George Orwell: A Literary Life – Peter Davison (1996)
It is said that everybody needs a hobby, but that is not to say you should be limited to only one. While some of my hobbies could be described as practical in their scope, such as learning a new language or exercising, over the last few years, I have increasingly found myself engaged in a number of much more infrequent and slow burning distractions from the monotonies of everyday life. One such hobby, which has now developed into more of a habit, is exclusively tasked with collecting materials written by or concerning the life and works of George Orwell. As with any respectable habit, there are of course, certain rules and restrictions I have placed on myself. For example, my purchases are restricted to second-hand book stores only, and there is no doubling up on editions – I have no need for three copies of a particular novel.
To say that I mention Orwell far too often is to push an open door, but someone needs to be obsessive about these kinds of things. I picked up this short book in a charity shop in Twickenham, South West London, and while it sat on the shelf for several months, I was able to read through it in only a couple of days. Interestingly, I paid £1.99 for this book in hardback and have since found copies selling online for up to £140.
Summary – Peter Davison dedicated 17 years of his life to compiling and editing the magnificent 20 volume Complete Works of George Orwell and when it comes to Orwell, he is most certainly the man. As opposed to a straightforward literary biography, George Orwell: A Literary Life examines the people, literature and experiences that influenced the author’s work as well his interactions with publishers and editors. This includes inquiries into Orwell’s relationship with his family and largely absent father, his constant battles with censorship, his career shaping experiences in the Spanish Civil War, and his work in the BBC during the Second World War. Davison explores the circumstances surrounding all of Orwell’s major works (including novels, essays and articles) as well as offering informed analyses of the texts themselves.
Verdict – I have read just about every word that Orwell put to paper, as well as the major biographies and literary criticisms, so it is a rather rare occurrence to discover something about Orwell not previously encountered. Davison’s book, however, while acknowledging the wealth of study on Orwell already in existence, is able to offer a number of interesting and fresh insights into the author’s life and work.
Particularly, I must applaud Davison’s efforts in dispelling the mistakenly accepted view of Orwell as both a puritanical figure and a misogynist. Davison is more than equipped to outline the humour and irony pervading Orwell’s work that literary scholars and critics consistently seem to overlook. As to the latter charge, Davison is methodical and sensible in clearing the waters, however, as he quite candidly admits, “Those who believe Orwell was a misogynist and contemptuous of women are unlikely to be convinced otherwise by evidence.”
In many ways, this book is almost a memoir of Davison’s experience collecting and editing The Complete Works of George Orwell and is a fitting introduction and companion to that collection. For a more comprehensive biography, I would recommend Sir Bernard Crick’s Orwell: A Life (1980).
Memorable Quote – (Given the current political climate, perhaps a quote from Orwell himself would be most fitting) “Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also… When the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting.”