I’m rummaging around in Orwell Remembered, a series of recollections about the famous English novelist. I remarked on the volume a couple of years ago and was tangentially prompted to pick it up again while sampling a friend’s bottle of Scotch. It was distilled on the island of Jura, the remote Scottish locale where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four.
One can only say of Orwell what one can say of most people, that he was an antinomy of qualities. Some acquaintances speak of a streak of cruelty, at least in his conversation and writing. Others frequently testify to his kindness—especially toward children and animals—and his generosity. Orwell was very jealous of his privacy. That is why he sought out Jura so that he could devote all of his failing energies to his cautionary tale about Big Brother. He wanted to avoid the distractions of fame that had come in the wake of his best-selling satire, Animal Farm. A former neighbor said of him that “he was quite easy to get on with” though one often didn’t see much of him as he quickly retreated to his bedroom to write. “He was imperturbable, he was terribly calm, and he was always pleasant.” At the same time the neighbor observed, on a sardonic note, that while the novelist “was a staunch socialist… if he had to live with working-class people, I don’t think he would have got on.”
Fellow writer Anthony Powell sums up his struggle between tradition and radicalism: “in many ways Orwell was a Victorian figure, for like most people ‘in rebellion,’ he was more than half in love with what he was rebelling against.” And a former pupil recalls a surprising discussion he had with Orwell about the English Civil War.
I remember him saying that he would have sided with the [Royalist] Cavaliers rather than the [Revolutionary] Roundheads because the Roundheads were such depressing people…. For temperamentally he was a Cavalier, lacking the fervour and fanaticism of the Puritan… He was never noisy and lacked the dogmatism of the insecure.
This explains the roots of Orwell’s criticism of Communism, a skepticism shared with contemporaries like Arthur Koestler and Malcolm Muggeridge. Then there was his defense of P. G. Wodehouse. The famed humorist was falsely accused of collaborating with the Nazis while naively agreeing to a series of chatty radio interviews during his wartime internment in Germany. On this point someone remarked that Orwell “always spoke out when he suspected an injustice was being done.” He was a true non-conformist who rooted for the underdog even if he disagreed with him. Another endearing quality was his penchant for more practical endeavors, like farming or motorcycle repair. Though the writer was not always successful, the good-natured attempts were appreciated by others.