470 pages, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
George Orwell would have hated this book.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you were famous. And let’s imagine that at some stage, someone would be sufficiently interested in you to write a biography. Could you handle the fact that investigators would uncover absolutely every single detail about you? Every love letter you wrote, every romantic entanglement you ever enjoyed, every feud you ever had at work, every bitchy email you ever sent, every falling out you experienced with a family member, every painful break-up?
I feel sure that George Orwell would have loathed this forensic examination. To say he was a private person is putting it mildly. Orwell was a closed book even to some of his closest friends. DJ Taylor’s Orwell: The Life has its work cut out.
George Orwell gave very little away, and Taylor notes that he was always paranoid about being followed or spied upon, that his business was being poked into. In the many book reviews he left us, he repeatedly insists that the artist and their art should be seen as separate things. That being the case, this biography of him would have been anathema, although he might have smiled at the irony of the man who conjured the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four having his life dissected in such a brutal manner.
The book looks at Orwell’s family background as landed gentry on the way down in the modern world. It also examines those intriguing paradoxes about the great author which informed his sense of injustice later in life. He wasn’t quite the full English breakfast. Part of the establishment, and yet always against the grain. As English as they come, and yet born abroad as part of Britain’s colonial past, with the sun still to set on the empire. Posh, with a plummy accent that demanded a response from peer, prince and pauper alike, and yet from a family of relatively modest means and ever-reducing circumstances. He was a product of private schools, including the most famous of them all – Eton – and yet he had an inveterate contempt for that world and its perpetuation of that most basic fraud in society: that we are not all born equal. And later, despite his enthusiasm for examining poverty and squalor, there’s the fact that he hated dirt, sweat and grime, and couldn’t let go of his horror of it.
George Orwell was a tricky character to sketch. The main characteristic that comes through from the testimony of friends, family and colleagues is that he was aloof and reserved – hardly promising material.
Orwell’s schooldays, particularly his short-trousered years at St Cyprian’s (so brutally described in the classic essay “Such, Such Were The Joys”), pinpoint a few new things with a view towards his life and development as a writer. Was Orwell’s preparatory school as bad as he makes out? There are many who disagreed with that vision of hell staffed by obsequious, snobby sociopaths. Some alumni thought the dragon wife of the headmaster was a lovely lady and kept in touch with her until she died. But that’s the British class system for you – there are people in the upper tier who have a thing for matron, and still more who have a thing for being caned. Witness that ghastly clique who found Margaret Thatcher attractive.
As for later schooldays, we have the surprising revelation that Orwell had crushes on his fellow boys – or at least, that’s the deduction we are forced to make when we hear about Orwell confessing himself to be “quite gone” on one of the younger lads in a note to a friend. Again, we can perhaps find an explanation for this in the fact that boys and girls were educated separately in these bastions of British high society. It’s a bit like prison – herd a load of horny lads in the one place and deprive them of female company for long enough, then they are at least going to consider having sex with each other. Taylor is quick to point out that we “shouldn’t be quick to make assumptions” about Orwell’s sexuality. It’s maybe just the old hormones going mad. Teenage kicks, so hard to beat.
Mostly, though, Orwell’s schooldays leave us with an impression of an able, but easily bored scholar with one eye out of the window. Orwell did well in his younger days, winning recognition for his poetry and hitting the top of the class for many subjects, before going into reverse at Eton. In this I can see the seeds of dissent, of ennui with education and the system he was operating in. You wonder at the mind that was racing away behind that inscrutable face, the worlds going on outside the schoolroom window while Orwell’s tutors (and these might have included MR James at the time) waffled on about Latin.
Liked school? You’ll love work. Orwell picked up whatever certificates he had to upon leaving that breeding ground for Britain’s champions and buggered off to Burma to work in the colonial police service, following in his father’s footsteps. Here’s where things get murky; although Orwell produced some of his most compelling early work as a result of his time unleashed in the east, there’s little record of what he was doing or who he was doing it with between the ages of 19 and 24. Interesting years for anyone.
We might wonder at the percolation involved in his writing, particularly the inspiration behind Burmese Days, but there is little in the way of facts. Taylor hints that certain sections of that novel point towards the possibility of Orwell having taken far eastern mistresses. But there’s no record of what he got up to in his salad days; Taylor is forced to admit it is supposition. One interesting episode recounted by a student at the time involves Orwell being heckled by a crowd after he whacked a Burmese boy with a stick. This harried white man’s act of violent suppression and summary punishment is a manifestation of the very worst police states in the world. This interesting idea that Orwell had a violent streak, being fond of, literally, wielding a big stick, is one Taylor returns to.
Food for thought, too, in the gestation of two of Orwell’s finest essays – “A Hanging” and “Shooting An Elephant”. Like the Loch Ness Monster, people badly want to believe that Orwell attended that poor bugger’s last drop, and that he actually Swiss-cheesed the elephant. But there is some doubt.
