George Orwell wanted no biographers; nonetheless, this paradoxical figure has been depicted as an anarchist, a democratic socialist, a revolutionary warrior, a Tory, a quietist, a petit-bourgeois individualist, a sexist and a snitch.
Robert Colls seeks to understand the life of Eric Blair, who took the pseudonym George Orwell, “a step at a time, in and out of argument”. George Orwell: English Rebel takes us from his parental home in Henley-on-Thames, to prep school and a scholarship to Eton, and then on to the Burmese police force. After returning to Britain in 19, Orwell the writer would emerge.
Bringing his expertise as a cultural historian to bear on Orwell’s early books on tramps in Paris and London and workers in the North of England, Colls details how middle-class leftists, literary, anthropological and photographic, were tumbling over one another in Lancashire and Yorkshire in a rush to document an “authentic” working class. He shows how Orwell wanted to get under the skin of the Northerners, but they spotted Eton a mile off and clammed up tight. Burma and the North discomfited Orwell, but he learned from both places.
This discomfort, Colls shows, contributed to Orwell’s radicalisation. The experiences of the colonised, the down and outs and the working class revealed a system out of joint. A grotesque distortion of human relationships was being perpetuated as normality. It is to Orwell’s credit that he did not simply accommodate himself to the status quo, but tried to change it.
Perhaps another realisation drove him, too. Colls mentions in passing Orwell’s awareness of how the colonialists in Burma went to elaborate lengths not to be laughed at. Orwell was alert to the fear lurking around the authority of Empire and class privilege because he understood both from within.
Nevertheless, Orwell retained the raw prejudices of his background: snobbery, homophobia and contempt for Jews. There were (and are) many conflicting Englands and Orwell’s story belongs to more than one. Colls avoids facile sneers from the vantage point of 2013, but he could have interrogated more rigorously the aspects of Orwell that disclose the underbelly of some distasteful elements of “Englishness”. Conversely, he is strangely incurious about Orwell’s interactions at the BBC’s Empire Service (as the World Service was originally known) with writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and Una Marson, which surely would throw “Englishness” into interesting relief.
Colls’ reflections on how Orwell’s fiction explores the new England of suburban life provide illuminating insights into an important aspect of the 1930s, neglected by historians’ emphasis on unemployment and poverty in the North. He argues that in Coming Up for Air (1939), Orwell shifts in his attitude towards England, but he was hardly unique in that: the confrontation with fascism inclined others to reconsider national loyalties, too.
Here the contextualising slips. Colls’ focus on “Englishness” begins to swallow his intention of following Orwell’s steps historically; it also muffles Orwell’s politics.
The 1930s and 1940s were not conducive to either theoretical purity or clean hands. Orwell struggled with two difficult dilemmas – how to transform society while respecting its existing wants and desires, and how to be a democratic socialist when Stalinism dominated the Communist Party. In 1949, the year Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell’s loathing for Communism forged in the Spanish Civil War, his support for Labour and, I suspect, his affection for Celia Kirwan, who worked for the Information Research Department in the Foreign Office, led him to send her information on prominent figures he considered to be unsuitable as propagandists against the Soviet Union. Colls sees this as simply indicating Orwell’s adherence to the Labour Party. But this is to ignore an imbalance; in 1949, the Labour leaders and the secret state were far more powerful than members of the British Communist Party or even their sympathisers. Britain’s version of McCarthyism might have been mild in comparison with the virulent US strain; nonetheless, Communists would be both fingered and blacklisted in industry and in the professions. Irony one is that the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four contributed to surveillance; irony two is that in 1942 Special Branch had been watching him!
Colls’ thought-provoking study underscores some of Orwell’s contrary and conflicting aspects while muffling others. But then he is not at all an easy figure to sum up.
George Orwell: English Rebel
By Robert Colls
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £25.00
Published 24 October 2013