Don’t Forget: A Review of George Orwell’s Diaries

Reviewed: Diaries by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, Liveright Publishing Corporation, First American edition, 2012, 571 pages, hardcover, $39.95.

“One way of feeling infallible,” George Orwell observed, “is not to keep a diary.”

He explains:  “Looking back through the diary I kept in 1940 and 1941 I find that I was usually wrong when it was possible to be wrong.  Yet I was not so wrong as the Military Experts.”

This observation, published in 1943, drew on a conversation from 1940, recorded in greater detail in his diary:

Stephen Spender said to me recently, ‘Don’t you feel that any time during the past two years you have been able to foretell events better than, say, the Cabinet?’  I had to agree to this. . . .  But where I feel people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.

Today, Orwell is remembered chiefly as a commenter on the major developments of the mid-twentieth century — on war, imperialism, the promise of socialism, and the rise of totalitarianism.  However, it is often overlooked how entwined the events of his life were with the political conflicts on which his work focused.  Put differently, despite the first-person perspective of his nonfiction, we sometimes forget how personal much of his writing was.

The publication of Orwell’s journals would seem to promise a view of the man from the inside, recording his private thoughts on events as they occurred, and therefore providing an interesting counterpoint to his journalism, broadcasts, and novels.  Unfortunately, readers hoping for the secrets of Orwell’s mind, for insight into his personal feelings, or for details of his friendships and romantic life will have to look elsewhere.  The book’s two short introductions — one by Christopher Hitchens and the other by editor Peter Davison — don’t really provide a narrative framework for Orwell’s daily notes, either.

Of course, obsessive scholars will find the occasional gem in this new volume. For example, a brief note about two children being bitten by rats — “in the face, as usual” — would seem to foreshadow Winston Smith’s torture in Room 101.  But the casual Orwell enthusiast would be better advised to read the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters — which includes the most substantive of the diary entries, alongside excerpts from his literary notebooks, correspondence, newspaper columns, and essays.  Taken all together, that set provides an interesting chronicle of the writer’s intellectual development — something the Diaries on their own manifestly fail to do.

What the Diaries do contain is, by and large, a record of the quaint and quotidian: a recipe for fruit loaf, an illustration of a donkey cart, summaries of newspaper articles Orwell was reading at the time.  Much of the volume is taken up with the details of gardening: what he planted, what was in bloom, eggs laid, sick animals, notes on the weather, birds spotted, wars to keep the rabbits at bay.  In fact the only reference to his wife Eileen’s death reads: “Polyantha roses on E’s grave have all rooted well.”  The progress of his two-year-old son’s measles are recorded in exactly the same clipped, concise, unsentimental manner.  In contrast, Orwell’s documentation of the effects of streptomycin on his own body is more exhaustive, and also therefore more merciless.

The attentive reader can further learn of Orwell’s experiment with marijuana (“Unpleasant taste & — so far as I am concerned — no effect.”).  The entry from March 30, 1948 would serve as a fairly good essay on how it feels to try to write when ill — and the realization “what a deterioration has happened inside your skull.”  And we can likewise can enjoy some of the “scraps of nonsense poetry” that were “constantly coming into my mind” during the Blitz.  One of these stands quite well as a satirical couplet:

And the key doesn’t fit and the bell doesn’t ring,

But we all stand up for God save the King.

That’s funny enough in any case, and it provides a glimpse into the mental atmosphere of wartime Britain.  In a rare reference to his own feelings — tied, not coincidentally, to the journal itself — Orwell observes, “Looking back through this diary, I see that of late I have written in it at much longer intervals and much less about public events than when I started it.  The feeling of helplessness is growing in everyone.”

