If you're an admirer of the work of George Orwell, then you should pick up the volumes of diaries and letters that have recently been published in the U.K. by Harvill Secker. I have them, and so I can assure you that they make for fascinating reading.
To get you on your way, I suggest that you first read this review by Simon Leys.
Gordon Bowker, one of George Orwell's biographers, has published a brief review of the reissue of Jacintha Buddicom's memoir Eric & Us. (For those of you who don't keep track of literary pseudonyms, when Eric Blair became a writer, he took to calling himself George Orwell.) Buddicom's book is an important source for anyone interested in Orwell's early life.
This is embarassing. I subscribe to The Atlantic, but I hadn't looked at this article until I saw it mentioned on Arts & Letters Daily. Benjamin Schwarz discusses a book by Judith Flanders entitled Inside the Victorian Home.
Anyway, the good people at Arts & Letters Daily must be admirers of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I can't think of why else they would include part of the following sentence from the article in the blurb that accompanies their link to the article:
The aspidistra became a symbol of the middle-class because it was one of the few houseplants that could withstand the noxious fumes in the gas-lit parlors.
According to Schwarz, Flanders discusses at great length all the hazards involved in living in a Victorian home. Hence the brief mention of the hardy aspidistra.
Spoiler Alert!!! I give away some significant plot details in what follows.
It just so happens that in Orwell's novel aspidistras are a symbol not only of the middle-class but of middle-class respectability, especially that of the lower-middle-class the people of shabby gentility, as Orwell sometimes put it elsewhere in his writings. Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet who has given up his "good" (i.e., respectable) job at a publicity firm to pursue a career at writing, is always encountering them. In fact, they seem to follow him wherever he goes, constantly reminding him of his poverty. Since he refuses to worship the money-god, he attempts to stay out of the money-world altogether. His girlfriend Rosemary is very understanding and doesn't nag him to return to the publicity firm, even though they can't get married as things are.
As Gordon sinks into greater poverty, he takes a kind of pleasure in his degradation, since his poverty is a sign that he has stuck to his principles, until an unexpected turn of events (which I won't give away) leads him back into the money-world. After he has decided to return to the publicity firm, Gordon finds himself walking down a typical lower-middle-class street. He wonders about the people living in the houses, wonders how they live, and thinks that it might not be so bad to be one of them:
Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honor. They 'kept themselves respectable' kept the aspidistra flying. [Quoted from the end of chapter 11.]
Naturally, Gordon insists on having an aspidistra. It will go in the front window.
The book is no doubt inspired by Orwell's own life. It's funny and angry at the same time. If you've only read Orwell's two famous novels, then I recommend this one as the best of his less famous works of fiction.
Believe it or not, Keep the Aspidistra Flying was made into an excellent movie about six years ago. Richard Grant plays Gordon Comstock; Helena Bonham Carter plays Rosemary. It's faithful to the book in the most important respects, and even in many minor ones.
So, you ask yourself, "How could I have missed a movie with the word 'aspidistra' in the title?" Well, it's not your fault. Someone somewhere decided that an American audience wouldn't have any idea what an aspidistra might be; consequently, in the U.S. the film is called A Merry War. (I don't know the U.K. title.) At one point in the novel (in chapter 6) it is said that there is "a merry war" between Gordon and Rosemary, because they often argue vigorously but innocently. They genuinely adore each other, and so their arguments are for the most part absurd.
The DVD of A Merry War seems to be out of print. I've only seen the film once when it was originally in theaters. There might have been five or six people in the U.S. who saw it when it came out. I'm glad that I was one of them.
I first read Animal Farm when I was in ninth grade. That's when I became an Orwell admirer. I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying for my English class when I was a senior in high school. Seeing the link on Arts & Letters Daily reminded me that I needed to create an Orwell category for my blog. It's now over there to the right, as you can see.