Keep the Aspidistra Flying - Page 1

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  • 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).

    A search of the files of Victor Gollancz Ltd brought to light several pages of the original typescript of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and correspondence between Orwell and his publisher about the changes that were required. The objections can be grouped under three headings: 1. Advertising; 2. Names of people and companies, etc.; 3. Alleged obscenity. Some of this information is in sufficient detail to enable the original text to be restored. (Page/line numbers are given in brackets.)

    1. Advertising: The advertising character, ‘Roland Butta’, had to be changed to ‘Corner Table’ (4/9). As Orwell explained, the new name ‘has the same number of letters and to some extent preserves the effect of Lyons teashops etc. without referring to any real advertisement’. The link, presumably, was with Messrs Lyons’s Corner House restaurants. Throughout the novel, Orwell used a number of genuine advertising slogans. It was decided that all these had to go. ‘Have a Camel’ was omitted, as was ‘Earn £5 in Your Free Time’; ‘Are you a Highbrow… Dandruff is the Reason’ was replaced by ‘Kiddies Clamour for their Breakfast Crisps’, and a ‘Night Starvation’ advertisement by ‘Prompt Relief for Feeble Kidneys’; ‘Guinness is good for you’ was cut out and ‘Get that waistline back to normal’ substituted—and so on. Orwell explained that in making these changes he had ‘equalised the letters but [I] have altered the order entirely and have stuck in slips of paper showing how it should read. I hope the compositor will get this right.’ ‘Bovex’ also presented problems. Its name was too like Bovril, Oxo, Beefex, etc., but Orwell insisted there was no meat extract called Bovex: ‘Now that the remark about “garbage” is cut out there is no comment on the quality of the things advertised, only a protest against the whole business of advertisement.’

    2. Names of people and companies, etc.: Orwell had to remove the names of specific furniture stores—Times Furnishing and Drage’s—on page 274 somewhere about lines 20—27, and ‘Drage’ at 126/21. The business—college at 56/11 was originally called Clark’s College. The name The Hamp-stead and Camden Town Messenger (211/16) was cut out and even the Waterloo Rad (222/7) had to be delocalised. Understandable fears were expressed that Mr McKechnie was based on Orwell’s former employer at Booklovers’ Corner, Francis Westrope. Orwell explained that McKechnie is ‘an old man with white hair & beard who is a teetotaller and takes snuff. My late employer… is a middle-aged clean-shaven man who is not a teetotaller & never takes snuff… If you really wish I will get him to furnish a written undertaking not to bring a libel action.’

    3. Alleged obscenity: It is possible to restore much of what has so far been described. Unfortunately, Gordon Comstock’s abortive love-making with Rosemary at Burnham Beeches cannot be printed as Orwell wrote it. Gollancz’s lawyer advised that pages 155—7 should ‘be considered very carefully from the point of view of alleged obscenity’. Orwell’s response is poignant: ‘I have altered certain passages here in Mr Gollancz’s office and I think he has now no objection.’ Gollancz walked a knife-edge in the matter of risking legal action and his caution was justified, but for Orwell there must have been some humiliation in rewriting his novel at his publisher’s desk. Yet Orwell also showed a certain innocence in these matters. It was suggested that ‘Come here. Not a bad mouth. Come here.’ (197/6—7) should be excised ‘for reasons wh. it wd. be easier to explain in conversation than in writing!’ (and this was a handwritten note added to a typed letter so that the typist should not be shamed). Orwell was nonplussed. ‘Not altered,’ he replied. ‘Cannot see any dirty meaning here.’ It was allowed to stand.

    Where restoration is possible, this has been done. A more specific list is given in the Textual Note to the Complete Works, IV (Secker & Warburg, 1987). There is, however, an intriguing irony in this matter of censorship, although it is not certain whether Orwell intended it, in the choice of ‘Comstock’ for the principal character’s surname. The founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (1873) was Anthony Comstock (1844—1915) who initiated the ‘Comstock Act’ which prohibits the sending of obscene matter through the US mail.

    Finally, although he is dubbed ‘Sir’ John Drinkwater (138/5), this is not a mistake on Orwell’s part (though it was assumed to be and ‘corrected’ in the Uniform Edition) but a small element in the satire.

    PETER DAVISON

    Albany, London

    I

    THE CLOCK struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon—Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already—lounged across the table, pushing a fourpenny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb.

    The ding-dong of another, remoter clock—from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street—rippled the stagnant air. Gordon made an effort, sat upright and stowed his packet of cigarettes away in his inside pocket. He was perishing for a smoke. However, there were only four cigarettes left. Today was Wednesday and he had no money coming to him till Friday. It would be too bloody to be without tobacco tonight as well as all tomorrow.

    Bored in advance by tomorrow’s tobaccoless hours, he got up and moved towards the door—a small frail figure, with delicate bones and fretful movements. His coat was out at elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless. Even from above you could see that his shoes needed re-soling.

    The money clinked in his trouser pocket as he got up. He knew the precise sum that was there. Fivepence halfpenny—twopence halfpenny and a Joey. He paused, took out the miserable little threepenny-bit and looked at it. Beastly, useless thing! And bloody fool to have taken it! It had happened yesterday, when he was buying cigarettes. ‘Don’t mind a threepenny-bit, do you, sir?’ the little bitch of a shop-girl had chirped. And of course he had let her give it him. ‘Oh no, not at all!’ he had said—fool, bloody fool!

    His heart sickened to think that he had only fivepence halfpenny in the world, threepence of which couldn’t even be spent. Because how can you buy anything with a threepenny-bit? It isn’t a coin, it’s the answer to a riddle. You look such a fool when you take it out of your pocket, unless it’s in among a whole handful of other coins. ‘How much?’ you say. ‘Threepence,’ the shop-girl says. And then you feel all round your pocket and fish out that absurd little thing, all by itself, sticking on the end of your finger like a tiddleywink. The shop-girl sniffs. She spots immediately that it’s your last threepence in the world. You see her glance quickly at it—she’s wondering whether there’s a piece of Christmas pudding still sticking to it. And you stalk out with your nose in the air, and can’t ever go to that shop again. No! We won’t spend our Joey. Twopence halfpenny left—twopence halfpenny to last till Friday.

    This was the lonely after-dinner hour, when few or no customers were to be expected. He was alone with seven thousand books. The small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encyclopædias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves. Gordon pushed aside the blue, dust-sodden curtains that served as a doorway to the next room. This, better lighted than the other, contained the lending library. It was one of those ‘twopenny no-deposit’ libraries beloved of book-pinchers. No books in it except novels, of course. And what novels! But that too was a matter of course.

    Eight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright. They were arranged alphabetically. Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galsworthy, Gibbs, Priestley, Sapper, Walpole. Gordon eyed them with inert hatred. At this moment he hated all books, and novels most of all. Horrible to think of all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place. Pudding, suet pudding. Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in—a vault of puddingstone. The thought was oppressive. He moved on through the open doorway into the front part of the shop. In doing so, he smoothed his hair. It was an habitual movement. After all, there might be girls outside the glass door. Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.