Gavin Freeguard interviews George Orwell’s son, Richard Blair for the Orwell Youth Prize – Freeguard was the first administrator of the Orwell Prize.
[Our anniversary articles have identified the stylistic similarities between George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying and his bleaker and better known Nineteen Eighty-Four. Professor Douglas Kerr of Hong Kong University points out more disturbing connections between the two in the real world now]
When Gordon Comstock, in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, went to work in a bookshop, he thought he had entered a profession where the worst danger he might encounter was being bored to death. But people in the book trade in Hong Kong today face quite different hazards.
What would Orwell have thought of the saga of the Hong Kong booksellers? We can be pretty sure, at least, that he would not have been surprised. The “Hong Kong booksellers” in question are five men associated with the Mighty Current publishing house, and its retail shop, Causeway Bay Books. Lui Por was general manager of Mighty Current, Cheung Chi-ping its assistant general manager, and Gui Minhai one of the principal shareholders. Lee Po was co-owner of Causeway Bay Books and Lam Wing-kee was the shop’s manager. In October 2015, they started to disappear; four during travel to Thailand or southern mainland China but Lee (a British citizen, also called Lee Bo in British press reports) from Hong Kong itself.
It seemed that Orwell’s words in Nineteen Eighty-Four had come true: ‘…there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared… ‘.
On 17th January, Gui (who vanished from Pattaya) appeared on state television in China, in tears, saying that he had had a crisis of conscience, and had turned himself in for breaking the conditions of a two-year suspended sentence he had received after a drunk-driving offence on the mainland in 2004, in which a person was killed. Another letter from Lee to his wife was now published, in which he referred to Gui’s “complicated history” and called him “morally unacceptable”.
The following day, at last, Chinese authorities confirmed that Lee was detained on the mainland. In another letter, Lee asked the Hong Kong police to drop their investigation of his disappearance. Cheung, Lui, and Lam appeared on Phoenix TV at the end of January, to admit they had distributed unlicensed books on the mainland.
No doubt there will be further developments in the case. It has attracted a good deal of attention worldwide, which China habitually rejects as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs. The Hong Kong government, after making some ineffectual noises, fell silent. Various patriotic Hong Kong citizens told the press that Lee’s explanation had cleared everything up, and it was right that the booksellers should be investigated and punished if they had done something wrong. But it is not easy to maintain a faith that China respects the rule of law in Hong Kong, in the light of what seems to have happened to Lee and his associates.
Causeway Bay Books has closed down. Mighty Current publishing house seems to have been sold. In fairness it should be pointed out that Mighty Current was not exactly a purveyor of works of idealistic political theory. They specialized in gossipy and often scurrilous books about celebrities, principally powerful figures in China.
Perhaps we are too free in using the word “Orwellian”. Still, readers of Orwell may feel that many of the features of this case ring a whole symphony of Orwellian bells. In conclusion, I would just draw attention to one. It has to do with truth. When Orwell came back from Barcelona in 1937, he felt that both political forces and the press had lied so regularly, comprehensively, and shamelessly in the interests of propaganda, that it might never be possible for the truth about the Spanish War to be recovered. Truth is a casualty in the affair of the Hong Kong booksellers too, though in a different way.
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, most people believe the lies the telescreen tells them about the government’s achievements and victories, and the benevolence of Big Brother. In the case of the booksellers, however, there appears to be a further level of cynicism. A shoddy and ludicrous version of events is served up to the public. Do you believe it? Of course not. But the thing is, it doesn’t actually matter if you believe it or not. Causeway Bay Books has closed down. Mighty Current publishing house seems to have been sold. Case closed. Please return to your homes quietly.
As for poor Mr Lee, he wants us to know how well he has been treated and how civilized the mainland enforcement agencies are. Yes, he loves Big Brother.
[With thanks to Oliver Chou of the South China Morning Post. More coverage at http://www.scmp.com/topics/hong-kong-bookseller-disappearances]
A fuller version of this article can be found using the following link:
Members who have enjoyed this series of articles might be interested to know that our forthcoming Journal contains an article by Sylvia Topp, who is currently working on a biography of Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy. The article titled Orwell in Love shows how he may well have based the character, Rosemary, in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, on her.
