By Christopher Hitchens.
211 pp. New York: Basic Books. $24.

September 29, 2002

'Why Orwell Matters': The Independent of London


To most readers, George Orwell is the author of two dimly remembered satirical fantasies that were assigned in high school. To a more politicized group, he's the independent radical who saw through Communist lies during the Spanish Civil War and became one of the 20th century's crucial voices against totalitarianism and for what Orwell himself often simply called ''common decency.''

And then there is the smaller, intense membership of the Orwell cult. I joined it -- in 1984, by chance -- on reading the first line of ''Homage to Catalonia,'' his account of fighting on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War: ''In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers' table.'' Nothing dazzling here (''He is not a genius,'' Lionel Trilling wrote -- ''what a relief!''). But even a simple declarative sentence can convey a certain character. The ''I'' is forthrightly present, but without show; what counts more is the Italian militiaman, whom Orwell invokes at the start because ''with his shabby uniform and fierce pathetic face he typifies for me the special atmosphere of that time.''

For members of the cult, the true Orwell is to be found in his essays and his autobiographical books on Spain, coal mining and being poor in Paris and London. What matters is the particular pitch of that ''I'' -- the writer capable of joining an anarchist militia and saying so in a subordinate clause. This Orwell is one's ideal self, braver and more cleareyed than the real one (and a better, harder-working writer), but always there as an aspiration.

Christopher Hitchens rightly warns against the sanctification of St. George, and it was Orwell who famously wrote that ''saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.'' But Hitchens, who has absorbed every word Orwell ever published (in a recent 20-volume edition), spends most of his new book defending the author of all those words against various attacks. It's a strange experience to read a critic best known for extreme acerbity writing about a subject he loves. And if the encounter between Orwell and Hitchens is a disappointing one, it's partly because affirmation doesn't play to Hitchens's strength. ''Why Orwell Matters'' is presented by its publisher as a case of posthumous affinity between writers across generations, but critic and subject turn out to be mismatched, and it's the critic who suffers as a result.

Hitchens addresses a series of short chapters to the key topics in Orwell's life and work: the empire, the left, the right, Englishness, fiction, truth. ''The three great subjects of the 20th century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism,'' Hitchens says, and, he continues, Orwell got all three right. He did so not simply through personal rectitude, still less by pursuing a correct political ''line.'' Orwell came to politics through fairly devastating personal experience, above all in what Hitchens calls his two great epiphanies -- as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he saw and practiced cruelty and self-censorship in the name of empire, and in Barcelona, where he became both a committed socialist and an unillusioned anti-Communist. This helps to explain the consistent soundness of his judgments. ''It has lately proved possible to reprint every single letter, book review and essay composed by Orwell,'' Hitchens says, ''without exposing him to any embarrassment.'' They were at bottom moral judgments, often squeezed out of intense struggles with his own nature and an almost perversely hard life.

Orwell once wrote that he had ''a power of facing unpleasant facts.'' Hitchens adds that they ''were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.'' The best pages in this book show how Orwell's radical politics were often at war with deeply conservative instincts. A man who felt tenderly toward the English countryside, English beer and, incredibly, English cooking, who distrusted abstract language along with most 20th-century inventions, who was something of a homophobe and antifeminist, and who struggled in print against his own antipathy toward Burmese, Jews and the poor, is not an easy fit with ''progressive'' thinking. The pressure of these conflicts, and Orwell's honesty in working them out, help to account for the vivid prose and its moral strength. Orwell's sentences are so forceful that hardly a single one of them escapes political incorrectness of one type or another, yet he remained on the left to the premature end of his life, in 1950. ''By teaching himself in theory and practice, some of the teaching being rather pedantic,'' Hitchens writes, ''he became a great humanist.''

For a slender book, ''Why Orwell Matters'' is oddly unfocused and hard to get through. What Hitchens has to say is what a sympathetic reader of Orwell would want said. But he never sustains a line of thought long enough or searchingly enough to reach a truly provocative insight. There's no sense of a deepening engagement with the subject; one is never allowed to forget the gesticulating presence of the critic. The valuable reflections on Orwell keep getting interrupted by a series of asides, ripostes and thrusts into tangled little backwaters.

Hitchens's main energy goes into scrapping with writers who have Orwell wrong. The British critic Raymond Williams, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist Claude Simon, Edward Said, Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, T. S. Eliot, Norman Podhoretz: one after another Hitchens summons them to account for intellectual sins against Orwell, then sends them sprawling in the dust while gaunt, sad-eyed Orwell remains standing alongside his red-faced champion. ''Raymond Williams . . . is my prime offender and I'm saving him up for later,'' Hitchens says at one point; and at another, ''I personally cannot read the Orwell-Eliot correspondence without experiencing a deep feeling of contempt.'' Hitchens once wrote that ''contempt'' is an honorable and underused word. Contempt is the key in which Hitchens sings most comfortably. It's the driving force behind his recent books on Mother Teresa, the Clintons and Henry Kissinger, with titles like ''The Missionary Position'' and ''No One Left to Lie To.'' Even paying tribute to the writer he admires most, Hitchens has to keep finding fights to pick, it seems, just to stay interested. He always wins, but it wears his reader down. The really absorbing quarrel, as Orwell showed, is with oneself.

''It matters not what you think,'' Hitchens concludes, ''but how you think.'' A corollary says that style is character. It's in this sense that Orwell and Hitchens, who agree about almost everything, are nonetheless badly matched. In defending Orwell, Hitchens sounds more like his hero's critical contemporaries, who thrived, as Orwell once said, on ''squalid controversies imported from across the Atlantic.'' Hitchens's talent is polemic, a satisfying form over short distances. He possesses the knowledge, the rhetorical skill and the range of hatreds to have made an amazingly productive career of it. In a sense his literary character is the opposite of Orwell's. As a writer Hitchens is not, in a felicitous phrase he applies to Orwell, ''forever taking his own temperature.'' Lacking Orwell's range of concrete experience, he never examines the conflicts of the ''I'' as a way of getting at larger themes -- yet one is constantly aware of him performing on the page. Somehow the larger themes serve to direct light onto the writer rather than the other way around.

Intellectually, Christopher Hitchens stands in the tradition of the British dissenter -- the line of rationalists and humanists that includes Hume, Paine, Hazlitt and, of course, Orwell. But Hitchens has the disadvantage of writing in an age that no longer fears its dissenters but condescends to them, tolerates them as gadflies and offers them a handsome deal. We take celebrity more seriously than ideas and, perhaps as a result, the subjects of Hitchens's books over the past few years have been celebrities of one sort or another, making him a minor one in the process. This seems the wrong direction for a serious polemicist to take. The deterioration of subject matter plays into a weakness for display of personality and quick rhetorical victories. Hitchens seems to have sensed this, and he's turned to Orwell as if to cleanse his palate. ''Much more civilized to be writing about him'' than Mother Teresa, Princess Di or Bill Clinton, Hitchens said in his last book, ''Letters to a Young Contrarian.'' But as it turns out, the postmodernists were wrong: there is something inescapable in literary character. ''At 50,'' Orwell wrote in one of his last diary entries, ''everyone has the face he deserves.''

George Packer's most recent book is ''Blood of the Liberals.''



Vol. 6, N.º 1 - Winter 2003


Nineteen Years Later

A fresh look at literature's most famous dystopian thinker.


Why Orwell Matters
Christopher Hitchens
Basic Books, 208 pp, $24

reviewed by Alex Lee

George Orwell has suffered the saddest fate for a political writer: he has been rendered uncontroversial. Animal Farm and 1984 are assigned reading for junior high school students around the world, and Orwell's nuanced body of ideas have been simplified to pithy statements, as if all he really had to say was: “democracy good, totalitarianism bad.” He has suffered the indignity of becoming a hero to neoconservatives, who see him as the father of their cold-war ideology but forget that he opposed runaway capitalism just as vigorously as he opposed fascism and communism.

This year, the 100th anniversary of Orwell's birth, a new battle has erupted over his memory and legacy. Christopher Hitchens, until recently a long-time columnist for The Nation, has written an entire book attempting to extricate Orwell from the pile of “saccharine tablets and moist hankies” under which his reputation has been buried. Attacking both the right and the left, Why Orwell Matters tries to bring Hitchens's version of Orwell's “true” opinions to the public, saving him from critics and false friends.

Orwell was born Eric Blair in Motihari, India in 1903, the son of a minor official in the government opium monopoly. The date and place are important, because they meant that Orwell came of age during the Great War and experienced the British Empire at the height of its power. Although he understood the flaws of the Edwardian Age, Orwell would always look back on that era with nostalgia, as an Eden destroyed by war, technology, and mass unemployment. Orwell's writing draws upon this vision of a happier time, maintaining that no matter how bad things become, some hope remains for humanity.

