A Merry War
Reviewed by Sandra Contreras
This intermittently amusing but always thoughtful adaptation of George Orwell's autobiographical novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, features Richard E. Grant as Gordon Comstock, a would-be poet who supports himself as a copywriter in 1930s
London. When Comstock's first book of poetry receives a good review in the Times Literary Supplement, he decides to cast off the trappings of what he considers to be his demeaning and predictable life (job, marriage etc.) to become a full-time poet and free man. Comstock's subsequent
free-fall into penury and degradation (remember that Orwell's nonfiction works include the terrifying Down and Out in Paris and London ) is, fortunately, leavened with humor. Comstock isn't the most sympathetic of protagonists: He leaches money from his hardworking spinster sister Julia
(Harriet Walter), and treats both his upper-class publisher Ravelston (Julian Wadham) and his devoted girlfriend Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter) exceedingly badly, spurning them viciously whenever they try to pull him back into the safety of the middle-class fold. But Comstock's rants and whines
about the bitter pills life forces one to swallow will resonate with anyone who's ever done work they considered morally reprehensible or without integrity. Less convincing, however faithful to the novel, is the ending: Spurred by Rosemary's unplanned pregnancy, Comstock happily decides to take
back his old job and settle into the very life of middle-class mediocrity against which he railed so vigorously, going so far as to embrace that emblem of bourgeois conformity and staple of overstuffed English parlors, the humble aspidistra plant.
Director: Robert Bierman
Writers: George Orwell (novel), Alan Plater (screenplay)
Stars: Richard E. Grant, Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Wadham
Robert Bierman ... executive producer
Sara Giles ... associate producer
Joyce Herlihy ... associate producer
Peter Shaw ... producer
John Wolstenholme ... executive
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, first published in 1936, is a socially critical novel by George Orwell. It is set in 1930s London. The main theme is Gordon Comstock's romantic ambition to defy worship of the money-god and status, and the dismal life that results.
Two aspidistra plants – "The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical bowler-hatted sneak – Strube's 'little man' [-] What a fate!" (Ch III)
Orwell wrote the book in 1934 and 1935 when he was living at various locations near Hampstead in London, and drew on his experiences in these and the preceding few years. At the beginning of 1928 he lived in lodgings in Portobello Road from where he started his tramping expeditions, sleeping rough and roaming in the poorer parts of London. At this time he wrote a fragment of a play in which the protagonist Stone needs money for his child's life-saving operation. Stone would prefer to prostitute his wife rather than prostitute his artistic integrity by writing advertising copy.
Orwell's early publications appeared in The Adelphi, a left-wing literary journal edited by Sir Richard Rees, a wealthy and idealistic baronet who made Orwell one of his protégés. The character of Ravelston the wealthy publisher in Keep the Aspidistra Flying has much in common with Rees. Ravelston is acutely self-conscious of his upper-class status and defensive about his unearned income. Comstock speculates that Ravelston receives nearly two thousand pounds a year after tax—a very comfortable sum in those days—and Rees, in a volume of autobiography published in 1963 wrote: "... I have never had the spending of much less than £1,000 a year of unearned income, and sometimes considerably more ... Before the war, this was wealth, especially for an unmarried man. Many of my socialist and intellectual friends were paupers compared to me..." In quoting this, Orwell's biographer Michael Shelden commented "One of these 'paupers'—at least in 1935—was Orwell, who was lucky if he made £200 that year ... He appreciated Rees's editorial support at the Adelphi and sincerely enjoyed having him as a friend, but he could not have avoided feeling some degree of resentment toward a man who had no real job but who enjoyed an income four or five times greater than his."
In 1932 Orwell took a job as a teacher in a small school in West London. From there he would take journeys into the country at places like Burnham Beeches. There are allusions to Burnham Beeches and walks in the country in Orwell's correspondence at this time with Brenda Salkeld and Eleanor Jacques.
