Peter Davison, the editor of The Complete Works of George Orwell, discusses its troubled genesis and what might loosely be called "the autobiography Orwell never wrote" - his Diaries and A Life in Letters ­ - now to be published for the first time in the United States.

For many years I taught scholarly editing and edited the work of Shakespeare and his colleagues (in particular 1 and 2 Henry IV, in Penguin editions still in print after some 45 years) – oh, and, for a New York publisher in 1971 a critical edition of music-hall songs. Out of the blue in July 1982 I was telephoned and asked if I would edit a de luxe edition of Orwell’s nine books. That meant closely comparing over fifty texts and manuscripts in twelve months. The intention was to publish this edition in 1984 – a new but intriguing kind of anniversary celebration. The concept of a de luxe edition of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier has never ceased to amuse me but owing to the disastrous delays in getting even the first three books into print (they saw the light of day only in 1986 and had immediately to be pulped because the printer had used the uncorrected version of my text) that embarrassing description was quickly dropped. Two examples, both, fortunately, just caught in time, might well illustrate the kind of errors introduced by the printer. The title of Orwell’s last novel appeared as:

Nineteen 48pt


’48pt’ was, of course, the type-size for the title-page. And that famous formula, 2 + 2 = 5 appeared as 2r 29 5-

In the meantime I was asked to edit the extant manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four –or 1984 as Orwell agreed it might be titled in the USA. This, too, was delayed but did appear at the end of 1984. My circumstances had changed by this time owing to severe cutbacks in English universities and I was running a historic building in the centre of London. It meant that for many years my wife and I bore the whole cost of preparing the edition.

Despite the many problems and delays in getting the nine books into print, I had launched, with the help of Ian Angus (who had worked with Sonia Orwell) and my wife in collecting, checking, editing and annotating all that Orwell wrote – as well as books, his and his wife Eileen’s letters (some 1,100), 265 articles, 380 reviews, lecture notes and research materials, diaries (apart from one or two still believed to be held in the NKVD Archive in Moscow), his hundreds of BBC broadcasts to India and the arrangements for making those, together with a selection of letters written to him. At the time the publisher resisted the idea of computer-generated copy so everything had to be typewritten, which, given the size of the enterprise, was an exhausting process. The intention was to publish the complete edition in twenty volumes comprising some 8,650 pages. The whole edifice was topped off by indexes to each of volumes X-XX and a 400-column cumulative index. The intention was that the printer would cumulate the eleven separate indexes but, alas, the computer did not know the meaning of the word ‘cumulate’. Thus, ‘Czechoslovakia’ appeared before ‘Caliban’ and ‘London’, instead of appearing in one place listing all references in the eleven volumes, was scattered into four groups.

Obviously an edition of this extent takes time to produce, especially if the editor has also simultaneously to earn a living outside academe without benefit of grants and fellowships, but even then it might be asked why the 21 volumes took seventeen years to get into print. First, the edition was abandoned by its publishers – Secker & Warburg in London and by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich in New York – no fewer than six times. For example, after being abandoned in summer 1986 it was again abandoned three years later – without it having been resuscitated in between. Perhaps foolishly, but in the end fortunately, we ignored ‘abandonments’ and simply kept at it, seeking, editing and annotating material. When Secker’s giving up at the end of 1985, HBJ took sole charge and in summer 1993 HBJ gave me a contract to prepare the edition at a fee of $5,000, the first half being paid on signature. By then 3,188 pages had been typeset in New York and proofread by my wife and I and Ian Angus in London. Alas, six months later HBJ finally abandoned the project (and I whistled goodbye to the second $2,500). In December 1995 I suffered a setback when I had to have a sextuple heart bypass at very short notice.

Secker& Warburg (in particular Max Eilenberg) took over publication again and this was scheduled for August 1997. There was a further change of ownership (the house changed hands on seven occasions in my time) and publication of all twenty volumes took place in August 1998.

The nine ‘books’ have been reprinted in the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition and in 2001 I produced four collections of essays for Penguin drawn from the edition. A slightly updated soft-cover edition of volumes X-XX appeared from 2000 to 2002. Unsurprisingly, human fallibility and the vicissitudes of the production process meant that there were errors and omissions. One kindly scholar, Dr Robert Fyson, read through the whole edition and sent me details of the errors he had found and inevitably more material rapidly presented itself (and I confess to missing two items). A supplementary volume of letters and other material, with lists of corrections was published as The Lost Orwell in 2006 by Timewell Press, Secker finding this important material of insufficient commercial interest. I am very grateful to Timewell for stepping in and especially because they allowed me to include twenty-one illustrations, a number of which had never been seen before.

We do know of missing material – Orwell’s Spanish diaries and a number of letters – but these remain inaccessible today. But a greater omission, as I, perhaps selfishly see it, is that so much of this wonderful repository is unavailable in the USA. At last, with the volume of Orwell’s Diaries, and the forthcoming A Life in Letters, also from Liveright, a start is being made to repair what is, surely, for American readers, an enormous omission – the first thousand pages of the ten thousand or so of the whole edition, these two volumes offering a sketch of the autobiography Orwell never wrote.

When I had almost completed A Life in Letters, I came across what struck me as the finest summation of George Orwell’s character and work and the finest tribute anyone could wish to have paid him or her. It was in a confidential report by his boss at the BBC, the Director of Indian Services, Rushbrook Williams, recommending Orwell receive an annual salary increase:

He has a great facility in writing and a literary flair which makes his work distinguished . . . He supports uncomplainingly a considerable burden of poor health. This never affects his work, but occasionally strains his nerves. I have the highest opinion of his moral, as well of his intellectual capacity. He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge, and in early days would have been canonised – or burnt at the stake! Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage. An unusual colleague – but a mind and a spirit, of real and distinguished worth. [August 7th 1943]

And that is why, to this day, so many of us ask, when facing some new challenge or outrage, ‘What would George say?’