People who have read and enjoyed George Orwell's works will find a great deal to interest them in these diaries. The books and essays bring us George Orwell the `writer'; these diary entries bring us Orwell, (or to be precise, Eric Arthur Blair) the `individual'. They are a revealing glimpse into an intriguing mind.
Orwell tended to write as if his life depended on it and he invariably put his views across in as straightforward and plain-speaking a manner as possible. Even his reviews of other writers' works seem to be suffused with his own need to put down on paper the expansion of an argument or line of thought. Here in these diaries we see this familiar tendency but we also see in his `Domestic Diary' (of which more later) how this almost obsessive part of his personality played its role in his day to day life.
There are a number of diaries included in the book. The selection begins with the `Hop-Picking Diary' from 1931, (many of the events therein being used in `A Clergyman's Daughter'), then moves forward to 1936 and `The Road to Wigan Pier Diary'. This gives a detailed insight into the famous journey he took to expose the living and working conditions suffered by the working classes in the north of England during the thirties, including his trips underground to investigate what working life was really like for the miners. Reading it gives us an opportunity to see Orwell gathering some of his source material for the book and also demonstrates the discomforts and indignities he often willingly put himself through to do so.
The `Morocco Diary' covers late 1938 and the first quarter of 1939. Orwell and his wife went there following advice he received to spend winter in a warmer climate after he suffered illness in 1938. The diary demonstrates his customary inquisitiveness about his new environment and the domestic and working habits of the local population. Interestingly, whilst in Morocco he wrote `Coming Up For Air'; the novel where Orwell's main character narrates a nostalgic evocation of the rural England he grew up in which has ultimately disappeared as a result of `progress', what replaces it now being in turn threatened by the imminence of war.
The war is here covered by his `Diary of Events Leading Up to the War', `War-time Diary' and `Second War-time Diary'. Orwell's work for the B.B.C.'s Overseas Service during the war and the contacts he thereby made put him in a position on occasion to hear snippets of privileged information which were not known by the wider public at the time. In his diaries we often find him analysing this information and conjecturing about what was happening behind the scenes in the corridors of power and what it might mean for the war effort. Of course, he could go way off-beam, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see, in general terms at least, how often he was right.
And so back to the `Domestic Diary'. I admit to initially finding the early parts of this, covering the period August '38 to April '40 at the cottage he rented with his wife Eileen, at Wallington, Hertfordshire, boring by comparison with the rest of the book. And I think it is pretty safe to bet that I will not have been the only reader who was tempted to skip a few entries upon reading yet again about how many eggs Orwell's hens had laid on a particular day or during a particular week - something he eventually makes a note of at the end of most entries. But I resisted the temptation by reminding myself that this diary was not written for us to read or make judgement upon; this is the man's personal diary, and if Orwell wanted to jot down how many eggs his hens knocked out each week, likewise record his goat's milk-yield and the success or otherwise of various projects, then that was his business alone. Indeed, I came to recognise this as another example of his fastidious nature, which we are so familiar with in his writing, demonstrating itself here in the way he managed domestic matters. He takes the same approach with the cottage garden, drawing up detailed plans of what vegetables and flowers he is going to plant and where. He keeps careful note of the weather and the progress or otherwise of his crops. Eventually I was drawn in and regarded it all for what it is - a rare chance to see the everyday Orwell, free from the interpretation of a biographer. Good Orwell biographies exist, but in the absence of an autobiography and the unbelievable lack so far of any sound recording or archive film of the man being discovered, I suppose these diaries and his letters provide the closest opportunity the average reader such as myself has to gain a somewhat more rounded understanding of one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.
Sadly, Eileen died in hospital at the end of March 1945, it is thought as a reaction to the anaesthetic she was given just before being taken down for an operation. The `Domestic Diary' continues from May 1946 covering Orwell's time at `Barnhill' on the island of Jura in the Hebrides. Here, as well as organising and working on the smallholding, which was a considerable undertaking in itself, he spent time with his young son Richard, who he and Eileen had adopted shortly before her death. It was at Jura that Orwell wrote `1984', often typing whilst sitting up in bed as his own illness came to considerably weaken him in the latter quarter of the decade. His younger sister Avril looked after him and took on an increasing role in the running of `Barnhill'. She also contributed some diary entries whilst he left the island for periodic stays in hospital.
Orwell married Sonia Brownell on 13th October 1949. The couple did not have long to enjoy their life together. He died on 21st January 1950.
I would recommend that anyone buying this book should also buy its companion `A Life in Letters'. Between these two books the reader should achieve a pretty good acquaintance with the personality behind the name `George Orwell'.
Ultimately, an absorbing and revealing read.