By Richard Young
In 1945 George Orwell reviewed his career and wrote notes to his literary executor: two of his novels should never be republished. The first was A Clergyman’s Daughter. The other was Keep the Aspidistra Flying (‘Aspidistra’) which he described as a ‘silly potboiler’ he should never have written. By 1945 Aspidistra had already sunk without trace: it had been published by Gollancz in April 1936 in an edition of 3,000 copies, although only a few more than 2,000 copies were ever sold (see the illustration of the first edition). Gollancz had had no reason to reprint it, Orwell had stopped Penguin issuing it in paperback, and his agent had been unable to place the book with US publishers.
In the end, of course, Orwell’s wishes were ignored, and the book was re-issued after Orwell’s death by Secker & Warburg in the Uniform Edition in 1954, and published in the US by Harcourt in 1956 – a full twenty years after the first UK appearance.
Today, like all of Orwell’s major works, it remains in print.
When judged against Orwell’s more famous works, Aspidistra is very obviously not up there with Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia or Nineteen-Eighty Four. It is, however, a lot better than a ‘silly potboiler’, and even gave rise to a film version in the 1990s released under both its original title and as A Merry War. So why was Orwell so set against reprinting it?
One reason is that Aspidistra went through a difficult publication process, and Orwell was never happy with the end result. The reason for this was that the newly established publishing house of Gollancz had gone through some unpleasant legal proceedings in the early 1930s, and they were very keen to avoid further risks of libel or defamation arising from their publications. Aspidistra was a minefield in this regard, as the story was filled with advertising slogans and product names, some of which were real, although most were made up by Orwell. Even some of the made up slogans and products were thought too similar to real life products and slogans for comfort.
The result was that Orwell was forced to make several rounds of changes to the book and later apparently regarded the final version as ‘garbled’. Indeed in a letter to his agent before Aspidistra was even published he described the Gollancz text as ‘mutilated’.
Peter Davison has documented the changes in his notes to the Collected Works edition of Aspidistra, where using the Gollancz correspondence files and notes, he sought to recreate the original text as far as possible. Much of the correspondence between Gollancz and Orwell on the textual changes took place whilst Orwell was in North West England undertaking the ground work for The Road to Wigan Pier in early 1936. The surviving letters and correspondence can be found in Volume 10 of Davison’s Collected Works. The level of irritation Orwell felt about the process can be gleaned from a telegram he sent to Gollancz from Wigan on 19th February 1936 when he said ‘Absolutely impossible make changes suggested would mean complete rewriting am wiring agent’. Nevertheless he did supply another whole list of changes five days later in a letter sent on 24th February.
Davison gives around 30 changes in the notes to the Collected Works edition, although several of them are repeated at various points in the text e.g. the slogan ‘Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex’ which appears in the first edition, replaced ‘Roland Butta enjoys his meal with Bovex’. The Collected Works edition reinstates ‘Roland Butta’ at the appropriate places. It will be noted that the replacement ‘Corner Table’ has the same number of letters as ‘Roland Butta’, and this was something Orwell tried to do each time, as Gollancz were keen not to have to re-set the novel. It was not always possible, though, for Orwell to do this.
I was able to add slightly to Davison’s restoration work a few years ago by comparing a proof copy of Aspidistra against both the published Gollancz edition, and Davison’s restored Collected Works edition. The full results of this comparison (along with a similar one for A Clergyman’s Daughter) were very kindly included by Davison as an appendix in his book Orwell – A Life in Letters, published in 2010.
The proof copy in question (see illustration) is probably from quite a late stage in the publication process, as some of the changes required of Orwell, and noted in his various letters responding to requested changes, had already been incorporated into it. Quite a number of the original passages now restored by Davison were present in this proof however, such as the ‘Roland Butta’ example quoted above.
Nevertheless there were some differences between the proof and the final Gollancz edition, representing last minute changes which had not previously been identified, and which were not included in the Collected Works edition.
