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Wandering aimlessly through the backstreets of London's East End, Gordon Comstock, the anti-hero of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), finds himself in one of London's open-air markets. (1) All afternoon Gordon's thoughts have been occupied with just the one idea: "women, women!" His thoughts on this topic have ranged obsessively from the uninhibited sexual freedom of hens to the "lewd smile" of the barmaid at his local pub (Orwell 2000e, 113). But the woman most central to his mind is Rosemary, his girlfriend, with her "small, strong body, which he had never yet seen naked." "Filled to the brim with these tormenting desires" (114), he finds solace in the bustle of the market crowd and the shouting of street hawkers. Here, under the "fine lurid colours" of the stall lights and the "hacked, crimson chunks of meat, piles of oranges and green and white broccoli," Orwell's novel of a greyscale England finally comes alive. It is a scene that fills Gordon with hope: "He liked the noise, the bustle, the vitality." "Whenever you see a street-market you know there's hope for England," he proposes. Such patriotism is derived from the market's ability to conjure energy from stasis and death, from the "stiff, glassy-eyed rabbits, live eels looping in enamel troughs, plucked fowls hanging in rows, sticking out their naked breasts like guardsmen naked on parade" (116). This is the natural produce of England's countryside.

However, rather than leading Gordon to a program of national rejuvenation, these images lead him back toward the source of his desire. This transition is identified for us in the repetition of the word "naked" in the final clause of the "plucked fowls" simile. There is no obvious necessity for that second "naked": the simile is founded on the grotesque contrast between the regimented shape and color of the uniformed officers and the dead birds. But stripped of those uniforms and made naked by repetition, the guardsmen are made merely ludicrous. That second "naked" can only be Gordon's own thought pattern, leaking into the narrative voice, forcing us to see the extent to which the seemingly naturalistic narrative perspective is thoroughly infected at crucial moments by Gordon's own consciousness. The repetition dramatically emphasizes the manner in which bestial "naked breasts" have rekindled simmering human sexual desire. With Gordon now immersed in the narrative at every level, the crowd--a marketplace of meat--is transposed into a crowd of female bodies. Gordon threads through the massed girls, "invisible, save that their bodies avoided him when he passed them" (Orwell 200oe, 117), pausing to watch them in "knots of four or five, prowling desirously about the stalls of cheap underwear" (116). The voyeur's desire is unrequited and unrecognized. He observes one group of girls "over a pile of artsilk undies on a stall... three youthful faces, flower-like in the harsh light, clustering side by side like a truss of blossom on a Sweet William or phlox." The sight stirs his heart, but his voracious gaze finds no reciprocation: "No eyes for him." The girls become richly fragrant flowers of the English countryside, cultivated rather than indigenous, full of its latent potential and the promise of vitality. He catches the glance of one of the girls, who, embarrassed, turns away noticing "the hard, sexual stare in his eyes." Reflecting self-consciously in the words of Thomas Wyatt that "they flee from me that sometime did me seek," Gordon is revealed as nothing less than a sexual predator, a lascivious and ordinary man underneath the shabbiness of his learning. Such is the extent of his desire that Rosemary is quite literally summoned into being: "At this moment he looked up, and saw something that made his heart jump. He changed the focus of his eyes abruptly. For a moment he thought he was imagining it. But no! It was Rosemary!" (117, emphasis in original). Note the characteristic use of the exclamation work as an indicator of raw feeling painfully exposed (Brooker 2006, 290). Rosemary is made the literal and metaphorical representation of Gordon's thwarted desire, the very essence of his inability to find sexual fulfilment in a degraded and lethargic England, where rural vitality is seen as an elixir.

Like many of Orwell's novels of the 1930s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying has been called to give evidence for many crises, but the crisis of male sexuality, mapped out by Gordon in London's East End, is not one of them. The threat of totalitarianism, the decline of England, and class division have all been cited as central to Orwell's vision (Rose 2007, 28). Even when the crisis is made partly personal rather than solely political, as in the criticism of Raymond Williams, the parameters of the debate remain oriented toward the overtly political. Indeed, Williams's narrative, laid out in his short book Orwell and in the essays he subsequently collected for Prentice-Hall in 1974, remains the most influential account of Orwell's fiction. Terry Eagleton neatly describes Orwell as a man caught in a bind between the inheritance of his middle-class childhood and subsequent adult political conviction (1974, 10). Williams describes Orwell as possessing:
A kind of conscious double vision... overlooked... by people who
shared his kind of childhood and education but who did not undergo his
subsequent direct revulsion from imperialism. It is impossible to
convince most people who had Orwell's kind of separated education that
they are not, in the most central ways, English.... This is the class
which does most of the writing, which directs not only its own but most
other institutions. (Williams 1971, 18)

For these critics, Orwell is ultimately motivated by declassement, that persistent fear of displacement common among the professional salaried servants of a ruling elite. Such fear is typically, and unjustly, set aside as merely bourgeois. The crisis of sexual potency which is evident in Orwell's novels has been subsumed in these terms, typically by the concept of physical revulsion, a repeated Orwellian trope that is traced to middle-class taste and propriety exposed to the working class body and its dirt.