In October 1934, after nine months at his home in Southwold, Orwell's aunt Nellie Limouzin found him a job as a part-time assistant in Booklovers' Corner, a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead run by Francis and Myfanwy Westrope. The Westropes, who were friends of Nellie in the Esperanto movement, had an easy-going outlook and provided him with comfortable accommodation at Warwick Mansions, Pond Street. He was job sharing with Jon Kimche who also lived with the Westropes. Orwell worked at the shop in the afternoons, having the mornings free to write and the evenings to socialise. He was at Booklovers' Corner for fifteen months. His essay "Bookshop Memories", published in November 1936, recalled aspects of his time at the bookshop, and in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, "he described it, or revenged himself upon it, with acerbity and wit and spleen." In their study of Orwell the writers Stansky & Abrahams remarked upon the improvement on the "stumbling attempts at female portraiture in his first two novels: the stereotyped Elizabeth Lackersteen in Burmese Days and the hapless Dorothy in A Clergyman's Daughter" and contended that, in contrast, "Rosemary is a credible female portrait." Through his work in the bookshop Orwell was in a position to become acquainted with women, "first as a clerk, then as a friend ... and with whom, if circumstances were favourable, he might eventually embark upon a 'relationship' ... This for Orwell the author and Blair the man, was the chief reward of working at Booklovers' Corner." In particular, Orwell met Sally Jerome, at this time working for an advertising agency (like Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying), and Kay Ekevall, who ran a small typing and secretarial service which did work for Adelphi magazine.
By the end of February 1935 he had moved into a flat in Parliament Hill; his landlady, Rosalind Obermeyer, was studying at the University of London. It was through a joint party with his landlady here that Orwell met his future wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy. In August Orwell moved into a flat in Kentish Town, which he shared with Michael Sayers and Rayner Heppenstall. Over this period he was working on Keep the Aspidistra Flying and had two novels, Burmese Days and A Clergyman's Daughter, published. At the beginning of 1936 Orwell was dealing with pre-publication issues for Keep the Aspidistra Flying while on his tour in the North of England collecting material for The Road to Wigan Pier. The novel was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd on 20 April 1936.
Gordon Comstock has 'declared war' on what he sees as an 'overarching dependence' on money by leaving a promising job as a copywriter for an advertising company called 'New Albion'—at which he shows great dexterity—and taking a low-paying job instead, ostensibly so he can write poetry. Coming from a respectable family background in which the inherited wealth has now become dissipated, Gordon resents having to work for a living. The 'war' (and the poetry), however, aren't going particularly well and, under the stress of his 'self-imposed exile' from affluence, Gordon has become absurd, petty and deeply neurotic.
Comstock lives without luxuries in a bedsit in London, which he affords by working in a small bookshop owned by a Scot, McKechnie. He works intermittently at a magnum opus he plans to call 'London Pleasures', describing a day in London; meanwhile, his only published work, a slim volume of poetry entitled Mice, collects dust on the remainder shelf. He is simultaneously content with his meagre existence and also disdainful of it. He lives without financial ambition and the need for a 'good job,' but his living conditions are uncomfortable and his job is boring.
Comstock is 'obsessed' by what he sees as a pervasion of money (the 'Money God', as he calls it) behind social relationships, feeling sure that women would find him more attractive if he were better off. At the beginning of the novel, he senses that his girlfriend Rosemary Waterlow, whom he met at New Albion and who continues to work there, is dissatisfied with him because of his poverty. An example of his financial embarrassment is when he is desperate for a pint of beer at his local pub, but has run out of pocket money and is ashamed to cadge a drink off his fellow lodger, Flaxman.
One of Comstock's last remaining friends, Philip Ravelston, a Marxist who publishes a magazine called Anti-Christ, agrees with Comstock in principle, but is comfortably well-off himself and this causes strains when the practical miseries of Comstock's life become apparent. He does, however, endeavour to publish some of Comstock's work and his efforts, unbeknownst to Comstock, had resulted in Mice being published via one of his publisher contacts.
