George Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” was first published 75 years ago in Tribune, on 12 April 1946. A special edition was produced by The Orwell Foundation to celebrate this year's Orwell Prize longlists. D. J. Taylor has generously allowed us to republish the introduction below, where you will also find a link to our anniversary film featuring interviews with Taylor and Richard Blair, and a reading from 2020 Orwell Prize winner Kate Clanchy.
'Some Thoughts on the Common Toad' is available to read in full in our online library.
‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ was first published in the left-wing weekly magazine Tribune on 12 April 1946. There was an appreciative letter from John Betjeman, who declared that Orwell was ‘one of the best living writers of prose’ and that he ‘enjoyed and echoed every sentiment.’ By this point Orwell’s career as a student of the natural world went back nearly three and a half decades. Some of his earliest, pre-teen correspondence shows an interest in ‘beastly freaks of smelly white mice’ and Togo, the Blair family dog, and the very last letter he wrote home to his mother from prep school in the summer of 1916 trumpets the purchase of three pet caterpillars named Savonarola, Paul and Barnabas.
The roots of Orwell’s absorption in the flora and fauna of early twentieth-century England lay in the high ground above Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire where he spent his school holidays, much of them in the company of his teenage sweetheart, Jacintha Buddicom. Come the early 1930s, his letters to friends are crammed with references to nature rambles, fishing, hedgehogs, the pursuit of puss moths and bird-nests or trips to Suffolk heronries. Naturally, these forced marches across Walberswick Common and on to Blythburgh Woods, a short step from his parents’ home in Southwold, are important for what they tell us about the off-duty writer and how he spent his time away from the desk. Even more important, perhaps, are the literary uses to which they were put.
On the one hand, ‘nature’ to Orwell is a bulwark against the devitalising forces of the modern world. As ‘Some Thoughts’ puts it, in an increasingly mechanised age, where ploughed fields are being grubbed up for municipal housing, to retain one’s childhood love of trees, fishes and butterflies, makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable. On the other, Orwell’s feelings about ‘nature’ were inextricably bound up with his feelings for women. His friend Tosco Fyel noted how he tended to ‘let himself go’ stylistically when the two came together, and one of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s key concepts is the idea of the ‘Golden Country’ where Winston and Julia can be themselves, far away from the world of telescreens and vigilant authority.
Just as the rural backdrop to Animal Farm can be traced back to Great War-era Henley, so Winston’s rhapsodising of the Home Counties countryside ultimately derives from Orwell’s letters to his Suffolk girlfriend Eleanor Jaques in the early 1930s. Yet however impassioned his musings about trout streams, bluebell woods and birds of prey stalking the Jura headlands, there is nothing sentimental about them. As one who had spent much of his spare time tending to animals on his smallholding in Wallington, Hertfordshire, or on the farm at Barnhill, Orwell could be horribly down-to-earth about the issues at stake. Feeding a gazelle in the municipal park at Marrakech in Morocco, where he spent the winter of 1938/9, he notes that gazelles ‘are about the only animals that look good enough to eat while they are still alive, in fact one can hardly look at their hindquarters without thinking of mint sauce.’
At the same time he was writing urgent letters home to his friend Jack Common, who had been left in charge of the Wallington livestock. Had Muriel the goat’s mating gone through yet, he wondered at one stage. ‘It’s a most unedifying spectacle, by the way, if you happened to watch.’
D. J. Taylor was born in Norwich in 1960. He is the author of five novels, including English Settlement, which won a Grinzane Cavour prize, Trespass and The Comedy Man. He is also well known as a critic and reviewer, and is the author of A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, After the War: The Novel and England since 1945 and an acclaimed biography, Thackeray. His critically acclaimed Orwell biography, Orwell: The Life (2003) won the Whitbread Biography Award, and he gave the 2005 Orwell Lecture entitled ‘Projections of the Inner “I”: George Orwell’s Fiction’. He is married with three children and lives in Norwich.
Image credit: Design - James Tookey. Toad Illustration - Martin Rowson.