However, the persistent sex in Orwell's novels refuses to be quieted by these arguments. From a reader's perspective, it is hard to avoid the fact that Orwell's novels are rather centrally concerned with sex. Similarly, it is hard not to be shocked by the excessively romanticized perspective of these novels, by the movement of Orwell's narratives toward pivotal moments of sexual intercourse. Gordon's fumbling in the blackthorn bushes with Rosemary at Burnham Beeches, George Bowling's stolen kisses amidst the peppermint and horse chestnuts in Coming Up for Air (1939), and Winston Smith's limit-experience with Julia in the grassy dell of the bluebell woods in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are crucial moments in these novels. These moments resonate for readers surely in part because they intrude into otherwise monochrome landscapes with strangely Arcadian imagery. But the resonance also owes a great deal to Orwell's engagement with a particular kind of sexual activity--outdoor sex--one of the central taboos of English society. "Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra" (Orwell 200oe, 115) is what Gordon says he fears the most in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Orwell's novels repeatedly attempt to articulate an oppositional counterforce to this death-in-life scenario: sexual intercourse in the countryside. To be quite specific, the particular fetish here is neither exhibitionist nor voyeuristic, but directly related to transgression, to risk. Indeed, Orwell's novels, in an almost Foucauldian attempt to escape the restrictions of society, chart a push to make that sexual encounter ever more illicit and dangerous: Gordon fears intercourse will lead to conception, George the breakdown of his marriage, but Winston fears the very loss of life. The trajectory of danger, the attempt to enhance orgasm, is exponential.

In this essay, I want to look at this crisis of sexuality in more detail in order to open up these novels as artifacts of a wider social issue. In the first part, I will examine in more detail Orwell's depictions of rural sex, focusing on a number of recurrent images taken from the natural world, especially of trees, herbs, and fish. In the second part, I link these rural fantasies to the wider concerns these novels display in relation to the pace of urbanization within England, the consequent damage to both the countryside and to tradition, and the impact of these factors at the human level. I am particularly interested in this section in the similarities between Orwell's analysis and that of J.B. Priestly, another radical journeyman of the 1930s. In the third and final part, I move away from the novels to Orwell's critical work and consider the wider theoretical context for this position, looking particularly at Orwell's relationship to the erotic modernism of Henry Miller as a means of understanding these rural fantasies as a development upon and critique of high modernism. Overall, the article argues that Orwell's novels give voice to a much broader crisis of masculinity in the middle decades of the century, which is bound up with unique changes in English society: the movement of the population from the city to the suburbs, of economics from industry to services, and of social relations from patriarchy to democracy. Although England is often theorized as a country simply in decline during the 1930s, many of these processes suggest otherwise. It is toward understanding the effect of these changes on the individual, trapped between past and future, nostalgia and hope, that this essay is addressed.


Criticism has not tended to the view that Orwell's work should be seen as homogenous. Instead, it typically proposes there is a political divide, occurring with the publication of the satiric AnimalFarm (1945) and the fantastical Nineteen Eighty-Four (Levenson 2007, 59). We might agree with elements of this: Orwell's characterizations certainly do not remain static, the central political vision hardens, and the narrative structure, style, and genre all change. But nonetheless, his heroes and heroines conform to an essentially common structure. Gordon, George, and Winston, each in their own peculiar ways, represent a new breed of suburban man, struggling with the pressures of their unique worlds, and with the deadening regularity of blue-collar professions. Orwell's heroines too. Rosemary and Julia both live alone in single-sex hostels, as if preparing only for some inevitable marriage. Although both are cut off from the world of men, they are defined by the narratives according to their sexual dynamism. Even at the narrative level, each of these novels follows a very similar course: the opening depictions of ardent lovers, the prohibited journey from the city into the country, the idealized and synesthetic landscape of mythic flora and fauna, and the attempt at sexual intercourse in an enclosed dell or hollow cut-off from the regular world by its impenetrability. In each case, the resonance of this rural sexual journey derives from its marking a moment of physical, intellectual, and moral transgression, the breaking free from a central symbol of the restrictive social apparatus: money in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, marriage in Coming Up for Air, and repression in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Transgression opposes constriction, terms I want to use both politically and sexually, that is by invoking notions of pain. Whilst we tend to think of Orwell's novels as charting an increasingly pessimistic social vision, this vision of rural sexual bliss remains a constant. Indeed, it is almost as if Orwell needed to remake his fictional landscape in consistently harsher hues to keep testing the myth of sexual redemption under tougher conditions. But Gordon's impotency and Winston's final sexual fulfilment, achieved in the face of (and perhaps because of) the overwhelming threat of extinction, are essentially parts of the same narrative.

The most immediately evident feature of these sexual visions is their extreme over-romanticization. The lovers in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for example, arrive at a train station for their flight from the city in what seems to be some almost pre-human time. Nothing in the world stirs to disturb them, even the station does not yet seem to have awoken from its "Saturday night debauch." The day itself is "windless" with "the sun behind the mist" (Orwell 2000e, 138). Slowly, the city slips away and gives way to "fields and cows and houses." By the time they arrive in Slough, to begin the final leg of their journey to Burnham Beeches, they have become a suburban Adam and Eve, alone in the world:
You walked down a rutted road and came out on to stretches of fine,
wet, tussocky grass dotted with little naked birches. The beech woods
were beyond. Not a bough or a blade was stirring. The trees stood like
ghosts in the still, misty air.... The dew, the stillness, the satiny
stems of the birches, the softness of the turf under your feet! (Orwell
2000e, 139)

