Letter to the Past: An Autobiography
R. Gordon Moyles is professor emeritus of English at the University of
Alberta, co-author of Imperial Dreams and Colonial Realities: British
Views of Canada, 1880–1914, and author of The Salvation Army and the
George Woodcock is Canada’s pre-eminent man of letters, internationally known for his poetry and his biographies of George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Merton, and Kropotkin; and nationally esteemed for his editorship of Canadian Literature, his illuminating studies of the Doukhobors, his award-winning biography of Gabriel Dumont, his television series on the South Pacific, and his numerous other books, radio plays, and articles. Such a wide range of acquaintances and accomplishments, coupled with a brilliant and eclectic imagination, are in themselves enough to provoke the inevitable biographical questions: Who is George Woodcock? What makes him so knowledgeable? How did he get to know George Orwell? Quite simply, the more we read by him, the more curious we are to know about him.
On a very practical level, then, Letter to the Past is a very satisfying book: it does indeed answer those personal questions in a most engaging manner. But, much more than that, this autobiography (which chronicles Woodcock’s life in England, before his return to Canada) is a vivid depiction of an era — the 1930s and ‘40s — and society whose impact is still felt in our own lives. In his inimitable style, so eloquent yet so lucid, Woodcock describes life “in the quickly changing world of the 1920s, the world of flappers and fast cars and social unrest” and, then, what it was like to be living in London in the ‘30s as an aspiring writer, a socialist, a pacifist, and soon-to-be leader of the Anarchist Movement. Here were established the hard-won principles and values that have directed his life and his writing; it is that struggle for personal independence, vivified in intimate detail, which is the essence of this book. It will, of course, be of immense interest to Woodcock’s devotees, and will no doubt be read avidly by historians of the period, but it is a book for all people, for it reveals a deep understanding of human-nature and society, exemplifies a rare courage, and evokes an awareness of true dignity. Always admired as a superb stylist, Woodcock is here at his best; we eagerly await a second volume which will bring him and us home again.