Orwell must have been a nightmare for publishers Victor Gollancz, with his penchant for writing about characters and places that he knew and only thinly cloaking them with a veneer of fiction. Burmese Days was originally rejected due to fear of libel, with recognisable links between fictional Kyauktada and the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. A Clergyman’s Daughter was the subject of many cuts and amendments to mask the reality of Orwell’s own experiences of hop-picking, school-teaching and working with the Church, that inspired the story. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, one of the major characters, Ravelston, was a barely concealed representation of Sir Richard Rees, who was the editor of The Adelphi magazine, a left-wing journal that published many of Orwell’s essays and other writings.
In addition to A Clergyman’s Daughter, this was the other book that Orwell wrote where he was displeased with the final result, and originally refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. In a letter to the Canadian literary critic, George Woodcock, he wrote that it “was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100 or so”. He retracted this decision later on – and interestingly, Orwell chose Rees as his literary executor, so he must have trusted him well!
Orwell’s epigraph for Keep the Aspidistra Flying was presaged in his previous book. The untrustworthy Mr Warburton had a favourite saying: “if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” This is exactly what Orwell has used for his epigraph; by taking verses 1 to 7 and the final verse 13 of that Bible extract, and replacing “charity” (or “love”, depending on your translation) with “money”, he creates something of a nightmare creed. “Though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, have not money, I am nothing.” Perhaps the most telling of all is verse 13: “And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.”
As I mentioned in my previous blog posts about Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter, I’m not attempting to write a serious criticism of the book – there are plenty of wise words out there written by much more able brains; instead I’m just wanting to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to his writing. So here’s my reaction to Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I found it a harder book to read than his previous two novels – Burmese Days in particular I read over the course of a weekend because I literally could not put it down. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, however, I read over the course of a few weeks, taking in a chapter at a time, considering it and processing it, before proceeding with the next chapter. It’s extremely intense, so taking it slowly helps you appreciate it more. It’s also written in a very episodic style, so each chapter is quite self-contained, as far as the story progresses. That makes it easier for you to pause before you continue.
However, the main issue with it, in comparison to the other books, is that its central hero, in this case Gordon Comstock, is for the most part thoroughly unlikeable. The reader can identify quite easily with John Flory and Dorothy Hare, even though aspects of their personalities are unappealing, because it takes a while for the negative aspects of their characters to show themselves – by which time Orwell has hooked you in. But Comstock instantly repels us – he’s snobbish, prejudiced, contrary, difficult – and in a reverse process from the other books, it’s only after reading quite a lot of the book that you can start identifying with certain aspects of him.
Comstock has taken a moral stance, not to follow the Money God but to derive satisfaction from actively working against it. It’s a conclusion he worked out by observing the behaviours of his own family. “There are two ways to live, he decided. You can be rich, or you can deliberately refuse to be rich. You can possess money, or you can despise money; the one fatal thing is to worship money and fail to get it.” On one hand, that’s quite a reasonable and even admirable attitude to take. The trouble is, he’s so priggish about it; he blames everyone and everything else for his problems, he takes it out on his family and friends, he’s selfish and immature; and every time something bad happens to him, secretly, we’re quite pleased. It’s only towards the end, when his degradation gets almost too much to bear, that we start to give him the benefit of the doubt.
He sees himself as a poet, whiling his time away in a dead-end library job, making up verse to help the day go by. When we first meet him, he’s ridiculing or patronising members of the public who come to the bookshop/library where he works. He judges the well-dressed businessman who heads straight for the D H Lawrence, “pining for a bit of smut”; he inwardly criticises the book choice of Mrs Weaver and admires that of Mrs Penn, purely on the basis of their class; he loathes the “moneyed artistic young man” referring to him as a Nancy and mocking his speech.
But his superiority disdain for his clients is a façade to conceal his own failure and underachievement. Although he’s the published author of Mice, it’s a book that no one ever reads, and of which he himself despairs. “Forty or fifty drab, dead little poems, each like a little abortion in its labelled jar […] The poems themselves are dead. There’s no life in them. Everything I write is like that. Lifeless, gutless, Not necessarily ugly or vulgar; but dead – just dead […] My poems are dead because I’m dead. You’re dead. We’re all dead. Dead people in a dead world.” His masterwork that will never be, London Pleasures, is a half-finished, half-hearted waste of time that he carries around in his pocket, ostensibly in case he ever gets the inspiration to add to it, but primarily to remind him of his failure. He aspires to living the archetypal life of a poet, struggling in some lonely filthy garret somewhere. That’s probably one of the few ambitions he has that he achieves. Otherwise, all he has to offer artistically is failure. In a revealing throwaway line he describes poetry to himself as “the last futility”.