For the first twenty-two years of his life, Orwell did the expected things for an Englishman of his class. After attending a hellish prep school (memorialized in his brilliantly ironic essay “Such, Such were the Joys”) Blair went to Eton, then started a career in the Burmese Imperial Police. Disgusted by his police work, he became a lifelong enemy of imperialism. Anxious to get in touch with the common man, he became a tramp, a dishwasher, and a bookstore clerk. He traveled through the Lancashire coal country, gathering material on the squalid conditions of the unemployed for his book The Road to Wigan Pier. Acting on his ideals, he fought in the Spanish civil war and was almost killed by a bullet to the neck.

Orwell's style was fresh, clear, and persuasive. A champion of common sense, he appealed to universal human values of reasonableness and decency (two of his favorite words.) He preferred these everyday ideas to the subtle intellectual arguments advanced by many of his contemporaries, which he felt tended towards fascism or communism. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote:

Socialism means the overthrow of tyranny at home as well as abroad. As long as you keep that fact in front, you will never have much doubt as to who are your real supporters. As for minor differences—and the profoundest philosophical difference is unimportant compared with the saving of twenty million Englishmen whose bones are rotting from malnutrition—the time to argue about them is afterwards.

Because of his unadorned style, readers often identify closely with him. The critic Richard Schickel once wrote that Orwell's persona is “very close to your best self, the self that exists for most of us only in wistful imaginings.” This is most apparent in Orwell's copious nonfiction works. From the early 1930's until his death in 1950, Orwell churned out hundreds of essays, reviews and columns. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, from popular culture to the best way to make a cup of tea. In his major political work, Orwell persuasively puts forward a view of democratic socialism as the “natural” alternative to the bloody ideologies of the time. Many of his views were indisputably radical: he felt that free market capitalism was a failed system, pernicious in its effects on English society. He was remarkably consistent in his opinions and opposed atrocities and imperialist actions all over the world, even when they were committed in the name of freedom.

For a man who is so often identified with common sense, Orwell was a decidedly odd individual. He preferred squalor, was a devotee of the worst excesses of English cuisine, and suffered from paranoia about his body odor. He later accelerated his own death by moving to a poorly ventilated shack in the Scottish isles while severely ill with tuberculosis. This pattern of self-denial led many friends and associates to call him saintly, and less sympathetic critics to call him mad.

Many of his personal opinions were politically incorrect. At English boys schools, he adopted a misogynistic and homophobic outlook as well as a distrust of what today would be called cultural liberalism. He disdained “the high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers who come flocking to the smell of progress like bluebottles to a dead cat.” His contempt for “pansies” would lead to a vitriolic attack on W.H. Auden and other homosexual writers.

These complaints have gained more attention in recent years, as Orwell scholarship has been undergoing a renaissance since the death in 1980 of Orwell's wife, Sonia. Sonia, whom Orwell married on his deathbed, discouraged all attempts at a biography of her late husband, and published an incomplete and bowdlerized anthology of Orwell's journalism. The release of the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell in 1998 made all of Orwell's known work available, providing much of the source material for Hitchens.

Hitchens's book is a chatty polemic, like so much of Orwell's nonfiction. In fact, much of Hitchens's career has been spent attempting to pick up Orwell's fallen banner. Hitchens's attack elsewhere on Mother Theresa is reminiscent of Orwell's debunking of Gandhi, and his support for the war in Afghanistan in defiance of the mainstream left invites comparison to Orwell's support for the Second World War.

Like Orwell, Hitchens is a leftist who dislikes the pacifist “pinks” (Orwell's phrase) who define official leftism. He devotes one-third of his book to refuting Orwell's leftwing critics, who see conservative tendencies in his work, both in his stand on cultural issues and in his reverence for tradition. Hitchens has elevated mockery to a high art, picking apart the arguments of Orwell's critics with wit and an eye for logical contradictions. Here is a typical passage:

The above citations are only a sample, but by no means and unrepresentative one, of what might be offered, by way of illustrating the sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appear to ignite spontaneously when Orwell's name is mentioned in some quarters.

He devotes another chapter to refuting the attempts of political conservatives to claim Orwell for their own. He emphasizes Orwell's radicalism and shows how Orwell's opposition to the Soviet Union had very little to do with that of William Buckley. He concludes:

The body snatching of Orwell, however, is a much more specialized task and probably should not be attempted by any known faction. Least of all perhaps, should it be done by Tories of any stripe. George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.

Hitchens's support of Orwell is less successful in other areas. His attempts to show Orwell as a theorist of postmodernism and colonialism are largely unsuccessful, for Orwell never dealt with the issues straight on, and Hitchens must piece together “Orwell's view” from scattered references in different pieces. One is left with the feeling that Hitchens is reading his own ideas into Orwell. Another challenge for Hitchens is that Orwell failed to understand the United States, seeing it largely as a source of slang and bad films. He didn't appreciate the power of American materialism, and the immense economic might that would help America to dominate the globe. Hitchens acknowledges this, but is unable to admit Orwell's mistake. Hitchens is best when attacking the work of others, and his direct defenses of Orwell's homophobia and his “girl trouble” are less entertaining than the rest of the book.

In 1949 Orwell provided the British government with a list of writers with pro-communist views who should not be employed to write anti-Soviet propaganda. Though this has been known since 1980, in recent years Orwell has been savaged in the British press for cooperating with the “thought police.” This incident is the centerpiece of Scott Lucas's forthcoming book Orwell and the Betrayal of Dissent. Hitchens makes the point that this was a minor incident, and that Orwell intended harm to nobody. In a line of argument that seems less reasonable, he goes on to attack several of those Orwell listed, implying the truth of the allegations justified the making of the list.

Hitchens, though, has proved his basic point: The modern world needs more of the clear thinking, good writing and simple ideals that Orwell stood for. The solution is to go back to the source and read some of Orwell's own essays and books. In this immense corpus, Orwell becomes his own biographer, and his ideas develop on their own. Only by directly dealing with Orwell's work can one comprehend his profound wisdom and his continued relevance in troubled and uncertain times.

Alex Lee is a freshman in Trumball College.                          



George the hero, Eric the contrary
(Filed: 29/04/2003)

As the centenary of his birth approaches, George Orwell's alarming predictions appear even more apt, says his biographer Michael Shelden

If you want to listen to the sound of George Orwell's laughter, or watch him stroll down a country lane in a video, you're out of luck. Though we have silent films of Mark Twain and a wax cylinder of Tolstoy reciting homilies, there are no voice recordings or moving images of the most influential British novelist of the 20th century.

We don't even have a colour photograph or a portrait of him smiling. He may as well have lived and died a Victorian.

Yet this old-fashioned character - whose pencil-thin moustache, funny haircut and tweedy outfits gave him the appearance of a retired major - was so ahead of his time that we are only now catching up with him. The concepts of Big Brother, the Thought Police, Doublethink and Newspeak are all his inventions, and they resonate in our time with even greater force than they did in his.

More than Orwell's contemporaries, we understand the dangers of the telescreen and the constant electronic surveillance conducted by the totalitarian regime in his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. We have seen the face of Big Brother staring down at us from posters in China, North Korea, Iraq and several other places where the novelist's nightmares are brought to life every day. The world that he imagined is now all around us, and his name has become a convenient adjective for describing its terrors - Orwellian.

Even in apparently benign democracies, various versions of his Thought Police are busy at work, tracking our electronic footprints or intimidating people who dare to entertain politically incorrect ideas. In the media, the academic world and the social services, we find the guardians of correctness gleefully pouncing on the slightest word or phrase that might hint at a forbidden thought and promoting rigid rules and laws to punish offenders.

Absurd examples are easy to find. At one American university in Pennsylvania, a recent "speech code" was instituted that uses a form of Newspeak jargon to warn against free thought. Faculty and students are told to avoid "unconscious attitudes towards individuals which surface through the use of discriminatory semantics". In other words, they must learn to banish ideas they didn't even know they had.

So how did a crusty Englishman who was born 100 years ago, and who died in 1950, see all these horrors coming our way? Was he simply gifted with incredible foresight?

If anything, his genius was inspired by hindsight. As his old friend Cyril Connolly liked to joke, Orwell was a revolutionary in love with 1910. He was fascinated by anything obsolete or eccentric and was always keen to celebrate useless facts, trivial hobbies and quaint pastimes.

At the height of the Second World War - when Britain's future was darkest - he took time to write a long essay analysing the appeal of seaside postcards featuring rude pictures and comic captions. He loved their low humour and kept a small collection of them in a drawer at home, along with old copies of boys' weekly magazines.

Orwell has a reputation as a serious intellectual who wrote about complex political questions, but he was just as happy - if not more so - to indulge in long discussions about making tea, rolling his own cigarettes, reading murder mysteries or planting trees and rose bushes. Unlike many modern intellectuals, he liked working with his hands as well as his mind. He kept a goat and chickens, built his own furniture and knew how to kill snakes.

