Literature Gives No Man a Sinecure
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
The plot of this novel centres on Gordon Comstock, who gives up a decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to concentrate on poetry and sinks gradually into poverty. He sees himself as a rebel against middle-class propriety (represented by aspidistra plants), but in the end circumstances (through the medium of his girlfriend, Rosemary) drag him back towards a happy mediocrity, where he probably belongs anyway. I liked this one, despite the somewhat disconcerting sense that, at times, I could almost have been reading my own autobiography.
It was also made into a decent film starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. The film doesn’t get down into the gritty texture of poverty to the extent that the book does, but it’s entertaining. Bizarrely, I think it was released in North America under the title “A Merry War”. Perhaps the word “aspidistra” was considered too long or too obscure for North American viewers; still, when you have a title as fantastic as “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” it seems a shame to waste it.
Best of all, though, there are three – that’s right, three – references to Canada. We’ll take them in the order they occur. First:
Gordon’s supper was set out, waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire) and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle, and drank a glass of cold but musty water. (p. 30)
It would be nice to think that this reference to Canadian butter suggests a cool, delicious dairy product that comes from the wide-open spaces of the new world, where proud farmers milk their cows and their daughters, faces cream-spackled, churn it into delicious fresh butter to be shipped back to England – in short, that the reference to Canadian butter is meant to provide a contrast with the dirty and poverty-stricken conditions in which Gordon consumes it.
Alas, the sentence resists such interpretation.
The general tenor of the description of Gordon’s life in the boarding house is that it is mean and filthy; the dinner he eats seems to be of a piece with that (the bread is crumbly, the water musty – how lovely that “but” there, as if it required some sort of mysterious, almost alchemical cruelty to take cold water and still render it musty, thus draining it of pleasure). It seems more likely that Canadian butter represents something cheap and low-quality rather than something grand and delicious. Given the characterization of his landlady, if Canadian butter were good, it’s impossible to imagine that she would give it to Gordon.
We also have the phrase “mousetrap cheese,” which immediately follows “Canadian butter.” I’m not sure what this means, but I suspect it refers to cheese that is so bad that it’s appropriate for use in a mousetrap, but not for human consumption.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, I’m not the first to have taken up this question; the Internet provides some further speculations.
She [Rosemary] was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. There had been fourteen children all told – the father was a country solicitor. Some of Rosemary’s sisters were married, some of them were schoolmistresses or running typing bureaux; the brothers were farming in Canada, on tea plantations in Ceylon, in obscure regiments in the Indian army. (p. 124)
This second reference ties in with the first in linking Canada and farming. Here Canada, along with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, represents a colony that offers opportunity to Englishmen who have little chance of getting ahead at home. Rosemary’s brothers are clearly enterprising types (unlike Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit) who have headed out to the corners of the Empire to make their fortunes through hard work and determination.
Mr. Clew had left the New Albion a year ago, and his place had been taken by Mr. Warner, a Canadian who had been five years with a New York publicity firm. Mr. Warner was a live wire but quite a likeable person. (p. 271)
Now that’s remarkable: a reference to Canada that has nothing to do with farming, but instead focuses on a member of what would today be called the “creative class”. The New Albion is the publicity (i.e. advertising) firm where Gordon works in London; Mr. Clew was his boss when he quit.
At first this seems rather exciting: a Canadian live wire (one doesn’t often see those terms in close proximity) who is a big wheel in a London advertising firm. But if we pause over the sentence a moment, we realize that Mr. Warner has become successful by leaving Canada. In fact, it seems likely that, as a “live wire”, he was too bright, too creative, for dour Canada, and had to leave in order to find success on the grand stages of New York and London, where people with vision are appreciated. And isn’t that one of the commonest tropes about Canadians – that the really great ones are the ones who succeed outside Canada?
And so, to summarize … what do we learn about Canada from Orwell? It’s a country of farms that produce cheap but inferior butter; and it’s a great place for Englishmen of modest dreams (i.e. those who want to be farmers) to go in search of opportunity, but any Canadian with a real spark of intelligence or creativity will inevitably leave for the U.S. or England. In a nutshell, we import England’s extraneous people and export anyone with genuine talent. This is, I suppose, typical of the way empires regard their colonies, but it still doesn’t feel like a vision one wants to rally around.