Out of the two, it’s more likely Orwell witnessed “A Hanging”. Although Orwell was not required to attend executions in his capacity as a policeman, it is entirely possible he would have done, although there is little reference to it anywhere else in his work. As for the more “Hollywood” piece, newspapers of the time recount an incident in Burma in which a British policeman shot a rampaging elephant which had killed someone, but the man with the gun was not identified as Orwell.
It could be that he did something billions of storytellers have done throughout history: he took an incident he heard about, and put his own spin on it.
Orwell, who suffered from TB as a child and never quite had his health in order from that day forward, soon found the stifling atmosphere of the tropics too much and returned to England aged 24. A vague notion of “being a writer” emerged, much to his parents’ disappointment. Now we see the slow metamorphosis of Eric Blair into George Orwell.
For a seemingly dull character few people took a shine to, Orwell was not risk averse. He happily lived as a tramp to collect material for the book which would become Down and Out in Paris and London, even going so far as to attempt to get arrested. Many would point out that Orwell could end his experiment on the grubbier side of the street any time he chose. But he certainly enjoyed the devil-may-care sensation of leaping into assignments, that headlong plunge into the unknown. Indeed, my favourite parts of this book were the ones where Orwell submits to mad urges and compulsions. It seems to get to the heart of English eccentricity, as we understand it from comic novels of the Edwardian era. A very sudden shedding of dignity and sobriety; the carefree abandon of the streaker on the sports field, taking a lap of honour.
This is almost literally the case when Orwell, overcome by the beauty of a body of water on one fine day, gets his kit off and goes for a swim. This unfortunately draws a large crowd of people, perhaps believing that the swimmer had meant to do himself in. And so Orwell is forced to “act natural”, and keeps swimming back and forth until they go away. Taylor carefully notes that letters from this period indicate that Orwell was very unhappy, although the episode would seem to be comic in flavour, rather than tragic.
In fact there are many scenes where Orwell is ridiculous, particularly in his dealings with women. The younger Orwell seems to have been the classic hopeless romantic – the ladies’ man who couldn’t get too many ladies. There are a couple of rejected marriage suits, but also some interesting affairs. Curiously, for such a staid, unsmiling fellow, Orwell was something of a cuckoo in the nest. Taylor uncovers a letter from Mabel Fierz, a literary champion of Orwell’s and a married woman, in which she refers to him as her lover. Orwell also has a longstanding affair with Eleanor Jacques, even when she is betrothed to her future husband. These episodes have the elements of tragedy, especially in the case of Jacques, who chose another man over Orwell, and they must have caused him some pain. But comedy ensues when our hero is caught having a sniff around another engaged woman by her fiancé. The bold George has to take to his heels through the fields when this man tries to run him down on a motorbike. Orwell spoke up in defence of low humour, particularly Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards, so it’s not a total incongruence to have his life suddenly take on the tones of The Benny Hill Show.
Lakes, meadows and fields – whether run through in fear of his life or not - always feature heavily in Orwell’s writing, and there is plenty of evidence to back up the idea of Orwell being keen on al fresco lovin’. Part of this is a question of access, I suppose – it wasn’t an easy or socially acceptable thing to bring girls back to lodging houses in those days. So the most obvious alternative would have been to take your lady out for some “fresh air”. Orwell was bucolic by nature and a love of animals and things that grow always features in his essays and novels. Many surviving letters indicate that this pastoral pleasure extended to outdoor frolics with his lovers. It sounds like it was his kinda trash. There’s a corner of some foreign field that will be forever England, with George Orwell’s skinny arse bobbling around on top of it.
See what I mean? His long bones are picked clean. In the abstract, Orwell has gravitas. But when we sharpen the focus, he is a clown. This is true for us all.
Orwell’s early struggles in print are well documented. There’s the familiar misery of the author yet to establish himself – desperate to write; forced into desultory, and sometimes menial work to make ends meet; and tortured by the lack of time to dedicate to his craft. Same as it ever was.
Although Orwell thought most of his literary endeavours to be a failure, Taylor points out that he did make it to print before he was 30, and continued to publish throughout his life before writing novels that “literally changed the way people think”. All told, it wasn’t a bad literary innings, just not a spectacular one, until the end of his life. One curiosity which Taylor points out is that, in the lead-up to the Second World War, Orwell was active during a very fortunate point in British literary history. The population was literate at a level never before attained, and television was at a zygotic stage, with the wireless the only thing running interference on the printed word’s supremacy. While Orwell knew the odd rejection, it seems to have been a much simpler matter to reach print back then compared to now. Publishing was flourishing, in high places and low; books, magazines, periodicals, penny dreadfuls and pamphlets were sold everywhere. If you had some ability, all you had to do was bait your hook – and you didn’t need to wait long for a bite.