What he dreaded about the future was that an increasingly powerful political and social authority would stamp out not only the past but the pleasures that went with it - the odd, individual joys that make freedom worth having. He wanted the right to be obsolete; to smoke bad tobacco, read forgotten novels, walk instead of drive and measure things in yards instead of metres.

These are not irrelevant freedoms. When he chose to call his newspaper column of the early Forties "As I Please", he was making the point that the grand heroic notions of liberty begin with the right to make simple choices: defying the herd by insisting on individual preferences in even the smallest things. The Thought Police are so insidious because they work at such a basic level, banishing common ideas and phrases until they corrupt language and reason and exert control over the most elementary choices.

Like all good champions of individual liberty, Orwell was a dedicated contrarian, always taking the path he wasn't supposed to choose. After leaving Eton, he should have followed Cyril Connolly and other friends to Oxford or Cambridge, but he shocked everyone by joining the Indian Imperial Police and going out to serve in the remote jungles of Burma. Then, just as he was beginning to climb the ladder of promotion in a career that was supposed to last a lifetime, he quit and came home to become a common tramp.

His experiences in the underworld of east London and other impoverished areas led him to write his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, a work that any writer would be proud to call his own. But not Eric Blair, who changed his name at the last minute to George Orwell and kept two distinct identities for the rest of his career.

A favourite theme of his was that of the little man of ordinary tastes who lurks inside the great man of accomplishment. "There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or saint," he wrote in 1942, "but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul."

Orwell was the hero and Blair the quirky version of the "unofficial self". Quirky because he sought failure instead of contentment, quitting good jobs, wandering from place to place and foolishly risking his life in the most unpopular unit fighting for the losing cause in the Spanish Civil War.

For his troubles in Spain, he got a sniper's bullet through the throat and was placed in grave danger, first from the damages of his wound, and then from the Soviet agents who later wanted to execute him as a traitor in Barcelona.

It was his experience in Spain that did the most to shape his vision of the future. In their eagerness to remake the world, his Communist allies in the war showed him that the individual meant nothing to their struggle. The power of the party was all that mattered. Ruthlessly, they crushed every form of dissent and every expression of personal will.

Almost in a flash, he saw what lay ahead of the world as ideologies struggled to conquer independent thought. The lies, the betrayals, the manipulation of facts, the spying, informing and the brainwashing would all be done in the name of a greater good, but the end result would be less freedom for most people and a great deal more power for a few.

As Orwell the writer, he made it his mission to warn the world of the dangers ahead. At first, very few people listened. For a time it seemed as though both Orwell and Blair were doomed to fail. The book he wrote about Spain - Homage to Catalonia - sold only 700 copies.

The true believers didn't want to hear that Stalin and his agents were undermining the cause of freedom. Instead, they turned on the messenger and denounced him as a liar and traitor.

Fifty years later, documents in the Soviet archives proved conclusively that Orwell's version of events was absolutely correct. But at the time the recriminations against him threatened to overwhelm him. It became even more convenient for Blair to separate himself from Orwell. The author could take the heat and fight the public battles while the man could continue to lead a private life that paid little heed to fame, fortune or popular opinion.

Eric Blair took grim satisfaction from his wayward life, going from one crisis to the next and never complaining. He suffered from bouts of tuberculosis, financial setbacks and then, tragically, lost his first wife after a botched operation during the war. Their adopted son, Richard, was only an infant at the time, and Blair really couldn't take care of him on his own, but he did his best and developed a deep love for the boy. The only photos in which he looks genuinely at ease are the ones that show him with his child.

But while Blair struggled, the writer Orwell finally found success. The name grew in importance and became one to conjure with. He was lavished with praise after the international success of Animal Farm in 1944-1945.

It was a triumph to be savoured, but Blair turned his back on fame and fled to the isle of Jura to farm and to write a dark novel tentatively called The Last Man in Europe. In 1949 - after two years of intense effort, when his lungs were so bad at times that he was coughing up blood - he finished the book and called it Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Six months after the novel's publication, the meteoric rise of Orwell came to an end. In January 1950 Eric Blair died, at the age of 46.

"As I please" is exactly the right phrase to describe Blair's independent progress through life. He wouldn't have had it any other way, as he demonstrated conclusively at the end.

When he was dying of tuberculosis, he astonished his friends by marrying a much younger woman and handing his literary estate over to her. He was so ill that the ceremony had to take place at his bedside in hospital, but he saw it through and was able to make arrangements for the final break between his mortal self and his public persona.

A few weeks before his death he instructed his friend David Astor to find a place to bury his remains. He didn't want it to be just any convenient cemetery. No, he insisted that he wanted to be laid to rest in an English country churchyard.

Astor found a spot beside the Thames near the pretty village of Sutton Courtenay, and there the body remains to this day. The 13th-century church tower is magnificent, and the grounds seem a perfect resting place for a man who loved the simpler pace of 1910. The only other famous grave in the cemetery is that of the man who was Prime Minister when Blair was a boy - Herbert Asquith.

You can't miss Asquith's imposing tomb, but you could easily overlook Orwell's grave. Contrary to the end, Blair wanted to be buried under his own name, without any reference to his more famous self. It was the final way of separating the man from the writer. In Blair, we have the person whose life belonged only to himself. It is the author who now belongs to the world.


He looked for trouble
(Filed: 12/05/2003)

Hilary Spurling reviews Orwell: the Life by DJ Taylor and George Orwell by Gordon Bowker

Biographers have always taken a stern line with George Orwell, partly perhaps because he explicitly rejected their attentions in his will, but partly also because of the air of make-believe and play-acting that hangs over so much in his strange career. Thin, gangling and inordinately tall, with his toothbrush moustache and baggy tweeds, Orwell could never hope to blend in with the crowd. Instead, he trained himself to stick out. DJ Taylor cites a typical sighting of him in 1930, as a 27-year-old ex-colonial recently resigned from the Burma police, sleeping in a Whitechapel doss-house and going out to work as "a kind of male charwoman", scrubbing floors, cleaning lavatories and blacking grates for a local family who paid him half a crown (25p) a day.

One of the things that has bedevilled attempts to write Orwell's Life is the gap between this sort of behaviour on the one hand, and his aristocratic family connections, standard middle-class upbringing and Etonian schooling on the other. Destined by his parents for the inside track, young Eric Blair cast himself as an outsider from the start. "He was one of those boys who seem born old," Cyril Connolly wrote of Blair at prep school. Steven Runciman, who was at Eton with him, said his mind "worked differently from other boys".

He seemed equally evasive to his peers in London literary or political circles, and to his Catalonian hosts when he arrived to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Even his closest friends were as baffled as his half-dozen biographers have been ever since. "Was Blair the dark sadistic self that the noble Orwell was wrestling to suppress?" asks Gordon Bowker (George Orwell, 495pp, Little, Brown, £20). "What was he like? What preoccupied him? What were his ambitions?" echoes Taylor, who favours a brisk courtroom style of cross-examination, dismissing his subject's account of himself ("these claims should be treated with a degree of scepticism"), undercutting his testimony ("tall stories") and discounting his persistent view that he had been victimised ("not to be taken with undue seriousness"). Taylor's forensic summing-up fills a chapter called "The Case Against":

"As a political thinker, Orwell is hopelessly naïve… completely misread the national mood in the run-up to the war… permanently detached from the practical realities of politics… secretive, incompetent, womanising, offhand, anti-Semitic and homophobic… public schoolboy who could never shake off his origins… and whose misleading perceptions of an entire political and literary era are now our own."

This turns out to be the kind of elaborate Orwellian tease that would have appealed strongly to Taylor's hero. What starts as a strategy for undercutting Orwell's current status as a secular saint surreptitiously turns into a sharp tool for exploring the power of memory as a creative faculty. It is not just that the rigours of life at prep school and in wartime London lie behind the totalitarian vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell ruthlessly exploited every particle of personal observation, feeling and experience to feed and fuel his prophetic imagination. Taylor's biography is a persuasive and profoundly moving exploration of the ways in which Orwell's work was constructed from the stones of a ruined life.

Large parts of that life inevitably look in isolation desiccated, mean and dry. Bowker, too, makes it clear that Orwell became a great writer not so much in spite as because of emotional aridity and wretched health. Born with defective bronchial tubes, he seized every opportunity to court the TB that eventually killed him. Like his constant role-playing, it contributed to his slantwise stance, enabling him to operate at one remove from his contemporaries, to submerge himself in what he called "the great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning". Bowker charts with tact and patience the cost involved, for Orwell himself and others, especially women, above all his brave, loving and eventually defeated first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy.

Both these books rest solidly on the phenomenal researches of two great Orwell scholars, Ian Angus and Peter Davison. Both add interesting footnotes of their own (Taylor has interviewed the husband of one of the many girls who rejected Orwell's advances, as well as the daughter of his parents' cleaner; Bowker has turned up the KGB agent – code-named O'Brien, like the interrogator in Nineteen Eighty-Four – sent to spy on the Blairs in Spain). Taylor is brilliant on the "low-level conspiracies" of London literary networking, power-broking and reputation-building but, again in his own phrase, "short on personal resonance". Bowker is duller and more old-fashioned, notably in his lit-crit resumés, but far more humane in deciphering the emotional undertext of Orwell's life.

