Orwell’s Lies: His Diaries Reveal Problems with the Truth

The diaries of one of the greatest essayists of the 20th century reveal something disturbing about his dedication to the truth in his supposedly factual reporting. By Jimmy So.

08.19.12 8:45 AM ET

Journalists love George Orwell as if he’s Sergeant Pepper: everybody who has read “Politics and the English Language” wanted to become a writer. Orwell made his hatred of imprecision, euphemisms, and stock phrases the basis of the war against the wrongs of the world—and the Fascists. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink,” he wrote in the essay, a manifesto, manual, and propaganda pamphlet all rolled into one. “I should expect to find—this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify—that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.” 

It is through Orwell’s voice that many journalists see themselves not only as investigators of truth but guardians of morality. You might think those two roles are one and the same. But they are not. Orwell was most surely a guardian but he was something else when it came to the truth. A close comparison of Orwell’s books with his Diaries—which have just been published in the U.S. with a new introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens—would reveal the important difference. (Every entry is also being posted 70 years to the day on the Orwell Diaries blog.)

Orwell was born Eric Blair, the son of a civil servant in the Opium Department of the Indian government, and had a standard—even blessed—middle-class upbringing. He went to the preparatory school St. Cyprian (for boys from 4 to 14) and then to the prestigious school Eton. How we would benefit from even just one diary entry from his youth! Alas, Orwell did not keep his first diary until he was almost 30. By 1931 he had already chosen one of his chief obsessions—poverty—and he started recording his time working in the Kent hop fields that fall. The next diary to survive recounted his journey from London to Wigan, a town that “has always been picked on as a symbol of the ugliness of the industrial areas,” as he said on a radio program years later. The Road to Wigan Pier was published in 1937. There is a celebrated passage of Orwell’s apparent power as a removed but penetrating reporter:

The train bore me away … we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the house 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 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.

As noted by Peter Davidson, editor of the new volume of diaries, “I was almost near enough to catch her eye” distances this middle-class intellectual from his impoverished subjects. The passage sets up the rest of The Road to Wigan Pier, whose second half is a fierce essay examining Orwell’s own middle-class upbringing, why such suffering as witnessed in Wigan cannot be tolerated, and why it is so difficult to install socialism. Generations of aspiring reporters have looked up to Orwell’s ability to get to the heart of the matter and connect with “the slum girl who is 25 and looks 40,” despite his elevation—on a train.

Except Orwell wasn’t riding a train when he saw the girl. In his February 15, 1936 diary entry, you’ll find this:

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.

What a difference a few words make! In reality, Orwell was walking up an alley, and encountering a girl kneeling by the gutter, he processed such a scene. It is only his feeling of dread that we are sure of, and any reciprocation on the woman’s part is purely his interpretation. Orwell is nothing if not precise in his choices—he had sentiment to deliver, and he used the devices necessary to do so.

How much artistic license should we afford Orwell? The amount of invention in the drain-pipe incident is small but telling, yet it’s hardly the only example. For decades now writers and journalists have been chipping away at the myth of Orwell to reveal some of the truth. Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick was among the first to question much of Orwell’s reporting. There’s no denying that Orwell was a very, very good writer—we know that from the above passage and classic reportage such as “Shooting an Elephant,” an account of his time as a member of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he had to kill an elephant because it had trampled a man to death during a rampage. It is a marvelous thing to witness the piece open out into an indictment of imperialism: “Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

Crick was not so certain. Once, he was having dinner with Orwell’s widow, Sonia, when he imprudently questioned whether her dead husband had actually shot an elephant. Sonia exploded. “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” Crick later found an old Burmese witness who said that Orwell did shoot an elephant, but the beast might not have gone on a rampage and killed a man.

Crick also questioned the authenticity of another piece, “A Hanging.” He’s not sure Orwell ever attended an execution, or if he did, he might not have attended the specific one described in the essay. (Orwell never mentions the crime that the man committed.) Others have also found exaggerations in Homage to Catalonia.

