Keep the Aspidistra Flying

By: George Orwell

Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. The family moved to England in 1907 and in 1917 Orwell entered Eton, where he contributed regularly to the various college magazines. From 1922 to 1927 he served with the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). Several years of poverty followed. He lived in Paris for two years before returning to England, where he worked successively as a private tutor, schoolteacher and bookshop assistant, and contributed reviews and articles to a number of periodicals. Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. In 1936 he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to visit areas of mass unemployment in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is a powerful description of the poverty he saw there. At the end of 1936 Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Republicans and was wounded. Homage to Catalonia is his account of the civil war. He was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938 and from then on was never fully fit. He spent six months in Morocco and there wrote Coming Up for Air. During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC Eastern Service from 1941 to 1943. As literary editor of Tribune he contributed a regular page of political and literary commentary, and he also wrote for the Observer and later for the Manchester Evening News. His unique political allegory, Animal Farm, was published in 1945, and it was this novel, together with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him world-wide fame.

George Orwell died in London in January 1950. A few days before, Desmond MacCarthy had sent him a message of greeting in which he wrote: ‘You have made an indelible mark on English literature… you are among the few memorable writers of your generation.’

Peter Davison is Research Professor of English at De Montfort University, Leicester. He was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1926 and studied for a London External BA (1954) by correspondence course. He edited an Elizabethan text for a London MA (1957) and then taught at Sydney University, where he gained a Ph.D. He was awarded a D.Litt. and an Hon. D. Arts by De Montfort University in 1999. He has written and edited fifteen books as well as the Facsimile Edition of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the twenty volumes of Orwell’s Complete Works (with Ian Angus and Sheila Davison). He is a Past-President of the Bibliographical Society, whose journal he edited for twelve years. He was made an OBE in 1999 for services to literature.

A Note on the Text

Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published by Gollancz on 20 April 1936. Three thousand copies were run off, of which 2,194 were sold; most of the remainder were lost as the result of an air-raid. It was not published again in Orwell’s lifetime, only appearing in Secker & Warburg’s Uniform Edition in 1954 and in America in December 1955, published by Harcourt, Brace. Despite the fact that there is only one relevant edition, and that Orwell corrected the proofs, preparing a text in line with what Orwell originally wrote presents difficulties, some insoluble.

Orwell completed writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying by the beginning of 1936, and by the time he left London on 31 January 1936 for his journey north to gather material for The Road to Wigan Pier, he was under the impression that his text had been accepted. It was only as the proofs started to come through in February that fears were aroused at Gollancz, who then referred the book to their solicitor. Orwell was required to make drastic changes at proof stage and this he strongly resented. He was upset partly because he objected to such in-house censorship, and at so late a stage, and partly because he had to make the changes, using the same number of letters in order that his text would not overrun. Moreover, he had to do all this in a setting the grimness of which contrasted markedly with the bourgeois comforts that he was attacking as essentially worthless in the novel. After dealing with one series of objections, he wrote to his agent, Leonard Moore, with considerable bitterness, to say that had he been told these changes were required before type-setting began he would ‘have entirely rewritten the first chapter and modified several others… In general a passage of prose or even a whole chapter revolves round one or two key phrases, and to remove these, as was done in this case, knocks the whole thing to pieces.’ This letter was written on 24 February 1936, the day after Orwell’s descent into the Crippen pit, Wigan, about which he wrote with such feeling. What infuriated Orwell was that he was not allowed to link a description of the popular novels of Ethel M. Dell and Warwick Deeping as ‘garbage’ with the ‘synthetic garbage’ he refers to on page 4, line 2. A key phrase was cut (and one that cannot be restored). It is quite probable that, as with A Clergyman’s Daughter, it was not only weakness he perceived in his novel that led him to reject Keep the Aspidistra Flying later in his life, but the way it had been ‘garbled’. Although he wished neither of these books to be reprinted, he was not averse to their publication in cheap editions ‘which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs’ (Notes for his Literary Executor, 31 March 1945).