The reference to "naked birches" hints at the deliberate contrast between the innocence of this primordial untarnished scene--"rutted," "tussocky," "dotted"--and the goal of the lovers. Desire so fills Gordon that he is consistently found unclothing both things and people. The exclamation mark, again, outs Gordon's desire as he silently imagines the "softness of the turf" as a sexual site. The beech trees are "curiously phallic with their smooth skin-like bark and their flutings at the base" (139). His intent is obvious.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston takes a similar journey, with the same intention, and arrives at what appears to be largely the same place. Although the origin and terminus have become post-atomic, and Winston travels alone without his lover Julia, he steps out into the same landscape:
Winston picked his way up the lane through dappled light and shade,
stepping out into pools of gold wherever the boughs parted. Under the
trees to the left of him the ground was misty with bluebells. The air
seemed to kiss one's skin. It was the second of May. From somewhere
deeper in the heart of the wood came the droning of ring-doves. (Orwell
2000f, 135)

Winston's sense of isolation, his feeling of being out of place in the countryside, is shared almost exactly with Gordon. Whereas in Keep the Aspidistra Flying Gordon feels he has been living underground when he arrives at Burnham Beeches, "etiolated and unkempt" (Orwell 2000e, 139), in Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston feels "dirty and etiolated, a creature of indoors, with the sooty dust of London in the pores of his skin" (2000f, 137). Etiolation is primarily a botanical condition, but here it is extended to the idea that metropolitan existence, a removal from light, damages human vitality, that ennui becomes life threatening. In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling takes Elsie, "the first person who taught me to care about a woman," to the edge of a similar wood. Their courting is in "Lovers' Lane," a road that branches off the road from Lower to Upper Binfield, "fringed with enormous horse-chestnut trees." With a nostalgic ache, George recalls May and June evenings with Elsie amidst the chestnuts in blossom, in the "blue twilight," and "the air brushing against your face like silk." This is a landscape of "stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir," "water-meadows," and "bulrushes" (2000c, 106-8). Orwell's repeated return to this same spot in his mental landscape has the effect of creating a very peculiar sexual psycho-geography of England.

I think it is clear that Orwell was aware how deeply romanticized and lyrical this landscape was. It is not merely bad writing, or bad writing about sex, although it is questionable whether Orwell was able to control the desire. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon jokingly likens the "russet foliage of the hornbeams" to the "hair of Burne-Jones maidens," the ivy around the trees to the "clinging arms of Dickens heroines," and "some mauve toadstools" to a "Rackham illustration." It is an obviously aesthetic landscape. When Rosemary wades "through a bed of drifted beech leaves that rustled about her, knee-deep, like a weightless red-gold sea," she paraphrases Milton: "Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa" (Orwell 20ooe, 142). Similarly, as Julia guides Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the spot where they will finally make love, their desire to evade authoritarian notice leads to the presentation of the "Golden Country" (20oof, 142), the landscape of Winston's dreams, as a work of art as if glimpsed in a gallery. They move slowly through a clearing to the edge of the wood, and stop themselves at the edge, hiding behind the boughs of the trees to glimpse the pastoral scene in front of them:
They were standing in the shade of hazel bushes. The sunlight,
filtering through innumerable leaves, was still hot on their faces.
Winston looked out into the field beyond, and underwent a curious, slow
shock of recognition. He knew it by sight. An old, close-bitten
pasture, with a footpath wandering across it and a molehill here and
there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side the boughs of the elm
trees swayed just perceptibly in the breeze, and their leaves stirred
faintly in dense masses like women's hair. Surely somewhere nearby, but
out of sight, there must be a stream with green pools where dace were
swimming? (Orwell 2000f, 141-42)

The narrative perspective seems to double-back on itself here in order to ensure we cannot avoid its literary nature. The yearning, almost to the point of desperation, in those "leaves stirred faintly in dense masses like women's hair" can only serve to make the pain more intense through a recognition of how unobtainable this scene is, how far the actual world falls short of our fantasies.

Orwell's vision represents a certain kind of straining: a yearning for beauty, an almost rapine attempt to believe in fiction's ability to sustain humanity against the ugly evidence of the world. And Winston's certainty that a stream loaded with fish must be "somewhere near by" is crucial in this respect. It results from his awareness that the stream is part of a romanticized genealogy: a mental and literary construct resurrected from a myth of the past. It is the same body of water memorialized by George in Coming Up for Air. "The whole of my boyhood from eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went fishing" (Orwell 2000c, 70), he tells us. He recalls the "still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting" (73). George's pond is Winston's stream: this is the landscape of the same rural idyll, populated with the same dace. And George is clear that his nostalgia is very specifically connected to desire, to the passion with which he watched and waited for the fish to bite the bait, the "hoping and praying (yes, literally praying)" (74), the longing for the monstrous fish never caught, lurking in the shallows of the Thames. His lament is for the purity of that longing, "that peculiar intensity, the power of longing for things as you can't long when you're grown up, and the feeling that time stretches out and out in front of you and that whatever you're doing you could go on for ever" (75). Again, longing here is configured as a form of pain. But more importantly, there is even the sense that it is longing itself that is the object of desire, that fiction, in its various forms as narrative, dream, or nostalgia, is able to trap longing in aspic thereby achieving a perpetual state of desire.

