Auctions | February 24, 2017

At Bonhams: Orwell's Copy of "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" Presented to a Bookseller

orwell.pngAn important, inscribed, first edition presentation copy of George Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is to be offered at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts Sale in London on Wednesday 1 March.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying was largely written while Orwell was employed as an assistant at Booklovers Corner, a secondhand bookshop in Hampstead. He took up the position in October 1934, having spent the preceding nine months living at his parents’ house in Southwold, Suffolk, pining for metropolitan life and the company of fellow writers. The job was secured for him by his aunt, Nellie Limouzin, who was a friend of the owners, Francis and Myfanwy Westrope, through their shared involvement in the Esperanto Movement. The copy for sale is dedicated to Francis Westrope, the inscription reading, "To, F.G. Westrope, with very best wishes, from, 'George Orwell'". (The quotation marks round “George Orwell” are a reminder of his literary identity, his real name being Eric Blair).

Orwell worked in the bookshop during the afternoons in return for board and lodging. The mornings he devoted to writing; the evenings to socialising. His view of the Booklovers Corner’s clientele was not always flattering. As he wrote in Bookshop Memoirs, “….in a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops".  Some of this attitude finds its way into Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which the protagonist, Gordon Comstock, also works in a bookshop while trying to pursue a literary career.

Orwell was undoubtedly grateful to the Westropes, but he owed them more than the chance to write in peace. Francis had been a founding member of the international Labour Party (ILP), an offshoot of the established Labour Party, which espoused left-wing egalitarianism and non-Communist Marxism. Orwell soon joined the ILP, becoming a prominent member, and its beliefs influenced his writing for the rest of his life.   

Orwell was, however, less enthusiastic about the Esperanto Movement. Unlike those who supported it as a plank of the proletarian revolution, he saw the imposition of a shared common language as a step on the road to totalitarianism. Some of this disquiet may have found its way into Newspeak, the means by which the rulers of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four attempt to exercise control over the population.

Bonhams Head of Fine Books and Manuscripts Matthew Haley said, “Anyone who has ever worked in a bookshop would recognise the eccentric customers that Orwell discovered while working for the Westropes. His experiences in their shop inspired Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the novel which formed an important bridge between his earlier novels like Burmese Days, and the masterworks of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Fine Books and Manuscripts

Bonhams, Knightsbridge, London, SW7

1 March 2017, 1.00 pm

Specialist: Matthew Haley, Bonhams Head of Fine Books and Manuscripts