Decline of the English Murder

Billed as some of Orwell’s “less accessible” material, Decline of the English Murder and other essays contains ten texts on a strange variety of subjects, but in which his potent insights into the flaws of man and society remain constant – as well as a biting wit. The title piece is a case in point, drawing an unflattering, and humorously cynical, comparison between the “popular” contemporary (post-World War II) crimes making the headlines and those doing so between 1850 and 1925 – what he refers to as “Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak“.

Describing a downward slide from a time of middle-class murder, when to poison one’s spouse was considered less shameful than the ignominy of divorce, to one of trivial “Americanised” slaughter (effectively the thrill killing of films like Natural Born Killers, to which his war years British example is remarkably close), Orwell narrows the field down to what a News of the World reader would consider the “perfect” murder (like the one depicted on the cover, reading about MORE CRIPPEN DISCOVERIES), and establishes for us the petty, small-minded nature of the culprit – and most likely his tabloid voyeur as well – along with his social standing, political leanings, career, motivations and modus operandi.

The next, A Hanging, is one of three more autobiographical pieces – in this case it is almost a short story, describing Orwell’s witnessing of an execution in Burma, and the observations of the condemned, his “condemners” (Orwell included) and the layers of social nicety that exist around so morbid an event are quite fascinating. The second of these pieces, How the Poor Die, recounts a period spent in a French hospital in 1929 as a non-paying patient. Suffering from pneumonia, the treatment he receives is frighteningly severe, as is that of the other state-supported individuals around him. Nurses with a minimum of training and no emphasis on – or expectation of – a caring attitude; rarely spoken to or even looked in the eye by doctors and their students; treated as subjects for study – and even experimentation or student pranks. A death in the night is routine, as is for the body in question to remain in situ for hours until someone can be bothered to haul it away. As soon as he is able Orwell flees, and although he discovered later that this particular hospital had a reputation, he notes that all such institutions have similar ghosts in their past, that even their architecture echoes it; and that for many ordinary people the belief that a hospital is a place one goes to die remains strong, even if times have changed for the better.

Between these two, and off the subject of his own past, comes Benefit of Clergy (Some Notes on Salvador Dali), more specifically on Dali’s autobiography, Life.

Some of the incidents in it are flatly incredible, others have been rearranged and romanticised, and not merely the humiliation but the persistent ordinariness of everyday life been cut out. Dali is even by his own diagnosis narcissistic, and his autobiography is simply a strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight.

Orwell proceeds to tear strips off Dali for the self-serving nonsense he spouts throughout the book, along the way examining the quality of art appreciation he has provoked amongst the public and critics, critiquing them in turn. He examines social changes that have transpired which may reveal some of Dali’s most powerful motivations and why “aristocrats should buy his pictures instead of hunting and making love like their grandfathers“, and registers his own disgust with some of Dali’s work without in any way demanding it cease.

Short of the dirty post cards that used to be sold in Mediterranean seaport towns, it is doubtful policy to suppress anything, and Dali’s fantasies probably cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilisation.

Seaside post cards are clearly of some interest to Orwell, as three years previously he wrote about The Art of Donald McGill, the man who would be “King of the saucy post card”. Perhaps there was a sea change in his thinking in 1944 as his earlier opinions come out decidedly on McGill’s side – unless the Mediterranean product was less wholesome.

He celebrates McGill as the master of the form (the form of woman as well), and uses him to highlight British conventions of sexuality and the perception of how men and women mature, physically and maritally. It is in subjects like this that the content of the collection has most dated; but there is still much enjoyment to be had in Orwell’s arguments, and there are unexpected, laugh-out-loud turns of phrase throughout the book.

Putting aside Dali’s autobiography, there are three essays on actual literature, including what was for me the joint highlight of the collection. The first and last, respectively on Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens, combine both criticism and defence of the men in question, in both cases – more or less – on the grounds that their flaws are inherent in their being products of their social environments. For Kipling, he rejects the charge of his being a fascist (no doubt quite a black mark in 1942; the piece was written after reading a new collection of poetry, selected and prefaced by T.S. Elliot, whose apparently defensive posture on the subject Orwell felt needed properly reinforcing), instead claiming that to equate a man of Britain’s imperial era with the modern concept of fascism was unfair – though he never loses sight of, and in fact underlines, how Kipling’s social prejudices detrimentally influenced his work.

The essay on Dickens is the longest by far, almost amounting to a detailed psychoanalysis of the man through his writing and, even for a philistine like myself, it makes fascinating reading. He portrays Dickens as a strange combination of social radical and social conservative, suggesting that while his literature almost invariably represents an assault on the conventions of his society, he has no alternative to aspire towards but a rather feeble “nicer version” of the same.

