“Full of power and mysterious calm” – Nineteen Eighty-Four
Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s second wife, about whom he was reported
to be ‘nuts’
resting place of Eric Blair in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay.
As an unbeliever, the churchwardens had to be persuaded to bury him
in sacred ground
Orwell in his tramp’s uniform on his return to England
Orwell at work in the Villa Simont outside Marrakech, where he completed
Coming Up For Air
On the Huesca Front in March 1937
old Etonian fantasist who hated rats but wrote great literature
George Orwell forbade any biographies from his deathbed.
Now two have come along at once to mark the centenary of his birth.
Paul Willetts reviews DJ Taylor’s book and finds the Hampstead
genius self-pitying but compelling and Gerald Isaaman
discovers Orwell’s humanity
Orwell: The Life by DJ Taylor
Chatto and Windus, £20
Given that there are already three detailed biographies of George
Orwell, I found myself echoing the opinion of other critics who
questioned the need for another, let alone two more. Surely there
couldn’t be anything new to be written about either his eventful
life or much-analysed career as a novelist, essayist, journalist
and ‘conscience of the Left’? Is he, in any case, really
a figure of such significance that he merits this level of scrutiny?
As DJ Taylor’s eloquent, even-handed Orwell: The Life demonstrates,
the answer must, on every count, be a resounding yes.
The notion that those previous biographies render subsequent attempts
redundant is, of course, akin to arguing that several figurative
painters working with the same palette, the same subject-matter
will inevitably produce paintings so similar as to be repetitive.
Differing from its predecessors in texture, tone and design, Taylor’s
book contributes a fresh perspective on familiar material, garnished
by some illuminating new information, drawn from hitherto undiscovered
manuscripts and interviewees.
Many biographers synthesise the fruits of their research into a
single, unequivocal, relatively straightforward narrative. Taylor,
on the other hand, exposes the book’s intricate superstructure
by revealing the often contradictory nature of his sources. The
result is a frequently dazzling multiple-angle portrait of Orwell’s
journey from shabby-genteel roots to literary celebrity via spells
as a colonial policeman, a tramp, and a militiaman during the Spanish
Civil War. Punctuating this absorbing story, there are brief, self-contained
essays which are, at times, delightfully idiosyncratic. These include
pieces about his fear of rats, his prematurely ravaged face, his
paranoia, not to mention the hunt for a movie image of him —
a fruitless quest that yields one of the book’s most poignant
and memorable passages.
In the scrupulous way in which Taylor lays out the evidence, carefully
marshalling and appraising the statements of witnesses, some reliable,
others less so, I kept being reminded of a quietly enthralling court-room
drama, dominated by a shrewd, appropriately sceptical though fair-minded
judge. Take Orwell’s prep school experiences, for example.
If you believe his own account of that period, set down with vitriolic
glee in his celebrated essay Such, Such Were The Joys, it was a
hellish period, made even worse by the snobbery of the headmistress,
who seized every opportunity to emphasise his lowly status as a
Yet, having reiterated Orwell’s numerous complaints about
the snobbery and brutality of the place, Taylor summons a string
of witnesses to rebut these allegations. Donning a judicial wig,
Taylor rounds off proceedings by concluding that snobbery was endemic
to the dismal world of early 20th-century prep schools, within which
such a fastidious and vulnerable child would have been doomed to
The ever-vigilant Taylor also uses this section to introduce a couple
of the book’s recurrent themes. First, there is Orwell’s
unappealing tendency towards self-pity. Then there is his habit
of bending reality to conform to “his personal myth”,
of distorting the truth through “exaggeration, selectiveness,
[and] outright misrepresentation”.
Despite Taylor’s enthusiasm for Orwell’s writing, he
doesn’t allow his admiration to obscure the manifest defects
of his subject both as a writer and a person.
Conspicuous among these failings were Orwell’s naïve
sentimentality about the working-classes, execrable neo-Georgian
poetry, anti-semitism, and ludicrous self-absorption.
Such candour on the part of his biographer extends to the admission
that “vast area[s] of his personal life stretch out into impenetrable
blackness”. Taylor nonetheless resists the temptation to conceal
these black holes with supposition or other sneaky forms of authorial
sleight of pen.
Well before I reached the end of this impressive book, showcasing
its author’s trademark blend of erudition and readability,
I’d come to share some of his fascination with Orwell. Like
all the best biographies of creative people, it will send readers
in search of its subject’s work, their appreciation buttressed
by many valuable insights into the complex relationship between
life and art.
George Orwell by Gordon Bowker
Little, Brown, £20
It seemed a queer thing to have to do, to use a false name; dishonest
– criminal, almost.” So wrote Eric Arthur Blair, alias
George Orwell, in his first novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter,
a fumbling introduction to the literary world, published in 1935
during his days in Hampstead.
