George Orwell’s second novel sat on my bookshelves for several years before I eventually got around to reading it. I feel a little guilty that it took so long, since in many ways, it’s a damn fine book.
Living with an ungrateful and demanding father, Dorothy sees little to look forward to in her humdrum existence. Treated badly by local lothario Mr Warburton, she suffers a spell of amnesia. Vanishing from her home, she joins a group of hop-pickers, then finding herself with little money, is forced to stay in a hotel frequented by prostitutes. However, there’s always the possibility of a ‘better’ life on the horizon…
The novel was a bit of an experiment for Orwell and it seems he was never terribly happy with it. In fact, he left instructions it should not be reprinted after his death (though he did agree that cheap copies might be made available so any royalties would benefit his family). Much of the story is taken from a journal Orwell kept while picking hops in Kent during 1931.
Based on this period in Orwell’s life, as well as his experience of teaching at two schools (from 1932), and his involvement with the curate at a nearby church, Orwell’s description of hop-picking is wonderful, and he clearly could not have described the process, the people and the conditions so vividly, had he not been through it himself:
It was slow work in the early morning, before the hops were dry enough to handle. But presently the sun came out, and the lovely, bitter odour began to stream from the warming hops, and people’s
early-morning surliness wore off, and the work got into its stride.
This isn’t my favourite of Orwell’s novels, but I liked it a lot more than I expected to, which is nice.