Orwell’s Most Human Novel?

Whenever lists of the ‘greatest ever’ books are compiled, you will always find a couple of Orwell’s masterpieces close to the top.

 Animal Farm and 1984 are undeniably works of genius – in fact, I would go so far as to suggest that 1984 is the greatest book ever written in English. But there is another of Orwell’s books which rarely rates a mention which, to me, is a mystery as I regard it possibly as the most human of his novels.

 Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the story of Gordon Comstock and his longsuffering girlfriend Rosemary. Set in 1935, before the welfare state and the contraceptive pill, Gordon has made war on money. He believes that money has infiltrated, cheapened and commodified all human values and relationships, especially love. Therefore he has rejected the money world and lives a mean existence, scraping by on a bare minimum which enables survival but excludes the niceties.

 And yet Gordon craves the niceties. He loves beer, good food, cigarettes, literature, conversation and human contact, but will only accept them on his own terms. And Gordon’s terms are hard.

 He will not accept charity from Rosemary (because that is unthinkable in the patriarchal pre-war 30s).

 He will accept limited charity from his rich and generous friend Ravelston, but that acceptance is heavily conditional and when ultimately forced upon him he despises Ravelston. (Ravelston is that rarest of creatures in the 1930s – a rich socialist.)

 Most importantly, Gordon accuses Rosemary of not loving him because she refuses to sleep with him. Premarital sex was a big deal in the pre-pill era, especially in the lower middle class where genteel affectations were most prevalent, so it is difficult for modern readers to really relate to this important aspect of the novel. For Rosemary it is a moral matter, but Gordon is convinced that money is at the heart of it because if he was rich she would have no qualms about possible pregnancy.

 Gordon also has literary pretensions. He is a poet – author of the slim octavo volume Mice (shows exceptional promise said the Times Literary Supplement) – but the only genuine success he has achieved is to inspire the interest of the New Albion Advertising Agency which values skill with words. “But what is advertising,” thinks Gordon, “but the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket?”

 It is impossible to read Aspidistra without being aware of the parallels with Orwell’s own life. Orwell worked in a North London bookstore, had ‘difficulties’ with his romantic attachments (in particular, his unrequited feelings for Jacintha Buddicom) and of course he famously himself made war on money when he resigned from the Burmese police to become down and out in Paris and London.

 To some extent, that parallel is the key to the story’s flaw. Despite his best attempts, Gordon never truly did reject the money world. It was always possible for him to return to middle class respectability because he knew from Day One that the advertising agency respected his skill with words and would take him back like a shot. Similarly, middle-class Orwell, educated at Eton, was always able to go back, if he chose, to the support of his family, and while he never quite did that, he certainly extracted many favours from his large network of friends and admirers before achieving success.

 It is a small flaw. Aspidistra is a masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation and is also a superb historical document. It is amazing to think that it was set only 77 years ago, and yet much of the everyday experience of humans in that world is utterly alien to our own.

 It is tempting to suggest that both Gordon and Orwell are forerunners of the 1960s flower children, but I’m fairly certain Orwell would have hated hippies. He was pro-establishment in the end although it must be emphasised that he never saw a viable counter-culture despite having fought for one his entire life. One wonders what he might have produced had he lived to see, and be part of, the cultural revolution of the 60s…

Orwell died very early at 46 in January 1950. If he had lived until 1984, he would only have been 81 years old. What classics have we missed out on?

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