In his imitable style, Orwell provides several evocative descriptions of Comstock’s miserable, lonely domestic existence. “He looked about him. Another evening wasted. Hours, days, years slipping by. Night after night, always the same. The lonely room, the womanless bed; dust, cigarette ash, the aspidistra leaves […] For a quarter of an hour, perhaps, he lay on the bed fully dressed, his hands under his head. There was a crack on the ceiling that resembled the map of Australia […] He held up one foot and looked at it. A smallish, delicate foot. Ineffectual, like his hands, Also, it was very dirty. It was nearly ten days since he had had a bath […] Then he turned out the gas and slid between the sheets, shuddering, for he was naked, He always slept naked. His last suit of pyjamas had gone west more than a year ago.”
He is a curiously contrary character who, whenever any form of success beckons, retreats in the other direction. When he starts doing well at New Albion, he chucks the job in. His boss Erskine would have understood if he was going for a better job, but he was just going to do writing, in a non-committal way. “Poetry? Make a living out of that sort of thing, do you think?” And of course he can’t. If he could have, he probably would have turned away from it. He came from a generally sterile family, the only surviving members being two ageing aunts and an irrelevant uncle, and his sister Julia who had spent her life in subjugation to her brother, “working a seventy-two hour week and doing her “sewing” at nights by the tiny gas-fire in her bed-sitting-room.” “As for Gordon’s branch of the family, the combined income of the five of them, allowing for the lump sum that had been paid down when Aunt Charlotte entered the Mental Home, might have been six hundred a year. Their combined ages were two hundred and sixty-three years. None of them had ever been out of England, fought in a war, been in prison, ridden a horse, travelled in an aeroplane, got married or given birth to a child. There seemed no reason why they should not continue in the same style until they died. Year in, year out, nothing ever happened in the Comstock family.”
His relationships are one-sided. He loves his girlfriend Rosemary on his own, controlling terms – which are more lust than love. He rides roughshod over Julia, borrowing money that she can scarcely afford and that he will never return. When he receives a ten pounds windfall, he instantly puts five aside to pay back to Julia – but you just know from the start that she’ll never receive it; on those rare occasions when Comstock does have money in his pocket he has no idea how to look after it and he just fritters it away pointlessly. He has no time for any of the other tenants in his block – presumably because their very presence there means they are failures; and he’s quick to perceive a slight against himself such as when he goes to Doring’s house for a party and the place is in darkness; he replies to Doring’s follow-up letter with the words “go to Hell”, thus removing another potential light from his otherwise dark world.
The only person he does have time for is Ravelston; he likes, admires and respects Ravelston but hates being financially needy and reliant on him. “Gordon sidled closer to Ravelston as they started down the pavement. He would have taken his arm, only of course one can’t do that kind of thing. Beside Ravelston’s taller, comelier figure he looked frail, fretful, and miserably shabby. He adored Ravelston and was never quite at ease in his presence. Ravelston had not merely a charm of manner, but also a kind of fundamental decency, a graceful attitude to life, which Gordon scarcely encountered elsewhere.” Eventually he even blocks Ravelston from his life, as his self-destructive quest for personal degradation reaches its worst. “He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered […] without regret, almost intentionally, he was letting himself go to pieces.” Today, we’d say that Comstock was suffering from depression. “He just lay there, flat on his back, sometimes smiling a little, as though there were some private joke between himself and the ceiling. The room had already the stuffy sweetish smell of rooms that have been lived in a long time and never cleaned. There were dirty crocks lying about in the fender.”
Orwell always adhered to the adage, write what you know about, and he continues to do that in this book. Elements of Comstock’s morose and poverty-stricken domestic existence are reminiscent of his experiences in Paris, as he wrote more about in Down and Out in Paris and London. “He had turned his collar inside out and tied his tie so that the torn place didn’t show. With the point of a match he had scraped enough blacking from the tin to polish his shoes […] he had procured an empty Gold Flake packet and put not it a single cigarette extracted from the penny-in-the-slot-machine. That was just for the look of the thing.” These are Down and Out tricks of survivial. The fact that Comstock deliberately turns away from money and chooses to attain poverty reminds us of Orwell’s own habit of deliberately living poor for a while, just to get the experience, although he could always return to his middle-class family for support whenever he wanted, unlike Comstock. In many ways Comstock is Orwell – and it’s fascinating that he always refers to him in the book as Gordon, not Comstock, as though he is very personally involved with and relates to the character.