In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like an elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling.

As he did with Kipling, Orwell examines the fingerprints which Dickens’ upbringing left on his writing and while he never shies from criticism he finally paints an inspiring picture of the man as a figure who would be, in 1939, “hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls“. There is more of this scathingly disdainful political observation to come in the remaining essays, but –

Now for a header into the cesspool.

The remaining piece of literary criticism comes in Raffles and Miss Blandish – not an inspiring title at first glance, but this was the first real star of the show, a compulsive running down of the state of crime fiction in the mid-forties by comparison – much like in the title piece – with that of recent times gone by. Raffles was what we might now call the anti-hero of three popular novels of the 1890s, a gentleman thief who lived in The Albany (next door to Jack, or Earnest, perhaps), played cricket for the England Gentlemen and supported himself as the “Amateur Cracksman” – a term for burglar which probably won’t retain the same connotation these days. While operating beyond the law Raffles notably retained his own quirky code of honour, as embodied by a refusal to ever steal from his host at a society do while happily robbing one of his fellow guests blind; and eventually, after destroying his public status as a gentleman, by joining the armed service and sacrificing his life in battle, a conventional face-saving move in the literature of the time.

By extremely stark contrast comes No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a British-penned murder mystery in an American style hugely popular during the war years and a best seller during the Battle of Britain. Set in the glamorous world of the US, it describes the kidnapping and abuse of the titular millionaire-heiress; her eventual rape by “Slim”, the semi-retarded man-child of the gang responsible; their violent slaying by the so-called forces of law and order, themselves represented as sadistic and largely unlawful in their actions; and her suicide by jumping from the window of a sky-scraper – either as she had became pregnant or because she couldn’t live without her lover, this detail apparently remaining unclear.

Contrary to expectations at this point, Orwell describes it not as the product of an illiterate hack, but as “a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere“. In this it stands head-and-shoulders above the more typical examples of the genre (“They are said to have been imported into this country as ballast, which accounted for their low price and crumpled appearance. Since the war the ships have been ballasted with something more useful, probably gravel“), but it is the genre itself that Orwell is troubled by. He sees in the frequent sexual perversion and the relentless viciousness of the “heroes” – even Private Detective or police protagonists routinely employ blood-thirsty or underhand tactics – the demise of any appetite for honourable action in the readership; and associates with the books generally a disturbing symptom of a society so immunised to the horrors of a war still raging all around them that, to feel any kind of thrill, mundane violence must be transplanted to a near-imaginary world and elaborately glamorised.

Several people, after reading No Orchids, have remarked to me, “It’s pure Fascism”. This is a correct description, although the book has not the smallest connexion with politics and very little with social or economic problems. It has merely the same relation to Fascism as, say, Trollope’s novels have to nineteenth-century capitalism. It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age.

This brings me to the penultimate article, Notes on Nationalism. Here Orwell abducts that word, Nationalism, for his own purposes, differentiating it from Patriotism and defining it as the base form of which that, or Fascism, or Communism, or any of the other forms of obsessive-divisive belief which exist simultaneously amongst the people of the world, are effectively bedfellows – but desiring all the sheets for themselves alone.

I am not using [nationalism] in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation – that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad”. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.

Orwell goes into considerable detail redefining the word and making the argument for a concept which, it would seem, is being identified for the first time – at least in English. At its root are notions of denial; consciously, for example in an individual’s willing attack on his chosen antagonist at all costs, including that of the facts, or in the absence of the same; and unconsciously, as Orwell charges that, to a nationalist of any specified type, there are certain facts about his own position which cannot be reconciled with his world view, even in his most private thoughts, and thus must never be permitted consideration.

Perhaps other things begin to ring a bell now, writing more famous than this. The final lines of the piece suggest a moral effort is required to stand up to nationalism and that “contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it“. Writing in 1945 – the same year Animal Farm was published – makes it clear that Orwell was ready to rise to that challenge; and in the final 1947 essay, Why I Write, he talks just as frankly about his own motivations as he did speculating on those of Dickens and Kipling, finally concluding that his worst work was that lacking a political purpose behind it.

Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.

Two years later then, and I assume with Notes on Nationalism firmly in mind, Orwell presented us with his last, greatest failure. Of course, Decline of the English Murder doesn’t fail quite so well; but even if his subject matter occasionally proves to have lost its relevance to a modern reader, Orwell’s voice speaks from the past with a strident, commanding tone and demands you enjoy it nevertheless.


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