Happy George Orwell Day!

Thanks to Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for reminding me that today is George Orwell Day.

On 21st January 1950, George Orwell died in London. Penguin Books, the Orwell Estate and The Orwell Prize have launched  ‘Orwell Day’ on 21st January to celebrate his work.

His novels Coming Up for Air (1939) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) are among the novels I have most enjoyed teaching. (They’re not among the books that Penguin have chosen to reissue alas!) They are tremendously entertaining reads while also being interesting for their literary technique, and especially for what they tell us about Orwell’s analysis of contemporary life. (See also my earlier post on Orwell and the Forsyte saga.)

Of particular interest for bookish types is the scene in Keep the Aspidistra Flying where our (anti?) hero Gordon Comstock describes the bookshop where he works. Exactly those novelists that we read from the Special Collection are there.

Eight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright.  They were arranged alphabetically.  Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galsworthy, Gibbs, Priestley, Sapper, Walpole.  Gordon eyed them with inert hatred.  At this moment he hated all books, and novels most of all.  Horrible to think of all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place.  Pudding, suet pudding. Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in–a vault of puddingstone.

The position of the different types of books on the shelves is described:

Down in the bottom shelves the ‘classics’, the extinct monsters of the Victorian age, were quietly rotting.  Scott, Carlyle, Meredith, Ruskin, Pater, Stevenson–you could hardly read the names upon their broad dowdy backs.  In the top shelves, almost out of sight, slept the pudgy biographies of dukes.  Below those, saleable still and therefore placed within reach, was ‘religious’ literature–all sects and all creeds, lumped indiscriminately together.  The World Beyond, by the author of Spirit Hands Have Touched me.  Dean Farrar’s Life of Christ.  Jesus the First Rotarian.  Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of R. C. propaganda.  Religion always sells provided it is soppy enough.

Below, exactly at eye-level, was the contemporary stuff. Priestley’s latest.  Dinky little books of reprinted ‘middles’. Cheer-up ‘humour’ from Herbert and Knox and Milne.  Some highbrow stuff as well.  A novel or two by Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Smart pseudo-Strachey predigested biographies.  Snooty, refinedbooks on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews.

It is based on Orwell’s own time working in a bookshop. He wrote an essay called ‘Bookshop Memories’ in 1936, which is strikingly similar to this passage, lest we think that these views are only attributable to the the bitter Gordon Comstock! In ‘Bookshop Memories’ there is also a good dash of snobbish misogyny:

Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages, and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don’t read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel – the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel – seems to exist only for women.

Orwell is, I think, a ‘good hater’. One of the best. In a sense he’s right – the majority of novel-readers are women: most the reading blogs I follow are written by women, and the reading groups I run are mostly female. However, it is clear that in Orwell’s view men show discernment in their reading, while women do not! And the novels that are read by women are derided precisely because they are read by women. Detective stories, despite being formulaic genre fiction, are quite respectable, because they are read by both men and women.

(Thanks to Project Gutenberg for saving my having to type out the text of Keep the Aspidistra Flying.)

7 thoughts on “Happy George Orwell Day!

    • Good question. I should think he probably did. He wrote book reviews for the Manchester Guardian – including one of Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945), which he definitely did not ‘get’.

  1. Much as I love George, he can be a bit sniffy and misogynistic about women’s novels. But they are valuable records of women’s lives and the changing society we lived it, as well as jolly enjoyable – which I guess is why Persephone Books have been so successful!

    • And they are often very good books indeed! His review of At Mrs Lippincote’s was interesting as he could see that the author was trying to say something, but he couldn’t understand what. He couldn’t ‘read’ that text.

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