In George's case, landscape becomes pain because it articulates an inability to desire without restriction, and yet he keeps returning to it. There is a complex mechanism at work here in the relationship between repressed sexual feelings, restriction and constriction, longing, and pain. It might be too far to move toward sadistic or masochistic explanations, but there is certainly a movement toward increasing thrill as a form of self-defense, as a way of staying alive. George recalls, for example, one trip on a Sunday afternoon when he and Elsie slip through a gap in the fence to the privately owned Binfield House. The thrill of transgression, made schematic in Nineteen Eighty-Four by its totalitarian setting, is used to accentuate the power of the sexual nostalgia. George fears that the groundkeeper, "Old Hodges," "past seventy and getting very crusty" and therefore the reciprocal of his own vitality, will discover them. He and Elsie "lay down in the little grass hollow beside the wild peppermint, and we were as much alone as if we'd been in Central Africa" (Orwell 2000c, 108). However, he is distracted by the childhood memory of the carp that lie in the pond of the main house:
Now I was so near, it seemed a pity not to go down to the other pool
and have a look at the big carp. I felt I'd kick myself afterwards if I
missed the chance, in fact I couldn't think why I hadn't been back
before. The carp were stored away in my mind, nobody knew about them
except me, I was going to catch them some time. Practically they were
my carp. (Orwell 2000c, 108, emphasis in original)

These are the monstrous fish that provide George with his most resonant of childhood memories: the ones that got away. Childhood nostalgia and sexual ardor become intertwined to such an extent that these fish, the carp and the dace, become women in a broader sense; the river, pond, and stream become the crowd of London's open-air market, populated by sexually active, lithe, and accommodating female bodies. "With the curve of her breast," Elsie is a metamorphism of the fish, the incarnation of the feminine, "deeply feminine, very gentle, very submissive, the kind that would always do what a man told her" (2000c, 106-7). In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Rosemary is Gordon's "girl, his mistress." He reflects before the failed attempt at consummation that "presently, when they were alone, in some hidden place in the warm, windless air, he would have her naked body all for his own at last" (2000c, 151). This sense of ownership, of taking possession from nature's rich pool of life, is made explicit in Orwell's repeated description of the sexual embrace as an aquatic experience. Later in the novel, for example, having "wriggled" herself on to Gordon's attic bed, "wriggled herself beneath him," Gordon feels Rosemary's "body melt into his" (2000c, 246). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston experiences the same sensation as he feels Julia's body "melt into his"; "wherever his hands moved it was all as yielding as water" (20oof, 143). George's inability to distinguish between the pain of childhood loss and the power of his own passion in Coming Up for Air, serves to draw a straight line between fish and woman. Having tried to find the pool, he struggles back to Elsie through a "jungle of brambles and rotten brushwood":
I went back and stood over her for a moment. She was lying on the grass
with her arm over her face, and she didn't stir when she heard me come.
In her black dress she looked--I don't know how, kind of soft, kind of
yielding, as though her body was a kind of malleable stuff that you
could do what you liked with. She was mine and I could have her, this
minute if I wanted to. Suddenly I stopped being frightened. I chucked
my hat on the grass (it bounced, I remember), knelt down, and took hold
of her. I can smell the wild peppermint yet. It was my first time, but
it wasn't hers.... The big carp faded out of my mind again. (Orwell
2000c, 108-9)

The lyricism of the vision here is quite remarkable: the countryside, encapsulated by the sensuousness of that "peppermint," the sexually experienced and voracious woman taken by the inexperienced man, and the process of submission as the female becomes fish. And equally remarkable, is how the woman disappears, her body, its feel and its smell, becoming merely residua of the world in which it has been placed. Even when the carp disappears, her body remains absent. This is very much about masculine sexual dominance and desire.


It is perhaps the strange combination of such sexual scenes within the wider Orwellian political discourse that has encouraged the proliferation of psychological critiques. Williams uses the phrases "double vision," "negative identification," and "powerful and disturbed" (1974, 18-20); describes Orwell's work as a "paradox" written "under pressure" (1958, 286, 294); and, he returns repeatedly to tropes of loneliness, isolation, self-deception, and guilt. Undoubtedly, these are influential factors in Orwell's fiction. But George, for example, is quite clear that his search for beauty in the world, or at least insofar as he understands it, has its origin in much broader processes of change that transcend the individual. Toward the end of Coming Up for Air, he returns as a middle-aged man to Binfield in order to catch the carp of his childhood. This trip has no sexual intent, but it is planned with all the cunning calculation of an adulterous affair with George forced to lie to his wife about the nature of a trip he fears she would not understand. Indeed, what he terms his "dope-dream" of returning to Binfield House is filled with lost desire. He dreams of the main house lying empty and its pool undiscovered "in the dark place among the trees... the huge black fish still gliding round" (Orwell 2000c, 179). The pool is ultimately a metaphor for George's mind, but the dream itself is denuded when he actually finds "Lower Binfield swollen into a kind of Dagenham" (222), suburbanized to the point of ecological disaster, "smothered under red brick.... The Thames... poisoned with motor-oil and paper bags" (223). These processes of suburbanization are replicated somatically in his former lover Elsie, now the wife of a local shopkeeper, a "tallish, fattish woman... forty or fifty, in a rather shabby black dress," the "milky-white skin and red mouth and kind of dull-gold hair" of her youth now become a "great round-shouldered hag, shambling along on twisted heels" (217). Although shocked by this metamorphosis, he still dreams of his special piece of the landscape, the carp pool hidden by a "very thick bit of wood, full of brambles and rotten brushwood" (223), that mythic location where he, Gordon, and Winston attempted to consummate their desire. But these hopes are also ultimately unrealizable, Binfield House having been replaced by a new architect-designed housing estate, with "gravel walks, flowerbeds, lawns" and "arty-looking houses." It has become "another of those sham-Tudor colonies" of suburbia (225). The pool itself is a rubbish dump for the estate, "already... half full of tin cans" (229). The scene is configured as the end of George's physical journey, but it is also the end of childhood longing and sexual fishing. When he returns home to his wife, her accusations of infidelity are close to the underlying truth. For these rural idylls are forms of failed repossession, a way for Orwell to simultaneously bind together, through a poetics of ecological disaster, the loss of both a certain idea about England and of sexual desire.