Neither can bring himself to be generous to Orwell's second wife, Sonia Brownell, although both acquit her of the charges of greed and cold-hearted exploitation laid against her by previous biographers. Both include a fair quota of mistakes (for instance, it was me, not Ian Angus, as Bowker claims, to whom Sonia explained why she married Orwell; and I was not, as Taylor states, her executor). But both books are well worth reading, and Taylor's is likely to prove in many ways definitive.


The extreme anti-extremist
(Filed: 20/05/2003)

Jonathan Bate reviews George Orwell by Gordon Bowker and Orwell: The Life by D. J. Taylor

George Orwell embodied the English qualities of independent thought, clarity of expression and intolerance of cant. As an observer of social deprivation and a rebel against Edwardian conformity, he was admired by the political left. At the same time, he wrote the definitive satire on Stalinism (Animal Farm) and one of the greatest of all novels about totalitarianism (Nineteen Eighty-Four).

He was a passionate Europhile but also an eloquent eulogist of England - John Major's vision of warm beer, cricket on the village green and a redoubtable maiden aunt bicycling to morning communion through the mist was borrowed from Orwell.

Perhaps most importantly for our age of technobabble, spin and jargon, he spoke through both precept and example for the virtues of clear plain prose. He reinvigorated the venerable literary genre of the essay and as both broadcaster and magazine writer represented the craft of journalism at its best.

Eric Blair - his real name - was born on June 25, 1903: the centenary of his birth is marked by two new biographies to accompany the five that are already available. Neither is indispensable, but each has its virtues.

His father held the modest rank of Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, 5th grade, in the Indian Civil Service, but managed to send Eric to Eton as a scholarship boy. Gordon Bowker unearths some new evidence about an incident there - curiously reminiscent of L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between - when, together with his friend Steven Runciman (who became a distinguished Byzantine scholar), Orwell cast a magic spell on another boy who promptly broke his leg, then died of leukaemia.

There was not enough money for university, so on leaving school Eric went to Burma and enrolled in the police force. His brief and unhappy career there gave him the material for his wonderfully perceptive essay Shooting an Elephant and his not especially successful first novel Burmese Days. The essay - shrewdly observed, cleanly written, full of common sense - remained the literary form in which he excelled.

Back in England, he decided to become a writer, making his name with two works of reportage based on his travels among the under-class during the depressed Thirties, first Down and Out in Paris and London, then The Road to Wigan Pier. The latter was published by Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club, but with a publisher's preface explaining that it did not really accord with the Club's policy of "equipping people to fight against war and Fascism" and that readers should be wary of the distinctive version of socialism propounded by the author, who was a member of "the lower-upper-middle class".

Orwell's uneasy relationship with the orthodox political left was further complicated by his experience fighting in the Spanish civil war. He proved the impeccability of his anti-fascist credentials, but was shocked to witness a Soviet-backed communist purge of the Trotskyite Workers' Party in Barcelona with which he had allied himself. Bowker plays a much stronger hand than D. J. Taylor in this pivotal section of the life: his trump card is a hitherto unknown KGB file in which it is revealed that while in Spain Orwell was being spied on by a Soviet agent fittingly called Crook.

As Bowker shows, the Soviet betrayal of the Catalan Workers' Party was the key to Orwell's subsequent political and literary development. It galvanised the writing of Homage to Catalonia - which many readers (including me) consider his best work - and it set him on the road to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book that made his world-wide reputation and gave us such immortal ideas as Big Brother, Room 101, The Ministry of Truth, Newspeak and Airstrip One.

Pulmonary tuberculosis took Orwell's life early in 1950, less than a year after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, thus depriving him of both the pleasure of Pravda's review ("a squalid and filthy book") and the more dubious accolade of an endorsement from J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI.

Taylor's (Chatto and Windus, £20, 446 pp) is a novelist's biography, whereas Bowker's is that of a scholar. When they differ over facts, Bowker is usually right. In judging the significance of various literary influences, Bowker is spot-on, Taylor erratic. To my mind, Orwell is best understood as Kipling's rebellious son (think India, Englishness, beast-fable, male bonding, not very good at getting inside women): Bowker is excellent on the pattern of virulent rejection and reluctant acceptance that characterised the development of Orwell's relationship to Kipling, but this is altogether neglected in the rival book. Where Taylor comes into his own is in a series of short essays woven into the chronological narrative, which meditate on Orwell's voice, appearance, obsession with rats, and so on.

Bowker has more new evidence to offer, though not quite enough to deliver a knock-out blow to his opponent. But he unquestionably wins on points. He has the ability to select the right detail and let it speak for itself.

Taylor devotes a whole chapter to Orwell's burial place, "An Oxfordshire Tomb". Bowker has a single paragraph on the grave, but it is much more memorable. He notices that Orwell's grave lies between that of Herbert Asquith and a family of local gypsies: an Edwardian liberal grandee on one side, travellers and hop-pickers on the other. There could be no better resting-place. 

Jonathan Bate is Professor of Literature at the University of Warwick.


25 May 2003 10:55 

George Orwell by Gordon Bowker
Orwell: the life by D J Taylor

In his centenary year, George Orwell's work has lost none of its force and fire. Fred Inglis praises two powerful, and complementary, lives of the writer who shaped the conscience of his age

24 May 2003

"All of us owe the comparative decency of our lives to the poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel." "There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." "If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would. He is as antisocial as a flea."

No writer of the 20th century is as immediate and physical a presence as Orwell. The sentences hit you in the chest with a jolt, and as the shock spreads, your brain tingles with conviction. What you have just read is true, and if it isn't, you will have to fight in words of the same force and directness to prove it so. His is an absolutely serious style, and in the hands of a master. It brings together, let us say, the ethics and manners of the Daily Mirror and News Chronicle at their antique best, and nobody can command it any longer.

This is partly, of course, a matter of Orwell's genius. But it is also a consequence of his knowing at his peak so exactly whom he was addressing. When he goes wrong - in the early novels, or in the year of phoney war - it is because he cannot find his audience in the dark. And at his supreme best, in Homage to Catalonia, "Down the Mine", "The Lion and the Unicorn", "As I Please" and the last two amazing novels, he speaks to an entire people: maybe a better people then than now, certainly a more unified one.

Dead at 47 in 1950 after a lifetime of infected bronchi, pneumonia, and finally mortal tuberculosis, all exacerbated by rolling and smoking his dung-heavy cigarettes, pungent as his prose, this year he attains his centenary. It has already been announced by Christopher Hitchens's re-evaluation. Now we have two extremely meaty 500-pagers to tell what is already quite a well-known story, and a telebiography to come.

Clive James recently asked in the TLS whether biography was inimical to art, and answered "yes". Looking at the creaking shelves in the bookshops, one sees his point. And yet how do we understand anybody, let alone a great artist and thinker (which Orwell, with all his crotchets and dottiness, unmistakably was), except by discovering what somebody meant to say in the contexts in which he or she said it?

This geniality leaves plenty of room for plenty of triers, but if I had to plump for one of the two to hand, I'd probably go for Gordon Bowker's, strongly influenced by the splendid dustjacket, a daunting close-up of Orwell, searingly blue eyes not quite looking at the camera, his deeply marked, grave, distant and kindly face with its awful army haircut and absurd strip of moustache being indeed "the face he deserved".

Bowker trusts to a simple, rather schoolmasterish notation for the analysis of character, which suits Orwell. He aims to bring out his "contradictoriness", the pleasure he took in playing a social role, his conservatism, patriotism, domestic ineptitude (with his adopted baby), domestic competence (in the garden), his taste for solitude, his gregariousness. It's a bit of a surprise to hear Orwell's clumsy, sometimes oafish, always comical pursuit of women condemned as "lustful" (even "waywardly" so), but for the other attributes there's plenty to give the catch-all headings any amount of local life.

It is an exhilaratingly crowded book. Bowker has doughtily arranged his full and detailed sources in a pacey, colourful, not-quite-intelligible narrative, packed with plenty of characters to tickle one's fancy: Victor Gollancz, evasive, sanctimonious, cowardly; Eileen O'Shaughnessy, Orwell's first wife, spirited, selfless, merry, unbelievably brave when dying of cancer; Anthony Powell, intelligent, generous, judicious, funny. Bowker doesn't really try to add Orwell up; instead, he piles everything in - it's all thick with colour, its only form given by the chronology of the books.

