Orwell News

George Orwell was born the same year as Evelyn Waugh and they became acquainted  in the late 1940s shortly before Orwell’s death. They admired each other’s writing but had different political and religious views (although both agreed in their opposition to Communism). The following articles relating to Orwell may be of interest to our readers:

–Obituaries have appeared in both the US and UK announcing the death of Peter Davison (1926-2022). He was a literary scholar and academic best known for his editing of the The Complete Works of George Orwell. This took over 17 years and was completed with vol. XX that appeared in 1998. According to D J Taylor, writing in the Guardian:

Without the efforts of Peter Davison, who has died aged 95, our knowledge of the life and works of George Orwell would be immeasurably the poorer. In an editorial engagement that extended for nearly three-and-a-half decades, Davison turned himself into a one-man Orwell industry: his 20-volume George Orwell: The Complete Works (1998) is rightly regarded as one of the triumphs of late 20th-century publishing.

This achievement is all the more remarkable in that Davison’s career as an Orwell scholar did not begin until he was in his mid-50s. At an age when most academics are settling into comfortable retirement, he was working eight hours a day on the voluminous output of a man whom he regarded as the greatest writer of his age.

Davison’s enlistment as an Orwell scholar came out of the blue. He had spent a quarter of a century teaching literature at Birmingham, Lampeter and Kent universities, specialising in Elizabethan textual scholarship and gaining a reputation for indefatigable hard work: his one-time colleague the novelist David Lodge remembered that his departure from Birmingham left 17 committee posts to fill.

In September 1981, shortly before he took early retirement, he was telephoned by the publisher Tom Rosenthal of Secker & Warburg and asked if he would be prepared to “look over” a forthcoming edition of the six novels and three works of non-fiction Orwell had published in his lifetime. Publication was set for 1984.

Rosenthal assured him that little was needed in the way of amendment. Davison, on the other hand, found himself having to check the books against nearly 50 extant editions and manuscripts. Out of this initial contract – Davison was initially paid at the princely rate of £100 a volume – grew the altogether mammoth undertaking of George Orwell: The Complete Works.

In the mid-1980s Orwell studies barely existed. Bernard Crick had written his pioneering biography George Orwell: A Life (1980) and Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia had co-edited the four-volume Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters (1968), but vast amounts of uncollected articles and lost correspondence awaited rediscovery in ancient files.

Assisted by Angus and Davison’s wife Sheila – who devoted herself to the project – and eking out his pension by taking on the additional burden of the secretaryship of the Albany building in Piccadilly, Davison set to work.

The 17 years it took to get all 20 volumes into print were marked by a series of disasters. The first three books did not appear until 1986 and had to be pulped as the printers had used an uncorrected version of Davison’s texts. Subsequently the edition was abandoned six times by its publishers (Secker in London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in New York): after each abandonment Davison carried on regardless. There was a further setback in 1995 when his doctors advised him to have a sextuple heart bypass.

It was not until 1998 that the books finally appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, to a chorus of praise in which Davison sometimes seemed to achieve equal billing with his subject. As another of Orwell’s biographers, Michael Shelden, put it: “In America such an enormous undertaking would be likely to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of government funding … But Davison has had to get by on a few thousand pounds advanced to him by his British and American publishers … One can only marvel at the devoted service one British scholar has given to that genius [Orwell].”…

The ongoing Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project will ultimately extend over more than twice as many volumes (total 41) as the Orwell collection. Waugh lived 15 years longer than Orwell and wrote more books, journalism and correspondence during his working life. Fortunately, there are more people at work on the Waugh project, and by the end of this year, 12 of the projected volumes will have been published. The goal in both cases seems to be the same–to publish a definitive edition of the author’s work consistent with his intentions at the time of his death. Whether the Orwell editions contain the detailed manuscript development material included in the Waugh editions exceeds my experience with the Orwell editions.

The Spectator has recently reposted a 2011 feature length article about Orwell’s views of religion, in particular his disregard for Roman Catholicism. This is entitled “Orwell vs God ” and was written by Robert Gray, who included this brief mention of Orwell’s and Waugh’s views of each other:

…Perhaps Evelyn Waugh divined something of Orwell’s buried spirituality when he wrote to congratulate him on Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and subsequently visited him in the nursing home at Cranham in Gloucestershire. On the other side, one of Orwell’s last attempts at writing was to draw up notes for an essay on Waugh, who, he considered, ‘is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding unacceptable opinions’.

Waugh’s later novella Love Among the Ruins (1953) was in a sense his “answer” to 1984 since he brought into his dystopia a consideration of the element of religion that he felt was missing from that of Orwell’s.

UPDATE (22 September 2022): Edits added.

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