The following examples in bold are the main extra changes which it has now been possible to restore as a result of examining the proof:
The hotel where Gordon Comstock
(Presumably somebody worked out
Flaxman, the first floor
‘Rose of Sharon
‘Queen of Sheba Toilet
Flaxman sells lipstick called:
(This is much funnier and why it was changed is
lost to history)
Mr Cheeseman’s library on
‘Have a Camel’
This was the last actual advertising slogan surviving in the book, but it was excised at the last minute. It goes after the first ‘Flick, Flick’ on page 262 of the Collected Works edition or page 302 of the first edition.
The paragraph of advertising slogans on page 263 of the Collected Works edition (page 303 of the first edition) had many re-writes and changes of order, and probably represents one of the main examples of the changes that were made. Davison partly restored this text, but the proof version is still different, as the comparison between proof and Collected Works shows:
a Highbrow? Dandruff is the
With the above it is quite difficult to be absolutely sure which is the nearest to Orwell’s original, as the proof had undergone some changes already, but I am fairly sure that the proof version is the closest, if only because the ‘Night starvation’ slogan is quoted in full in the proof version.
Of course the version published by Gollancz for this paragraph incorporated a number of changes which Orwell was forced to make on the fly, and it is quite different again as will be seen below:
‘Get that waist-line back to normal! She said ‘Thanks awfully for the lift,’ but she thought ‘Poor boy, why doesn’t somebody tell him?’ How a woman of thirty-two stole her young man from a girl of twenty. Prompt relief for feeble kidneys. Silkyseam – the smooth-sliding bathroom tissue. Asthma was choking her! Are you ashamed of your undies? Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps. Now I’m schoolgirl complexion all over. Hike all day on a slab of Vitamalt.’
Many of the above changes were agreed by Orwell in his letter of 24th February 1936, so it is clear that the proof must pre-date that letter.
Orwell must have been pleased to get all of this out of the way, as his letters at this time show the frustration he felt about the whole process, which undoubtedly coloured his later opinion of Aspidistra and his decision not to reprint it. With the changes restored by Davison, together with the few extra textual discoveries in the proof, we are now, however, much closer to his novel as Orwell wrote it. As we celebrate the eightieth anniversary of the first publication of Keep The Aspidistra Flying I am sure that this would be something that Orwell would very much appreciate. He might even withdraw his claim that it was a ‘silly potboiler’.
By M.G. Sherlock
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
If those words seemed familiar to some readers in 1949 it may have been because they had a faint recall of something similar by the same author:
‘The clock struck half past two… The ding-dong of another, remoter clock–from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street–rippled the stagnant air.’
Those were the opening words of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell’s third novel, published in April 1936. He later disliked it and would not have it reprinted. But it is as rewarding as any of his books.
Gordon Comstock, the protagonist, is an angry young man who pre-dates John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter by twenty years. The style is racy and lively and like all Orwell’s work, compulsively readable. Its structural similarity to Nineteen Eighty-Four is striking, though little noticed by critics: both stories feature a misfit who despises his job and hates the times he lives in, both have scenes of countryside lovemaking, police cells, and visits to prostitutes (and both open with clocks striking!). Both men have, or had, sisters who were in some way ‘sacrificed’ to them. Though the grimness of Nineteen Eighty-Four makes Aspidistra seem almost light-hearted, both Comstock and Winston Smith surrender in the end to the status quo.
The tone throughout tends to self-pity (the adjective ‘beastly’ is over-used) but is relieved by the vitality wit and mordant observation which show Orwell’s other side. (He notes, among many other observations, the seasonal variations in the rubbish in London gutters. and the beauty of the winter woodlands around Burnham Beeches). And when Gordon and Rosemary reject the idea of abortion and marry, this becomes the only Orwell novel with a sort of ‘happy ending’.
Gordon’s dreary life is cringingly well depicted; the dingy digs with nosy landlady, the constant near-poverty and sense of personal worthlessness it brings. The rejection of his poems by snooty magazines (and when eventually he gets a fat cheque for his work, he squanders it all on a drunken night in the West End). Boredom makes Comstock wish for war – until his reconciliation with lower middle-class values, when he no longer wishes to see suburban streets blasted by bombs. Interestingly, Orwell’s next novel Coming Up For Air is pervaded by fear of the looming Second World War. By then he’d been to Spain, had personal experience of fighting and being wounded, and knew it wasn’t nice.
