29 August 2008

George Orwell and Lionel Britton

In the April 1931 issue of The Adelphi George Orwell (who at the time was writing under his real name Eric Blair) reviewed Lionel Britton’s first (and only published) novel Hunger and Love at some length. He calls the book ‘entirely sound’ as a ‘social document’, but fails to recognize it as a novel as such: it is more of ‘a kind of monologue on poverty’.(1) Although (among other things) Orwell found the repetitions annoying, the novel made a lasting impression on him.(2)

In a Home Service radio broadcast in 1940, Orwell specifically singles out Hunger and Love — with some reservations — as ‘an outstanding book’ of the sub-genre. It is remarkable that he remembers the book so vividly from when he reviewed it almost ten years previously. Unfortunately, Loraine Saunders's new book mentions nothing of this, citing almost entirely negative things that Orwell says about Hunger and Love, (although she at least acknowledges that it's significant that Britton's 'uniquely modernist style' didn't appeal to Orwell).(3)

There is a strong case for arguing that Lionel Britton had an influence of Orwell’s work; Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) has a number of moments which could easily have been inspired by Britton, and the example below from Coming Up for Air (1939) seems to bear the distinct hallmark of Britton’s writing: the enumeration, the conspiracy theory and the sense of urgency all suggest a pastiche of Britton’s Hunger and Love:

‘And all the soul-savers and Nosey Parkers, the people whom you’ve never seen but who rule your destiny all the same, the Home Secretary, Scotland Yard, the Temperance League, the Bank of England, Lord Beaverbrook, Hitler and Stalin on a tandem bicycle, the bench of Bishops, Mussolini, the Pope — they were all of them after me. I could almost hear them shouting:

There’s a chap who thinks he’s going to escape! There’s a chap who says he won’t be streamlined! He’s going back to Lower Binfield! After him! Stop him!’.(4)

(1) The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. by Peter Davison, 20 vols (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986–1998; rev. and updated 2000), A Patriot After All: 1940–1941, pp. 203–05. (Originally published as ‘Poverty — Plain and Coloured’ by ‘Eric Blair’, Adelphi, April 1931, pp. 80–82.)

(2) Orwell was, of course, soon to publish the non-fictional Down and Out in Paris and London, and would have been particularly interested in Britton‘s account of poverty in the capital.

(3) Loraine Saunders, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from "Burmese Days" to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 10–11.

(4) George Orwell, Coming up for Air (London: Gollancz, 1939; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), pp. 173–74.

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