Most people know George Orwell for his novels 1984 and Animal farm (reviewed here) because they have been for many years required reading in the USA as a parable against the dangers of communism. But these are only two of Orwell’s novels and perhaps not even the most interesting. Orwell was a wit as clever as Oscar Wilde who waded bodily into the issues of British colonial rule, poverty, and of course the Spanish Civil war where his on-the-field style of journalism cost him a bullet in the neck. He was gonzo journalist long before Hunter S. Thompson albeit without the hallucinogenic drugs.
The common theme running through Orwell’s lesser known novels is poverty and how it impacts people’s lives. He has a keen eye for irony and even when writing about people in direct straights he is at times laugh out funny. Look at these lines from his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”:
His legs were of normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks semmed to sprout almost below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors.
In “Burmese Days” Orwell writes sort of an autobiographical novel since he was worked as a policeman in the British Raj. (In one of his more famous essays Orwell the policeman writes of killing an elephant when it had broke lose and become dangerous in the village.) In Burma the young and virile protagonist takes up with what he called in keeping with the times his “black” mistress. She is unceremoniously kicked out of the house when his fair skinned English girlfriends arrives. There is humor as there always is when two women are fighting over one man.
In “Down and Out in Paris and London” Orwell takes works in a Parisian restaurant as a plongeur (dishwasher) before he takes of with a tramp to live as a beggar in London. In the rigid hierarchy of the French kitchen the plongeur is at the bottom–somewhat above the ordinary kitchen rat except the plongeur receives wages albeit scarcely enough to feed the rodent. Orwell’s friends devise a scheme to defraud a rich Jew by selling him cocaine. They pile up the white powder on the table and the Jew marvels at its size and value. Orwell’s character is not in on the swindle so he and the Jew are terrified when the police bust down the door. The police proud of their bust are aghast to find the cocaine is ordinary flour.
A Clergyman’s Daughter
Anyone who teaches school should be compelled to read Orwell’s “A Clergyman’s Daughter”. This novel is about how gossip can ruin another person’s life, how poverty takes away one’s self esteem, and how educational innovation is thwarted by the educational status quo.
Dorothy is the daughter of a rector in the church whose advancing age threatens her with spinsterhood. Of that Orwell writes, “Women who don’t marry wither up–they wither like aspidistras (a type of flower) in black-parlour windows.” She dotingly goes from one parish house to another carrying on the work of the church. As a single woman in the town she meets up with an older widower. Then Dorothy disappears haven fallen into amnesia and rumors abound that she has taken up with the gentleman. This scandal is made worse by the village gossips.
Having forgotten her identity she ends up with a petty thieves do wells who wander the countryside begging and robbing as they go. Orwell says, “The pious and immoral drift naturally together”. But then Dorotohy frees herself from this plight and faced with the need to feed herself she finds a job teaching. She cannot go home because her father will not see her and the pious gossips have driven her into exile.
The miserly old hag who runs the school where she finds work is so tight with her money she will not give Dorothy jam to go with the bread which she herself eats for dinner right in front of Dorothy. She turns on the heat when parents arrive and turns it off when they leave. The stoic young teacher in spite of this misery finds solace in teaching the dull-witted children who heretofore have only been taught simple sums and handwriting. Having first entered the classroom Dorothy sees that, “there were no maps, no pictures, nor even, as far as Dorothy could see, any books.” The children, “could only gape in a sort of dull bewilderment when asked to think for themselves.” Orwell writes, “These children came from bookless homes and from parents who would have laughed at the notion that the past has any meaning for the present.” What makes this part of the novel interesting and fraught with tension is Dorothy genuinely tries to teach these kids something and is inspired when they begin to learn, but then Dorothy is humiliated when she runs afoul of expectations of low expectations and when the headmistress throws her to the dogs (the parents).
Keep the Aspidistra Flying
The theme of Keep the Aspidistra Flying is money or rather the lack thereof. Orwell says without money one is not civilized, one cannot marry. Yet with money one is a clog in the capitalist machinery which grinds us all down.
As with “The Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”, Orwell in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” writes about poverty. In a non-fiction work called “On The Road to Wigham Pier” he chronicles to the pound, pence, and shilling how poorly the coal miners working in England are paid. And of course his going to join the civil war in Spain was another testament to his view that some type of socialism, namely Trotskyism, was preferable to the capitalism which wears down the downtrodden.
In “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” Gordon Comstock is a poet who works in a bookstore. Orwell writes, “He was nearly thirty and had accomplished nothing; only his miserable book of poems that had fallen flatter than any pancake.”
Gordon is like Tolstoy having sworn off any type of wealth and capitalism but unlike Tolstoy, Gordon has not wealth to forswear. Gordon has a girlfriend who like Dorothy in “A Clergyman’s Daughter” at 30 years of age is on the edge of becoming a spinster so she is eager to marry. Gordon has not the means to support her and will not let her pay for their outings. Gordon in an attempt at respectability and to stave off hunger takes a job writing copy for an advertising firm. But this runs counter to his idea to jettison capitalism so he quits and falls back into poverty. The tension in the novel comes when Gordon must chose between the ideal life apart from capitalism and supporting the woman he loves.
In this book you find spelled out in plain language what Orwell thought of capitalism and the daily grind. He writes, “In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money that you can join the Cavalry Club”. And then “Money, once again: all is money. All human relationships must be purchased with money. If you have no money, men won’t care for you, women won’t love you.” And finally, “You can’t be friendly, you can’t even be civil, when you have no money in your pocket.”
Lets hope that students of literature will read beyond 1984 and Animal Farm and learn of Orwell’s other works. His language is blunt and to the point. His economy of works is a style to be copied. His books are not too long and not at all complicated so they should be presented to a new generation of readers.