Comstock’s works as an assistant in a Hampstead bookshop. Apart from low pay, tedium, and having to cope with cranks and timewasters who visit the shop. He does not give an impression of actually hating the job. Orwell may not have wished to leave too negative a taste as his own time in an identical position may have been the making of him as a writer. He had written Down and Out in Paris and London and complained that he couldn’t get it published. Mabel Fierz, who with her husband knew Orwell from holidays in Southwold and had helped him with London accommodation, thought that she would try to have it published. By her own account she ‘badgered’ the literary agent Leonard Moore to read Orwell’s manuscript. Moore took it on, had it accepted by Victor Gollancz, and Orwell’s career was launched. ‘He was thrilled, of course,’ Mrs Fierz remembered, ‘He had no idea it had even been taken to the agent’.
Aspidistras come and go throughout the book. Gordon tries unsuccessfully to kill one in his lodgings, but ‘the beastly things are practically immortal’. The landlady of his considerably more squalid room in Lambeth brings him one as a goodwill gesture (‘Hast though found me, o mine enemy?’) And at the end, the extent of Gordon’s capitulation is shown when he buys an aspidistra for their marital home, even when Rosemary emphatically doesn’t want one.
On his own admission, Orwell was not a ‘real’ novelist but had a wealth of personal experiences which he simply dressed up as novels. Had he lived longer, though, he might have come to recognise the virtues of his early works, disputing the later critical opinion of them as rather shambolic test-runs. Eighty years on, this novel has hardly dated at all and will undoubtedly find new admirers in the future.
By Lorcan Greene
‘The clock struck twelve. Gordon had stretched his legs straight out. The bed had grown warm and comfortable. The upturned beam of a car, somewhere in the street parallel to Willowbed Road, penetrated the blind and threw into silhouette a leaf of the aspidistra, shaped like Agamemnon’s sword.’
This passage, taken from the second chapter of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and set in a room whose model can still be found in modern-day Hampstead, resonates distinctly with the beginning of Orwell’s novel:
‘The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon – Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already – lounged across the table, pushing a four-penny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb. The ding-dong of another, remoter clock – from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street – rippled the stagnant air’.
This ‘remoter clock – from the Prince of Wales’ is still to be seen, at Hampstead’s South End Green, sited in the gable above the White Horse pub . The clock survives thanks to a public appeal launched in 1998 to fund its preservation.
The impoverished Comstock yearns for a drink there, when so strapped for cash he is unable to afford one; later in the novel, when his luck turns and he has a fifty dollar cheque from the Californian Review in ‘a stout blue envelope with an American stamp’ for a poem he had written, ‘he strolled into the Prince of Wales for a bite of food. A cut off the joint and two veg., one and twopence, a pint of pale ale ninepence, twenty Gold Flakes a shilling. Even after that extravagance he still had well over ten pounds in hand – or rather, well over five pounds. Beer-warmed he sat and meditated on the things you can do with five pounds.’
WARWICK MANSIONS, 37 POND STREET, N.W.3:
‘Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop’ was modelled on the second-hand bookshop ‘Booklovers’ Corner’, across the road from the pub and the clock (on the west side of South End Green), where Orwell worked and above which he lived for six months. It was Orwell’s aunt, Nellie Limouzin, who secured for him this first Hampstead job and residence: through her work in the Esperanto movement, she knew the owners of Booklovers’ Corner, Francis and Myfanwy Westrope. The couple also owned Flat 3 in Warwick Mansions (alias 37 Pond Street ), one of three apartments above the shop, each occupying a whole floor of the L-shaped block and accessed by a splendid wide internal staircase at the rear. It was in the top-floor flat where Orwell occupied a room from October 1934 to March 1935 free of rent (according to Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: a Life).