These processes of suburbanization were not particularly new when these novels were written; we can trace their roots in both Britain and several European countries to the early nineteenth century. But Britain was quite unique in the extent to which these processes had dramatically accelerated during the 1920s and 1930s (Whitehand 2001, 5-6; Clapson 2000, 151). Around the west of London, in Park Royal, Hayes, Southall, and along the North Circular Road, industrial estates had grown rapidly. In the north, the Lea Valley had been extensively industrialized, and, in the east, Ford moved into Dagenham in 1931. Housing followed the factories, leading to one of the most significant periods of residential housing construction in British history. Helped by low mortgage rates, 293,000 private houses were being built each year by 1934-35 (Branson and Heinemann 1973, 205). Growth in towns such as Reading and Luton, both of which had been growing strongly since the early part of the century, was increasingly reflected in the rest of England, in Birmingham at Solihull and Longbridge, in Manchester at Wythenshaw, and in Liverpool at Speke. Road networks expanded to deal with this process of suburbanization. Working days became longer as workers were required to be more productive and to travel further to their place of work. By 1937 it is estimated many commuters were spending almost twelve hours away from home each day (92). Closeknit community life became pressurized, the need to move home to find employment increased, and employee tenure declined. Rather than being the declining industrial society of the 1930s mapped out in influential studies of British history (Wiener 1985), England was on the contrary an extremely modern and post-industrial consumer society in the making. Indeed, by 1930 the electronics, automotive, rayon, and chemical industries employed almost thirteen percent of the country's workforce, double that of 1907. And by the end of the decade, electrification of British houses approached two-thirds, radio penetration had reached almost sixty percent even in lower-working class homes, and the majority of furniture was being bought on hire purchase (Rose 2007, 36). Orwell noted all these changes in "The Lion and the Unicorn" (1941), proposing the emergence of a new classless and "indeterminate stratum" of the population: "The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads... in those vast wildernesses of glass and brick" (197od, 98).

This landscape is traced in greater depth in J.B. Priestley's English Journey (1934), a socio-historical travelogue that documents Priestley's journey by car and the new bus services from Southampton to the Midlands, through the West Riding, and finally to the North East. Commissioned by Victor Gollancz at significant expense, it documents Priestley's discovery that England was not after all a unified country but rather a collection of small city-states each with its own unique industrial strength, heritage, and micro-economy. In Coventry, for example, Priestley finds a technological economy based upon the manufacture of airplanes, the wireless, and all manner of "electrical contrivances, including the apparatus used by the Talkies." At the Daimler factory, he is guided around a lively research and development function with its "bubbling test-tubes and enlarged microscopic slides of sections of metal." With "factories that were working on short time a year or two ago... now in some instances back on double shifts" (Priestley 1997, 72-73), it is the shortage of productive capacity in these cities that is the issue rather than unemployment.

Priestley is clear however that England had not suddenly transformed itself entirely. On the contrary, what he calls "Old" or "Merrie England," the Cotswolds of "quaint highways and byways" where tourists pay "a stiff price for a poorish dinner, an inconvenient bedroom and lukewarm water" (1997, 321-23), was still very much in evidence as he traveled the country. So too is an industrialized England, "mucky England," the England of "the Midlands and the North," a stagnant world with "no new life poured into it." Although Orwell considered Priestley "blatantly second-rate" and his work "[un]memorable" (2000h 27, 25), there are in these descriptions of England an early glimpse at Orwell's Wigan (although the influence was never recognized) (Baxendale 2007, 61-62), especially of a world populated by those working "monstrously long hours," living in surroundings like "black-beetles at the back of a disused kitchen stove" (Priestley 1997, 322-23). But Priestley's narrative keeps stumbling upon the new classless England whose birthplace he traced to America. This is an England of "arterial and bypass roads, of filling stations... of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes" whose heart is consumed by the principal of leisure, and is best symbolized by the hedonism of Blackpool. It is a "large-scale, mass production job, with cut prices," full of "cheapness." Its defining feature is the manner in which it commoditizes all goods and services and levels all gender and class distinctions, placing "Jack and Jill" and their "master and mistress" (325) on the same level. Here, there are no privileges, no privacies, and no remaining power bases:
Too much of it is simply a trumpery imitation of something not very
good even in the original. There is about it a rather depressing
monotony. Too much of this life is being stamped on from outside,
probably by astute financial gentlemen, backed by the Press and their
publicity services. You feel that too many of the people in this new
England are doing not what they like but what they have been told they
would like. (Here is the American influence at work.) (Priestly 1997,

Priestley's description of a society based on imitation, motivated by desire, dominated by commodities, and controlled by the apparatus of finance and the media represents a marked shift in the nature of British society when compared to the world set out by the Edwardians, Georgians, and high modernists.