As always, an Orwell book gives us an excellent insight into the societal themes of the time. From the start, Orwell is scathing of the advertising hoardings that bombard the public with marketing messages, designed to make you feel inadequate unless you buy the product being advertised. Not much has changed there over the last 85 years. “Of them all, the Bovex one oppressed Gordon the most. A spectacled rat-faced clerk, with patent-leather hair, sitting at a café table grinning over a white mug of Bovex. “Corner table enjoys his meal with Bovex,” the legend ran.” (Bovex was a type of Bovril drink, by the way.) Just as the advertisement sees the clerk purely in terms of being “corner table”, so does Comstock. “Corner Table grins at you, seemingly optimistic, with a flash of false teeth. But what is behind the grin? Desolation, emptiness, prophecies of doom. For can you not see, if you know how to look, that behind that slick self-satisfaction, that tittering fat-bellied triviality, there is nothing but a frightful emptiness, a secret despair? The great death-wish of the modern world. […] It is all written in Corner Table’s face.”
The business where Comstock used to work, New Albion, is described as “one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism.” No love lost there, then. London, the home of capitalism in Britain, he describes as “mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave! He saw men as corpses walking.”
Orwell had a lot to say about private education in A Clergyman’s Daughter and he has more personal recollections in this book, which he delivers through Comstock’s invective. His unhappy experience at St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, where he became very aware that he was from a much poorer background than his school colleagues, clearly comes out in Comstock’s memories of his own education. “Gordon’s life had been one long conspiracy to keep his end up and pretend that his parents were richer than they were. Ah, the humiliation of those days! That awful business, for instance, at the beginning of each term, when you had to “give in” to the headmaster, publicly, the money you had brought back with you; and the contemptuous, cruel sniggers from the other boys when you didn’t ”give in” ten bob or more. And the time when the others found out that Gordon was wearing a ready-made suit which had cost thirty-five shillings! […] His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of […] he carried about with him an atmosphere of failure, worry and boredom. And he had such a dreadful habit, when he was saying goodbye, of tipping Gordon half a crown right in front of the other boys, so that everyone could see that it was only half a crown and not, as it ought to have been, ten bob! Even twenty years afterwards the memory of that school made Gordon shudder.”
On women, Comstock is very uncomplimentary. “They’re a bloody curse. That is, if you’ve got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you’ve got no money […] the only thing a woman ever wants is money; money for a house of her own and two babies and Drage furniture and an aspidistra. The only sin they can imagine is not wanting to grab money. No woman ever judges a man by anything except his income […] and if you haven’t got money you aren’t nice. You’re dishonoured, somehow. You’ve sinned. Sinned against the aspidistra.” Ravelston’s girlfriend, the appalling Hermione, is given as an example. “She was rich, of course, or her people were […] “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes,” she used to say. “I hate them. They smell.” […] “Hermione, dear, please don’t call them the lower classes!” “Why not? They are the lower classes, aren’t they?” “It’s such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can’t you?” “The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same.” “You oughtn’t to say that kind of thing, “ he protested weakly. “Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you like the lower classes.” “Of course I like them.” “How disgusting. How absolutely disgusting.”
There’s also the latent racism of the age, which to be fair doesn’t arise very much, but is well expressed in this brief description of one of Comstock’s near neighbours: “In the garret adjoining Gordon’s there lived a tall handsome old woman who was not quite right in the head and her whole face was often as black as a Negro’s from dirt. Gordon could never make out where the dirt came from. It looked like coal dust. The children of the neighbourhood used to shout “Blackie!” after her as she stalked along the pavement like a tragedy queen, talking to herself.”
However, over and above everything else, money is the theme that matters in this book. Indeed, “money writes books, money sells them” concludes Comstock, as he gazes at the rows of books in the bookshop. “Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep – and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.”
It seeps into all sectors of society. “All human relationships must be purchased with money. If you have no money, men won’t care for you, women won’t love you”. It’s always been the case, Comstock would argue, as he quotes Chaucer: “if thou be poure, thy brother hateth thee” (from The Man of Law’s Tale). He sees the elderly people who try to sell their worthless books to him as a consequence of money’s place in society: “They were just by-products. The throw-outs of the money-god. All over London, by tens of thousands, draggled old beasts of that description, creeping like unclean beetles to the grave.” Money has replaced faith: “Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.” For Comstock, it even prevents sexual intercourse. “It dismayed him to find how little, at this moment, he really wanted her. The money-business still unnerved him. How can you make love when you have only eightpence in your pocket and are thinking about it all the time?” Indeed, Rosemary rejects his advances when it becomes clear he can’t afford something for the weekend.
