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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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