It is this wider change in British society during the interwar period that I want to link to the sexual anxieties and suburban fears of Orwell's leading characters. As part of the historical debate on the decline of England in this period, Peter Mandler has recently proposed:
England after 1918 became the world's first post-urban country; that
is, its population growth slowed dramatically and its cities stopped
growing intensively. Reflecting rising living standards and prevailing
inner-city congestion, cities began to decentralise, flowing out into
the countryside in waves of privately owned suburban homes. (Mandler
1997, 171)

There is perhaps a problem here in my use of post-urban as a synonym of suburban--the prefixes order different categories--but I am interested in Mandler's wider point, that the end of war brought a significant change in the structure of British cities which was marked by both the ecological and the sexual. Ecologically, it is intriguing that the legislative idea of a Green Belt, a "girdle of open space lands" (Reeder 2006, 65), surrounding British cities and guarding against over expansion and development can be dated to 1934, although this would not be passed into law until the 1940s. Orwell's rural fantasies are in this sense not just erotically transgressive, but also symbolic last stands, naked protests in the face of the bulldozers.

In terms of sexuality, the statistics support Mandler's argument. By 1933, as Orwell began his turn to fiction, the birth rate in England and Wales had fallen by roughly half, from twenty-nine per thousand of the population at the turn of the decade to fifteen in 1938. The decline can be partially linked to the trade cycle, but the trend was most marked among the middle classes rather than the unemployed. Equally important was the changing role of women in both the home and in the workplace as a consequence of the First World War and subsequently the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928. The increased awareness and availability of contraceptives, especially following the foundation of the National Birth Control Council in 1930, also had a significant impact on attitudes to sexual liberalism (Branson 1973,180-85). The issue became a matter of national importance. One editorial in the Times on January 24,1930, argued that "it seems certain... that birth-rate and deathrate will approach still closer together and that the natural increase of population by births over deaths will disappear." The editorial envisages an aging society where the burden of economics falls on an overworked, and increasingly under-sexed, middle class. The problem was considered so grave that procreation necessitated financial inducement via the tax system. In a 1935 speech to introduce the married couple's tax allowance, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, declared that he looked upon "the continued diminution of the birth-rate in this country with considerable apprehension." "I have a feeling," he argued, that "when the countries of the British Empire will be crying out for more citizens of the right breed... we in this country shall not be able to supply the demand (The Official Report, 1935). The wheels in the factory of British reproduction had seized up, allowing impotency to figure as a cause, or at least an excuse, for the decline of Britain's imperial ambitions. Gordon's description of his own family In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, as a "grey, shabby, joyless people, all rather sickly in health," who "had lost all impulse to reproduce themselves" was then a crisis that faced all of England. In contrast, "really vital people," he tells us, "whether they have money or whether they haven't, multiply almost as automatically as animals" (Orwell 20ooe, 41). In his 1947 The English People Orwell implored the population to not only work harder and live more simply, but also to "breed faster" (1970c, 54).

Orwell's landscape of sexual crisis is then in some peculiar way intertwined with a series of changes to the structure of British society between the wars, the effect of which was to upset the stability of the established patriarchy. The confluence of these sexual, ecological, and industrial anxieties can be found in Orwell's 1934 "On a Ruined Farm near the His Master's Voice Gramophone Factory," a poem which, in a tone that would become typical of the Movement poets in the 1950s, proposes man's essential alienation from the world. "As I stand at the lichened gate," the poem begins. It is that "As" which guides the poem: it is a dramatization of the moment of reflection, of a man struggling to reconcile the modern and traditional on a deserted farm, looking down on the industrial sprawl of a nearby town. At first the opposition of these two "warring worlds" seems to be an uncomplicated lament. To the narrator's left lies a scene of rural economic devastation: "The empty sties, the barns that stand / Like tumbling skeletons." The failure of this agricultural capacity is reflected in the ecological disaster. The trees have become "black and budless," "acid smoke has soured the fields, / And browned the few and windworn flowers." The economic reality of the rural, of the "scythe and spade," has been brutally exposed by nature. In contrast, to the narrator's right stand "factory-towers, white and clear / Like distant, glittering cities." This is a scene "where steel and concrete soar / In dizzy, geometric towers," "where the tapering cranes sweep round," and the "trains roar by / Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel." But the anticipated criticism of this scene does not arrive. Instead, the narrator finds himself attracted by the very whiteness of these towers, their glitter, and the soaring dizziness they induce. This is "my world, my home," the narrator tells us, even though it remains strangely "alien" (Orwell 2000g, 134-35).

It is important, however, that we turn back to the opening of the poem. Why do lichens grow, we might ask, but the trees remain budless? This lichen is surely partly literal and partly metaphorical: the gate, the impulse from which the thinking of the poem arises, is "lichened" by nature and by discourse, particularly by a specific tradition of English rural poetry, the same tradition which underpinned Gordon's description of the hornbeams at Burnham. This countryside of sties, barns, and "windworn flowers" is extracted from an Romantic topography, whilst the poem's metrically regular ABCB quatrains are derived from the English balladic tradition. The opening sentence is an almost verbatim borrowing from A.C. Benson's harrowing tale of psychosis and suffering, The Altar Fire (1907), Benson being best known as the lyricist of "Land of Hope and Glory." Orwell seems, I would suggest, to be using this dramatic monologue, in a very high modernist and allusive manner, to draw a comparison between English patriotism and breakdown, the subject of Benson's book. The simple metrical iambic refrain functions as a form of solace, which in many ways the content refuses to accept. It is a song of mourning without succour. What the narrator finds is that this world has changed. Where once "when the trees were young, men still / Could choose their path--the winged soul, / Not cursed with double doubts, could fly / Arrow-like to a foreseen goal," now he can find neither "faith" nor "accepted destiny." Whereas the designers of the city have sought redemption through technological grandeur, he is trapped, in a classic suburban dilemma between myths of the past and the excitement of the future. The narrator considers himself "like Buridan's donkey / Between the water and the corn," trapped in an endless battle of will between options. As if to emphasize the point, the terms of the extended metaphor are reversed. For if we are to follow the logic of the poem's movement from the countryside on his left and the city on his right, then his conclusion equates the country with "water" and the city with "corn," problematizing the nature of a citizenship caught between a false historiography of the countryside and the lure of the "glittering" city (Orwell 2000g, 134-35).