D J Taylor, one guesses, simply came to like Orwell less, and indeed it isn't hard to dislike the man at times. As Taylor's two dozen witnesses testify, he could be such a misery, and was - as well he might be - often borne down by incessant illness. But, as both biographers bring out, he was much admired, even loved by his comrades in the Spanish Civil War; he brought out a strong protectiveness in the women he pursued with such awkwardness; he was long-lasting friends with a surprising mixture of old Etonians, Hebridean fishermen, international revolutionaries, and BBC bureaucrats, one of whom, his boss in the India section, Rushbrook Williams, wrote with strong feeling and openness of Orwell's "rare moral dignity and unerring taste".

Taylor's emphasis is largely literary-critical. He takes the books to pieces, ticks and crosses them. He adds a number of piquant excursions into Orwell's face and voice, clears him of anti-Semitism, explains his paranoia (telling us that at one point Orwell thought Gollancz might have him bumped off). His book is also crammed with detail and throngs of the characters from literary London, many of whom appear in Taylor's excellent book on postwar novelists, After the War.

Neither writer offers to know better than Orwell what he was up to, in the supercilious manner of today's higher theoreticians, whom Orwell would have cut to shreds. And if neither biography attains to art itself, they are far from inimical to it. Taylor one can imagine being at his most useful to the scholar or the student: he is close, crisp, judicious. Bowker's is the best read. But both find the art in the life, expound the life as it turned its own living into two of the most astonishing artworks of the century: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have sold 40 million copies in 60 languages.

To ask, "What kind of book can do that?" is to pursue the story of a life which so enlarged its imagination that it encompassed the ultimate terrors of a whole historical epoch, enclosed them in the form of a complete world, and left the result as weapon and warning for the use and abuse of posterity.

Fred Inglis is the author of 'People's Witness: the journalist in modern politics' (Yale)




May 28, 2003

Both biographies have their share of virtues. There are differences of fact, but they do not require a duel to settle them, says Peter Ackroyd

Blair on the road to Orwell

By Gordon Bowker
Little, Brown, £20; 512 pp
ISBN 0 3168 6115 4

By D.J.Taylor
Chatto and Windus, £20; 448 pp
ISBN 0 7011 6919 2

LIKE MANY writers George Orwell, the person formerly known as Eric Blair, emerged from a family of fading fortunes. He was part of the imperial ruling class even as the sun was beginning to set behind that monument of privilege and power. His father was an opium agent in India, monitoring the sale of the drug for the sake of the English Treasury, and Orwell himself would join the Imperial Police in some kind of determined atavistic gesture.

Like all good Anglo-Indians, however, he was brought up in a quiet English town. Nothing much happened to him in Henley-on-Thames, and in later life he cultivated a myth of isolation and loneliness. But this myth may have been true. According to Gordon Bowker the first word he ever uttered as a baby was "beastly". D. J. Taylor has the longer story about young Eric Blair. When found standing on his head he is supposed to have remarked that: "You are more noticed if you stand on your head than if you are the right way up." Here are the makings of a most interesting artist.

Despite being on occasions the wrong way round, he always seems to have disappointed himself. When he left his preparatory school at the age of 13, he said (albeit at a later date) that he felt "Failure, failure, failure - failure behind me, failure ahead of me. . ." He carried that sense with him, like a bad head cold, for the rest of his life.

At Eton he was described as "a boy with a permanent chip on his shoulder". It is of course very like that someone who disappoints himself will be proportionately disappointed in others. He expressed indifference to his school at a later date but, if he had never been at Eton, he would never have wanted to become a tramp. He was not a success at school, but like so many of his contemporaries he created much of his adult persona there - aloof, sardonic, and thoroughly self-absorbed. He had the shyness of the proud person.

From the beginning he wanted to become what he called a "FAMOUS AUTHOR", even going so far as to compose a poem on the outbreak of the First World War entitled Awake! Young Men of England! He was so sure of his eventual destiny that he speculated on the book bindings of his collected edition. He was intensely superstitious, according to Gordon Bowker, and probably realised at an early age that if you wish for something hard enough it is almost bound to happen. That collected edition did emerge five years ago, in a resplendent red, blue and gold which any schoolboy would admire. But surely even the young Eric Blair would have been astonished by its 20 volumes? Taylor, in his admirable biography, calculates that Orwell wrote some two million words in 20 years.

From Eton he progressed (if that is the right word) to Burma where he became a member of the Imperial Police. The image of him as an agent of the Empire and the law, wielding a baton where it was necessary to do so, fits oddly with the image of the fervent anti-authoritarian. But there was always a severity about Orwell, a secretiveness and a streak of cruelty that suggest a recessive personality. He was in certain respects a person of darkness.

Yet Taylor also suggests that to most people he appeared ordinary to the point of being utterly conventional. He did not leave the Imperial Police in a fit of anti-imperialist conscience, but as a result of the ill health which surrounded him all his life. He came back to England at the age of 24, determined to begin a career as a writer. So he embarked on what Taylor calls "a tramping expedition to the East End", apparently with the sole purpose of obtaining "copy".

It has been suggested that Orwell adopted the role of a tramp in order to escape a bad conscience over his period in the Imperial force, but Taylor notes how carefully his descent into the lower depths was constructed and how dependent it was upon earlier literary models. Similarly a visit to Paris in 1928 was not so much to enjoy the sensation of washing dishes, which he memorialised in Down and Out in Paris and London, but to join the "bohemian" world of Parisian literary society. There may however be a further explanation for his travels into the lower world. Orwell really did feel the need to escape from his confined and somewhat dingy personality; like T. E. Lawrence he suffered from self-loathing. He wanted to immerse himself in dirt and stench.

On his return to England he contributed reviews to the Adelphi and other periodicals, interspersed with bouts of vagrancy and casual "low" labour such as hop-picking. He kept a diary, perhaps with the intention of presenting something sensational to the reading public. He also took up teaching for a while, and became interested in matters religious. He gives the overwhelming impression of not quite knowing what to do or how to handle himself. He had not yet found his great theme.

He had not found his vision. The publication of Down and Out in Paris and London (under the name of George Orwell, adopted so that he would not offend his family) did not materially change his isolation or his tendency to self-pity.

Despite what seems to have been several strongly felt relationships with young women, he was essentially solitary; he was always on the margins, on the edge of a crowd or in the corner of a room. He did not impress anyone as particularly significant or interesting. He was considered merely to be odd; "strange" was the adjective most often used about him. There are also unexplained gaps in his life - silences, absences, call them what you will - which suggest a most elusive persona. If he had any distinctive quality, it was that of the willed ascetic - gaunt, hollow cheeked, prematurely aged. Bowker pertinently quotes Orwell's description of Herman Melville as "a kind of ascetic voluptuary".

He might have turned into a frustrated "literary man", a medium-sized novelist or essayist, if it were not for his journey to the north of England at the beginning of 1936. He was by no means a committed socialist before this pilgrimage, and in fact seems to have had no coherent political philosophy at all. He seems only to have been led by curiosity about the conditions of an area badly affected by economic depression and by some instinctive belief that you can see a civilisation more clearly in the shadows which it casts. The Road to Wigan Pier is in many ways instructive, therefore. He regarded the victims of the world with a certain sympathy, derived in part from self-pity, but he never felt in any sense close to them. He remained a public school boy on a slumming expedition.

There is perhaps one act which does mark him out as an English radical. With his new wife (who receives no less than her fair share of attention from both biographers) he opened a small shop in an English village. With that act he can join the radical confraternity of English writers such as Blake the hosier and Bunyan the brazier. He was eminently self-reliant and practical, with a gift for making and fixing things. It is aligned with his plain style - the word "workmanlike" has often been used to describe it - and with his general pragmatism in social and political matters. That is why he is continually worrying away on the subject of religion. He really should have been a Dissenter - a Muggletonian or an Anabaptist - and his lack of religious faith profoundly irked him.

He was not destined to be a shop-keeper, however, and soon after his marriage he decided to volunteer for the International Brigade fighting against General Franco in Spain. Taylor suggests that "he wanted to fight" rather than simply to write a book. Taylor also suggests that it gave him more than an opportunity. It gave him a vision. He could see humankind in extremis. He could shake off what he considered to be the greyness of England. His decision is connected also with what Taylor calls his "self-absorption". The fighting could shake him out of his own grey self as well. Perhaps he wanted to be shot. He was. He learned something about authoritarianism, too. In Spain he suffered from the feeling that "your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police".

All his life, according to Gordon Bowker, he feared political assassination. Paranoia is very much the vice of the secret man, or of the man who wishes to remain secret. He held himself back, with an immense taciturnity and gravity. He exhibited a wilful refusal to engage with other people, an emotional blockage which can be mistaken for "reserve" but was actually more pathological than that. It has to do with his secretiveness, and his streak of cruelty.