It is possible to question whether Orwell lived up to his expectations of truth-telling and still admire those standards—Crick was an admirer who was Orwell’s standard-bearer. A terrible bummer for Sonia that Crick decided to apply Orwell’s test on Orwell. Despite these questions, there is no difficulty in holding his writing in very high regard. But the trouble is that Orwell very much embodied his unflattering pronouncement that “all art is to some extent propaganda.” For all his passionate will, we are reminded that language was at the service of Orwell, and Orwell was at the service of his politics, prescient and admirable though those views were. He once said that he could have been a harmless art-for-art’s-sake writer, like the Bloomsburies, whom he would come to loathe.

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Too bad Orwell distrusted art. He lived in a time of war, and there was no room for meaningless ornamental writing. All issues are political issues, he said, “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.” He was not opposed to bending the truth to win. Perhaps he was more similar to those politicians and spin doctors who can “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” than he recognized. It’s a squeamishly high expectation to ask that someone speak the truth always, but in this time of Jonah Lehrer missteps and cable “news” saturation, the necessity of Orwell’s demands are clear. The truth is ugly, but you have to tell it.

Orwell was a fervent defender of such a motto. “Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly,” he wrote in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” a rage- and pain-filled indictment of his days at his school St. Cyprian, which was too scathing to publish during his lifetime. The propensity for negativity began early. The first diary entry in this volume is about a law that beds in lodging houses must be further apart, which you’d think he would approve of. No such luck. “There is not and never will be a law to say that the beds must be reasonably comfortable,” he quipped.

Drink in Orwell’s essays and criticism and you’ll quickly be accustomed to such humor and insight occurring at the rate of every other sentence or so. That is not the Orwell you will encounter often in the Diaries, for it takes sizeable and frequent artifice to make literature as entertaining and penetrating as “Shooting an Elephant.” In reality, most days are mundane; Orwell’s overwhelming concerns were for his goats and hens. There’s hardly any social intrigue in his diaries—a form which, ever since the days of Samuel Pepys, has been judged by a gossip-meter. The critic Cyril Connolly, Orwell’s friend from his school days, is mentioned in passing only a few times. He receives an abusive letter from H.G. Wells, “who addresses me as ‘You shit,’ among other things,” which is about as exciting as it gets. The familiar names of his books 1984, Animal Farm, or Homage to Catalonia will not greet you in your journey through his days.

'Diaries' By George Orwell. 624 pp. Liveright. $40.

Without the choreographed truth-embellishing dance found in his published work, the truth emerges. What he loved to do was count the number of eggs his hens laid. He made a hobby of learning about the flowers he planted and the flora around them. He compared the sizes of domesticated animals everywhere he went. He surveyed the available newspapers whenever he arrived in a new town. He began most entries with the weather. This is not exciting reading. Literature—certainly fiction—is a form of lying, and “this commerce with untruth has made readers uncomfortable,” as James Wood said. Orwell wrote some fiction, but 1984 and Animal Farm are “idea” novels, and it is his nonfiction that rise highest in the literary temple. Orwell needed a certain level of artifice to maintain verisimilitude. With his diaries, he seems to be saying: you want the truth? You asked for it. Here it is. Look: no train.

In the end, who was George Orwell? With the embellishment stripped bare, the diaries present a nastier, more easily irritated side of the man. From the pages of the Daily Telegraph he would read a letter from a Lady Oxford who complained that the war has forced “most people” to part with their cooks. “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99 percent of the population exist,” Orwell wrote. No wonder he chose to live so often with those in poverty—true, he was scouting for material, but he also seemed to have truly preferred their company over the social elites, whom he wished would disappear, not quite acknowledging that such vicious classism nudges him rather closer to Stalin, Mao, and some of his other favorite villains.

In January of 1949 he was admitted to Cranham Sanatorium for tuberculosis, and was still there on April 17, when he wrote about being uncomfortable in the most expensive block of the hospital and hearing the voices of upper-class English visitors:

A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness and richness combined with a fundamental ill-will—people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.

So goes the last entry in Diaries. Orwell died of a massive hemorrhage of the lungs in the early hours of January 21, 1950. On his headstone is inscribed a simple, ineradicable fact: “Here Lies Eric Arthur Blair.”