Friday, 13 January 2012

Orwell's Effortless Essays

George Orwell
It’s a long time since I’ve read any of George Orwell’s essays, and I’d forgotten just how good they are. They tend to take second place to his novels, but personally I think they are much, much better, and the essay format seems to suit Orwell’s style. He writes about anything that catches his interest: books, authors, the art of writing, making tea, a toad, his ideal pub, his experiences as a policeman in colonial Burma, and politics – especially politics.

He writes with humour and passion, sharing his likes and dislikes, while his observations on human life and the world around him are always thought provoking – and it’s all in lovely crisp prose, with a wonderfully balanced structure and clearly expressed premise. He never put a word wrong, yet he makes it look so effortless.

It’s the small details that are often so telling in his essays. In A Hanging, written in 1931 and set in Burma, he realises the ‘unspeakable wrongness’ of cutting a life short when he sees the condemned man step aside to avoid a puddle.

An old Penguin edition of
one of Orwell's essay
Shooting an Elephant, is also set in Burma, based on a real incident when he was a sub-divisional police officer. An elephant escapes, and rampages through the bazaar,  causing damage, and killing a man. Orwell has no intention of killing the beast, but sends for a rifle to defend himself, and sets off to deal with the situation,  followed by a large crowd of natives. He tells us: “But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”

He makes the beast seem very vulnerable, despite its size, and his description is oddly accurate – elephants do have that slow, distracted, benign air possessed by some elderly ladies. Reluctant though he is, Orwell suddenly understands he will have to shoot the animal, even though it is now quiet and ignoring the crowd. “The people expected it of me and I had got to do it,” he says.  “I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.” He realises that the tyranny of the white man has destroyed his own freedom, and adds: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Orwell (real name Eric Blair) died in 1950. The world he writes about is long gone, and attitudes prevalent in the days of the British Empire are shockingly incorrect today, but he  was horrified by much of what he saw, and politics was the driving force in his life. He fought against totalitarianism in all forms, and believed in democratic socialism and freedom of intellect.

His politics and his writing were inextricably linked, as he explains in Why I Write, describing four main reasons for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. He tries to ‘fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’, and says: “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

A nice cup of tea - though I'm not sure Orwell would approve of it being
'Russian style', without milk.
If you’ve never read any of Orwell’s essays, and you don’t like politics, try reading A Nice Cup of Tea, in which he lists 11 rules for making a perfect cup tea – not an easy task when a weekly ration of 2oz made around 2o drinks.  Then there’s Books v Cigarettes, where he considers the cost of both habits; The Moon Under the Water, where he describes his ideal pub; Bookshop Memories; Boys’ Weeklies, Decline of the English Murder, and a host of others about books and authors.

Thanks to CarrieK who is hosting a reading challenge at I’ve had a wonderful couple of days immersed in Orwell’s essays after a gap of many years.


  1. I am going to have to get my hands on a collection of his essays - these sound like the kind of essays I absolutely love! Have you read Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small? I think you would like her work, too. :)

  2. Haven't read Anne Fadiman, but I will add her to my list, thank you.