Archive of retained correspondence from the files of his first publisher, Victor Gollancz, relating to the publication of Keep the Aspidistra Flying.16 Jan 1936-23 June 1944 Stock Code: 131753
NotesVictor Gollancz's archived correspondence regarding the publication of George Orwell's second novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The correspondence, often bitter, shows how far concerns with libel altered the final text of the novel, and how unhappy Orwell was about this; it contains two typed letters, two autograph notes, and one full autograph letter, all signed by Orwell, in around four hundred words in his hand.
Soon after completing A Clergyman's Daughter, Orwell moved to London, and took a part-time job in a bookshop in Hampstead. By February 1935 he had begun to write Keep the Aspidistra Flying, incorporating his experiences as a bookseller - the career shared by the protagonist Gordon Comstock - and his experience of poverty. Orwell sent the manuscript to Gollancz in January 1936.
The archive opens with a carbon copy of a letter from Gollancz to his solicitor Harold Rubinstein, 16 January 1936, enclosing the manuscript (the manuscript of the novel unfortunately has now been lost) and asking for his comments on any possible libel concerns, noting that Orwell has got approval from his old employer for the bookshop scenes. On the same date Gollancz wrote to Orwell commending the novel - "I can think of no English novel which deals with this central question of money". He tells him that he is having it checked for libel, and says that in his opinion the verbal repetition of the money question should be toned down as overplaying the point, but even so sends his congratulations.
There then begins what will form the bulk of the archive, become a major source of irritation for Orwell, and ultimately lead to quite substantial textual changes to the novel - a lengthy exchange between Gollancz, his solicitor, Orwell, and Orwell's literary agent Leonard Moore, on the question of libel concerns. On 20 January 1936 Rubinstein replied to Gollancz with a lengthy list of libel concerns mostly concerning Orwell's use in the novel of deliberately banal advertisements - Rubinstein is concerned that they will be seen as too close to existent advertisements. Gollancz forwarded this to Orwell, asking him to make changes. Orwell replies the next day accepting most of the changes, but does challenge Rubinstein in places, and is clearly not too pleased with what he thinks are pedantic alterations.
Gollancz checked the revised manuscript with Rubinstein, who raised three new concerns, still feeling that it may antagonize certain companies who see themselves or their products reflected. Orwell sent a typed letter signed to Gollancz accepting the changes and proposing a meeting, including an autograph note signed, altering the three concerns - he changes a description of cigarettes from "acrid" to "soothing", deletes the phrase "foul, bloody things" and changes an advertisement to "earn five pounds a week in your spare time" which he feels is too general to be attributed to any company. Rubinstein confirmed these changes, requesting only one more minor change. Orwell returns the letter with a further signed manuscript note, accepting the change and writing that he has moved address.
However, Orwell's libel woes were not over. On 17 February 1936 Gollancz wrote to Orwell again saying that the whole business of libel is becoming a nightmare, and that four books had to be recalled over the last week due to it. He gives a lengthy list of further desired changes. Orwell replies with a lengthy autograph letter signed, 18 February 1936, in which he defends his writing. He says he will do what he can "short of ruining the book altogether". However he refuses to make any changes to the character of Mr. McKechnie, the bookshop owner, rejecting that there are any parallels with his old employer. He also refuses to take out the word "sod", which he has used in his books before, and which was used in Robert Graves's Goodbye To All That. Gollancz replied to Orwell on 19 February, saying they will accept what he says about Mr. McKechnie, but really feel he should take out the word "sod", otherwise the book may be banned from the larger circulating libraries. Orwell responded with an irate telegram the same day: "absolutely impossible make changes suggested would mean complete rewriting am wiring agent". Gollancz wrote to Orwell's literary agent Leonard Moore, still on the 19 February, asking if he will use his influence to effect the changes, which he insists (probably correctly) are not excessive - "what Orwell is objecting to is really incredibly trivial".