He likens poverty to one of those complaints that the all-pervasive advertisements are designed to make us anxious: “It’s like those ads for Listerine. “Why is he always alone? Halitosis is ruining his career.” Poverty is spiritual halitosis.” And you can’t pretend to be poor when you’re not: “no rich man ever succeeds in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will out” – which must be Orwell delivering a side-swipe against himself.
Another by-product of the lack of money is charity. Early on, Comstock rejects Flaxman’s offer of a drink in the pub: “Oh for a pint of beer! He seemed almost to feel it going down his throat, If only he had had any money! Even sevenpence for a pint. But what was the use? Twopence halfpenny in pocket, You can’t let other people buy your drinks for you. “Oh, leave me alone, for God’s sake!” he said irritably, stepping out of Flaxman’s reach, and went up the stairs without looking back.” Later, he rejects Ravelston’s attempts to alleviate his money worries: “However delicately it is disguised, charity is still horrible; there is a malaise, almost a secret hatred, between the giver and the receiver.” Later, when he reflects that he and Ravelston never see each other anymore, Comstock concludes “their friendship was at an end, it seemed to him. The evil time when he had lived on Ravelston had spoiled everything. Charity kills friendship.”
There are endless references to money all the way through the book, but perhaps the most telling conclusion that Comstock – or perhaps Orwell – comes in a conversation Gordon has with Ravelston. “The mistake you make […] is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself […] But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing.”
Orwell brings up a couple of cultural references, which, given Comstock’s pretensions towards culture is perhaps unsurprising. As well as the Chaucer quotation earlier, he refers to “Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of R C propaganda” – a combination of Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton I guess – they were close associates and G B Shaw coined the name Chesterbelloc. It’s interesting to see Comstock’s reaction to the poet names on the bookshelf: “already on their way to heaven and oblivion, were the poets of yesteryear, the stars of his earlier youth. Yeats, Davies, Housman, Thomas, De La Mare, Hardy. Dead stars. Below them […] the squibs of the passing minute. Eliot, Pound, Auden, Campbell, Day Lewis, Spender. Very damp squibs, that lot. Dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading? But Lawrence was all right, and Joyce even better before he went off his coconut.” There’s a nice dig here at Eliot, who rejected Orwell’s writing for Faber; however, in 1940 Orwell wrote that “The writers I care about most and never grow tired of are: Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence.” Nevertheless, four years later, Eliot would still reject Animal Farm for Faber.
I enjoyed how Comstock regarded his more intellectual literary conversations with Mrs Penn, reader of John Galsworthy, instead of Mrs Weaver, reader of Ethel M Dell, as a “freemasonry of highbrows”. When he moves to the more downtrodden library later in the book, he realises he consumes the “yellow-jacketed trash that the library contained” because he didn’t want to put any effort into reading, or to reward himself with anything worthwhile. He’s an immense book snob.
As always, Orwell is a master of language, expressing ideas with wonderful imagination, using brilliant similes, even inventing words. Right at the start, he describes the “elvish children” on a “Rackhamesque dust-jacket” as “tripping Wendily through a bluebell glade”. There’s no such word as Wendily, but we know he means in the style of Peter Pan’s Wendy and you can easily imagine those elvish children. Towards the end, when he’s back in the world of advertising, Comstock has to promote a cure for PP Pedic Perspiration, even though “Gordon had searched for the word “pedic” in the Oxford Dictionary and found that it did not exist. But Mr Warner said “Hell! What did it matter anyway?” I’ve checked my Oxford English Dictionary and can confirm that it still hasn’t made it into that hallowed tome.
He describes a tram as a “raucous swan of steel”, which implies both its rattling noise but also its effortless gliding movement. Commuters on trams or tubes are a “strap-hanging army”, emphasising both the numbers of commuters and the fact that they aren’t enough seats to convey them – nothing changes there. He anthropomorphises the contents of the bookshop as women in various degrees of sexual experience. “Novels straight from the press” are described as “still unravished brides, pining for the paperknife to deflower them”. Review copies are “like youthful widows, blooming still though virgin no longer”, whilst remainder copies are “pathetic spinster-things […] still guarding hopefully their long preserv’d virginity”. Using the archaic “preserv’d” adds an air of classical literary respectability.
