Old Mrs Pither and friends: Annotating George Orwell.

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Author: D.J. Taylor
Date: June 4, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6166)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,466 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

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WHY ANNOTATE ORWELL'S NOVELS? One compelling answer is that we now have the freedom to do so. Orwell died in January 1950, meaning that all six of them came out of copyright in the UK at the start of this year. Transatlantic reprint programmes, based on the ninety-five-years-from-first-publication rule, will have to wait until as late as 2029. Here in Britain, on the other hand, a vault guarded by the seneschals of Messrs Penguin Random House and its predecessor firms these past seventy years has just creaked open, and any old aspiring editor or zealous footnoter can go and wander about inside.

Another is that, in terms of the period detail which can weigh down the most evergreen classic, Orwell's fiction is beginning to show its age. This is especially true of the four prewar novels, Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939), each of which comes stuffed with references to Woodbines and De Reszkes (brands of cigarettes), the Boots Circulating Library, Express Dairies, gorblimey hats (a kind of First World War-era forage cap) and Dr Palmer (William Palmer, 1824-56, the celebrated "Rugeley Poisoner").

Meanwhile, even a reader thoroughly au fait with the minutiae of bygone urban life, its three-piece suites bought on the HP from Drage's furniture store or the "joeys" (silver threepenny bits) at which the shop-girls sneer, may need a cipher to Burmese Days, whose off-duty colonial administrators, when not attending to the memsahibs and their kit-kit ("officious meddling"), sit gossiping about the Pegu Club, General Dyer, the Pagett MPs, dak bungalows and Smart & Mookerdum's bookshop in Rangoon. And all this is to ignore the frequent mention of magazines that no longer exist and long-superannuated library favourites such as Michael Arlen and William J. Locke.

Like the clerical protocols on which George Eliot dwells so lovingly in "Mr Gilfil's Love Story" in Scenes of Clerical Life, much of this detail is merely incidental. It tells us about the world through which Orwell's characters move, rather than the mental processes which led him to create them: a series of landscapes which, in their paraphernalia, are not so very different from J. B. Priestley's or Patrick Hamilton's, to name only two novelists with whom his 1930s output is occasionally compared. In fact, Orwell's creative techniques are surprisingly tricksy, and one of the signature marks of a novel like Coming Up for Air is the game-playing that turns out to be going on beneath its surface.

Some of Orwell's playfulness takes in the simple act of character-naming. This is hardly ever arbitrary, much more likely, once the trails are pursued back into the compost of Orwell's early life, to involve symbolism, figurative sleight-of-hand, or sly references to friends and acquaintances. "Winston Smith" is, naturally, a social hierarchy-transcending amalgam of Winston Churchill and everyman, "Miss Mayfill", who declines to swell the collection plate in A Clergyman's Daughter, belongs to the Victorian tradition of medics with names such as "Slaughter"...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A667421084