Magazine article History Today

Orwell Now

Magazine article History Today

Orwell Now

Article excerpt

Orwell has long fascinated historians. It is probably true to say that the four volumes of The Collected Essays, journalism and Letters of George Orwell, published by Penguin in 1970, are among the most well-thumbed paperbacks on many modem historians' shelves. Yet Orwell was a stickler for the correct use of language: he was, for instance, 'upset for days' when the proof-reader at Tribune allowed 'verbiosity' to appear in one of is articles. We may be sure, therefore, that he would have disapproved of a mere selection of his work being described as the collection. In fact, the real collected essays, journalism and letters (edited by Professor Peter Davison in eleven volumes and totalling no less than 6,000 pages) are due to be published shortly by Random House/Secker & Warburg. They contain material previously only available in the Orwell archive at University College London. There is truly a feast of Orwelliana in prospect.

But why are historians so interested in Orwell's works? One answer is that Orwell had an uncanny knack of being involved with important events and processes. He was simply there. He worked in the Raj, observing and experiencing what he believed to be the insidious corruption of both rulers and ruled inherent in imperialism. He was in the doss houses of Paris and London, and in the Wigan lodgings during the Depression, experiencing the seamy under-side of empire and the unacceptable face of capitalism. He also took up the sword against Fascism in Spain, and thereafter wielded a mighty pen against totalitarian rule in general. Even the Ministry of Truth, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was to some extent modelled on the BBC, where he worked for a time during the Second World War. He wrote out of first-hand experience, generally painful, mining the bedrock of his own knowledge and memory. Another answer is the sheer range of his interests, which is truly remarkable. Only abstract philosophy -- which he said should be banned by law -- fell outside his intellectual span. He was, to use his own typically expressive phrase, an 'elastic brow', matching his expertise in literature with an informed knowledge of pulp fiction, boys' comics and saucy seaside postcards. Indeed he was a pioneer of the study of popular culture and thus of social history. In short, he was surely one of the most remarkably broad-sighted and acute historical witnesses of our country and our world in the first half of the twentieth century. Certainly there was no more dedicated writer in Britain than George Orwell, until his death from tuberculosis at the age of forty-six. In hospital towards the end of his life, when his right arm was put in plaster, he quickly learned to write with his left hand. Those who knew him expected no less. Only death could stop him.

There are two further reasons why historians admire Orwell. The first is that, by depicting a nightmare world in which the past is not studied, he showed the vital necessity for research far more convincingly than any historian has ever done. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows, above all, that the past must be investigated as fully and as objectively as possible. If it is not, and if we are dependent on our feeble memories, autocrats like Big Brother will dictate history to us to justify the current party line and cement their political domination. 'Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan in Oceania, 'controls the future: and who controls the present controls the past'. It follows that history -- the real study of the past - safeguards us against totalitarianism.

The past does matter, accuracy is vital, even chronology can be crucial: this is Orwell's message. The notion that propagandist lies were being accepted as truth in the 1930s, and would pass into history, made him feel as if the very ground beneath his feet were giving way. Better to shoot people, he once said, than tell lies about them. To mark his rebellion, Winston Smith decided to drink a toast. …

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