Orwell worked in the bookshop during the afternoons, leaving him free to spend mornings and evenings writing in his ‘dim furnished room with its view of the backs of the row of shops in South End Road’ (Stansky & Abrahams’ Orwell: the Transformation). In fact, the top floor of Warwick Mansions  would have offered Orwell some wonderful views: eastward, beyond the drinking-fountain on South End Green, and its tram (now bus) terminus to the east London skyline; and north towards the greenery of Hampstead Heath, rising beyond Keats Grove , a road featuring as ‘Coleridge Grove’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
BOOKLOVERS’ CORNER, 1 SOUTH END ROAD, N.W.3:
It was in his lodgings here that Orwell wrote much of Keep the Aspidistra Flying; he shared rooms with Jon Kimche – a future editor of the weekly magazine Tribune – and Kimche worked the morning shift in the shop. In a letter to Brenda Salkeld written from Booklovers’ Corner on 16 February 1935, Orwell wrote: ‘My time-table is as follows: 7am get up, dress etc., cook & eat breakfast. 8.45 go down & open up the shop, & I am usually kept there until about 9.45. Then come home, do out my room, light the fire etc. 10.30am – 1pm do some writing. 1pm get lunch & eat it. 2pm to 6.30pm I am at the shop. Then I come home, get my supper, do the washing up & after that sometimes do about an hour’s work.’ As reported by John Thompson in his Orwell’s London, the bookshop was described by one customer as ‘a gloomy cave of a place’, though it had an ‘exceptionally interesting stock’ according to Orwell himself. The best record of Orwell’s Booklovers’ Corner days is his short 1936 essay on the subject, aptly entitled Bookshop Memories .
No. 1 South End Road remained a bookshop until the mid-1950s and, indeed, Bernard Crick recounts having bought books there himself as a student, just after the Second World War. Since then, however, it has undergone a series of transmutations, becoming firstly the Prompt Corner Café, where for many years earnest patrons could be seen through plate-glass windows, enjoying a game of chess while drinking strong Greek/Turkish coffee. The café, sadly, closed in 1983, to become a takeaway pizza parlour named The Perfect Pizza. By 2007 it was one of the Hamburger Union outlets, before metamorphosing in 2009 into its present incarnation as a branch of the Belgian artisan bakery chain ‘Le Pain Quotidien’.
31 WILLOUGHBY ROAD N.W.3:
In the novel Comstock has a bed-sitting room at 31 Willowbed Road, N.W.; Orwell based this location upon Willoughby Road N.W.3. As Ed Glinert states in Literary London, ‘Both DH Lawrence and George Orwell had bad memories of this street with its tightly packed houses. Although a desirable address now, on account of the lack of redevelopment and the influx of money, the street and much of the area was quite shabby between the wars when Lawrence and Orwell knew it.’ According to Glinert, Lawrence had stayed at 30 Willoughby Road in 1926 when quite ill; it was his last visit to London.
Orwell wrote that ‘Willowbed Road, N.W., was not definitely slummy, only dingy and depressing. There were real slums hardly five minutes’ walk away…but Willowbed Road itself contrived to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class decency. There was even a dentist’s brass plate on one of the houses. In quite two-thirds of them, amid the lace curtains of the parlour window, there was a green card with “Apartments” on it in silver lettering, above the peeping foliage of an aspidistra.’ He describes the hallway of Number 31 as smelling of ’dishwater, cabbage, rag mats and bedroom slops.’ An estate agent currently values 31 Willoughby Road N.W.3 at a conservative £2,200,000.
One passage set in Willowbed Road stands out particularly for its treatment of the novel’s titular plant: ‘It was beastly cold. Gordon thought he would light the oil lamp. He lifted it – it felt very light; the spare oil can was also empty – no oil till Friday. He applied a match; a dull yellow flame crept unwillingly round the wick. It might burn for a couple of hours, with any luck. As Gordon threw away the match his eye fell upon the aspidistra in its grass-green pot. It was a peculiarly mangy specimen. It only had seven leaves and never seemed to put forth any new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it – starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence. Gordon stood up and deliberately wiped his kerosiny fingers on the aspidistra leaves.’
