Orwell wrote the book in 1934 and 1935 when he was living at various locations near Hampstead in London, and drew on his experiences in these and the preceding few years.
The Aspidistra is a hardy, long-living plant that is used as a house plant in England. It was especially popular in the Victorian era, in large part because it could not only tolerate weak sunlight but also could tolerate the poor indoor air quality that resulted from the use of oil lamps and, later, coal gas lamps. They had fallen out of favour by the 20th century, not coincidentally paralleling the advent of electric lighting. Their use had been so widespread among the middle class that they had become a music hall joke appearing in songs such as "Biggest Aspidistra in the World", of which Gracie Fields made a recording.
Plot: Gordon Comstock has 'declared war' on what he sees as an 'overarching dependence' on money by leaving a promising job as a copywriter for an advertising company called 'New Albion'—at which he shows great dexterity—and taking a low-paying job instead, ostensibly so he can write poetry. Coming from a respectable family background in which the inherited wealth has now become dissipated, Gordon resents having to work for a living. The 'war' (and the poetry), however, aren't going particularly well and, under the stress of his 'self-imposed exile' from affluence, Gordon has become absurd, petty and deeply neurotic.
Comstock lives in a bedsit in London and earns enough to live, without luxuries, in a small bookshop owned by a Scot, McKechnie. He works intermittently at a magnum opus describing a day in London he plans to call London Pleasures; meanwhile, his only published work, a slim volume of poetry entitled Mice, collects dust on the remainder shelf. He is simultaneously content with his meagre existence and also disdainful of it. He lives without financial ambition and the need for a 'good job,' but his living conditions are uncomfortable and his job is boring.
Comstock is 'obsessed' by what he sees as a pervasion of money (the 'Money God', as he calls it) behind social relationships, feeling sure that women would find him more attractive if he were better off. At the beginning of the novel, he senses that his girlfriend Rosemary (whom he met at The Albion, and who continues to work there), is dissatisfied with him because of his poverty. An example of his financial embarrassment is when he is desperate for a pint of beer at his local pub, but has run out of pocket money and is ashamed to cadge a drink off his fellow lodger Flaxman.
One of Comstock's last remaining friends, Philip Ravelston, a Marxist who publishes a magazine called Antichrist, agrees with Comstock in principle, but is comfortably well-off himself and this causes strains when the practical miseries of Comstock's life become apparent. He does, however, endeavour to publish some of Comstock's work and his efforts had resulted in Mice being published via one of his publisher contacts (unbeknownst to Comstock).
Gordon and Rosemary have little time together—she works late and lives in a women's hostel, and his 'bitch of a landlady' forbids female visitors to her tenants. Then one evening, having headed southward and having been thinking about women, - this women business in general, and Rosemary in particular, - he happens to see Rosemary in a street market. Rosemary won't have sex with him but she wants to spend a Sunday with him, right out in the country, near Burnham Beeches. At their parting, as he takes the tram from Tottenham Court Road back to his bedsit, he is happy and feels that somehow it is agreed between them that Rosemary is going to be his mistress. However, what is intended to be a pleasant day out away from London's grime turns into a disaster when, though hungry, they opt to pass by a 'rather low-looking' pub, and can then not find another pub, and are forced to eat an unappetizing lunch at a fancy, overpriced hotel instead. Gordon has to pay the bill with all the money he had set aside for their jaunt and worries about having to borrow money from Rosemary. At the critical moment when he is about to take her virginity, she raises the issue of contraception and his interest flags. He rails at her; "Money again, you see! [-] You say you can't have a baby. You mean you daren't; because you'd lose your job and I've got no money and all of us would starve."
Having sent a poem to an American publication, Gordon suddenly receives from them a cheque worth ten pounds—a considerable sum for him at the time. He intends to set aside half for his sister Julia, who has always been there to lend him money and support. He treats Rosemary and Ravelston to dinner, which begins well, but the evening deteriorates as it proceeds. Gordon, drunk, tries to force himself upon Rosemary but she angrily rebukes him and leaves. Gordon continues drinking, drags Ravelston with him to visit a pair of prostitutes, and ends up broke and in a police cell the next morning. He is guilt-ridden over the thought of being unable to pay his sister back the money he owes her, because his £5 note is gone, given to, or stolen by, one of the tarts.