Perhaps more than anything else, the Diaries provide an interesting look at English culture during the war, not the official culture of films and newspapers, but culture as it existed and was encountered at street-level:  Orwell quotes a “Huge advert. on the side of a bus: ‘FIRST AID IN WARTIME, FOR HEALTH, STRENGTH AND FORTITUDE. WRIGLEY’S CHEWING GUM.'”  He repeats the occasional bit of scandalous gossip:  “It appears from reliable private information that Sir O. Mosley is a masochist of the extreme type in his sexual life.'”  And he even includes a dick joke circulating at the time:  “[D]id you by any chance see a tall strong sentry guarding the door?” “No, all I saw was an old Home Guard lying on a pair of sandbags.”

Interspersing bemusement with dread, Orwell captures the intrusion of the war into domestic life:

I was talking to E[ileen] over the ‘phone.  A sudden pause in the conversation and a tinkling sound:

I. ‘What’s that?’

B. ‘Only the windows falling in.’

That might not surprise us, on reflection, given that many of his books — Homage to Catalonia, Coming Up for Air, and 1984, especially — are stories of ordinary people caught in an undertow of world events.  So the diary shows us history, not as it is told later in scholarly books, but as it is lived by its unwitting participants — not the Great Men and crucial events — but the bit players, day in and day out.  The truth is, as history unfolds it is often sordid and tedious rather than grand and dramatic.

Orwell admits that “when reading The Battle of Britain and looking up the corresponding dates in this diary” he was struck by “the way in which ‘epic’ events never seem very important at the time.”  He explains:

I have a number of vivid memories of the day the Germans broke though and fired the docks. . . , but mostly of trivial things.  First of all riding down in the bus to have tea with Connelly, and two women in the front insisting that shell-bursts in the sky were parachutes. . . .  Then sheltering in a doorway in Piccadilly from falling shrapnel, just as one might shelter from a cloudburst.  Then a long line of German planes filing across the sky, and some very young R.A.F. and naval officers running out of the hotels and passing a pair of field glasses from hand to hand. . . .

Afterward, when the attempt to conquer England by air bombardment had evidently been abandoned, I said to Fyvel, ‘That was Trafalgar. Now there’s Austerlitz’, but I hadn’t seen this analogy at the time.  (337-8)

Orwell’s journals assess events from the perspective of the past looking forward, rather than from the perspective of our present looking back.  They thus refreshingly remind us of the uncertainty of the time, the contingency of history, and also the moral and political complexity so often lost to the editors of historical volumes.

Yet there are also important gaps in this record — stories lost down the memory hole — and what is absent from this collection may be of interest in itself.

The evidence suggests that other diaries remain missing, most famously those from Spain, where Orwell fought in the civil war.  Those were seized by the Communists and (it is reported) now reside somewhere in the secret archives of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in Moscow.   Perhaps this weighed on Orwell as he wrote 1984, which opens with Winston Smith preparing to begin a diary, and knowing that in doing so he is practically sentencing himself to death.

From the totalitarian perspective, a diary, as a record of an individual’s private thoughts, is doubly dangerous. First, it is dangerous because it necessarily implies that an individual has private thoughts, that his mind is not entirely a receptacle for Party doctrine, and that heresy remains a possibility.  And second, it supplies a personal record of the past, which suggests that the past has an existence, so to speak, independent of any subsequent orthodoxy.

As Orwell wrote in one of his essays:

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.  One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events.  Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.

He ties this observation, at once, back to his conversation with Stephen Spender — “Political predictions are usually wrong” — and also looks forward to one of the themes of 1984:  “In private life most people are fairly realistic.  When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four.”

It is for just such reasons that Winston Smith’s diary “Even with nothing written in it . . . was a compromising possession.”  One needn’t record one’s secrets, or share one’s reservations about those in power.  One need not even have such secrets, or harbor such doubts.  Even with no heretical content or salacious detail, just by virtue of being what it is, a diary can be a kind of subversive literature.

Kristian Williams is the author, along with Crimethinc, of the pamphlet Anarchism and the English Language, English and the Anarchists’ Language. He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde’s radical politics.