Thursday 19th June 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003

“Full of power and mysterious calm” – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s second wife, about whom he was reported to be ‘nuts’

The 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

Aged three

Orwell at work in the Villa Simont outside Marrakech, where he completed Coming Up For Air

On the Huesca Front in March 1937
Paranoid 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 scholarship boy.
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 unhappiness.

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 centuries.
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 long.

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 I.
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 ingratitudes? Probably.

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 think.