Ravelston pays Gordon's fine after a brief appearance before the magistrate, but a reporter hears about the case, and writes about it in the local paper. The ensuing publicity results in Gordon losing his job at the bookshop, and, consequently, his relatively 'comfortable' lifestyle. As Gordon searches for another job, his life deteriorates, and his poetry stagnates. After living with his friend Ravelston and his girlfriend Hermione during his time of unemployment, Gordon ends up working at another book shop and cheap twopenny lending library, this time in Lambeth, owned by the sinister Mr. Cheeseman, for an even smaller wage of 30 shillings a week. This is 10 shillings less than he was earning before, but Gordon is satisfied; "The job would do. There was no trouble about a job like this; no room for ambition, no effort, no hope." Determined to sink to the lowest level of society Gordon takes a furnished bed-sitting-room in a filthy alley parallel to Lambeth Cut. Julie and Rosemary, "in feminine league against him", both seek to get Gordon to go back to his 'good' job at the New Albion advertising agency.
Rosemary, having avoided Gordon for some time, suddenly comes to visit him one day at his dismal lodgings. Despite his terrible poverty and shabbiness, they make love but it is without any emotion or passion. Later, Rosemary drops in one day unexpectedly at the library, having not been in touch with Gordon for some time, and tells him that she is pregnant. Gordon is presented with the choice between leaving Rosemary to a life of social shame at the hands of her family—since both of them reject the idea of an abortion—or marrying her and returning to a life of respectability by taking back the job he once so deplored at the New Albion with its £4 weekly salary.
He chooses Rosemary and respectability and then experiences a feeling of relief at having abandoned his anti-money principles with such comparative ease. After two years of abject failure and poverty, he throws his poetic work London Pleasures down a drain, marries Rosemary, resumes his advertising career, and plunges into a campaign to promote a new product to prevent foot odour. In his lonely walks around mean streets, aspidistras seem to appear in every lower-middle class window. As the book closes, Gordon wins an argument with Rosemary to install an aspidistra in their new small but comfortable flat off the Edgware Road.
Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell's third novel published in 1936, is a savagely satirical portrait of the literary life. Orwell chronicles the struggles of Gordon Comstock, who gives up a successful job in an advertising - "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket" - to become an unsuccessful poet, taking refuge by day in a failing bookshop as he descends into genteel poverty.
The aspidistra of the book's title comes from the pot plants to be found on every window sill which, for Comstock, symbolise all that is wrong with the "mingy, lower-class decency" he is desperate to escape.
Orwell was himself a struggling writer working part-time in a Hampstead bookshop. His journeys around England and beyond - chronicled in Down and Out in London and Paris - do often resemble Comstock's circumstances and attitude. But the facts of Orwell's own life were rather different - considerably more sociable and quickly becoming more successful - to Comstock's.
The novel is perhaps a better guide to Orwell's intellectual development than it is autobiographical. It is the novel in which Orwell is most directly influenced by one of his heroes George Gissing, the late Victorian novelist whose New Grub Street remains the seminal description of literary failure. In his later essay on Gissing, Orwell describes the quintessential flavour of Gissing's world - "the grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness" - which sums up the world Orwell sought to capture and to criticise in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Comstock can also be seen as something of a predecessor of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s - though Comstock was, if anything, angrier still. Christopher Hitchens' recent book Orwell's Victory offers an illuminating comparison of of the many parallels between Orwell's novel and Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, which did much to define postwar British fiction, although the two books are markedly different in tone and it is Orwell's comic essay 'Confessions of a Book Reviewer' which resembles the comic spirit of the Amis novel.
The book received mixed reviews. Cyril Connolly complained that the book's obsession with money prevented it being considered a work of art. The Daily Mail praised the novel's vigour but was unconvinced by its demolition of middle England: "among the aspidistra, Mr Orwell seems to lose the plot". The misfortunes did not end there. Many of the first print run of 3,000 were lost in a bombing raid in the early years of world war two.
Orwell refused to allow either Keep the Aspidistra Flying or his first novel, the considerably weaker A Clergyman's Daughter, to be reprinted in his lifetime. His dislike of his early novels arose from his incredibly strong sense that he would always be a literary failure, which enabled him to empathise so strongly with his creations like Comstock.
Orwell's six novels make just a small part of his nearly two million published words. Many critics, including biographer Bernard Crick, see Orwell's claim to literary greatness resting much more upon his talents as an essayist - on everything from Politics and the English Language to the perfect cup of tea - than on his novels. Yet while Orwell's first four novels are not nearly so completely realised as their more famous successors Animal Farm and 1984, they offer many important insights into the development of the most important English novelist of ideas of the last century.
Opening Line: “The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon — Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already — lounged across the table, pushing a four-penny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb.”
Closing Line: “Well, once again things were happening in the Comstock family.”
Quotes: “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.”
Rating: Could not read.