George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.
Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.
I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.
The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.
The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.
One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.
One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.
Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.
In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.
Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.
If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.
It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.
I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),
There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.
In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.
Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.
I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.
The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end
I strongly recommend it.