need these negative touchstones to remind us that Orwell, for all his nostalgia and for all his unresolvable dilemmas, was personally—and it is practically impossible to put this on any other basis—superior to his political and literary commitments, to anything he ever did, even to his skill as an essayist. We praise the honest, angry man revealed in these essays more even than the essays that reveal the man.
John Wain, Twentieth Century
January 1954, pp. 71-8
John Wain (b. 1925), English novelist, critic and Professor of Poetry at Oxford; author of Hurry On Down (1953), The Living World of Shakespeare (1964) and his autobiography Sprightly Running (1962).
Orwell’s essays are obviously much better than his novels. As a novelist he was not particularly gifted, but as a controversial critic and pamphleteer he was superb, as good as any in English literature. The novels do not add any new dimension to the ideas already put forward in the essays; they merely start them moving, like clockwork toys, in the hope of catching the attention of passers-by. Thus it comes as a shock to discover, for instance, that Down and Out In Paris and London is an earlier work than The Clergyman’s Daughter; the novel is so inept, so obviously the product of inexperience and a lack of interest in the form it belongs to, the pamphlet so mature, balanced and successful. Finally, of course, Orwell came into his enormous popular success with two books that were not novels at all. Animal Farm is not even fiction, since the ‘story’ was there already in contemporary history, only waiting to be transposed into a fable.
Thus it is not in any provocative or paradoxical spirit that one says, quite simply, that Critical Essays is a better book than 1984, or that the