First War-time Diary

28 May 1940 – 28 August 1941

Following Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd. On the 9 September, Orwell offered his services to aid the war effort. His letter disappeared but that he did so is known from a reply that has survived from the Ministry of Labour and National Service telling him that he had been entered on a Central Register devoted to authors and writers. It does not seem that his services were ever called upon. Eileen worked (ironically) in the Censorship Department in Whitehall, living during the week at her brother’s house in Greenwich and joining Orwell at the weekends in Wallington. Orwell spent his time at Wallington, tending his allotment, reviewing, and writing the essays that would be gathered together in Inside the Whale, published by Gollancz, 11 March 1940. These include ‘Charles Dickens’, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, and the title essay. He toyed with the idea of writing a long novel to be published in three parts and from 30 January 1940 he spent six weeks at Greenwich during which time he was ill with influenza. He continued to review but felt increasingly frustrated that he was not involved in worthwhile war service. On 1 May 1940, he and Eileen moved to 18 Dorset Gardens near Regent’s Park. On 10 May the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg which led to the Fall of France and the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Both the War-time Diaries were originally handwritten but seem to have been typed later (in September 1942) possibly by Eileen. In the course of typing, cuts were made which are indicated by from four to half a dozen ellipses – Orwell’s usual practice. The handwritten version of the first War-time Diary has not survived. He and Inez Holden (1906-1974; author and journalist) had a project for publishing his and her diaries jointly as a record of the times. The joint project came to nothing because she wanted to change what she did not agree with or what she thought was inaccurate in Orwell’s diary. Her diary was published in 1943 as It Was Different at the Time. She recalled that Gollancz turned down Orwell’s War-time Diaries because he feared offending people. Inez Holden supplied notes enabling certain identifications to be made for the Complete Works and hence for this volume. Orwell wrote the title as ‘War-time Diary’.

Orwell started this diary a week before he began his short career as a theatre and film critic and two days after the evacuation began of 338,226 British and Allied servicemen form the beaches of Dunkirk. This operation was concluded on 4 June 1940. German troops entered Paris on 14 June and the French surrender was accepted on 22 June.

Peter Davison, from George Orwell: Diaries (Penguin in paperback, Harvill Secker in hardback)

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