KING OF BOHEMIA PUBLIC HOUSE:
The jolly Flaxman, Comstock’s fellow lodger, spends a lot of time in the Crichton Arms, or ‘Cri’ in its abbreviated form. This public house was based upon the King of Bohemia pub, 10 Hampstead High Street N.W.3, which is unfortunately no longer with us: it was closed in 2003 and turned into a retail outlet thereafter. In one exchange, where Comstock is entreated to visit the pub, Orwell writes:
‘Flaxman had reached the bottom of the stairs. He threw a roly-poly arm affectionately round Gordon’s shoulders.
“Cheer up, old man, cheer up! You look like a bloody funeral. I’m off down to the Crichton. Come on down and have a quick one.”
“I can’t. I have to work.”
“Oh, hell! Be matey, can’t you? What’s the good of mooning up here? Come on down to the Cri and we’ll pinch the barmaid’s bum.” – not a practise which would be looked favourably upon in any of the area’s modern drinkeries.
KEATS GROVE N.W.3:
Orwell would have been aware that on one celebrated occasion Coleridge and Keats had met on Millfield Lane, N.6 – also known as ‘Poets’ Lane’ – on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath. It was the poets’ sole meeting. This chance encounter took place between 1818 and 1820, when Keats lived in Wentworth Place (subsequently Keats House) . Coleridge was the more senior and renowned, being twenty-four years older than Keats. The house and gardens inspired Keats to write On Melancholy and Ode to a Nightingale among other poems. Keats died in Rome in February 1821, aged 25. According to Keats’ friend Charles Brown he wrote Ode to a Nightingale under a plum tree in the garden, which still houses a Black Mulberry tree very likely to have been there in Keats’ day.
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying Comstock is invited by the critic Paul Doring, who lived in ‘Coleridge Grove’, to a literary tea-party:
‘Coleridge Grove was a damp, shadowy, secluded road, a blind alley and therefore void of traffic. Literary associations of the wrong kind (Coleridge was rumoured to have lived there for six weeks in the summer of 1821) hung heavy upon it. You could not look at its antique decaying houses, standing back from the road in dank gardens under heavy trees, without feeling an atmosphere of outmoded “culture” envelop you. In some of those houses, undoubtedly, Browning Societies still flourished, and ladies in art serge sat at the feet of extinct poets talking about Swinburne and Walter Pater. In spring the gardens were sprinkled with purple and yellow crocuses, and later with harebells, springing up in little Wendy rings among the anæmic grass; and even the trees, it seemed to Gordon, played up to their environment and twisted themselves into whimsy Rackhamesque attitudes. It was queer that a prosperous critic like Paul Doring should live in such a place. For Doring was an astonishingly bad critic.’
Ed Glinert suggests Doring is partly based upon the critic Geoffrey Grigson, editor of the New Verse poetry magazine, who lived at no. 4a Keats Grove in the 1930s.
SOUTH END GREEN PLAQUES:
There is a plaque at South End Green commemorating the writer’s time at Booklover’s Corner, paid for by private contributors (apparently including Margaret Drabble) and unveiled in 1969 on the site of the former bookshop by his second wife Sonia Brownell, by then remarried and divorced [7a]. Featuring a portrait head of Orwell, this plaque was replaced in 2001 by a near replica, funded by the South End Green Association and others [7b]. The unveiling ceremony involved Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair, the actress and then Labour MP Glenda Jackson, and the playwright Alan Plater (who wrote the screenplay for the 1997 film version of Keep the Aspidistra Flying). Sadly, however, in 2010 Orwell’s head portrait mysteriously disappeared from the plaque, leaving it quite literally defaced [7c]. Newspapers at the time speculated that it may have been vandalised, though in an email Richard Blair informed me that he believed ‘the one done in 2001 … was subject to corrosion’. Fortunately, in October 2014 the face was restored [7d], paid for by the Orwell Society.
In February 1935 Orwell left Warwick Mansions where he had written most of Keep the Aspidistra Flying; he took a room at 77 Parliament Hill NW3 , where he completed the novel. It was first published by Victor Gollancz Ltd. on 20 April 1936, eighty years ago this month.
