TOPICS: Eliot’s damning verdict on ‘Animal Farm’
It is regularly voted one of the best books of all time, a timeless piece of satire which has never gone out of print in the 64 years since it was first published. But when George Orwell sent Animal Farm to TS Eliot for consideration, the poet rejected it as “unconvincing”.
In a letter from 1944 explaining why he would not be publishing the work, Eliot told Orwell that he was not persuaded by the “Trotskyite” politics which underpin the narrative. To publish such an anti-Russian novel would jar in the contemporary political climate, explained the poet. “We have no conviction ... that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time. It is certainly the duty of any publishing firm which pretends to other interests and motives other than mere commercial prosperity to publish books which go against the current of the moment,” wrote Eliot, before going on to say that he was not convinced that “this is the thing that needs saying at the moment.” The letter, which has been in the private collection of Eliot’s widow, Valerie, since he died, is explored in a forthcoming edition of the BBC documentary series, Arena.
In the letter, Eliot argued that Orwell’s “view, which I take to be Trotskyite, is not convincing.” He took particular umbrage with Orwell’s characterisation of the pigs on
Animal Farm. Napoleon, a Berkshire boar thought to be based on Stalin, triumphs, despite being the novel’s baddie. He battles with Snowball, a much nicer pig modelled on Leon Trotsky, who genuinely works for the good of the other animals. It is Napoleon’s bully boy tactics which seem to win the day, while Snowball is chased off the farm by dogs. This mirrored Trotsky’s deportation from the Soviet Union after he criticised Stalin.
Eliot seems to imply that if Orwell’s intention is to convince the reader of the logic of Trotksyism over Stalinism, the more sensible authorial decision would be to have “more public spirited pigs” — such as Snowball, presumably, rather than more Stalinesque communism in the shape of Napoleon. “I think you split your vote, without getting any compensating strong adhesion from either party — ie those who criticise Russian tendencies from the point of view of a purer communism, and those who, from a very different point of view, are alarmed about the fate of small nations,” wrote Eliot.
Quite what he meant here is unclear. “It’s a fascinating, yet very odd letter. What exactly does Eliot mean?” said Anthony Wall, series editor of Arena. But Eliot saw much to praise in the work. “We agree that it is a distinguished piece of writing; that the fable is very skillfully handled, and that the narrative keeps one’s interest on its own plane - and that is something very few authors have achieved since Gulliver,” he wrote, referring to Jonathan Swift’s 18th century satire.
Eliot signs off expressing his regret that this rejection would deny Faber and Faber the opportunity of publishing Orwell’s future work - “Your work is a good writing of fundamental integrity.”