LETTERS: The Truth about Eric's Dreadful Aunt ; the Lost Orwell Ed Peter Davison TIMEWELL PRESS Pounds 18.99 Pounds 18.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

By Bowker, Gordon | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), August 6, 2006 | Go to article overview
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LETTERS: The Truth about Eric's Dreadful Aunt ; the Lost Orwell Ed Peter Davison TIMEWELL PRESS Pounds 18.99 Pounds 18.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897


Bowker, Gordon, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


As Julian Barneswrote in Flaubert's Parrot, "If you love a writer, if you depend upon the drip-feed of his intelligence, if you want to pursue him and find him- despite edicts to the contrary - then it's impossible to know too much." I recall those wise words whenever I contemplate Peter Davison's stupendous 20- volumeCompleteWorks of George Orwell. It's certainly a feast, not just for scholars, but also for aficionados who find any crumb from the table irresistible.

However, Complete is a risky title and, in Orwell's case, one of the fascinating aspects of his life and oeuvre is the endless prospect of new and intriguing revelations. Not long after this collection appeared, fresh material emerged in the two centenary biographies of 2003 - letters, KGB files, family documents - and more followed. It is unsurprising, therefore, that some eight years after publication, the Complete Works requires an additional volume, and, as it's difficult to see interest in Orwell waning, others will surely follow.

Here are articles overlooked and letters newly unearthed, some from Orwell (Eric Blair to his family), some written to or about him- an oft-neglected biographical resource. Six revealing letters from his first wife, Eileen, and one from Georges Kopp, his Spanish Civil War commander, who was sweet on her, follow correspondence with his first French translator. Davison offers a good many notes, corrections and additions from various sources - small pieces added to this great "mosaic in progress".

Ironically, it is Eileen's letters to a friend rather than anything from Orwell which represent the book's most significant discovery. Not only do they bring her further out of the shadows concealing her since her untimely death in 1945, but also shed important light on the couple's complex relationship. She speaks openly about tensions in the marriage, their penurious life in remotest Hertfordshire and relations with her in-laws. "Eric's aunt came to stay and was so dreadful (she stayed two months) that we stopped quarrelling and just repined. Then she went away and no wall our troubles are over."

She liked his father, but distrusted his elder sister (while still enjoying her company).As for people who pitied her for having to share his poverty and the demands of his writing career, "They haven't, I think, grasped that I am very much like Eric in temperament which is an asset once one has accepted the fact." She also shows herself as keen to have a son as he was - something not evident from the various biographies' another further confirms suspicions of an affair with Kopp. They also demonstrate that she helped Orwell with his work more than previously supposed, typing his manuscripts and puzzling over indecipherable emendations.

Orwell's correspondence with his French translator, Ren-Nol Raim bault, includes a comic exchange in which the author of Down and Out in Paris and London tries to explain the sexual expletives his British publisher expunged from the book. The unsqueamish French duly reintroduced the offending words in translation.

His 1945 Observer report from postliberation Paris brings the first part of Down and Out closer to full circle. The once colourful Latin Quarter street, the Rue du Pot de Fer (his "Rue du Coq d'Or") as warm with drunks and trollops, where the half-starved down-and- out lived while slaving as a hotel dishwasher, was, he discovered, now desolate, haunted by hungry, frightened ghosts.

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LETTERS: The Truth about Eric's Dreadful Aunt ; the Lost Orwell Ed Peter Davison TIMEWELL PRESS Pounds 18.99 Pounds 18.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
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