His health had never been vigorous and, on his return to England, he suffered increasingly from disorders of the lungs. He spat blood and lost weight. On the outbreak of the Second World War his damaged body meant that he could do nothing forceful or brave. He was on the margins again, bewailing "the strange boring nightmare" in which he found himself. He continued to write essays and articles on such subjects as boys' comics and seaside postcards. Bowker acutely describes him "as one of the first serious writers about English popular culture". All his life, in fact, Orwell was steeped in nostalgia and its concomitant, wishful thinking. He was a conservative in everything except politics - conservative, that is, in everything that really matters. That is why he relished the opportunity of joining the newly established Home Front, and became a member of the St John's Wood volunteers.

By this time he had written Homage to Catalonia as well as Down and Out in Paris and London and several now unfashionable works of fiction - unfashionable, that is, compared to the works that eventually made him famous. He dismissed his novels as pot-boilers but that did not stop him writing them. Towards the end of the War he began Animal Farm, that medieval beast fable brought up to date. But he had great difficulty in finding a publisher for it, since most reputable houses turned it down on the then apparently reasonable grounds that it might offend Stalin. On its publication, however, it was an immediate success.

But he was at the same time beset by pressing domestic problems. He and his wife had just adopted an illegitimate child, when his wife died of cancer. He hired a young woman to look after the child, and then embarked on a number of not very serious romances with not very suitable women. As he grew older and his tuberculosis increased in virulence, he took the characteristic decision to retreat to a remote Scottish island, where he might subject himself to a way of life so intense that it became a kind of punishment. In fact his doctors believed that his last bout of illness was caused by his exertions in the Inner Hebrides. Nevertheless it was here that he set to work on 1984. He completed it just in time. His death-bed marriage to his second wife has been extensively documented, and it loses nothing in the retelling here.

Both biographies in fact have their share of virtues. There are differences of fact, but they do not require a duel to settle them. Was the juvenile Orwell educated by Catholic nuns (Bowker) or by Anglican nuns (Taylor)? Was the child minder for his adopted child paid £5 per week (Taylor) or £1 per week (Bowker)? Bowker has the interesting story that, during his time at Eton, Orwell killed a contemporary by making a wax image of him and breaking its leg. Taylor has the less sensational account of an image made out of soap, with no mention of an untimely death. Bowker pays more attention to Orwell's sexual life, to which Taylor more modestly alludes. Bowker in fact believes Orwell to have been "homo-erotic", which may of course account for his dislike of homosexuals. Such matters are the small change of biographies, and do not really alter the larger picture of a man and writer in permanent internal exile.

Further reading

Down and Out in Paris and London
Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays  
Animal Farm
Homage to Catalonia
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Complete Works Of George Orwell Volumes 1-20 ed. Peter Davison
Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens
The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling

By George, they've got it

George Orwell's will banned biographies. Surely biographies from DJ Taylor and Gordon Bowker are the last words on a true revolutionary

Paul Foot
Sunday June 1, 2003
The Observer

Orwell: The Life
by DJ Taylor
Chatto & Windus £20, pp448

George Orwell
by Gordon Bowker
Little, Brown £20, pp495  

Hailed by the Right all over the world, George Orwell made an indelible contribution to the Left. He was among the first socialists effectively to challenge Stalinism which, in Marx's phrase, 'weighed like an alp' on the Left for at least four decades and almost smashed it. He first came into close contact with Stalinism when he went to fight Fascists in Spain in 1936 and he remained an implacable opponent until he died of diseased lungs in 1950. The Stalinist heritage lasted much longer.

I first read Orwell's book on Spain, Homage to Catalonia, at Oxford in 1961 and was instantly converted to the socialism he graphically described. When I went to Glasgow and joined the Labour Party a few months later, socialism was different. Its leading propagandists were members of the Communist Party who ran the Trades Council and influenced almost all the few Labour members who continued to think.

Russia and Eastern Europe, we were told, were workers' states, and the Berlin Wall was there to keep out 'bourgeois elements' who wanted to sabotage the socialist experiment. I tried this theory out at a public meeting on Sauciehall Street. As I explained the purpose of the Wall, I was interrupted by a bystander who was not entirely sober. 'It's there, you bampot,' he bawled, 'to keep the workers in!' I've never known what a bampot is, but many times, in Orwell, I've seen the same crude common sense, utterly destructive of all ritualistic ideology.

These two biographies devote a lot of space to Orwell and Spain, but neither quite captures the controlled but incandescent fury that inspires Homage to Catalonia. Orwell could hardly believe what he was seeing. Young men and women from Spain and all over Europe, who arrived at the front with the dedicated aim of fighting Fascists, were hunted down, imprisoned and murdered by Stalinist agents who were meant to be on the same side.

Orwell, though wounded by a fascist bullet, and his wife Eileen were lucky to escape. His friend and comrade Bob Smillie, grandson of the former British miners' leader of the same name, was convicted of dissidence (not agreeing with Communists) and was kicked to death in his prison cell. The full force of this terror was described in even more convincing terms by the Belgian-born Socialist Victor Serge, in his horrifying novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

His Spanish ordeal shaped Orwell's politics for the rest of his life. He was mildly suspicious of Communists before he went there and afterwards was consumed with hatred for them. This hatred inspired his two famous satires, Animal Farm and 1984. Both describe a totalitarian society arising from a revolution. Both have been adopted by Western democracies as warnings for revolutionaries. See what happens, runs the argument, when you inspire a revolution. You end up with new oppressors, pigs walking like their former oppressors, human beings, Big Brother and unrelieved terror.

But if the revolution itself was, in Orwell's view, the reason for the terror, why was he so enthusiastic about the revolution he found in Barcelona in 1936? Why, for that matter, did he argue so passionately in 1941 that if the war with Hitler was to be won, a British revolution was essential? Was he using the term loosely for a radical change in people's attitudes? No. He meant a genuine revolution in the structure of society.

Did he mean a revolution through Parliament? No. Although he admired Aneurin Bevan, and even, according to DJ Taylor, hero-worshipped Stafford Cripps, and although he canvassed a little for Labour in 1945, he never showed much enthusiasm for Labour either before or after the postwar government was elected.

He was an implacable enemy of class society, of inequality, of empire and of what he called the Blimps who ran Britain. Again and again he denounced what both these authors call the 'quietism' that leaves the Blimps and their detestable capitalist system intact. But how were these things to be changed? If not by revolution, how? And if by revolution, how to insure against the betrayal and terror so starkly portrayed in 1984 and Animal Farm?

These important questions were never answered either by Orwell or by any of his biographers. In a letter to his American friend Dwight MacDonald quoted by Gordon Bowker, Orwell wrote of Animal Farm: 'Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian Revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.'

But this raises as many questions as it seeks to answer. The Russian working-class masses were as 'alert' as they could possibly be in 1917 and the revolution was neither violent nor conspiratorial. Bowker also exposes another contradiction. In a review in 1945, Orwell wrote: 'One ought, I believe, to admit that all the seeds of evil were there from the start and that things would not have been substantially different if Lenin or Trotsky had remained in control'. But in 1948, he wrote: 'The Russian Communist Party developed in a direction of which Lenin would probably have disapproved if he had lived longer.' The truth is that Orwell wrote next to nothing about the Russian Revolution and his interpretation of it was as vague as his denunciation of its betrayal was devastating.

In his will, Orwell banned all biographies. Seldom can a dying wish have been so rigorously transgressed. The greatest tribute to him by far was the publication five years ago of everything he ever wrote, beautifully edited by Peter Davidson. These two long and admirable biographies have surely dredged up all there is left to be known about this shy man of action who liked above all to be alone with the fish and birds on a remote Scottish island.

Both authors admire their subject and have done him proud. Taylor's has the best cover, Bowker more detail, especially about Spain. Both detect Orwell's 'profound transformation' and 'U-turn' on the Second World War, but neither adequately explains it. Bowker is relentless in his search for girlfriends, with one of whom, he reveals, Orwell 'may have had a relationship' (or not). Taylor spoils his narrative with absurd parentheses - ('Orwell's face', 'Orwell's voice', one almost expects 'Orwell's bum'). Both have mercifully desisted from the sport of recent biographers known as Sonia-baiting - savaging Sonia Orwell for marrying Orwell's money, and for damaging his reputation, both the opposite of the truth about her.

Taylor does not care, and Bowker cares only a little, that Orwell gave British intelligence the names of Communists - like any fink from the Ministry of Truth. Neither is very interested in politics and both could have learnt a bit from John Newsinger's Orwell's Politics (1999). But both authors are uniquely qualified to assess and promote Orwell's love of literature and the gloriously plain language with which he wrote.

One of his most common words was 'decent'. What mattered most, he reckoned, were 'the great decencies', of which the greatest were the unalterable truths (2+2=4) from which all argument started and whose denial or alteration spelled the end of argument. He said exactly what he felt and if he went too far or contradicted himself, as he often did, he was the first to apologise. He was perhaps the most direct and democratic British writer of the twentieth century. When he savaged a play by his friend Arthur Koestler, Koestler remonstrated with him: 'Why did you give such a stinking review?' The reply was instant and typical: 'Well, it was a stinking play.'