If anyone would like to read more about Orwell’s time in the area please access this link:
By Loraine Saunders
Orwell certainly thought the answer to the above question was ‘yes’. He wrote, ‘There are many reasons, and George Gissing’s novels are among them, for thinking that the present age is a good deal better than the last one.’i
Despite the gloomy atmosphere pervading Gissing’s novels, he was Orwell’s favourite novelist and Orwell drew heavily on Gissing’s work, although, significantly, would not have his own novels end on a negative note in the way Gissing’s do.
In this short essay I would like to show how Orwell deliberately wrote in a more optimistic vein than Gissing. However, I must be selective and so here will concentrate on Orwell’s female characterization to show how he believes relationships between men and women to have improved since Gissing’s time. Of that period, Orwell wrote:
People who might … have been reasonably happy chose instead to be miserable, inventing senseless tabus with which to terrify themselves. Money was a nuisance not merely because without it you starved; what was more important was that unless you had quite a lot of it … society would not allow you to live gracefully or even peacefully. Women were a nuisance because even more than men they were the believers in tabus, still enslaved to respectability even when they had offended against it. Money and women were therefore the two instruments through which society avenged itself on the courageous and the intelligent (GG, CW, p. 348).
When writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell was greatly influenced by Gissing’s New Grub Street, and while there are many similarities between the central characters, Orwell does not provide narrative sympathy for the self-imposed struggles of his failing poet, Gordon Comstock particularly where women are concerned. This is unlike Gissing who gives wholehearted authorial support for the trials of his battling writer, Edwin Reardon.
Gordon Comstock spends a good deal of his time blaming lack of money for all his woes including what he perceives to be his failing courtship, but Orwell takes care to show that Gordon has a warped viewpoint. Here is part of a conversation between Gordon and his wealthy friend, Ravelston on the subject of women:
‘Of course women are a difficulty’, [Ravelston] admitted.
‘They’re more than a difficulty, they’re a bloody curse. That’s if you’ve got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you’ve got no money.’
‘I think that’s putting it a little too strongly. Things aren’t so crude as all that.’
Gordon did not listen. (KTAF, p. 103)
The narrative intrusion, ‘Gordon did not listen,’ is put there intentionally to demonstrate how perversely determined Gordon is to keep his ‘crude’, prejudiced outlook. It is abundantly clear in the book that Gordon is absurd to think this of women because his girlfriend, Rosemary, is always charming to him and tries her best to rally him. She is no slave to social taboos and does not punish Gordon for his lack of money, the fate that is suffered by Edwin Reardon at the hands of his emotionally cold wife, Amy. Happily, by the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon has come to see all this for himself and his future is one of maturity and hope.
I cannot go deeper here but my book, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from Burmese Days to Nineteen Eighty-Four (Ashgate 2008) provides detailed narrative analyses regarding the ways in which Orwell was influenced by Gissing even though he would write in an entirely more positive manner because, as stated at the beginning, he saw a good deal to celebrate in his own time.
i) Orwell, ‘George Gissing’, The Complete Works, vol. XIX, pp. 346-52 (p. 347).
George Orwell’s third novel was published by his established publisher, Victor Gollancz, on April 20th 1936. He had previously published Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter: but while those two novels were based on his own experiences, Keep The Aspidstra Flying had a protagonist, Gordon Comstock, who seemed much more like Orwell himself. Orwell, though, had never presented himself and his experience directly in any of his books up to that time; even his memoir Down And Out In Paris And London reversed the order in which he had experienced those cities; and Keep The Aspidistra Flying was never a thinly disguised autobiography. In addition, Gollancz feared Britain’s dubious and exploitative libel laws and made Orwell change even more of the detail.
Americans had to wait twenty years, until 1956, before it was published in the USA. That is, most readers would have been aware of Orwell through Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Animal Farm (1945) before they read this novel.
In 1936 the book received reviews from William Plomer in The Spectator, an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, Kenneth Macpherson in Life And Letters Today, and Cyril Connolly in the New Statesman and Richard Rees in Adelphi. These can all be found in Jeffrey Meyers’ George Orwell: The Critical Heritage: there must have been more. Connolly and Rees were friends of Orwell but the others were not, so the attention his novel received cannot be regarded as literary log-rolling.