Moore's intervened, and Orwell did come round to making the changes, and replied with a typed letter signed on 24 February: "it seems to me that these alterations spoil the book altogether; however, perhaps that is better than being prosecuted for libel". Looking at the textual changes to the final book from these exchanges, it does seem that Orwell is being melodramatic - the changes are to the wording of advertisements and so on which are not central to the book's plot or themes, and it is very difficult to argue that the book was in any way spoiled. Even so, the correspondence does reveal that Orwell was not entirely happy with the novel in its final state, a state in which it is still printed and read today, a significant detail.
Moore wrote to Gollancz on 26 February 1938 setting out why Orwell was unhappy, and enclosing an extract from a letter that Orwell had written to Moore in which he said that Gollancz "have utterly ruined the book". Gollancz replied to Moore on 28 February 1936 to state that they do not agree the book has been ruined, and that it remains "an extraordinarily brilliant and forceful piece of writing, and only the author could detect that any changes had been made".
To everyone's dismay libel concerns still continued, after more similarities between products in the novel and real products came to light. Gollancz wrote to Moore again on 29 February asking for someone to look at the book again, hinting that it might be best if this was done by someone other than Orwell. Moore replied on 4 March saying he will not mention it to Orwell now, and will try and avoid doing so. He agrees with Gollancz that the novel is by no means ruined by the changes, and says that "authors always feel like that when compelled to use the blue pencil". On the 6 March Gollancz's solicitor Harold Rubinstein recommended new changes, which Gollancz regretfully sent on to Moore on the 7 March, asking him to speak to Orwell, as he "seems to be more amenable in your hands than ours". Orwell replied with a typed letter signed on 11 March, making the alterations without any open bitterness this time, which concluded the business.
The archive then includes the agreement memorandum for the novel - as future novels were covered under the contract signed for A Clergyman's Daughter, no full contract was signed: this memorandum only read "2nd Option on Clergyman's Daughter", with a later ink note "Rights reverted 26. 5. 44". This latter note is explained by the next item, a letter from Leonard Moore dated 25 May 1944, asking if Penguin can have the book if more editions by Gollancz were not to be forthcoming, to which Gollancz agreed on 26 May 1930; there is a further note from Gollancz to Orwell's executors, 23 June 1944, saying that the rights have reverted, which closes the collection.
The archive of Victor Gollancz was sold by the firm's parent company in recent years, from whom the correspondence was directly acquired.
Full list of contents:
1. Carbon from Gollancz to his solicitor Rubinstein, 16 January 1936, enclosing KTAF manuscript and asking for comments on libel. Orwell has asked his former bookshop manager if he has any objections to the bookshop scenes, and he has none. A little tatty with repair on verso.
2. Carbon from Gollancz to Orwell, 16 January 1936, congratulating him on the novel. He outlines minor libel issues, and suggests a reduction in the verbal references to money.
3. Letter from Rubinstein to Gollancz, 20 January 1936, raising potential libel concerns.
4. Carbon from Gollancz to Orwell, 20 January 1936, enclosing a copy of Rubinstein's comments.
5. A copy of the above letter, marked up with manuscript ticks.
6. Two typed pages from Orwell (21 January 1936), making emendations with reference to Rubinstein. Orwell mostly accepts the changes, but in places challenges Rubinstein.
7. Carbon from Gollancz to Rubinstein, 22 January 1936, enclosing the manuscript with the corrections and libel correspondence, and asking for his review.
8. Response from Rubinstein, 23 January 1936, confirming the alterations but raising three further issues (together with copy).
9. Carbon from Gollancz to Orwell, 24 January 1936, sending Rubinstein's comments, and stating Gollancz agrees with the three further changes.
10. Typed letter signed from Orwell, dated 23 January 1936 but after the previous letter, sending notes and hoping to have a meeting. Together with an A5 handwritten note signed, accepting the three changes.
11. Carbon from Gollancz to Rubinstein, 27 January 1936, asking if the text is now okay.
12. Letter from Rubinstein to Gollancz, 27 January 1936, saying Orwell's final changes are satisfactory, and suggesting one final minor change. Together with three copies of the letter.
