George Orwell as James’s Literary Critic: a Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.

I thought it was going to be tough this time around.  For the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge this week I drew an essay by George Orwell called “Raffles and Miss Blandish” and a short story by Henry James called “The Next Time.”

Orwell’s piece is a critique of the detective story circa 1940.  In it he compares No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase with the Raffles stories by E.W. Hornung.  I think it’s safe to bet that very few 21st century readers will have heard of either.  I recalled hearing something about Raffles at some point in my life and I kind of enjoy reading very old criticism since my time in graduate school, so I put this title in my deck of short stories.   But how would a very negative assessment of the detective story flush with a piece by Henry James?

It turned out to be remarkable easy to link these two pieces.

Mr. Orwell’s essay is about how far the detective story had fallen since the days of Raffles.  Raffles was not a detective, but a criminal, a robber who played by a certain set of rules. He was a crook, but he was always “cricket” about it.  There were certain lines he’d never cross, certain rules he always played by.  Some fifty years later, No Orchids, an American novel, later a stage play, is a big success in large part because it gives everyone the  violence they want in their crime fiction now-a-days.

Since 1918, however, a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited.  Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses…

..No Orchids enjoyed its greatest vogue in 1940 …It was, in fact,one of the things that helped to console people for the boredom of being bombed.  Early in the war the New Yorker had a picture of a little man approaching a news-stall littered with papers with such headlines as “Great Tank Battles in Northern France,” “Big Navel Battle in the North Sea,” “Huge Air Battles off the Channel,” etc. etc.  The little man is saying, “Action Stories, Please.” That little man stood for all the drugged millions to whom the world of the gangsters and the prize-ring is more ‘real,’ more ‘tough,’ than such things as wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famines and pestilences. From the point of view of  readers of Action Stories, a description of the London Blitz or of the struggles of the European underground parties, would be ‘sissy stuff.‘ On the other hand, some puny gun-battle in Chicago, resulting in perhaps half a dozen deaths, would seem genuinely ‘tough.’ This habit of mind is now extremely widespread. A soldier sprawls in a muddy trench, with the machine-gun bullets crackling a foot or two overhead, and whiles away his intolerable boredom by reading an American gangster story. And what is  it that makes that story so exciting? Precisely the fact that people are shooting at each other with machine-guns! Neither the soldier nor anyone else sees anything curious in this.  It is taken for granted that an imaginary bullet is more thrilling than a real one.

I’m just glad George Orwell didn’t live to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

But how would this connect with Henry James’s story of a gifted writer trying to find an audience?

“The Next Time” is a very good story about a literary critic who has discovered an author, Limbert, whom he believes everyone should read.  The narrator/critic is one of a small number of people who recognize Limbert’s artistry.  He consistently expects Limbert’s next work to be the one that will break through and finally sell.

After a string of failures, Limbert deliberately tries to write a popular novel, but even this is too good to sell.  The narrator/critic sees this and sees that no matter how many times the author tries to write something low enough to sell widely, well he won’t be able to.

“I don’t think I particularly care what may become of him,” I returned with a conscious reckless increase of my exaltation; “I feel it almost enough to be concerned with what may become of one’s enjoyment of him. I don’t know in short what will become of his circulation; I’m only quite at my ease as to what will become of his work. It will simply keep all its quality. He’ll try again for the common with what he’ll believe to be a still more infernal cunning, and again the common will fatally elude him, for his infernal cunning will have been only his genius in an ineffectual disguise.” We sat drawn up by the pavement, facing poor Limbert’s future as I saw it. It relieved me in a manner to know the worst, and I prophesied with an assurance which  as I look back upon it strikes me as rather remarkable. “Que voulez-vous,” I went on; “you can’t make a sow’s ear of a silk purse.  It’s grevious indeed if you like –there are people who can’t be vulgar for trying. He can’t– it wouldn’t come off, I promise you, even once. It takes more than trying, it comes by grace. It happens not to be given to Limbert to fall. He belongs to the heights.  He breathes there, he lives there…”

While the two are quite different, it was easy for me to see James’s narrator/critic in Orwell’s voice and point of view about vulgar literature, the kind of stuff young men read in the trenches.  While I don’t expect Orwell would agree with the notion that vulgarity “comes by grace,” I do think he would appreciate the joke.

I certainly liked it.  I also liked that bit about not making a sow’s ear from a silk purse.

And I wonder if Orwell ever wrote a piece on Henry James….

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5 Comments

  1. Jay says:

    Limbert sounds like a great HJ character. I also like the quotation beginning “he belongs to the heights…” Good stuff. I’d never thought about it before, but I agree with you regarding Orwell & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Very funny. 🙂

    1. I’ve a feeling Orwell would hate many of my favorite detective novels. While I’d agree with him on Dragon Tattoo, he would not have much patience with my yearly favorites list.

  2. Candiss says:

    Great connection!

    The “Dragon Tattoo” comment made me giggle, too. 🙂

    1. I’m the only person I know who hates the Dragon Tattoo books. I can see that the movies, the original ones which I’ve seen, are well done, but I still don’t like them. I wonder if I’m as old as Orwell was when he wrote that essay. It could be that. I admit it.

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