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George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison, (Penguin 2011)

Christopher Hitchens was influenced by George Orwell rather in the way Leon Trotsky was influenced by the Buddha. That is, Hitch no more followed Orwell’s literary example than Trotsky followed the Buddha’s ethical example. Hitch was a highly pretentious and verbose writer, not a master of clarity and concision like Orwell. But the former did make a good point about the latter in his book Why Orwell Matters (2002): Orwell was not extraordinary in intellect or learning, but he managed to write two extraordinary books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). That is part of why these letters are valuable and interesting, because we can see those books in gestation, in production, and in publication. Here is Orwell explaining his motives for writing Animal Farm:

I don’t think I could fairly be described as Russophobe. I am against all dictatorships and I think the Russian myth has done frightful harm to the leftwing movement in Britain and elsewhere, and that it is above all necessary to make people see the Russian regime for what it is (ie. what I think it is). But I thought all this as early as 1932 or thereabouts and always said so fairly freely. I have no wish to interfere with the Soviet regime even if I could. I merely don’t want its methods and habits of thought imitated here, and that involves fighting against Russianizers in this country… The danger is that some native form of totalitarianism will be developed here, and people like Laski, Pritt, Zilliacus, the News Chronicle and all the rest of them seem to me to be simply preparing the way for this. (letter of 11th December, 1945 to Michael Sayers)

Orwell described in “Why I Write” (1946) his “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He also said that what he had “most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” In Animal Farm, he achieved that art. But just as no book can be entirely free of political bias, so no work of fiction can be purely political. Peter Davison, the editor of this book, notes that “one of the origins of Animal Farm was Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, a favourite of Orwell’s” in his childhood (“1946 and 1947”, pg. 281). Davison is a good editor, setting the context of the letters and explaining even minor references as the obscure Eric Blair becomes the world-famous George Orwell. There are also a “biographical list” of important figures in Orwell’s life, a chronology of that life, and a comprehensive index. Finally, Davison introduces some “New Textual Discoveries” from Orwell’s novels A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These discoveries, about changes to the novels in proof, will disturb and even shock some readers, because the “most significant” in A Clergyman’s Daughter are to “the character of Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Conservative Candidate, so as to remove any trace that he is a Jew who had converted to Catholicism.” Davison then lists the changes, with the original text in bold. These will be the most disturbing to some devotees of Orwell:

Even more Jewish in appearance than his father ] Given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers libre poems… And to think that that scum of the ghetto ] And to think that that low-born hound… For the beastliest type the world has yet produced give me the Roman Catholic Jew. ] And that suit he is wearing is an offence in itself. (pg. 491)

Moreover, some of the final letters are to or by Celia Kirwan (1916-2002), who was Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law and worked for the Information Research Department, a government organization that tried to counter communist propaganda. Orwell passed recommendations to her about those he felt should or should not be allowed to participate in this work. And in his now famous, or infamous, list of unreliable people, he sometimes noted the ethnicity of a suspected or probable communist sympathizer or agent. Yes, the secular saint George Orwell was saintly in more ways than one, because there is, of course, a long tradition of anti-semitism in Christianity and among Christian saints.

Your reaction to these parts of the book will be a test of your goodthinkfulness and of whether or not you need to be watched by Big Brother. I must confess that I wasn’t disturbed by them. Orwell’s prejudice against Catholicism and Catholics is a much stronger motif in any case:

Mrs Carr [a friend of Orwell’s from Southwald] sent me two books of Catholic apologetics, & I had great pleasure in reviewing one of them for a new paper called the New English Weekly. It was the first time I had been able to lay the bastinado on a professional R.C. at any length. (letter of 14th June, 1932 to Eleanor Jaques)

That sort of thing doesn’t disturb me either, but this did, in a letter to an editor who had enquired about Orwell’s life:

After leaving school I served five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, but the job was totally unsuited to me and I resigned when I came home on leave in 1927. I wanted to be a writer, and I lived most of the next two years in Paris, on my savings, writing novels which no one would publish and which I subsequently destroyed. (letter of 26th August, 1947 to Richard Usbourne)

I was sorry to read about the destruction of those novels. They would certainly be published now and would shed more light on the development of Orwell’s writing. His pre-war fiction was not special and Orwell himself disowns A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying here, not wanting them to be re-published with Burmese Days (1934) and Coming Up for Air (1939). But each novel is powerful in some way and I’ve read all of them several times. Coming Up for Air, for example, contains what seems to me an accurate and moving re-creation of a semi-rural, part-Victorian life Orwell himself had never led. None of his pre-war fiction does more than hint at the excellences of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it all helps explain how Orwell came to write those classics. So do these letters. I haven’t yet given them the attention they deserve, because the book is more than five hundred pages long, but anyone who wants to understand Orwell better should start here. There’s even food for biological thought, because Orwell was part French on his mother’s side and that heredity, which you can see in his face, may be relevant here:

It has been a few years since I lived in France and although I tend to read French books I am not able to write your language very accurately. When I was in Paris people always said to me “You don’t talk too badly for an Englishman but your accent is fantastic.” Unfortunately I have only kept the accent. (letter of 9th October, 1934 to R.N. Raimbault)

In a much later letter, Orwell describes a lunch-appointment with Camus at the Deux Magots in Paris: “but he was ill and didn’t come” (20th January, 1948). He then analyses another of France’s literary giants: “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot” (22nd October, 1948). These letters illuminate his literary tastes, his linguistic skills, his love-life, his gardening, cooking, and DIY, and reveal his interest in everything from nursery rhymes, political pamphlets and ethnology to newts, boots and fungi. And milking goats. Orwell didn’t have an extraordinary intellect, but he wasn’t an ordinary man and his letters prove it.

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