Peter Davison edited the Complete Works of George Orwell, working on the 20 volumes for 17 years. He was Professor and Senior Research Fellow in English and Media, De Montfort University, Leicester. He has written and edited fourteen books and has also edited the Facsimile of the Manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four and written George Orwell: A Literary Life. He has recently edited George Orwell: Diaries and Orwell: A Life in Letters. From 1992 to 1994 he was President of the Bibliographical Society, whose journal he edited for twelve years. We are extremely grateful for Peter’s permission to use his notes from the Complete Works on this blog. This introduction was first published in August 2008, and relates Peter’s experience of including the diary entries in the Complete Works.
Had not some malevolent spirit struck me a near-fatal blow in the internet some three weeks ago, I should have been able to offer a more timely welcome to the posting, day by day, of Orwell’s Diary entries on the Orwell Prize website. Those more in tune with the vagaries of the internet will not be surprised that my ‘server’, unbeknownst to me, wiped out all my access codes (and much else). Only the psychic insights of a grandson managed eventually to restore normality and only now can I welcome this brilliant initiative. In a curious way, reading what Orwell jotted down so informally as events occurred, domestically and internationally, seventy years ago will be far more intriguing for readers than when they are faced with slabs of print. Next year I hope very much that it will be possible to mark the weeks running up to the outbreak of the Second World War by posting his ‘Diary of Events Leading Up to the War’, 2 July to 1 September 1939 [The Orwell Prize: yes!]. And this will serve as an appropriate reminder of the awful events of what will then be seventy years ago.
Printing the Diary entries in The Complete Works posed one or two presentational problems. It was thought desirable to distinguish diary entries from letters and articles. The most obvious solution was to set the entries in italic type but this, especially when printed in lengthy slabs, would prove wearisome to the eye. Thus a sloped-roman type was adopted. That also allowed distinctions to be made between roman for headings and dates and italic for titles such as Daily Telegraph.
The second worry was giving undue prominence to what might seem trivial (if not to Orwell at the time) if diary entries were each printed under their due dates in the main sequence of letters, reviews, articles etc. Each of these had a title or name in a larger type-face with its item numeral, followed on a second line, in smaller type, by the date and the nature of the source. This format is fine for letters and long diary entries but could look pretentious for, say, each of the seven diary entries between 14th and 23rd of November 1938 (CW, XI, p. 285). One would have had a series of formal headings followed by successions of two-word entries such as ‘One egg’ and ‘Two eggs’, relieved only by ‘Planted out nasturtiums’ on the 14th. This might seem trivial but I was very conscious of the opportunity it would give to reviewers of a certain ilk to pour scorn on a major edition. Imagine the headlines! ‘A One-Egg Wonder’? I had experienced this some years earlier when ridicule – even spite – had been poured on a weighty work of enumerative bibliographic scholarship published by one of the great university presses. This was scorned by a parochially-minded reviewer who took exception to scholars with strange, foreign names, such as W. Benjamin and M. Horkheimer, wholly unaware of their international significance. Though this upset me, what was much more important was that it reflected badly on a major work of scholarship (in which I had played only a minor role). To avoid a similar fate for this edition of Orwell’s work, I decided to put three sections of the diaries in blocks as appendixes (items 518, 582, and 729A of the Complete Works), whilst printing day by day for that same period Orwell’s Morocco Diary as well as later diaries with mainly lengthy entries. Thus, it gives me great pleasure, which I hope others will share, to read these Domestic Diaries reproduced day by day on the website as Orwell experienced the events – even to rejoicing in an egg for Eileen’s or his breakfast. This is how the Diaries should be read.