By the time Keep The Aspidistra Flying appeared in the USA Orwell’s name, his themes, and the subjects he dealt with were all much better known. Henry Popkin’s review in Commonweal (again in Meyers’ collection) makes Orwell’s prescience as a social critic clear:
‘But now, in 1956, the various arms of mass culture are amalgamating. Gordon’s bete noire, the advertising industry, has expanded its operations. Over here [in the USA], in addition to running election campaigns, it supervises television entertainment for many of the people who used to frequent Gordon’s shabby haven, the lowbrow lending library. A Gordon Comstock in our decade would be much more overwhelmed by the extensive operations of the advertising world; he would propbably find fewer alternatives to sustain him before he fell back into the waiting arms of the mass media.’
Orwell’s friend and memoirist, Tosco Fyvel, made much the same point in his George Orwell: A Personal Memoir (1982), written long after Orwell’s passing.
The novel was filmed in 1997, with Richard E Grant as Comstock, from a script by Alan Plater (who had written the BBC’s 1984 biographical The Crystal Spirit: George Orwell On Jura). The softer, alternate title A Merry War indicates a problem found by some reviewers: the poverty had been ‘cleaned up’. Mike Batt composed the soundtrack, later reworking it as a three part orchestral suite: both are available on a single CD.
Gordon Comstock appears to have some aspects of Orwell, but the differences display Orwell’s inventiveness: unlike Comstock, Orwell had never worked in advertising; it is unlikely he had ever walked through the door of such an office; and yet he instinctively knew how it worked, and he also knew how it failed.
Nor did the friends and flat-mates with whom he lodged or shared digs in the 1930s ever suggest that he was the owner of an aspidistra himself. This should not surprise us, for as he wrote elsewhere, ‘Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?’
Wikipedia entry for Keep The Aspidistra Flying:
Richard Blair is a patron of the Orwell Society and Eric Arthur Blair’s son.
Eric Arthur Blair is the real name of the writer George Orwell, one of the voices for this issue.
Richard has read your posts about freedom, privacy and safety, find out what he had to say.
Dear Burnet News Club members.
I have been asked to address some of your concerns about the freedom and privacy that you might experience in your daily life whilst using the internet; ie how safe are you? Not only from official surveillance, but also from those who pose a threat, such as terrorists.
When my father, George Orwell (real name was Eric Arthur Blair), went to fight in the Spanish Civil War at the end of 1936, he went to fight on the side of the republicans against the fascists and was wounded, thus having to leave in June 1937. During this time he discovered how the communists were manipulating the people in Spain through lies and deceit. The fascists were doing very much the same, but he was aware of that before he went to fight. In his book, Homage to Catalonia, he sets out to give an honest account of what he saw.
On Saturday the 19th March, Eleanor and I attended the last evening of an amateur production of George Orwell in Cranham. A play written by a team of eight writers and overseen by the village archivist, who had decided two and a half years ago to write and perform a play about Orwell’s life, which included his time at Cranham Sanatorium. Sadly this T.B. hospital no longer exists, but the village is still very much aware of its existence and that Orwell had been treated there before moving onto UCH in London in the autumn of 1949. As an aside, Eleanor and I were also invited to have supper with the lady, who owns the house that I had spent 5 weeks during the summer of 1949, visiting my father. In those days it was owned by a Lillian Woolf, who was involved with anarchist movement and the Freedom press.
Back to the play, which was performed in a series of 12 short scenes, starting with Orwell lying on a stretcher, apparently dead after being wounded in the Spanish Civil War. From there we go back to his childhood and move through his life, ending with his time at the sanatorium and into the final three scenes of a dream sequence as his health deteriorates towards death.
The whole play was researched with meticulous care and the scenes acted out with surprising professionalism by the cast, who were all drawn from the village. This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and the cast were very appreciative of my visit as it gave them something to aim for. The hall was packed to capacity, about 120 people coming to see the play. For an amateur production, the villagers had worked extremely hard to get it right and it showed. A cracking good night out.