:: Article

The Orwell Diaries

By Max Dunbar.


Diaries, George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison, Harvill Secker 2009

The overwhelming domestic content of the Orwell Diaries – many entries just read something like ‘9 eggs’ – would initially mark out the volume as one for the serious collector or completist. Yet other passages provide something you don’t often see: the slow dark birth of great writing. Who could forget this, from The Road to Wigan Pier:

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the-embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her-her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her-understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

This began as a diary entry:

Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was.

As editor Peter Davison points out, Orwell does not only develop this entry but changes it. He adds distance, positioning himself on a train, passing through. In Wigan Pier he nearly catches the woman’s eye: in the diary he actually does. Possibly the distance was added to emphasise the gap Orwell sensed between himself and the people he wrote about. Perhaps just the natural distortions of memory.

Or not. You can see similar birth-pangs of Orwell’s fiction in the diaries. The backdrop of Nineteen Eighty-Four is clearly wartime Britain, with its atmosphere of mediocrity and shortage, grimly smiling patriotism dashed with confusion and fear. The Ministry of Truth is said to be based on the BBC, where Orwell worked during the war years; and it’s clear that Oceania’s constant rotation of wartime allies and enemies was inspired by similar international realpolitiking of the time. ‘The story is going round,’ he writes in June 1941, ‘that when the news of Hitler’s invasion of Russia reached a New York café where some Communists were talking, one of them who had gone out to the lavatory returned to find that the ‘party line’ had changed in his absence.’

This is Orwell’s entry for June 10, 1942:

The only time when one hears people singing in the BBC is in the early morning, between 6 and 8. That is the time when the charwomen are at work. A huge army of them arrives all at the same time, they sit in the reception hall waiting for their brooms to be issued to them and making as much noise as a parrot house, and then they have wonderful choruses, all singing together as they sweep the passages. The place has a quite different atmosphere at this time from what it has later in the day.

I couldn’t help thinking of the singing washerwoman in Nineteen Eighty-Four, perhaps the personification of the ‘Spirit of Man’ that Winston claims will ultimately defeat the Party:

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead, theirs was the future.

These and similar links make clear that Orwell was more than a mere recording device or ‘acute observer’. He had imagination and creativity. From life’s compromised material he fashioned art.

One thing you don’t get from these diaries is much of an insight into Orwell’s personal life. The war diaries end in November 1942. We don’t rejoin their author until May 1946. In the gap Orwell’s wife died and Orwell himself had begun to develop the illness that would eventually kill him. Yet the Jura diaries remain pragmatic-staccato accounts of weather and farming. How is he taking all this? A neighbour remembered Orwell mainly for ‘how ill, how terribly ill, he looked – and drawn: a sad face he had… I think he very much missed his wife…’ Still, another island friend describes Orwell a mere four pages on as ‘cheery and happy in his own way’.

I suppose men of that generation didn’t talk much about their feelings, even to themselves. Nevertheless, the Diaries provide an essential portrait of this strange, clever, practical man.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 14th, 2009.