George Orwell once wrote, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” And Orwell, who was shy and reserved and valued his privacy, nevertheless was intensely autobiographical. He used himself as raw material — whether as a colonial policeman in Burma, or in a coal mine in Wigan Pier, or living among the homeless, or manning a Loyalist trench in the Spanish Civil War — and was honest in his reactions to and conclusions drawn from his surroundings.
These reactions weren’t always palatable. He stated he personally liked Hitler, and that he often fantasized about driving a bayonet into a “coolie.” He was markedly homophobic, calling upper-class socialists “pansies” and “bun boys.” He blasted pacifists during the Second World War as closet fascists, (“fascifists”), even though, right up until war broke out, he intended to go underground and sabotage the British war effort.
But it has been his biographers who have done the heavy lifting on exposing his flaws, often to challenge the authenticity of his libertarian socialism.
Despite the subtitle of D.J. Taylor’s latest biography, Orwell: The New Life, Taylor offers nothing new. He recycles the same criticisms he made of Orwell in a previous biography published in 2003. Like the Western Stalinists in Orwell’s lifetime (Orwell stated it was because of their noxious effect on “democratic socialism” that he abandoned becoming a novelist like James Joyce and instead became a political writer), Taylor fixates on Orwell’s middle-class upbringing; his father was an official in the colonial opium trade, and Taylor argues Orwell never shed his class prejudices toward the proletariat. But Taylor exhibits the same sloppy reading of Orwell’s quote that the “working classes smell” without including the entire passage. To do so would show that Orwell was discussing a common middle-class belief and not one of his own.
Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, a fervent Stalinist, nevertheless defended Orwell on this point, and Orwell himself would later say, “I not only did not say that the working classes ‘smell’, I said almost the opposite of this. What I said, as anyone who chooses to consult the books can see, is that 20 or 30 years ago, when I was a child, middle-class children were taught to believe that the working class ‘smell’ and that this was a psychological fact which had to be taken into consideration.”
In actuality, Orwell had a conflicted view of the working class. He called them “blind” and “stupid,” more focused on “football pools” than the plight of their counterparts under Hitler. And yet he wrote movingly of a working-class woman, seeing her as a fellow human being rather than as propaganda fodder or a mindless animal:
At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. … She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.
Like his class prejudices, Taylor asserts that Orwell’s time as a colonial policeman in Burma gave him a lifelong love of cruelty. He quotes with a bit too much relish Orwell denouncing the Burmese as “evil-spirited little beasts.” But if there was anything that lasted a lifetime for Orwell regarding his participation in British imperialism, it was guilt. Orwell was hard on himself for his participation and gave up a relatively lucrative job as a cop to live among the homeless to understand them.
Taylor, in essence, wants to freeze Orwell’s mental and political development in time, as a middle-class snob with homicidal tendencies and not a complicated, often conflicted human capable of finer moments.
For Orwell practiced what he preached. While pampered British communists were denouncing his writings as fascist, he was taking a bullet through the throat from a fascist sniper during the Spanish Civil War — a war he initially intended to cover as a journalist but was so moved by the “working class being in the saddle” that he enlisted on the Loyalist, anti-fascist side.
What becomes apparent in Taylor’s castigating of Orwell as “paranoid” (forgetting he had good reason to be as the Stalinists had him marked for execution in Spain) and as less than tender in his relations with women (Taylor’s strongest point) is the biographer’s goal of destroying Orwell’s image as an “honest” writer in a dishonest period where his colleagues spread lies for Stalin.
Like most writers, Orwell probably exaggerated aspects of his life; a case in point was his depiction of himself as penniless in Paris when, in fact, he had an aunt with a steady income within reach. One doesn’t adopt a pen name without eventually building a persona around it, and Eric Blair, guilt-ridden public school boy and colonial policeman, did the same when he “became” George Orwell, tough-minded individualist and free-thinking socialist.
The fact that much of Orwell’s prejudices and unattractive moments were recorded by him is a testament to his honesty. He was as hard on himself as he was with the Stalinists, never descended into self-pity, and often considered the possibility that he could be wrong.
Orwell’s contradictions were even political. That is why it is hard to classify him as strictly left. He opposed gun control, abortion, and taxes, and noted that socialism was inherently totalitarian. Yet he hated religion and the free market.
But such conflicts and contradictions make him relatable, and to focus on him at his worst misses the whole of the man. Taylor only shows the warts to take him down a peg, and readers looking for nuance will not find it in this biography.