Evelyn Waugh on 1984

The author of Brideshead Revisited offers Orwell his views on 1984.


July 17, 1949

Dear Orwell – Blair? – which do you prefer?

You must wonder why I never wrote to thank you for Nineteen Eighty-Four. The reason is that the publishers never sent it so at last I bought a copy and must thank you all the same, for it is a stimulating experience to read it. I have seen a number of reviews, English & American, all respectful & appreciative. I won’t repeat what they say. Please believe that I echo their admiration for your ingenuity & for many parts of the writing e.g. the delicious conversation in the pub when Winston tries to pump the old man for memories of pre-revolutionary days.

But the book failed to make my flesh creep as presumably you intended. For one thing I think your metaphysics are wrong. You deny the soul’s existence (at least Winston does) and can only contrast matter with reason & will. It is now apparent that matter can control reason and will in certain conditions. So you are left with nothing but matter. But the predicament is not entirely new. We have always accepted the existence of insanity, where reason & will fail to operate, but no one denied that lunatics had souls.

Winston’s rebellion was false. His ‘Brotherhood’ (whether real or imaginary) was simply another gang like the Party. And it was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be f—— in the style of Lady Chatterley – finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act.

I think it possible that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show. But what makes your version spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church. I wrote of you once that you seemed unaware of its existence now when it is everywhere manifest. Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social & historical institution. I believe it is inextinguishable, though of course it can be extinguished in a certain place for a certain time. Even that is rarer than you might think. The descendants of Xavier’s converts in Japan kept their faith going for three hundred years and were found saying ‘Ave Marias’ & ‘Pater Nosters’ when the country was opened in the last century.

The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces. And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

You see how much your book excited me, that I risk preaching a sermon. I do not want to annoy you – for one reason I have promised neighbours of mine Jack & Frankie Donaldson (Etonian socialist farmer & Freddie Lonsdale’s daughter) that I will take them to visit you. They are earnest students of all your work and a charming couple and I don’t want to deprive them of their treat by my sectarian zeal. Would we be welcome one afternoon?

Yours, sincerely, Evelyn Waugh

[Source: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. by Mark Amory (1980), 302.]