To summarize briefly: Orwell's creative work in the 1930s, particularly the recurrent scenes of rural sex, dramatizes for us a unique moment in British history marked by changes in the structure of its cities, the threat to its countryside from suburbanization (and particularly a certain English discourse that had constructed the countryside), and the challenge to male sexuality from changes in the construction of gender, manifested particularly in a falling birth rate. Outdoor sex in a countryside drawn up and marked out by romanticism, yet hidden away from preying eyes and protected by the contours of terrain or by the thorns of the bramble, is an act of transgression against the progress of modernity, a last stand for a certain type of masculinity complicit with the old order. It is ultimately a method of self-defense, and one very much consistent with the overall impetus in the work of the high modernists following the First World War, and especially during the 1920s and 1930s. It is most obvious in, for example, Wyndham Lewis whose work repeatedly turns to find some way to armor the self against a hostile modernity, "to set up the Shell as your shield" (1987, 120). In this final section, I want to consider how we should situate Orwell's self-defense mechanism and his vision of modernity in relation to the tactics of high modernism and other writers of the 1930s, taking into account, as here, the similarities but also attempting to resolve Orwell's obvious disagreement with that aesthetic program in his own critical work.

Orwell's relationship to his contemporaries is complex. In "Inside the Whale" (1940), for example, Orwell was clear that he sided with the Left's view of high modernism as an aesthetic that had turned its back on political engagement and retreated into conservatism and into itself. He understood also that it had carefully consolidated the market and monopolized literary space. But he found the "Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing" (Orwell 200od, 510) contained in the poems of "Auden, Spender & Co." entirely unpalatable as a solution given it failed to recognize that "Joyce, Eliot & Co." (512), had radically altered literary form and the role of the narrator forever in response to modernity. His conviction that James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) simply "could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling with word-patterns" (508), lays out quite neatly the nature of the dramatic internal tussle he was undergoing as an artist between form and content. It would accordingly be wrong not to recognize that Orwell's own fiction arises from a foundational struggle to unite modernist poetics with socialism, the principles of democracy, and an emergent welfare state. In the 1930s, at least creatively, we find him working through the conflicts and claims of the Lukacsian and Leavisian positions, ultimately with that typically thorny modernist opposition of empathy and abstraction, realism and experimentation.

A great deal of modernist theory in the 1930s--Lewis' own brand of satire for example--can be seen as an attempt to mediate between these polarities, on behalf of both the self and art. Orwell's chosen model for uniting these oppositional strands came not from England's past however, but from Priestley's American future in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934). Orwell read the novel soon after it was first published, reviewing it in November 1935 for the New English Weekly. Initially, Orwell was attracted to the novel by its graphic descriptions of sexual encounter that he felt penetrated to an essential human truthfulness. It amounted, he said, to "a definite attempt to get at real facts" (Orwell 2000k, 155). Although Miller depicts a debauched and ugly Paris, it is as far as Orwell is concerned a necessary vision, told from the perspective of the debased man in the street. By 1936, Orwell's fascination with the novel had grown, and in a review of Miller's Black Spring (1936), again in the New English Weekly, he felt that his original review had "underpraised" it. The source of this reappraisal is a clearer understanding of the role Tropic of Cancer was able to play in allowing him to resolve the crisis he had identified in English fiction, a crisis of the "thinking man" (removed and intellectual) and the "ordinary man" (engaged and everyday). In this way, we might think of Gordon, George, and Winston as attempts to reconfigure the high modernist common man, figures such as Joyce's Bloom and Eliot's Sweeney who are motivated by powerful sexual desires. Orwell was of the view that both these characterizations were noble but failed attempts at a truly lascivious modern man, Bloom because he was "complicated by feelings of horror and repentance," and Sweeney because he was used as "a kind of confession-box." Instead, Miller's novel gives Orwell a model for a suburban rather than an urban Bloom, stripped of social attachment and any religious anchor, to leave merely "ordinary people behaving in an ordinary manner" (2000J, 230). By 1940, Miller's novel was established in Orwell's mind as a foundational moment in a new movement. "If this were a likely moment for the launching of 'schools' of literature," Orwell wrote in "Inside the Whale," then "Henry Miller might be the starting-point of a new 'school'" (2oood, 519).

It would be logical for us to conclude, then, that for Orwell his own fictional sex is, following Miller, a way of getting at the ordinary facts of this new life amidst the concrete, arterial roads, and new factory towns. But this is a simply untenable position when we consider the contrast between the romanticized nature of his own sexual landscapes and the pithy, grubby, and biological sexual acts enacted in Miller's novel. Compare Orwell's description of the elm trees in Nineteen Eighty-Four--"their leaves stirred faintly in dense masses like women's hair"--to Miller's account in Tropic of Cancer of looking into the genitals of one lover: "When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull" (2005, 249). Are these the words Orwell wanted to use but felt incapable? Whilst Orwell might have considered Miller a model forgetting at the ordinary facts of life, the similarity between the two styles ends there. Even if we allow that Orwell depicts "ordinary people behaving in an ordinary manner," his accounts of sexual activity are remarkable precisely because of their naivety and nostalgia. Instead of following Miller, Orwell's fictional sex ends up as a pastiche; or rather it begins as pastiche and ends closer, probably inadvertently, as a form of clumsy parody. Suggesting such clumsiness mimics the clumsiness of the act itself, would be to create a meta-layer in the narrative for which there is little support.