Gordon and Rosemary have little time together—she works late and lives in a hostel, and his 'bitch of a landlady' forbids female visitors to her tenants. Then one evening, having headed southward and having been thinking about women—this women business in general, and Rosemary in particular—he happens to see Rosemary in a street market. Rosemary won't have sex with him but she wants to spend a Sunday with him, right out in the country, near Burnham Beeches. At their parting, as he takes the tram from Tottenham Court Road back to his bedsit, he is happy and feels that somehow it is agreed between them that Rosemary is going to be his mistress. However, what was intended as a pleasant day out away from London's grime turns into a disaster when, though hungry, they opt to pass by a 'rather low-looking' pub, and then, not able to find another pub, are forced to eat an unappetising lunch at a fancy, overpriced hotel. Gordon has to pay the bill with all the money he had set aside for their jaunt and worries about having to borrow money from Rosemary. Out in the countryside again, they are about to have sex for the first time when she violently pushes him back—he wasn't going to use contraception. He rails at her; "Money again, you see! ... You say you 'can't' have a baby. ... You mean you daren't; because you'd lose your job and I've got no money and all of us would starve."
Having sent a poem to an American publication, Gordon suddenly receives from them a cheque worth ten pounds — a considerable sum for him at the time. He intends to set aside half for his sister Julia, who has always been there to lend him money and support. He treats Rosemary and Ravelston to dinner, which begins well, but the evening deteriorates as it proceeds. Gordon, drunk, tries to force himself upon Rosemary but she angrily rebukes him and leaves. Gordon continues drinking, drags Ravelston with him to visit a pair of prostitutes, and ends up broke and in a police cell the next morning. He is guilt-ridden over the thought of being unable to pay his sister back the money he owes her, because his £5 note is gone, given to, or stolen by, one of the tarts.
Ravelston pays Gordon's fine after a brief appearance before the magistrate, but a reporter hears about the case, and writes about it in the local paper. The ensuing publicity results in Gordon losing his job at the bookshop, and, consequently, his relatively 'comfortable' lifestyle. As Gordon searches for another job, his life deteriorates, and his poetry stagnates. After living with his friend Ravelston and, during his time of employment, with his girlfriend Hermione, Gordon ends up working, this time in Lambeth, at another book shop and cheap two-penny lending library owned by the sinister Mr. Cheeseman, where he's paid an even smaller wage of 30 shillings a week. This is 10 shillings less than he was earning before, but Gordon is satisfied; "The job would do. There was no trouble about a job like this; no room for ambition, no effort, no hope." Determined to sink to the lowest level of society Gordon takes a furnished bed-sitting-room in a filthy alley parallel to Lambeth Cut. Both Julia and Rosemary, "in feminine league against him," seek to get Gordon to go back to his 'good' job at the New Albion advertising agency.
Rosemary, having avoided Gordon for some time, suddenly comes to visit him one day at his dismal lodgings. Despite his terrible poverty and shabbiness, they have sex but it is without any emotion or passion. Later, Rosemary drops in one day unexpectedly at the library, having not been in touch with Gordon for some time, and tells him that she is pregnant. Gordon is presented with the choice between leaving Rosemary to a life of social shame at the hands of her family—since both of them reject the idea of an abortion—or marrying her and returning to a life of respectability by taking back the job he once so deplored at the New Albion with its £4 weekly salary.
He chooses Rosemary and respectability and then experiences a feeling of relief at having abandoned his anti-money principles with such comparative ease. After two years of abject failure and poverty, he throws his poetic work 'London Pleasures' down a drain, marries Rosemary, resumes his advertising career, and plunges into a campaign to promote a new product to prevent foot odour. In his lonely walks around mean streets, aspidistras seem to appear in every lower-middle class window. As the book closes, Gordon wins an argument with Rosemary to install an aspidistra in their new small but comfortable flat off the Edgware Road.
How not to succeed
An introduction to Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the first modern classic title for our new Observer Book Group
Sunday 6 July 2003 03.16 BST First published on Sunday 6 July 2003 03.16 BST
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell's third novel published in 1936, is a savagely satirical portrait of the literary life. Orwell chronicles the struggles of Gordon Comstock, who gives up a successful job in an advertising - "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket" - to become an unsuccessful poet, taking refuge by day in a failing bookshop as he descends into genteel poverty.
