An Age Like This (1920–1940)

by George Orwell

Cover image

Series: Collected Writing #1
Editor: Sonia Orwell
Editor: Ian Angus
Publisher: Nonpareil
Copyright: 1968
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 1-56792-133-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 551

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George Orwell (the pseudonym used by Eric A. Blair originally only for his book-length work, adopted shortly before publication of his first book) is best known today for his satirical, dystopian novels Animal Farm and, particularly, 1984, which is now a classic of English literature taught to high school students. During his lifetime, however, he was best known for his journalism and essays. An Age Like This is the first volume of a four-volume collection of his short non-fiction work and surviving personal letters, omitting journalism with no import outside of when it was written and letters of no significance, but including all available essays and many personal letters.

I bought this first volume after reading several of Orwell's essays that are freely available on-line (specifically "Looking Back on the Spanish War", which isn't in this volume, and "Boys' Weeklies", which is) and being so impressed by his clear writing and intelligent commentary that I wanted to read a great deal more. Still, I always approach a comprehensive collection such as this with some trepidation. Often selective collections are selective for a reason; a comprehensive collection may accomplish little other than adding failed and uninteresting material, rough drafts, and other dross. Much to my delight, it became clear that was not the case within fifty pages. This 550 page volume has kept me engrossed for a week and pushed entirely aside the novel I was reading at the same time. Immediately upon finishing it I ordered the other three volumes.

The consistent level of quality is doubtless partly due to Orwell's own practice of not keeping large quantities of notebooks, rough drafts, unpublished writing, and the other material that usually makes up an author's papers. Apart from the personal letters, everything included here was written and accepted for publication, and the version included is generally the version edited for publication. But even in his personal correspondance, Orwell is succinct, expressive, and forthright.

Despite the quantity of personal correspondance included here, particularly from before Orwell became established as a writer, this collection is not very autobiographical. Orwell mentions personal affairs but doesn't discuss them at length; meeting and marrying Eileen O'Shaughnessy, which happens during the time period, is only mentioned in a small handful of letters (and primarily in the context of worries over whether they'll have sufficient money to make the marriage work). I liked this effect. One is never overwhelmed with biographical minutia, but enough tidbits are mentioned in passing to piece together a mental picture of Orwell's day-to-day concerns and experiences as a struggling writer. Like all the material of this book, it doesn't wear out its welcome.

Orwell's primary themes in the time period covered by An Age Like This can be roughly grouped into two: writing about the poor and working class in England in the 1930s, and writing about the Spanish Civil War, its aftermath, and the build-up to World War II. Intermixed with both are regular book reviews, which Orwell wrote regularly for several publications throughout this period, and essays on other topics (primarily literary). They're largely unconnected with the other material (except in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which affected Orwell so deeply that even all of his book reviews for a time afterwards are of books about the war) but are enjoyable reading in their own right, even if many of the books reviewed have passed into obscurity.

An Age Like This starts a bit slow, as Orwell's early material is not quite as well-written or well-polished as the work later in this volume, but his essays about the life of tramps, migrant workers, and working class families are remarkable examples of investigative journalism. He writes about their lives after having joined them, lived with them, and done the work alongside them. He describes a spike (a homeless shelter, essentially) from personal experience, with vivid and concise detail. He tries to get himself thrown into prison so that he can write about the conditions. And in each essay he tries to capture the emotional impression and the mindset of the people he's around, with bits of vivid description that humanize everyone involved.

One of the four longer pieces included here is a diary Orwell kept while researching The Road to Wigan Pier, a non-fiction book on the English working class (which I immediately ordered after reading this collection). For that research, Orwell travelled into coal mining territory and stayed with mining families and describes his impressions both of the mine and of the surrounding living conditions and towns. This is fascinating material even if one is already familiar with the brutal working conditions in a coal mine, full of sharply observed details and real journalistic research (exact sums of weekly incomes and expenditures, descriptions of families, and impressions of different towns). Orwell has a knack for finding bits of day-to-day life that capture the essence of a situation. I'll never forget his analysis of the lack of funding and availability of baths for coal miners and the implications for simple cleanliness, which he combines with trenchant commentary on those who claim that miners just aren't interested in being clean.

At the end of 1936, Orwell enlisted to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the side of one of the communist groups against Franco. He served on the front until wounded by a sniper. Much of the rest of An Age Like This is concerned with the Spanish Civil War, Orwell's disgust with the way in which it was reported and misreported in the English press, and the complicated, multi-sided conflicts between Marxism, anarchism, democratic socialism, capitalism, fascism, and Soviet communism. Orwell entered the Spanish Civil War a cautious leftist and came out of it a believer in democratic revolutionary socialism and strongly opposed to Soviet communism, a position that modern history at least in the US has nearly written out of existence. The essays, letters, and book reviews here take apart the multiple sides in the Spanish Civil War and recomplicate it far beyond the simplistic communist versus fascist treatment one often hears.

The Spanish Civil War leads into the build-up of war with Hitler, which Orwell also complicates and shows sides that aren't part of the modern mythology of a grand, just war of good democracies against evil fascists. Orwell works through his deeply ambivalent feelings towards the war in letters and essays, writing about the growth of fascism in the English government, the Soviet-backed communism that was essentially the same thing in different clothing but was the only accepted political alternative on the left, and the lack of a credible political alternative to address the underlying problems that he saw. Orwell is not a pacifist but starts opposed to a war that seems designed to do little but favor one set of fascists over another, comes around reluctantly to fighting Hitler as a necessity, is deeply suspicious of an alliance with Stalin, and feels the stir of patriotism and distrusts it simultaneously. His letters capture the uncertainty and dire pessimism of the time better than any other material I've read on the start of World War II. It's telling that the Britain that Orwell describes is practically unknown to someone with only a typical US schooling in history (I can't speak for British). We've conveniently forgotten that fascism was ever popular outside of Germany.

And there's yet more in this volume. The full contents of the essay collection Inside the Whale and Other Essays are included here: a fascinating analysis of Dickens as a class writer and social and moral reformer, an extended review of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and an essay on the political and class world-view of the boys' weeklies. Included also is the rebuttal reply from the editor of one of those weeklies, which is delightful and unintentionally humorous in its steadfast defense of keeping from boys all concerns of politics or economic problems and glorifying nobility since nobles are a better sort of person. There are also essays on a wide variety of topics, including a delightful retrospective on working in a bookstore.

This is fasciating writing. Orwell, through both letters about his own life and his writings about the world around him, provides a depth of insight, observation, and analysis of the 1930s that restores the richness and complexity missing from popular history. He does so in compelling, succinct essays that kept me up reading late into the night. If you like politics or book reviews, it's an easy sell, but I was even hooked on descriptions of social conditions and days in the life of the working class, types of writing that I usually find unreadably boring. The chronological presentation mixes different topics together so that none get too tiring, and also provides a picture of the growth of a writer and a writer's career that is interesting for much the same reasons that reading the blogs of authors today is interesting. Highly recommended.

Followed by My Country Right or Left.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-07-05

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