What then should we make of this conflict? On the one hand Orwell clearly advocated Miller's formal aesthetic program for approaching a new sense of the real, and yet when his own fiction is face to face with the real it could only slip into romance. Should we pin it, like Orwell's many commentators, on neurosis? The matter is only complicated when we consider what it was specifically that Orwell felt he had found in Miller. Take for example, the grotesque image Orwell chose to introduce his initial review of Miller's novel in 1935: "Modern man is rather like a bisected wasp which goes on sucking jam and pretends that the loss of its abdomen does not matter. It is some perception of this fact which brings books like Tropic of Cancer...into being" (2000k, 154). Here, the wasp is configured purely as an automaton, intent almost solely on satiating instinctual desire despite decapitation. Orwell explains that this bisection stems from the failure of society to adequately find a replacement for religion's control of the body:
One result of the breakdown of religious belief has been a sloppy
idealisation of the physical side of life. In a way this is natural
enough. For if there is no life beyond the grave, it is obviously
harder to face the fact that birth, copulation, etc are in certain
aspects disgusting. (Orwell 2000k, 155)

Orwell expanded the idea in a review of Michael Fraenkel's Bastard Death (1936) in the New English Weekly. Here, Orwell defined the critical factor in Tropic of Cancer as its focus on a "particular attitude to life derived ultimately from the modern notion that death is an end and not the gateway to a new lease of life" (2000i, 219, emphasis in original). The bisected wasp image is then based on a reconfiguration of the Cartesian mind/body model into a desire/control duality. The head becomes associated with individual desire, "sucking jam" until it is intoxicated. It stands for the idealization of physical life. The lost abdomen in contrast becomes associated with social control and restraint, abstinence, and a lost sense of a shared culture. According to this model, it is the failure of the established regulatory apparatus--Empire, marriage, and religion, or what Orwell terms "the break-up of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture" (200od, 525)--which give rise to the bisection of the wasp. Robbed of its guts, the moral sanction of a religious society, suburban man turns to the pure satiation of physical desire. This is the journey charted for Gordon, George, and Winston.

The conclusion is then one of conflict in theory and praxis. I have traced how writers such as Orwell and Priestley saw a major change in the structure of British society during the 1930s, changes which not only altered the physical landscape but through macroeconomics, politics, and demographics fed into gender, race, and class. I have also traced how Orwell felt his diagnosis of England, his new sense of the real, of the "indeterminate stratum" of British society that had emerged after the War, ought to be represented. Miller provided him with a model in which the world ultimately amounted to nothing more than the instinctual and hormonal machinations of the sex drive. But whereas in Miller the erotic might be a way through this new world, Orwell's own fiction shows it only leading back toward pain. In these novels, Orwell was unable to look into the "fucked-out cunt" of a world he had spent so much time assessing and describing at first hand. He was forced back into the imagined, the nostalgic, and the romantic, that is into the very discourses of which he would be thoroughly critical elsewhere.

The abiding image of Orwell's fictional men is then one of failure. It is a failure of those very mechanisms of self-defense that Orwell, like Lewis, was attempting to construct around the threatened individual. The trope emerges repeatedly in Orwell's fiction as a crisis of the male body, "etiolated," the very site of desire, in some way eroded, unable to live up to Miller's demands of it. Much of the power of Orwell's fiction arises, I feel, precisely from this failure to live up to its own demands. As an illustration and to conclude, compare two images, one the idealized version of all that Orwell hoped and the other all that he most feared. The first is in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in Orwell's account of the coal miners:
They really do look like iron--hammered iron statues--under the smooth
coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot.... Most of
them are small...but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies;
wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced
buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.
(Orwell 2000I, 20)

But contrast this with Winston's broken body at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, "a bowed, grey-coloured, skeleton-like thing" (20oof, 310) in the mirror of his interrogation chamber:
The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs
had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs....The
curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched
forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to
be bending double under the weight of the skull. (Orwell 20oof, 311)

These are one and the same man. But nakedness has been transformed by different forms of oppression. The "statuetsque]," "noble," "sinewy," "slender{ness]," and "supple[ness]" of the miner has given way to the "shrunk[en]," "hunched," "scraggy," "curvature" of the prisoner. The absence of excess manifest in athleticism has given way to starvation. One is a picture of "flesh," alive, pumped full of blood, ritualistically tattooed by the coal dust. The other is entirely of bone, the "spine," "shoulders," and "skull." One is full of potential, the other hollowed out, a "barrel of the ribs," "a cavity of the chest." Orwell has not bisected the wasp here, he has sucked out of it all life, all hope. It is the shockingly small gap between the men in these images, the fragility of the skein that shrouds Orwell's vision of modernity, the failure of all self-defense mechanisms, that drives Orwell back into those endlessly painful romantic longings for sex in England's countryside.


(1) I would like to acknowledge and thank the peer reviewers of this essay; their detailed comments and insights have significantly contributed to it.


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JAMIE WOOD is an independent scholar currently completing a postdoctoral study of poetics during the First World War. His work on high modernists such as T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and F. T. Marinetti has been published in Modernism/modernity, Modernist Cultures, and the Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies, and Biography. He has provided a number of entries in relation to modern and contemporary literature for both the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies and the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism.
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Date:Jun 22, 2018

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