The construction of his often-overlooked early novels and their implications are also delved into by Taylor, who is never short of an intriguing theory or two. In Flory, Comstock and the Clergyman’s Daughter we get a much sharper picture of Orwell’s actual life at the time of writing - as opposed to his ideas, illustrated in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Time and again we see the idea of a lost England, and of pathetic individuals struggling with the business of real life in the face of hopeless artistic endeavours. George was damned hard on himself at times.
Orwell finally met a longed-for other half in Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a girl from the north-east of England with a university degree. She caught his eye during a party thrown by his landlady in 1935, during the time he was working in a Hampstead bookshop. Orwell’s keen eyes kindled. “That’s the kind of girl I’d like to marry,” he confessed to a friend.
After a typically clumsy Orwellian suit, the pair were wed in 1936. Eileen, to me, is the most intriguing figure in the whole book. A good looking lass, she was evidently more than Orwell’s match intellectually and was his great champion until the end of her life. But her story is a sad one. She suffered the loss of a beloved brother in the early days of the Second World War, which plunged her into a morass of despair. Then came the ultimate tragedy of her own death, at just 39, on the operating table during a hysterectomy. Until they adopted their son Richard, just prior to this, the pair were childless – Orwell feared he was sterile, but it appears that she had health issues of her own which may have stopped the couple from conceiving. She is an intriguing figure and a major part of Orwell’s development as a writer.
Their marriage was dedicated, though not quite conventional. Orwell, who got much better at womanising as he got older, certainly enjoyed several affairs. Eileen knew about one of the other women for sure, and suspected several more. Letters survive between Orwell and girls he either bedded or tried to, and in one of them he implores: “Be clever and burn this, would you?” Lord, I can almost hear his skeleton grinding its teeth at his secrets being uncovered.
During a sabbatical in Morocco, paid for by an anonymous literary benefactor, it seems Orwell was obsessed by the young prostitutes he encountered there - so much so that Eileen apparently “agreed to let him have one”. The evidence for this is merely anecdotal, but it points to the pair having a very open, and I am tempted to say modern, attitude towards sex within and without marriage. Or, that George had his cake and ate it.
Eileen gave as good as she got. Her story features a fascinating “enigma”, as Taylor puts it, in the shape of Georges Kopp, a member of the Republican army and the Marxist POUM, who took Orwell under his wing when he signed up to fight the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Eileen volunteered to help the Republicans alongside her husband, and certainly spent some time alongside Kopp while Orwell was on the front lines. Kopp, who comes across as a character right out of the pages of the Boys’ Own papers the young Orwell adored, clearly dazzled her. Letters uncovered subsequent to the publication of this book seem to confirm that they were more than just friendly. Orwell must have suspected something, but the two men were close. When Kopp was arrested, Orwell risked his life to try to get him released.
It’s fair to say everything Orwell subsequently wrote and stood for emerged as a result of his experiences fighting Franco. Taylor notes Orwell’s occasional belligerence and his enjoyment of military discipline and authority, seeded no doubt in Eton and flowering in the Burmese military police. His enthusiasm for the training ground, drills and good order was quickly spotted, and he was promoted to the head of a small unit on the Aragon front. There, he saw some of the action he longed for, poking some poor bastard in the backside with a bayonet and then blowing a sniper to bits with a grenade. His courage is unquestioned; there are independent accounts of Orwell strolling casually through heavy fire, and at one point he risks his life to take cover alongside a group of other men, forsaking better cover in order to stand with his comrades.
This nostril-flaring, get-right-in-about-them mad bastard of war isn’t quite the George Orwell we think we know. There is no doubt that while the author deplored warfare, he did love to fight. Perhaps Orwell’s issue was not fighting itself, but having something to fight for.
It was this cavalier attitude that would place him in harm’s way. Back on duty on the Aragon front in 1937, he risked a cigarette, his six-foot-plus frame poking out above a barrier built for much smaller Spanish men. It was too tempting a target for one sharpshooter, and Orwell came within millimetres of death after a bullet went through his throat.
Orwell finally had his war stories, but it’s arguable that the mental scarring he suffered in Barcelona had the greater effect on his writing. One thing that left me bored to tears when I read Homage To Catalonia as a younger man was Orwell’s forensic examination of the various political factions fighting for supremacy within the Republican cause. The sides and sects become a blur of acronyms, a string of letters arranged by a child. If you’re confused reading about it, then you can bet it was baffling for a soldier who had signed up to fight as part of this chaotic jumble of left-wing ideology and internecine squabbling.
