Peter Davison: Regarding Orwell

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Part Four (II): Regarding Orwell

On 8 September 1981 the late Tom Rosenthal, then the boss of Secker & Warburg , rang me and asked if I would be prepared to look over his publisher’s forthcoming edition of Orwell’s ‘nine books’. He was sure there was not much that needed amendment but had been advised by Ian Willison and the late Barry Bloomfield that he should ask me to check the nine books against nearly fifty extant editions and manuscripts for publication in his proposed de luxe edition scheduled, somewhat incongruously, to celebrate 1984. Although I had been involved in the main in editing the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries I had also some modest experience of twentieth-century literature in particular having contributed to sections on book production and distribution, and on newspapers and magazines, to Volume 4 (1900-1950) of The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (1972, cols 35-130 and 1329-1408) which Willison had edited. I had just under a year in which to complete this task and it would involve a fair amount of travel to London to check editions more readily found there than in Canterbury where I was teaching at the University of Kent. I said I was interested and Tom asked me how much I would expect to be paid. Urged on by my wife I took courage in my hand and asked for what seemed to me the inordinately large sum of £100 for each of the nine titles. Then realising that Tom was unfazed by such a modest request as he saw it, added, ‘And an extra £100 if all the checking was completed on time’. Tom agreed and I did deliver on time – in June 1982.

What can only be described as a chapter of disasters ensued. Progress was very slow; Tom left Secker & Warburg as did several of his replacements and finally the idea of a de luxe edition was abandoned and it was decided to bring out the nine new editions three at a time. When the first three appeared on 4 April 1986 – two years late – they were found to be riddled with errors and had immediately to be pulped. The printer had erroneously substituted the uncorrected settings for the corrected one. Only one reviewer, D.J. Enright, noticed.

In the meantime I had been asked first to prepare a facsimile edition of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and then to search for and edit all that had not been included in the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1968) edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Willison. What then ensued – the interminable delays, the repeated abandonments of the whole project, the taking over of the edition by the American associated publisher, and his abandonment of the project, and finally its return to England and eventual publication in August 1998 as the twenty-volume editionhas been outlined elsewhere. It was not until the summer of 1993 that I was given a contract by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich to produce the edition for a fee of $5,000. I was paid half that fee then and there but HBJ abandoned the whole project in December 1993 and the second part of the fee went the same way.

The many problems, delays, and disappointments attendant upon completing the edition have been described in some detail in my contribution to Andrew Nash’s The Culture of Collected Editions (see footnote 1) and it would be otiose to repeat that information. The edition was well received but a single response might be appropriate. Professor Michael Shelden of the University of Indiana and the author of the 1991 authorized biography of Orwell (Harper Collins) wrote of my work as ‘a labour of love’. He continued:

in America such an enormous undertaking would be likely to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of government funding. The US National Endowment for the Humanities has given well over a million dollars to an academic group preparing a comprehensive edition of Mark Twain’s work. But Davison has had to get by on a few thousand pounds advanced to him [out of future royalties] from his British and American publishers. . . . . One can only marvel at the devoted service which one British scholar has given to that genius [Orwell]. His is a great labour of love in a selfish age dominated by the greed and corruption that Orwell so eloquently warned against. And the edition itself is a national treasure which somehow survived the burdens of indifference and neglect.

I must mention here that Ian Angus (who had worked with Sonia Orwell on the 1968 four-volume edition), not only engaged to dig out more Orwell material, especially at the BBC Written Archive at Caversham, but he was a splendid fount of knowledge and an ever-ready point of reference. My wife, Sheila, filled far more than the traditional roles of ‘support and helpmeet’, though that she also did with inexhaustible patience. Both were anxious that their names should not appear as editorial credits and I had to engage Secker & Warburg in a little subterfuge. They kindly provided proofs of the dust-jacket without their names and I was able to add them at a later stage.

pd-talks-to-jsProfessor Peter Davison in discussion with Jean Seaton

There were compensations in having to ‘go it alone’. I was not bound by anyone else’s idea of what should or should not be included in texts and notes. In particular – and I am certain Orwell would have approved – I was not responsible to a committee whether in Room 101 or elsewhere. With no financial backing I was not burdened by guilt that the task might never see the light of day though that often looked likely. My advances totalled just over £12,000 to be earned off by royalties that worked out at £13.75 per £750 set of the Complete Works. Out of that I had to pay income tax and most of my working costs (including, for example, travel to Caversham several days a week for several weeks), excepting photocopying and postage. When I weighed all the paper at the end of the project it amounted to over half a ton. No one undertakes this kind of edition to enrich oneself, but it did mean that journeys I might usefully have made – to Barcelona, Huesca, Moscow, the USA, or even Jura, were more than I could afford and were not made. I still have not been to Jura and am now too old to do so.

The publishers for whom I was working constantly changed ownership and the attrition wreaked upon their unfortunate staffs was not only very sad to witness but a disadvantage, at least most of the time. One positive advantage, which I shamelessly milked, was that no one was left who knew what had been ordained by an earlier authority. In effect, I was free to go my own way. A deception, I fear, but that, for example, is how the illustrations came to appear in the Penguin reprints of The Road to Wigan Pier.

It would be dishonest of me not to feel pleasure and, indeed, pride, when I see the twenty volumes of The Complete Works and the facsimile of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four on my shelves. And, of course, I have been richly rewarded by being appointed OBE and awarded the Gold Medal of the Bibliographical Society, Very often, when I consult the edition or the facsimile I am astonished that so much was assembled and annotated. I am surprised at what, at some stage, I knew, or, at least, found out. If I have a final sadness it is that having completed the task I now know how it could have been done better. Had I to start all over again, I am sure I could make a better job of it. But then, as Orwell wrote, not only is ‘every book . . . a failure’ but, adapting his words, ‘I now know with some clarity what kind of edition I wanted to produce.’ And, as usual, he was correct.1

Peter Davison, MA, PhD, D. Litt, Hon. D. Arts

The End


  1. Complete Works, XVIII, p. 320 as ‘ I do know with some clarity what kind of a book I want to write’. For a detailed account of the production of the edition, see my essay, ‘An Editorial Assessment of The Complete Works of George Orwell, in The Culture of Collected Editions, ed. Andrew Nash, Palgrave, 2003, pp. 218-36,