Oct 26 2023
ORWELL: THE NEW LIFE: Kevin Saving discusses D J Taylor’s new biography of George Orwell
This is D.J.Taylor’s second stab at the life of “George Orwell” (the non de plume of old-Etonian, left-wing maverick and dystopian novelist, Eric Arthur Blair [1903-1950]). The first, Orwell: The Life, came out in 2003 and, justly, won that year’s Whitbread prize for biography. Taylor labours diligently in a well-trodden field. Quite apart from his own contributions, there have been three other full-length biographies since Bernard Crick’s ground-breaking George Orwell: A Life (1980) and numerous studies and commentaries. Additionally, Sylvia Topp published a (2020) examination of Blair’s engaging, long-suffering but short-lived first wife, Eileen: The Making of George Orwell. New material is still being unearthed with reasonable frequency -although this can be expected to reach its natural terminus as the last few remaining personal acquaintances fall silent. Two new caches of letters written by Blair to two, separate, “old flames” have recently come to light and both yield fresh insights into the romantic aspirations of a famously-austere individual. Yet towering above all this, of course, there are the novels themselves plus the collected journalism and the works of “reportage”, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia – all of which continue to sell and to fascinate.
Orwell: The New Life is a substantial re-write and reworking. With the exception of several “mini-chapters” on certain aspects of his subject’s personality (e.g., “Orwell and the Rats”, “Orwell’s Voice” etc) little has been carried directly over. Taylor is clearly steeped in every nuance of the writer’s curiously compelling world. Among the surprises is a slightly-garbled – but nevertheless disturbing – narration of what appears to have been a “stalking” incident (from 1934) in which a much-younger girl is “rescued” by her motorcyclist boyfriend -who then attempts to mow-down the putative and fleeing “stalker”, one E.A.Blair. Young Eric (he’d always disliked his given name) certainly had a more extensive, not to say “devious”, love-life than has hitherto been widely recognised. As he grew older he gradually became less demonstrative. Eileen, who’d shared many of his mid-career dangers and privations, (including those of the Spanish civil war) would receive no greater public encomium from him than that “she wasn’t a bad old stick”.
The conviction behind his anti-totalitarian stance seems to have grown concomitantly with the author’s increasing adoption of the persona of “George Orwell”. Eileen used his two monikers more-or-less interchangeably. The writing, too, improved over time and the last two novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are, with some ease, his best. War-time employment as a Producer for the B.B.C.’s Eastern Service provided some of the templates for “Big Brother’s” “Ministry of Truth”. His editorial meetings, for instance, were conducted in a soon-to-be-notorious “Room 101”. Somewhat cruelly, Orwell chose to caricature his B.B.C. colleague – and pub-crawling companion – the poet and academic, William Empson, as “Syme” (Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s “Newspeak-obsessed” lexicographer).
I suppose that I – like many another teenager of the nineteen seventies, when some of his works were ‘Set Texts’ – became something of a minor Orwellian affiliate. His trenchantly-expressed opinions appeared, at the time, to have won every argument regarding the virtues of “small L” liberal, decency as opposed to its authoritarian-regressive alternatives. Half-a-century on, there is an all-pervading smell of political-fraudulence in the air. I haven’t read Orwell in years. What he would have had to say about G.C.H.Q.’s (illegal) bulk interception of online communications or the un-mandated police use of facial-recognition systems for surveillance purposes, ought – surely! – to give us pause. Perhaps it’s time to wipe the dust off all those old Penguin paperbacks.
The great paradox of the last five years of Blair’s life – the lately-arrived-upon recognition coupled with the cruelty of his decaying health – is that they witnessed a Labour government significantly to the left of anything for which a British citizen will be able, realistically, to vote in 2024. Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan (interestingly, the latter was a personal friend) enacted genuine, progressive reforms of which none of their successors would have been capable – and, regarding which, most have sought only to dilute, disparage or dismantle. A “George Orwell” occurs only in the singular. He once wrote that Britain was like a family – but one with the wrong members in control. Post-1950, it has been the Tony – rather than the Eric – Blairs who got to squander the inheritance.