Nicolas Walter heaps praise on the definitive complete works. It adds little to our knowledge of Orwell, but at least reminds us of his consistent integrityby Nicolas Walter / October 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The best reviewer of the latest-and surely last-collected edition of George Orwell would be Orwell himself. Only he could say how far it is complete; whether it contains enough or-more likely-too much material; what is good and bad about it; why it is remarkable and why it is questionable. Similarly, only the editor could tell-and has indeed told, several times-the story of his adventures in producing one of the most impressive editorial achievements of our time. An outside reviewer can only give the reaction of an ordinary reader to this exceptional monument to a writer.
First reviews were irresponsibly written and published before anyone could possibly have studied the edition properly; even most of the later reviews failed to see or say what it contains. So this should be made clear. The 20 volumes, including published writings covering 20 years and unpublished writings covering 40 years, contain more than 8,600 pages. Together, they weigh three stone (19 kilograms in Oceanian units), fill nearly a yard (or metre) of shelf-space and cost ?750 (or $1,200).
This apparently single collection actually consists of two separate projects. Peter Davison was initially commissioned in 1981 to produce corrected versions of Orwell’s nine separate books-three works of reportage, four straight novels and two satires-for a deluxe collected edition intended to appear during 1984, the magic year. He succeeded in completing his work in 1982, but the publishers failed to complete theirs in time, and the new edition appeared only during 1986-87, reappearing in Penguin paperback a couple of years later. Meanwhile, Davison also produced the facsimile manuscript edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which did appear in 1984. In addition, he was commissioned in 1982 to produce a collected edition of Orwell’s shorter writings, either to supplement or to supersede the four-volume The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, which had appeared in 1968. This veered between a simple project of providing a single extra volume and a much more formidable undertaking of producing a complete edition of everything else written by Orwell. After many changes of mind and ownership by both the British and the US publishers, the final result is a new 11-volume collection, three times as long as its predecessor.
Peter Davison realistically admits that this isn’t a complete edition, because a few known and presumably other unknown items are missing. He also explains why the concept of a “definitive edition” is out of the question. Although he is the sole editor, he acknowledges the essential help given by his wife, Sheila Davison, and by Ian Angus himself. Together they have done a marvellous job of the kind which in most civilised countries is supervised by a state-sponsored national foundation and which, in this country, is normally performed over an even longer period by a much larger academic team. It must also be said that, despite the dismal record of the past 17 years, Secker & Warburg in Britain (now owned by Random House, itself owned by Bertelsmann) has done a fine job of producing a set of handsome books which look and feel good and are easy and pleasant to read. Such a task might have been attempted by literary rather than academic publishers-but the achievement is as good as any university press could manage.
For Orwell’s nine books, the task was to establish authoritative texts of writings which had suffered various forms of ill treatment over half a century, to correct misprints and mistakes, to restore censored passages, to give significant variants, and to convey so far as possible the intentions of the author. In each case the text is accompanied by a short introduction and detailed but not elaborate notes. The task differed from book to book, depending on what material had been removed or altered and what material survived. Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) contained rude words; these have to some extent been restored by reference to the French translation of 1935; this opening volume also contains a long general introduction. Burmese Days (1934) contained defamatory references to identifiable people; these have been restored by reference to the superior US edition. A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) contained defamatory references to identifiable private schools; these cannot be restored, but indications are given of what happened. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) contained rude references to advertisements and living writers; these have been restored by reference to contemporary letters. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was hardly mutilated; Victor Gollancz’s introduction and the original photographs have been restored. Homage to Catalonia (1938) contained historical, linguistic and factual errors; these have been corrected, and Orwell’s suggestion of moving two political chapters to the end has been followed. Animal Farm (1945) contained some rude words; this edition has been checked against the typescript; it contains the original preface (which wasn’t published until 1972), the preface to the Ukrainian edition of 1947 and Orwell’s own radio adaptation of 1947. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) has been checked against the typescript and proof as well as the US edition and the published manuscript draft.
Most Orwellians will already have these books, but they make a fine set in their own right. There may be doubts about their intrinsic quality. The four straight novels are good but not very good-Orwell himself told Julian Symons that “I am not a real novelist,” and repudiated two of them. The three books of reportage are now very dated-writers such as Jeremy Seabrook and Nick Davies have surpassed Orwell in documentary writing on poverty. Only Homage to Catalonia really lives as a precious primary document of the Spanish civil war and revolution. The two satires are another matter altogether-although again, Orwell himself told Anthony Powell that Nineteen Eighty-Four was “a good idea ruined”-and the edition of Animal Farm is excellent.
The last 11 volumes contain the new collection of Orwell’s essays and articles, reviews and reports, plays and poems, broadcasts, letters, diaries and notes, from his school letters to his last will, filling 6,000 pages. After a long general introduction in the opening 10th volume, the 4,000-odd items and dozens of appendices are presented in roughly chronological order of writing, amounting to a gigantic documentary biography.
This raises a general question. Orwell specifically asked that no biography of him should be written, but Sonia Orwell did eventually commission one, others preceded and succeeded it, and such an important figure surely needs biographical treatment. Orwell similarly asked that two of his novels (A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying) and two of his shorter books (The Lion and the Unicorn and The English People) not be reprinted, but this has consistently been ignored; Orwell also said that he would not reprint anything less than 2,000 words long, but this, too, has consistently been ignored. After a decent interval, it seems to be agreed, an author’s evident intentions should be ignored in order to reveal his allegedly real intentions. It would be interesting to have Orwell’s comments.
All serious Orwellians will want to have these volumes, or at least easy access to them, but they do present serious problems. The most obvious is the sheer bulk of material. Despite all the editor’s and publisher’s efforts, the way through the wood is obscured not only by the number and variety of trees but also the tangle of undergrowth. But even if the various categories had been better signposted, there would still remain the problem that a relatively small number of items of major and permanent significance are overwhelmed by a large mass of items of minor and temporary importance, so that the volumes are in danger of becoming tombstones rather than treasure-boxes.
But, meanwhile, here are all the famous essays and-compared with the 1968 collection-very roughly five times as many reviews of books, plays and films, twice as many articles, four times as many letters, revised versions of the broadcasts, and all the juvenilia and diaries and notebooks and uncompleted writings. The bulk of the new material may be journalistic hack-work of a kind which Orwell (like most journalists) would prefer to forget, but most of it bears the unmistakable marks of his thought and style. Some of it is very welcome: the full texts of all his “As I Please” articles in Tribune; an article on socialism and happiness under the pseudonym “John Freeman” in Tribune at Christmas 1943; a series of review articles on “The Intellectual Revolt” in the Manchester Evening News in 1946. Some is intriguing: the indictment of Orwell and his wife for espionage and treason in Spain, and her few letters. Some is unpleasant: his acid letter to Nancy Cunard about the Spanish civil war in 1937; or his absurd list of suspected Communists or fellow-travellers, supplied to the intelligence services in 1948. Some is tedious: the impersonal diaries and notes. Some is sad: his pathetic love letters and the documentation of his illness.
The final verdict must be a double one: an expression of profound gratitude to Peter Davison and a renewed recognition (despite all the relatively mediocre material now added to the record) of the consistent integrity of George Orwell. To adopt the characteristic phrases he used of Dickens and Gandhi: how well he combatted all the smelly little orthodoxies of his age, and what a clean smell he leaves behind him. The complete works of George Orwell
Edited by Peter Davison
Secker & Warburg, 20 volumes, ?750