Fleeing from Triumph

George Orwell
A Life in Letters
Edited by Peter Davison
Norton/Liveright Publishing, $35, 560 pp.

Probably the most astonishing feat of editing a notable literary figure from the last century is Peter Davison’s edition of George Orwell’s works. Completed in 1998, its twenty volumes run to nine thousand pages; eight volumes contain his novels, with the remainder made up of essays, reviews, and letters. From the roughly seventeen hundred letters Orwell wrote, Davison has now made a generous selection, annotated with insight and without pedantry, presented in a volume that will go some way, he hopes, toward “offering the autobiography that Orwell did not write.”

The tale told by these letters, especially in their latter stages, is a gripping one. Orwell died of tuberculosis in a London hospital in 1950 at age forty-six, just after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel that would make him famous. “He fled from triumph,” remarked one of his biographers, and the last triumph he managed to avoid was a book that would never thereafter be out of print. Short of cash for most of his life, at his death he possessed the equivalent, in today’s currency, of 250,000 pounds.

One of the many virtues of this selection is its inclusion of a number of letters by Orwell’s wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who, in a horrible mischance, died in 1945 at thirty-nine while under...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.