As He Pleased
Plumbing the mystery of the first-person Orwell
by George Orwell
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We know from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four that he thought of the diary as a potentially seditious form. Diaries are not illegal in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four because nothing is—Airstrip One’s legal code has been abolished. But Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, understands the consequences of committing his private thoughts and personal observations to the page well before he lifts his pen to print the words “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.” “If detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp,” Orwell wrote. As Smith prepares to scribble his first passage, he asks himself why he’s keeping a diary, and surmises that it’s a letter to the future, to the unborn.
Diaries aren’t just generational time tunnels or rebellions against the state—they can also serve as self-dossiers, self-indictments, and confessions, as Smith also comes to learn. Orwell discovered the same during his adventures as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War when police confiscated a wartime diary (or two) of his from his wife’s Barcelona hotel room in 1937 during a raid. According to Peter Davison, an Orwell scholar and the editor of this volume, the diary may have been forwarded to Moscow—which considered him a Socialist enemy of communism—and added to the archive of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.
Another Orwell diary that appears to be MIA dates from the mid-1920s, when he was working in Burma as a colonial policeman. It has never surfaced and probably never will—though Orwell published a fictionalized