Other great turns of phrase are when the drunken Comstock is complaining about the reputations of great writers “with the fine scorn of the unpublished”; Comstock’s observation that “one’s contacts with rich people, like one’s visits to high altitudes, should always be brief”; his description of Mrs Meakin as having “a loving manner towards anything in trousers”; and Orwell’s brilliant account of Ravelston unwillingly enduring the filth and commonness of the ghastly pub where Comstock insisted on taking Ravelston in for a drink:
“Gordon came back balancing two pint glasses of dark common ale. They were thick cheap glasses, thick as jam jars almost, and dim and greasy. A thin yellow froth was subsiding on the beer. The air was thick with gunpowdery tobacco-smoke. Ravelston caught sight of a well-filled spittoon near the bar and averted his eyes. It crossed his mind that this beer had been sucked up from some beetle-ridden cellar through yards of slimy tube, and that the glasses had never been washed in their lives, only rinsed in beery water […] Ravelston […] swallowed a mouthful or so and set his glass gingerly down. It was typical London beer, sickly and yet leaving a chemical after-taste. Ravelston thought of the wines of Burgundy. They went on arguing about Socialism.” Not only is this a brilliantly visceral description, it also emphasises the disparity between the poor and the rich Socialist.
A few other thoughts and observations I had… when Comstock is flashing his cash and spending like there’s no tomorrow, Comstock reveals he has something of a split personality, where he has a sober, sensible half, and a reckless, drunken half. Orwell gives us this moment of truth: “Gordon was restless and thirsty. He had wanted to come here, but he was no sooner here than he wanted to escape. Drunken half was clamouring for a bit of fun. And drunken half wasn’t going to be kept in check much longer. Beer, beer! cried drunken half.” It reminded me so much of Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears, if you’ve ever seen that production. Furthermore, Comstock’s angry letter to his friend (ex-friend) Doring, penned in a fury and posted without thought reminded me of something between a drunken text and a troll tweet. No form of communication is ever really new!
There’s an inconsistency with how Orwell describes Ravelston’s income. Orwell tells us that, after income tax, his income was “probably two thousand a year.” Yet a short while earlier, he tells us Ravelston earns eight hundred a year. That’s a rather unusual proofing mistake, unless I’m misreading it. By the way, two thousand a year in today’s value equals something in the region of 100k. Not absolute topflight, but a pretty good income no matter what.
The fictitious Brewers Yard, just off Lambeth Cut, where Comstock ends up bedding down at Mrs Meakin’s, is described as an utter hell-hole. However, take a walk on the streets off The Cut today and you’ll find yourself in a swanky, trendy and genteel part of London that’s the envy of everyone. Interesting how times change!
There’s two things I haven’t really mentioned. First – the plot twist, so to speak, that reveals Comstock to be essentially much more traditional and indeed materialistic than Rosemary, who you sense will carry on to be something of a free spirit. Is it a credible ending? It’s driven, not so much by his desire to follow Mammon, but more to steer away from what he feels is immoral – specifically, he won’t countenance Rosemary having an abortion. I don’t feel it lacks credibility, although it is very sudden, and you’d be forgiven for feeling a little like he’s strangely let the side down.
And finally, there’s the symbolism of the aspidistra. All the way through, aspidistras haunt Comstock, whether they be intimidatingly healthy or dusty and dying. It’s a symbol of everything that Comstock has always despised; wealth, stability, middle-class, aspirational, something given far more prominence in people’s lives than it really ought. The story comes full circle at the end when he and Rosemary have a disagreement about whether to invest in an aspidistra as a mark of their outwardly respectable marriage and family; in the end, he wins, and they buy one. He’s now really let the side down!
It is an intriguing book; less of a good read than his others to date, but there is a lot to think about and a lot to appreciate. As in the end of A Clergyman’s Daughter, the hero disappoints us by not following through and being the person we really want them to be. But Comstock is his own man and will do what he wants, whether it’s right or wrong. And at least, the (literal) sterility of the Comstock family will finally come to an end, so there’s an element of hope at the book’s conclusion.
Next in my George Orwell Challenge is a return to the essay format, and Shooting An Elephant, first published in New Writing magazine in September 1936, later published in book format as part of a collection of essays in 1950. It’s a return to Orwell’s Burma days; only ten paperback-size pages long, but I expect it to be as powerful a piece as A Hanging. I look forward to reading it over the next month or so and I hope you’ll join me in tracking down a copy too.