It was here that Orwell’s paranoia was given full, terrifying rein. Although Orwell had a few close calls from sniper fire during tense street-fighting in Barcelona (he failed to take on some very basic lessons), these are not as scary as the moment when Eileen joins him in a hotel lobby, smiles, and whispers in his ear, “Get out.” This may have saved Orwell’s life, with anti-Trotskyite agitators prowling the corridors on the lookout for his uniform as they spoke. The POUM, who Orwell fought for, soon found itself denounced as being in league with the Fascists, a bare-faced lie born of political expediency. Their members were imprisoned (including the dashing Kopp) or summarily executed, and the Orwells only just got out in time.
Small wonder the Republicans failed; but Orwell, who read in newspapers some absolute fictions about which side he was on, gained a long-lasting impression about how easily a lie can be promulgated through propaganda and malevolent, mischievous misinformation.
Another conflict was already brewing by the time Orwell returned to England, of course. His poor lungs saw him declared unfit for active duty when Hitler came a-knocking on Britain’s door, but he did see service in the Home Guard and at the BBC – the radio days leaving us with some of the few surviving photographs of Orwell, though no recordings of his voice exist. After Homage To Catalonia came out, his literary output was restricted during wartime to essays and journalism. Having the misfortune to move to London for work just as the Blitz began, Orwell saw at first hand the devastation modern warfare could wreak on great cities, getting close enough to a dropped bomb to blacken his face with soot, while another wrecked his and Eileen’s flat.
He also experienced the camaraderie that can survive among the people even in the most testing of times. Although large chunks of London were turned to rubble by the Luftwaffe, Orwell was struck by the survival of a communal spirit, even among people huddled together in the Tube at night, their homes bombed out. It’s not too much of a leap to imagine these scenes transposed onto Winston Smith, as he wanders through the shattered city among the proles.
After the war, fame did at last arrive for Orwell with the publication of Animal Farm, but Eileen was not destined to see it. She wrote one half-finished letter to George, who was away in Germany for The Observer, then underwent surgery for tumours in her ovaries. She did not come out of the anaesthetic.
George was shattered, but after the initial shockwave, he reacted with customary stoicism and threw himself back into work. And doors were, finally, beginning to open for him. One ancillary tragedy was that Animal Farm was just around the corner; Orwell struggled to find a publisher at first, but when it finally appeared it was a literary sensation. Orwell, in his forties, had made it. All the years of struggle and penury were finally paying off, and he could take up the life of a full-time writer without money worries, and with a child to raise, too. Eileen not being there to see it is the most hideous irony.
Once the money came in, Orwell pursued a long-cherished dream to move to Jura in order to write. A certain sense of disliking Scotland (he uses that detestable, Johnsonian epithet, “the Scotch” in his writing) is detectable in his earlier pieces, but Orwell did later admit that this was due to his well-heeled school colleagues boasting about summering in primeval estates up in the Highlands. Odd, then, that he should seek to do the same thing as soon as he came by some money. But Barnhill offered no pleasure cruises or fairytale castles; although his summers were pleasant, he was isolated, and far removed from literary life in London. You get the sense that Orwell needed that bit of austerity, that sense of adversity around him, to produce his best work. And he did: Nineteen Eighty-Four resulted, and Orwell’s fame was set.
Not that he had long to enjoy it. There’s time for one more farcical Orwell story, when he misreads tidal charts and shipwrecks himself, his son, niece and nephew near the Corryvreckan whirlpool, then a quickfire wedding to Sonia Brownell after a series of disastrous, pathetic pleas for marriage with other women – then he’s out. Orwell’s treacherous lungs finally did for him, aged just 46, in January 1950, with his literary stock at its absolute zenith.
Lovers of his work can only dream of what an ageing Orwell might have made of the Cold War, or the global supremacy of the United States, or the social changes of the 1960s – George was up for a bit of free love, there’s not the slightest doubt of that. The clash between his intrinsically conservative English sense of dignity and fair play and his more freewheeling, impulsive side would have become more acute as he reached old age with social certainties crumbling all around him.
Queen Elizabeth II was known to have a copy of Animal Farm, and I do see a knighthood for George; I also see him accepting it, bowing gracefully before the sword, still rake thin, hair still full and thick, but snow white. Alas, it’s just a dream.
DJ Taylor’s command of his material is absolute, and I have to take my hat off to the sheer amount of work turning this book out must have entailed. On top of the deep-core mining of Orwell’s life, professional output, personal papers and all the interlocking reminiscences, writings and letters about him, Taylor also furnishes us with a series of fascinating vignettes giving us more of a flavour of his character and appearance – taking in Orwell’s face; Orwell’s voice; Orwell’s failure.
Taylor even gamely takes “the opposite view”, and writes a mini-essay excoriating the writer’s life, work and political outlook, a prime piece of devil’s advocacy. Orwell: The Life is no hagiography, always in perfect critical equilibrium.
It’s to Taylor’s credit, and Orwell’s, that my opinion of George did not change between opening this book and closing it. Along with Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, which appeared the year before, this is one of the key works of the noughties, with no nits to pick. Awesome.