Nobody knows the true origin of his second self, whether he chose
the pseudonym because he identified George with his hero George
Gissing or his own predilection for royal names; whether he took
Orwell from a Cambridgeshire village or the name of a Suffolk river.
“He had taken a false name as a boy to write joke letters
to an advertiser, he had written anonymously for ephemerals at Eton,
he chose a false identity when slumming among the down-and-outs,
and now chose a literary persona to mask the guilt-stricken Blair,”
explains Gordon Bowker in his compelling new biography. “It
is evident that in almost every one of his novels the theme of the
double life is central.”
Orwell, born a century ago this month, was a man of complex contradictions
and fears, the shabby, haggered-faced old Etonian haunted by death
throughout his working life.
Yet it is the image of the river that stays, the fact that Orwell
has left a legacy of political consciousness that has haunted two
Yet the river, like Orwell’s elegant, shattering essays, flows
on, dangerous and inviting, alive and wanted, in search of the sea,
and the distant horizon of a place of safety and a better life,
which was Orwell’s simple hope.
Orwell’s story, his books now selling 40 million worldwide,
Animal Farm and 1984 heralded as political writing at its finest,
is known from previous biographies – despite Orwell’s
desire, on his deathbed in University College Hospital, St Pancras,
in January, 1950, declaring that he wished none to be written.
Yet Bowker has come up with some remarkable new information, insights
and ideas about the man with the cultured accent who started out
as a Tory anarchist – his own description – and ended
up a socialist, albeit one totally alien to the Communism of Stalin.
“Recent KGB archives supply a clearer picture of how he was
hunted and spied on in Spain, an experience that ultimately gave
birth to his last two great novels,” Bowker writes. “Taking
in the broad sweep of his life also throws light on the story of
Orwell’s collaboration with the covert Information Research
Department of the Foreign Office, which has aroused such controversy
on the political left.”
Certainly this is helpful in understanding some of Orwell’s
paranoia, more so with the revelation that his first wife, Eileen
O’Shaughnessy, whom he met at a party in Hampstead, had an
affair while visiting him during the Spanish civil war.
Here the biography gives you a vivid taste of opposing factions
and the smell of death, the mud and the rats that Orwell detested
as, in his giant size 12 boots, he shoots “one of those bastards”.
Bowker’s description is very much pulsating at times, even
when describing Orwell’s comforting but poverty striken early
married life running the village shop in Wallington, Hertfordshire,
while digging his own vegetable garden to stave off hunger. Yet,
surprisingly, he has little descriptive love of Hampstead and Orwell’s
time in Warwick Mansions, Pond Street, living above Booklover’s
Corner where he worked while writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying,
where there is a commemorative plaque, unveiled by Sonia Orwell
many years ago.
More colour comes in his story of Orwell’s days in a three-room
flat in Lawford Road, Kentish Town, and his brutal shooting stick
attack on his drunken fellow lodger and friend Rayner Heppenstall,
but whether this is an example of Orwell’s sadism that Bowker
contends remains in some doubt in my mind for a man so ill for so
Bowker is actually wrong in insisting that Orwell died a rich man,
as the royalties rolled in for his final two great treaties. Orwell
was a victim of the money God he so hated, as I know for a fact
from the late Tosco Fyvel, the last friend to see him alive, and
as is inferred in Hilary Spurling’s admirable recent biography
of Sonia Orwell. “In some circles Orwell has been canonised,
but it is now evident that as a man he had certain crucial weaknesses,”
says Bowker. “For example, despite his reputation for crystalline
honesty, he had a deceptive streak.
“He deceived fellow tramps about his identity and true circumstances;
he kept his family ignorant of what he was doing; he deliberately
kept some of his friends apart in order to present them with different
faces; he was deceptive in his sexual relationships; he concealed
his true feelings behind a mask of reserve.”
But don’t so many of us do that, part of the time? For some
journalists and politicians it is almost second nature, leaving
Orwell fatally fixed as some kind of modern saint. Indeed, today’s
deceitful world in which Orwell’s Big Brother, Room 101 and
the thought police remain healthy and alive, the media is filled
with unreality, drugged by the cult of celebrity and sensation,
and our mother of Parliament is surrounded by concrete to deter
terrorist bombs, rarely bear comparison.
Despite his declared dislike of Milton, Bowker points out, Orwell’s
reversed version of Paradise Lost and Paradise Gained was the over-arching
metaphor of his life, his work reflecting his sense of the lost
golden age of his childhood prior to the slaughter of World War
Orwell was undoubtedly bedevilled and perhaps more in need of love
than others. But were his devils, his fantasies and despair worse
than that of many of us who, on many levels, share life’s
But at least he left us his humanity – and his inspiring hope.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained run in parallel lines. How well
you fare depends too often on luck and your own intuition and initiative.
Perhaps that’s why Orwell chose two names, for two different
lives. But at least his revolutionary river that opens the window
on the wickedness of the world remains in effortless motion. This
is a good book if you want to get a feel of the man who makes us