13. Letter from Gollancz to Orwell, 29 January 1936, enclosing Rubinstein's above letter, returned by Orwell with his signed manuscript notes at foot, agreeing to the final change and saying he is moving to a new address. Together with an unsigned carbon of Gollancz's letter, and a copy of the pages of manuscript that needed correcting, with manuscript corrections.
14. Lengthy letter from Gollancz to Orwell, 17 February 1936, saying libel is becoming an increasing concern as other books had to be withdrawn. He suggests further changes to the manuscript. Returned by Orwell with annotations, accepting and rejecting some changes; a lengthy penciled note at the top of the letter by Orwell signed Eric has been obscured and then erased.
15. Autograph letter signed from Orwell to Gollancz, 18 February 1936, defending his writing, and saying that he will do what he can short of ruining the book altogether.
16. Carbon from Gollancz to Orwell, 19 February 1936. They accept his hostility to the changes, but reiterate libel concerns, and say Orwell's retaining of the word "sod" may well lead to it being banned from libraries.
17. Telegram from Orwell to Gollancz, 19 February 1936, "Absolutely impossible make changes suggested would mean complete rewriting am wiring agent".
18. Carbon from Gollancz to Orwell's literary agent Leonard Moore, 19 February 1936, insisting that the desired changes are not excessive, and hoping he will use his influence to effect the changes.
19. Typed letter signed from Orwell to Gollancz (24 February 1936), plus a typed sheet of corrections. Orwell accepts the changes, even though he feels it somewhat spoils the book, as necessary to avoid libel.
20. Letter from Leonard Moore to Gollancz, 26 February 1938, enclosing a copy of a letter from Orwell to Moore. Moore insists next time they do not send the book to press until everything is changed on the typescript. Orwell's attached letter expresses his displeasure, saying he thinks they have ruined the book with their emendations but that he has conceded.
21. Carbon of Gollancz's response to Moore, 28 February 1936, justifying their actions. They state that they do not agree the book has been ruined, and remains "an extraordinarily brilliant and forceful piece of writing, and only the author could detect that any changes had been made".
22. Letter from The Fanfare Press, 28 February 1936, showing concern about more potential libel issues. Gollancz had sent them the proof to check.
23. Letter from Gollancz to Rubinstein, 29 February 1936, asking for another review due to The Fanfare Press's new libel concerns.
24. Moore's response to Gollancz's letter, 4 March 1936, saying he will not continue the matter with Orwell if can, and that authors often feel the book is ruined.
25. Letter from Rubenstein, 6 March 1936, in light of The Fanfare Press's comments, proposing new emendations.
26. Carbon to Moore, 7 March 1936, regretfully informing him of Rubenstein's new changes, and asking him to speak to Orwell, as he "seems to be more amenable in your hands than ours".
27. Typed letter signed from Orwell to Gollancz, 11 March 1936, saying he has made most of the suggested changes.
28. Agreement memorandum for KTAF (undated); "2nd Option of Clergyman's Daughter" (that contract had made provisions for future books); annotated in ink "Rights reverted 26.5.44". With the envelope.
29. Letter from Moore, 25 May 1944, saying Penguin books want Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Orwell would like them to have it, and hoping he does not object.
30. Carbon response to Moore, 26 May 1944, saying he does not object.
31. Carbon of note from Gollancz to Orwell's executors, 23 June 1944, saying that the rights to Aspidistra reverted to the author from 26 May 1944.
Housed in a green morocco album with centre tool to spine separated by raised bands by the Chelsea Bindery.
Some instances of creasing and chipping at extremities, one carbon copy quite tatty, but generally overall in very good condition.
With the exception of framed items*, Peter Harrington offers free delivery on all UK orders of rare books, maps and prints placed through this website. Delivery to USA and the rest of the world is similarly free for orders over £200.
Established in 1969, Peter Harrington is one of the leading rare book firms in the world. It is a proud member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association – along with ILAB, the PBFA and Lapada – and from shops in Mayfair and Chelsea, London, sells rare books, prints and ephemera to customers across the world.
Tel: +44 (0)20 7591 0220