Writer’s Study: George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Orwell’s early novel about the struggles of the writer

Depending on your tastes, you can blame or congratulate George Orwell for Wetherspoons. When Tim Martin founded his chain of British pubs in the late 1970s, he took as his inspiration – a sort of unofficial literary blueprint, if you will – an essay of Orwell’s, ‘The Moon under Water’, published in the London Evening Standard in 1946. To this day, a number of Wetherspoon pubs are named The Moon under Water in honour of Orwell’s think piece, including the one in my hometown, Milton Keynes.

Although principally known for his last two novels about totalitarianism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and for his political essays about big questions surrounding nationalism, fascism, and Communism, George Orwell also wrote well about petty poverty, the writer’s life (see his ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, also from 1946), and the English obsession with money, usually with having too little of it. And he did all of these in his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which may not be a great novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but is firmly – at least for my money – in the ‘good’ category. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell captures the struggles of the aspiring writer with almost pitch-perfect attention to psychological detail, exploring the gulf between art and life, and art and money, for that matter.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying focuses on Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet, who has dreams of making it big in the literary world. Certainly, he spends his days surrounded by books, quite literally: he works in a small bookshop in London. Gordon had had a well-paid job as an advertising copywriter, but he’d thrown it up in favour of a more modest job so he would be free to write poetry. However, he finds it difficult to get inspired and writes virtually no poetry while working at the bookshop. A long-suffering ‘girlfriend’ of Gordon’s, Rosemary, and his friend, the upper-class Ravelston (a sort of champagne socialist), are the other chief characters in the novel, as we follow Gordon’s journey through rejection, writer’s block, inspiration, selling a poem, celebrating by splashing out and spending all the money he’s earned, and ending up … well, it would be churlish to offer spoilers now, wouldn’t it?

I’ve read Keep the Aspidistra Flying twice, and even taught it one year to my students at Loughborough. One of the things we discussed in seminars was the ending. It’s easy to view Comstock’s decision to marry Rosemary and go to work for the advertising company as an act of tragic resignation (he’s resigned to the cult of the aspidistra and to the money-god). Certainly, Orwell’s narration appears to gesture towards such a conclusion. But I think we can alternatively see this ending as Comstock’s reluctant decision to grow up and take responsibility, perhaps (perish the thought) even finally finding happiness and proper love with Rosemary. Yet this reading strikes me as too much against the grain of what Orwell’s novel has been gearing us up for throughout. What raises the doubt is the focalisation question: the narrator’s voice is so close to Gordon’s own for much of the novel, so we cannot be sure whether Orwell’s narrator is tacitly endorsing Gordon’s view of money and middle-class respectability as evil, or whether the narrator is deliberately giving Gordon enough rope to hang himself with for his silly, immature views. Orwell’s own attitude to class – both the middle classes and working classes – was complex enough to leave the issue hanging, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable.

Certainly, when the narrator attacks money and the worship of money, there is something unusually excessive about the narrative voice which suggests it is Gordon Comstock speaking through the narrator at such points. The third-person narrator also occasionally distances us from Gordon: for instance, the narrator reminds us that there are others who are far poorer than Gordon (who can, at least, afford to keep himself alive), but Gordon doesn’t seriously contemplate them – but at other points this same narrator allows Gordon’s thoughts to intrude on the narrative style, taking over in an aggressive form of free indirect style. This creates a gap between the reader and Gordon, meaning that we are not intended to be fully in sympathy with Gordon and his actions, and are supposed to see him as flawed, stubborn, selfish, frustrating, and immature at times.

Although it’s not in the same league as Orwell’s 1940s fiction, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a fine study of the clash between artistic ambition and more immediate material desires: sexual lust, the longing for love, and the need for a regular source of income. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was adapted for film in 1997, with Richard E. Grant as Gordon Comstock and Helena Bonham Carter as Rosemary. I remember being very fond of the film when I first saw it, not because it’s a remarkable piece of cinema (although the central performances are solid), but because any aspiring writer cannot but help enjoying it, I think. If that’s you and you haven’t seen this film yet, I recommend it.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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