some facility with words, and a bit of courage. Through novels like Nineteen Eighty–Four, or essays like 'Politics and the English Language', Orwell's name has become synonymous with an almost violently passionate attempt to expose the abuses of big government, totalitarianism, or critique the power structures of the elite — those nameless owners of society who are so often referred to as 'they'. However, it is important to not romanticise Orwell and his writings, or treat him like some kind of guiding light for democratic socialism, or freedom, the poor, or writers, or anything else he might have championed. We have to remember that Orwell was a person, and writing in a very specific time and place. A lot of his essays and observations are now obviously outdated: the poor in the UK probably do not exist in only a handful of pounds a week (in Orwell's day it was shillings, but the point is they had so frighteningly little) to spend on food, Britain no longer claims India as a colony either — and Orwell repeatedly condemns British rule there, and it is now generally well known that homosexual acts are not uncommon in prisons — but Orwell writes about it as if it is a shocking secret he is helping to expose. Such essays have become social documents — perhaps more useful to a historian than a modern day leftist looking for critiques of society.

Orwell was no saint however. He can be quite dismissive of certain things, like vegetarians, and makes comments that if said today would be quite questionable. He was very much a person of his own time. Also, when Orwell talks about himself (something he rarely does, it must be said) it would be naive to take everything he writes as absolute fact. His long autobiographical essay 'Such, Such were the Joys' paints a rather bleak picture of his education at St. Cyprians', an English public school (this is the British term for private school, to avoid any confusion). Throughout the essay Orwell relates how he was beaten as a very young boy for wetting the bed, or so he learned Latin and Greek properly. He even says at one point that he is not sure a person could learn Latin or Greek without being beaten — to emphasise that the cruelty he is describing is so institutional in those schools you could not have one without the other. Spread throughout the essay are scenes in cold locker rooms before playing rugby or football on cold and misty winter days, and long lessons on History and Classics that are preparing the boys for entrance exams into places like Eton that Orwell describes as very tedious — and all while being underfed, surrounded by filth, and being basically bullied by the tutors into thinking he was inferior. A lot of writers have written about the British public school system over the years; while some of it is very flattering, a lot more paints it as very grim and really quite disturbing, but in Cyril Connolly's memoirs (who went to St. Cyprians' at the same time) he remembers the young Orwell actually enjoying himself a lot, more than this essay implies – and took issue with a few of the things Orwell wrote. This is not to say that Orwell is to be doubted exactly, but just because he wrote something does not mean it should be unquestionably believed. He also has a strange habit of making conclusions based on what seems like very little evidence or gut feelings. A few times during the book he asserts that the typical English person has no great respect for art or aesthetics compared to other European countries, and has an interest in plants out of an unconscious loss of country life, just to give some examples.

But it must also be stressed that his writing is marked by a very genuine honesty. You might not agree with everything Orwell says, but he respects you enough to tell you his own opinions. Only one example should be enough: during his review of Mein Kampf, he says that he has never been able to personally dislike Hitler, and actually the really dangerous thing is that there is something morbidly attractive about him. How else, Orwell argues, could a leader continue to be supported despite only promising hardship, struggle, and nightly bombing. This obviously does not mean Orwell was in any way sympathetic to Nazism or Fascism, but he is writing frankly about the truth as Orwell saw it.

This frankness is key to his essays, and it is why they are still so enjoyable to read. As the years continue to pass, and we get further and further away from his time, more and more of Orwell's writing can look like, for example, Charles Dickens (incidentally, there is a great essay in this collection about Dickens). You wouldn't read Dickens to understand something of contemporary politics, and more and more that is happening to Orwell too, but there are still some very useful arguments and examples here that we would be unwise to forget. Britain has abolished the death penalty for example, but it is still probably worth reading 'A Hanging'. These days the poor are not sent to workhouses, but it is still worth reading an essay like 'The Spike', and we still should worry about art being used as propaganda, or the manipulation of language so the public are mislead, or when controversial things are made to sound more respectable, so it is very worth reading 'Politics and the English Language', or 'The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda' — especially in this era of fake news.

Despite any criticisms I could make of individual essays in this collection, I must admit that I am still a fan of Orwell's writing. While a lot now might not be, a few of his essays still seem not only relevant but even perhaps contemporary, which is impressive because at least a few of the essays here are not far from being one–hundred years old — the newest essays are about seventy. There are a number of collections of Orwell's essays out there now, and some of them are really well edited — but if you want a really full and comprehensive view of his journalism then the Everyman Library collection Essays is perhaps the best place to go, and it comes in a very beautiful hardback, even though mine has now been worn with use.