The saint of common decency

This month sees two warts-and-all accounts of the life and work of George Orwell from DJ Taylor and Gordon Bowker. Piers Brendon investigates

Saturday June 7, 2003
The Guardian

DJ Taylor
448pp, Chatto & Windus, £20

George Orwell
Gordon Bowker
512pp, Little, Brown, £20

George Orwell's reputation has been marred by the sound of biographical clocks striking 13, yet his crystal spirit remains un-dimmed. Since his death in 1949 there have been three major warts-and-all Lives, as well as many memoirs, studies and critical essays to add to his own voluminous oeuvre which, if spread out page by page, DJ Taylor estimates, would cover an area the size of Norwich city centre. Now two substantial new biographies mark Orwell's centenary year, one by Taylor himself and the other by Gordon Bowker. Neither significantly augments our knowledge of the man but both are readable, and both, though broadly fav-ourable, contain ringing indictments of his faults and flaws.

One of Taylor's vivid snapshots of Orwell, taken from all sorts of odd angles, even sums up "The Case Against". His novels are derivative: Burmese Days is cod-Maugham; A Clergyman's Daughter is sub-Joyce; Keep the Aspidistra Flying is gutless Gissing; Coming up for Air is shallow Wells; Animal Farm is Swift-and-water. As for Nineteen Eighty-Four, which owes a lot to Jack London, it is "merely an exercise in emotional vulgarity, all flaring surfaces and bogus special effects, its bleakness coexisting with an altogether ghastly brand of guilt-ridden upper-bourgeois sentimentalising of the working class."

Worse still, Orwell was an unreliable reporter, sometimes alloying fact with fiction. He exaggerated the awfulness of his prep school in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys". Some of Down and Out in Paris and London , notably his self-portrait as a pauper (rather than a bohemian), was invented. In The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell also took liberties with the raw material, not revealing, for example, how much help he received when exploring social conditions up north. Homage to Catalonia, which Bowker hails as a work of "shining integrity", gave a more sympathetic account of the Trotskyite POUM than Orwell really felt it deserved.

As a political essayist he was little more than a naive sloganeer, who imagined, for example, that the country was ripe for revolution during the war. Broadcasting for the BBC he described Stalin as "wise" and "large-minded", although he thought the Soviet leader a "disgusting murderer"; yet Orwell asserted that he had never "been compelled to say on air anything that I would not have said as a private individual". At times, therefore, the scourge of 20th-century mendacity told useful lies instead of harmful truths, illustrating his own assertion that history stopped in 1936 - after that there was only propaganda.

Deception also permeated his personal life. He concealed his identity, kept his friends in separate boxes, sent the names of 135 people he suspected of being fellow-travellers to the anti-communist Information Re-search Department at the Foreign Office, and engaged in furtive adulteries. Furthermore, Orwell was given to violence, masochism, paranoia, homophobia, male chauvinism and anti-semitism - he said that the "Jew" references in TS Eliot's early verse were "legitimate barbs for the time". Conservative in everything but politics, the creator of Big Brother was also tainted by fascism.

In broad terms Taylor and Bowker agree about all this, though their books have different emphases. Taylor is an accomplished literary critic and he illuminates Orwell's work in the context of his life, elegantly and expertly charting his course from Grub Street to bestsellerdom. He is particularly struck by the gauche, vague, impractical, untidy, unworldly Orwell, who kept goats because they were so much trouble and once devoured a plate of jellied eels that his wife Eileen had left out for the cat while his dinner simmered unnoticed in the oven.

Taylor also has a good eye for the rich vein of sardonic humour in Orwell, which is not always appreciated. At Eton he remarked that there were at least six masters "making a very good living out of the Crucifixion". During his later High Anglican phase he painted an image of the Virgin Mary in Hayes Church, "trying to make it look as much like an illustration in La Vie Parisienne as possible". When David Astor asked what the Marxists thought of him, Orwell replied: "A fascist hyena...a fascist octopus...They're very fond of animals."

Taylor does make the occasional slip, saying, for instance, that Stukas were used against Guernica. This is a more significant mistake than it seems since the fact that these planes, the most accurate bombers in the Condor Legion, did not take part indicates that the attack was directed against civilian not military targets, which the fascists always denied. Still, Taylor is a model of precision compared to Bowker. Indeed his proof copy is much more accurate than Bowker's published book, which is littered with misprints and howlers. To give two early examples: on page 21, half a paragraph has been transposed, evidently from page 17; and on page nine, Bowker says that in January 1903 "Edward VII made a widely publicised tour of India where he proclaimed himself Emperor." He did nothing of the sort.

Paradoxically, Bowker's re-search is more wide-ranging than Taylor's and his footnotes are fuller. Some of his investigations, admittedly, seem rather speculative. Where Taylor says that the exact depths of Orwell's "undercover emotional life are impossible to fathom", Bowker plunges in regardless. But how far Flory's sexual adventures in Burmese Days reflect those of its author remains unclear. Still, there is no doubt that Orwell was surprisingly active in this direction. Bowker quotes Harold Acton: "This cadaverous ascetic whom one scarcely connected with fleshly gratification admitted that he had seldom tasted such bliss as with certain Moroccan girls," whose candid sensuality he described in very direct terms.

Bowker also delves deeper than Taylor into the murky underworld of communist espionage. He reveals that Orwell had a lot to be paranoid about. In Spain he was subjected to close surveillance by an agent of the Comintern and only just escaped with his life. In London a prospective publisher of Animal Farm , Jonathan Cape, turned down the book after having consulted the head of the Ministry of Information's Russian department. He was Peter Smollett, later unmasked as a Soviet spy.

In short, Bowker is well worth reading, though Taylor wins the biographical contest by a head. What both authors amply demonstrate is the overwhelming importance of their subject. Despite all the blemishes Orwell really was, as VS Pritchett said, the "wintry conscience" of his generation. He was, in Paul Potts's phrase, "Don Quixote on a Bicycle", the knight errant of fair play pedalling nobly through the "bloodstained harlequinade" of his age. He was the saint of common decency who would in earlier days, said his BBC boss Rushbrook Williams, "have been either canonised - or burnt at the stake".

Orwell "saw the dirty work of the empire at close quarters", exposed the "slimy humbug" of the white man's burden and denounced imperialism as a system of concealed theft. He experienced some of the hardships of the Depression at first hand and preached equal shares for all. He pawned the family silver to fight fascism in Spain. After seeing communism in action, he spent the rest of his life attacking totalitarianism - arbitrary power equipped with modern technology that not only controlled minds but destroyed the "very concept of objective truth".

Orwell, who had sensibly (one now sees) changed his name from Blair, became the flail of political duplicity. He thought fearlessly and forged a vigorous, translucent style, reminiscent of Cobbett's, in which to express his thoughts. In essays and in his last two novels the creator of Newspeak and Doublethink revealed the myriad ways in which politicians use, and therefore corrupt, language to conceal or restrict thought. What scorn Orwell would have heaped on the ineffable Geoff Hoon, who did not wish to talk of attacking or hitting Iraqi targets before the war and so said (in an interview on Radio 4) that British forces would "address targets".

Orwell had feet of clay and a heart of gold, vicious impulses and towering moral stature. He was an eccentric mixture, a novelist of talent but a pamphleteer of genius, an aesthete whose trademark was gritty realism, a radical socialist with a conservative nostalgia for the shabby-genteel England of his Edwardian childhood. Reduced to a skeleton by tuberculosis, Orwell asked his former lover Sonia Brownell to marry him, taking wry satisfaction from the fact that deathbed weddings were not at all common. When she accepted he said: "You must learn to make dumplings."

Piers Brendon is the author of Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (Pimlico).


George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge

Peter Davison and D. J. Taylor


Like autumn in a garden


Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–90) was a punctilious observer of the last year of George Orwell’s life. His diaries from the autumn of 1949 are a vital source for any reconstruction of Orwell’s final months at University College Hospital and contain the only detailed account of Orwell’s funeral. An entry from Christmas Day 1949, for example, contains a lacerating account of a visit to the dying man. Orwell, found alone in his room with Christmas decorations suspended above his head, “went on about the Home Guard, and the Spanish Civil War, and how he would go to Switzerland soon, and all the while the stench of death was in the air, like autumn in a garden”. Until recently, the public record of this friendship has been one-sided. We know of it only what Muggeridge chose to tell us. However, the recent discovery of unpublished correspondence between Orwell and Muggeridge sheds new light both on their relationship and on the development of Orwell’s political thinking in the year or so before his death.