Having vowed to "make it his especial purpose not to 'succeed'" Comstock rails against how "The Money God" dominates all aspects of life. "Don't you see that a man's whole personality is bound up with his income? His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you've got no money?", he asks his somewhat disaffected girlfriend Rosemary. The aspidistra of the book's title comes from the pot plants to be found on every window sill which, for Comstock, symbolise all that is wrong with the "mingy, lower-class decency" he is desperate to escape.
D.J. Taylor, in his recently published biography, writes that "of all the fiction that Orwell produced in the 1930s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the one most closely associated with him as a writer". Orwell was himself a struggling writer working part-time in a Hampstead bookshop. His journeys around England and beyond - chronicled in Down and Out in London and Paris - do often resemble Comstock's circumstances and attitude. But the facts of Orwell's own life were rather different - considerably more sociable and quickly becoming more successful - to Comstock's.
The novel is perhaps a better guide to Orwell's intellectual development than it is autobiographical. It is the novel in which Orwell is most directly influenced by one of his heroes George Gissing, the late Victorian novelist whose New Grub Street remains the seminal description of literary failure. In his later essay on Gissing, Orwell describes the quintessential flavour of Gissing's world - "the grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness" - which sums up the world Orwell sought to capture and to criticise in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Comstock can also be seen as something of a predecessor of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s - though Comstock was, if anything, angrier still. Christopher Hitchens' recent book Orwell's Victory offers an illuminating comparison of of the many parallels between Orwell's novel and Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, which did much to define postwar British fiction, although the two books are markedly different in tone and it is Orwell's comic essay 'Confessions of a Book Reviewer' which resembles the comic spirit of the Amis novel.
The publication of Keep the Aspidistra Flying was not a particularly happy one for Orwell. He had numerous run-ins with his publishers, who insisted on changes to the book late in the process because of the fear that many of the real advertising slogans which it contained were too risky to print. Orwell therefore had to produce new, fictitious slogans which would take up exactly the same amount of space because of the inflexibility of lead typesetting - and complained that the book had been "ruined". Peter Davison's Complete Orwell in 1998 finally reversed these changes which meant, for example, restoring the genuine 'New Hope for the Ruptured' instead of Orwell's substitution 'The Truth about Bad Legs'.
The book received mixed reviews. Cyril Connolly complained that the book's obsession with money prevented it being considered a work of art. The Daily Mail praised the novel's vigour but was unconvinced by its demolition of middle England: "among the aspidistra, Mr Orwell seems to lose the plot". The misfortunes did not end there. Many of the first print run of 3,000 were lost in a bombing raid in the early years of world war two.
Whether Orwell would have been impressed with the film adaptation, released in 1999, is another moot point. Much of the grimness of the novel has been replaced by a warm period gloss. Richard E Grant's Comstock is a considerably more comical figure - particularly well-suited to the disastrous Soho binge when some money does come in - while Helena Bonham-Carter's Rosemary has become considerably more sexually confident. This is definitely a case where anybody employing the ruse of relying on the film to take part in our book group discussion may be found out rather quickly.
Orwell refused to allow either Keep the Aspidistra Flying or his first novel, the considerably weaker A Clergyman's Daughter, to be reprinted in his lifetime. His dislike of his early novels arose from his incredibly strong sense that he would always be a literary failure, which enabled him to empathise so strongly with his creations like Comstock.
Orwell's six novels make just a small part of his nearly two million published words. Many critics, including biographer Bernard Crick, see Orwell's claim to literary greatness resting much more upon his talents as an essayist - on everything from Politics and the English Language to the perfect cup of tea - than on his novels. Yet while Orwell's first four novels are not nearly so completely realised as their more famous successors Animal Farm and 1984, they offer many important insights into the development of the most important English novelist of ideas of the last century.