On the face of it, the two were unlikely soul-mates. Muggeridge, at this point in his career, was a Daily Telegraph leader-writer and already enjoyed some reputation (a reputation that was vastly to increase in the following decade) as a controversialist. They were brought together by a love of literature, a consuming interest in politics and a profound suspicion of the influence of the Soviet Union on international affairs. Muggeridge’s trail-blazing exposé of the Russian experiment, Winter Journey , had appeared as long ago as 1933. Orwell had reviewed Muggeridge’s The Thirties on its appearance in April 1940, finding its closing chapters “deeply moving” and acknowledging a link between Muggeridge’s attitude to the war and the sentiments he himself had expressed in “My Country, Right or Left”:

It is the emotion of the middle-class man, brought up in the military tradition, who finds in the moment of crisis that he is a patriot after all . . . . As I was brought up in this tradition myself I can recognise it under strange disguises, and also sympathise with it, for even at its stupidest and most sentimental it is a comelier thing than the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia.

Muggeridge spent the war years working for the British secret service in East and North Africa, Italy and France. His friendship with Orwell seems to have begun after his return to England in mid-1945. Its rapid development can be tracked in a typewritten letter from Orwell dated September 25, 1945, sent from the flat in Canonbury Square, Islington, where he was then living with his adopted son, Richard, and their housekeeper, Susan Watson, inviting him to lunch with Julian Symons, with whom he assumed Muggeridge would have much in common. The letter refers to Orwell’s trip to the inner Hebridean island of Jura, which preceded his decision to move there in the spring of 1946. Clearly Orwell was to some extent moving in the Muggeridge family circle, as there are references to “a nice letter from your son which I am answering”. This was John Muggeridge, whose reaction to Animal Farm Muggeridge had previously reported to Orwell in a letter of September 13. In a later, handwritten, note sent from the Cranham sanatorium in Gloucestershire where he had been admitted in the early days of 1949, Orwell wonders if Muggeridge’s elder boys would like to come and stay in Jura during the summer holidays.

Of particular interest, though, is a long typed letter sent from Jura in early December 1948, shortly after Orwell had finished work on Nineteen Eighty-four. Here Orwell confesses to having disapproved of Muggeridge’s study of Samuel Butler, which he had recently read, “because I thought it would give a false impression to anyone who didn’t know Butler’s work already”. Not only was Butler a much kindlier and more unassuming person than Muggeridge made out, Orwell suggests, but he was very nearly the only writer of the later part of the nineteenth century who could write in a plain straightforward manner. As ever, Orwell uses Butler to draw a contemporary distinction:

I know that you feel people like Butler, who are disintegrators, prepare the way for dictatorship etc., and I can see the connection between Butler’s revolt against his parents and your experiences in Moscow. But I do earnestly think you are wrong. The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.

The remainder of the letter discusses his shattered health and its causes, the beauty of the Jura winter, Nineteen Eighty-four – with characteristic diffidence Orwell was “not pleased with it, but I think it is a good idea” – and the progress of the boy Richard. Significantly, Orwell seems to assume at this stage that he could expect to recover. The Islington flat was to be given up “because I never use it and it is simply an expense. But I shall have to have a pied a terre in London again later.”

There is a final, typed letter – almost certainly dictated to Orwell’s second wife, Sonia, but signed by him – sent from University College Hospital in the autumn of 1949. Here Orwell thanks Muggeridge for a wedding present of some volumes of Surtees. The letter is undated, but appears to be have been composed late in October as Orwell refers to, and in fact encloses, the magazine advertisement for Wolsey Socks (“Fit for the Gods”) which Muggeridge mentions in a diary entry of October 25: “such blasphemy hurt his feelings much more than mockery of the Christian religion”. Three months later, on January 26, 1950, Muggeridge returned from Orwell’s funeral to read the newspaper obituaries by Arthur Koestler, V. S. Pritchett and Julian Symons, and to reflect “how the legend of a human being is created”.

* 25 September 1945
27b Canonbury Square
London N1.

Dear Malcolm,

How about lunch on Friday (28th)? Perhaps you won’t mind if Julian Symons comes along. I know you would like him. I think he is one of the most gifted of the writers now in their thirties. I know he would like to meet you too. Perhaps you could ring up the above and confirm, but any way I shall be at the Rainbow at 1 pm on Friday because of Symons.

I had a nice letter from your son which I am answering. I had a very good time in Scotland - it rained every day except one, but one expects that. I caught a lot of fish but all small ones.

Have you seen “Polemic”? \ I think the first number is a bit disappointing, partly because of the depressing board covers which they are going to scrap next time, but it will probably improve.


* 4 December 1948
Isle of Jura

Dear Malcolm,

Thanks so much for your letter. I am so glad to hear you have written a novel again \. People do seem to be recovering from the war after all. For a long time it looked as if nobody would be able to settle down to full-length books after wasting years on scraps. I didn’t approve of your Butler book \ , though I enjoyed reading it, because I thought it would give a false impression to anyone who didn’t know Butler’s work already. I think that in spite of a great deal of egotism and silliness, partly resulting from loneliness and failure, he was a much kindlier and more unassuming person than one would infer from your book. I think this even comes out in his way of writing, a thing you didn’t mention. He was very nearly the only writer of the later part of the nineteenth century who could write in a plain straightforward manner. I know that you feel people like Butler, who are disintegrators, prepare the way for dictatorship etc., and I can see the connection between Butler’s revolt against his parents and your experiences in Moscow. But I do earnestly think you are wrong. The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians. However it’s too complicated an issue to be argued in a letter. I see from Horizon, by the way, that Alfred \ died in 1947.

I have been in wretched health since about September. I came out of hospital much better after the streptomycin, but I dare say I was turned out too soon and didn’t take things easily enough at first. During the last two months I have barely even been out of the house, and spend half the day in bed and the other half on a sofa. It’s a pity, really, the winter weather here is so beautiful if one can only get about, wonderful still sunny days with the sea like glass and wonderful colours in everything, bright brown bracken and the sea a sort of bluish green. I am trying to arrange to go into a private sanatorium for the worst of the winter, ie. Jan–Feb. It seems there is now only one private sanatorium left in Scotland, and they are full up, and of course all the public ones would have waiting lists, and besides, in a public one I probably couldn’t arrange to get a room to myself. However, in England there must still be private ones. I suppose I could go abroad somewhere, but I dread the journey and the misery of passports etc. I have just finished a novel I have been tinkering about with since the summer of 1947. I would have finished it six months ago if I had been well. I am not pleased with it, but I think it is a good idea. It is a fantasy really, a story about the future (after the atomic wars) written in the form of a novel. Thank God I can still work, but that is about all I can do.

Richard, my little boy, is in terrific form. He is now 4½, very large and literally never ill except for the usual measles etc. He loves anything to do with machinery and is interested in farm work, in fact he is often out all day helping to bring in loads of potatoes etc. I have the impression that he will not be much of a one for book-learning. He gets a horrible low-class comic paper every week from Dundee and likes to have it read to him, but doesn’t show any desire to learn to read himself. I shan’t try to influence him, but if he grew up wanting to be a farmer I should be pleased, and it would perhaps satisfy the mechanical side of his nature, as every farmer has to be quite a bit of a mechanic nowadays. Talking of comic papers, I told Tony \ that when I was in hospital a fellow patient of mine was the editor of the Hotspur, and Tony had never heard of it. I am sure your boys know it well, and Tristram \ soon will. He (the editor) told me their circulation is 300,000, and that though they don’t pay very high rates per thou. some of their hacks turn out 40,000 words a week. They had one man who used to do 70,000, but, the editor said, “his stuff was a bit stereotyped.”

I hope to see you all again some time, but for 15 months now I have been in a condition where I couldn’t face a long railway journey. I am giving up my London flat because I never use it and it is simply an expense. But I shall have to have a pied a terre in London again later. Please remember me to your wife and to any mutuals.


* 22 February 1949
The Cotswold Sanatorium

Dear Malcolm,

Thanks so much for your letter. I meant to say before, but forgot, but perhaps when I’m in circulation again – or even if I’m not – your older boys might like to come & stay in Jura in the summer holidays. I think your eldest boy must be about 14, & it’s nice for anyone about that age. Of course it’s kind of rough, because there are generally a number of people staying there in the summer, which means sleeping on camp beds etc., but they would probably enjoy catching fish & shooting rabbits & so on. We are always glad to have people staying about August, because they can be impressed to help get the hay in. If you think any of them would like to come let me know & I’ll tell my sister & give you particulars about the journey & so on.


*Undated; c. 25 October 1949
Private Patients Wing,
University College Hospital,
Gower Street,
London, W.C.1.

Dear Malcolm,

I am so sorry not to have written several days ago to thank you for your beautiful present, but you know how it is when one is in bed. I was really charmed to get these very rare books with their lovely illustrations.

I enclose a cutting of that advertisement I told you had offended me so much. I think you will agree that it is in a way really blasphemous. Please come and see me soon.

Thank you so much again.


The authors are grateful to Bill Hamilton of the Orwell Estate and David Malone and Judy Truesdale of the Buswell Memorial Library, Wheaton College, for their help in preparing this article.


Another pages about George Orwell in this site here and here and here

A page about Sonia Orwell here