Do we need yet another Orwell biography, this time one that focuses on his Englishness? Absolutely.
George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls; Oxford University Press, 2013 – 356 pages, available at OUP.com and Amazon
Americans and Britons alike are riveted by revelations about the extent of the surveillance state in our current age. Summer 2013 saw David Miranda—the partner of American reporter Glenn Greenwald, who has written about Edward Snowden and the NSA—held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK’s terror laws.
Is anything more Orwellian-sounding than “schedule 7?” Americans need to understand the English roots of Orwell in order to understand how the national security state shows its claws to Greenwald and other reporters today versus the world Orwell functioned in. Never before has the question “What would Orwell have said?” been more relevant.
What would Orwell, a one-time policeman and instinctive English patriot, have made of Greenwald? Would he have sided with his fellow Etonian Cameron and dismissed Greenwald as part of what Orwell called “the pansy left?” Or would Orwell, always quick to admire courage, have lauded Greenwald for his fearlessness in the face of a frighteningly powerful state? Is there any other writer of whom we immediately think when questions of freedom, liberty, and the state come up?
As I began George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls, I wondered whether or not it is reductionist to think of Orwell as primarily English. After all, he spent a good deal of his life abroad (Burma, France, Spain, etc.). Though he was a loyal servant of the British Empire in Burma, there was nothing uniquely English about that. A good many of the foot soldiers of Empire were Scots, Irishmen, etc.
There seems something faintly un-English (though as an American woman, I am hardly in a position to speak with authority on that) in Orwell’s grimness. After all, Dickens and Shakespeare had their comic moments. There aren’t many laughs in Orwell. Even his lighter novels have not worn well.
If you think of Orwell as an English rebel, of what interest is he to the rest of the world? At times, Colls presents Orwell as merely an angry, eccentric Englishman with weak lungs who happened, from time to time, to chronicle the devastation wrought by the three greatest evils of his time: imperialism, fascism, and communism.
And yet it is precisely Colls’ portrayal of Orwell as an English rebel that makes the book worth reading. There are few writers whose lives we need to understand as much as Orwell’s. Where did his commitment to freedom come from? Why was he so determined to be so angry so much of the time? How did he come by his beliefs and how did he manage to be liked by people as diverse in background and politics as Anthony Powell, David Astor, and Arthur Koestler?
Colls provides the socio-literary-political-economic background that American readers need to at least partially answer the perennial question, “Who was Orwell?” In the Preface and Acknowledgements, Colls says that he has written “…an intellectual biography that follows his sense of Englishness” which is somewhat odd given that Orwell often held intellectuals in disdain (the “pansy left” again).
In that same section of the book, Colls states that he felt that scholars have examined Orwell from the literary and political angles and that it was time for an historian to have a go. Except historians have had a go before; Peter Stansky, Emeritus Professor of History at Stanford has written extensively on Orwell.
Colls makes some statements that make you think he should have asked for some help from literary historians. For example, he writes of Orwell as being “too old for modernism.” Oh? Orwell (b. 1903) was actually quite a bit younger than many of the great modernists such as T.S. Eliot (b. 1888), Ezra Pound (b.1885), Wyndham Lewis (b. 1882), Virginia Woolf (b. 1882) and James Joyce (1882).
Colls also could have used some help from those who study Orwell from the political angle. He writes, “He loathed nationalism, but defined Englishness for a generation.” Oh? I thought Churchill did that. If you had asked an average person in 1948 (or indeed in 1965 or 2013) who defined Englishness, “Orwell” is probably not the name given.
Colls writes, “[Orwell] redefined Englishness for a generation, turning English socialism from something you lived under into something that underpinned how you lived.” Rubbish. Orwell was far less important in forming public opinion and shaping the pro-Labor national mood than Colls would have us believe and the British public, indeed, was happy with any government that raised living standards—as Harold Macmillan was able to show in his first few years in office.
Also, Colls equates Englishness with socialism—one would think that there had never been a Margaret Thatcher. And Colls isn’t consistent. On one page we have Orwell as presiding over the redefinition of Englishness as socialistic in nature, and on another we read, “…we can conclude that beyond party politics he was more Tory Radical than anything else.” So Orwell was a combination of William Cobbett and Clement Atlee?
One thing that George Orwell: English Rebel has going for it is its plain, simple style (Orwell would have approved). No psychobabble, no social science jargon, no high-flown literary language. Colls makes the point of how young Orwell was when he was first exposed to the combination of dull routine and bouts of brutality that was imperial policing: “At 19, he went to Burma.” Colls evokes time and place pithily—calling Orwell by the name and title he held at the time in Burma, “Assistant District Superintendant Blair.” We learn how tall Orwell was (six foot three). He does overdo the scene-setting at times, “Cigarette smouldering, he continued to hammer at the typewriter.” Didn’t Orwell just poke the keys listlessly every so often?
Colls’ forte is not literary criticism—some of it is junior high level. For example, Colls claims, “Essays and short stories must never labour the point. What you are shown is always more important than what you are told.” He also writes somewhat clumsily at times, “…there is hardly a sentence which does not carry some wider nuance.” Nuances are not wide—that is why they are called nuances.
For all of Colls’ weaknesses as a literary critic, his analysis of Orwell’s yearning to do something for the working classes without actually having to be working class is astute: “For all Orwell’s soul-searching, and for all his castigations of what he deemed to be of the ‘left’, he was a man writing from very narrow political experience, who knew nothing of labour traditions and who found it difficult to mix with workers” and points out that Orwell frequently employed certain words in the place of suggesting practical policies, “…‘genuine’ (favourite word, but meaning unclear) and ‘decent’ (favourite word, but meaning unclear).”
Colls’ comments on matters of American literary history are often debatable, to say the least. For example, he says, “Steinbeck would come to be seen as ‘uniquely American’, just as Orwell would come to be seen as uniquely English.” By whom, pray? In the case of Steinbeck as an American I can only respond, “Sez who?” And this is just nonsense: “Orwell never could and never did write a novel as good as The Grapes of Wrath…” 1984 is a far greater work than The Grapes of Wrath and has stood the test of time better than Steinbeck’s book. And Colls also seems to regard Upton Sinclair as the equal of William Faulkner as a novelist, an absurd notion.
A great strength of George Orwell: English Rebel is its tracing of Orwell’s discovery (which seems to recur among every generation of English speaking liberals) that there were some extremely poor people in England, that anarchists in Spain were charismatic when they were not torching churches, and that Stalinists tended to kill anarchists who were trying to foment revolution in such a resource-draining manner that the fascists won the war. Colls writes, “Orwell’s great reconciliation with England, his England, began in 1936 and was complete by 1940.” He shows how self-righteous and cantankerous Orwell could be, how he measured men by how virile they were, and that he detested feminists of his day. And his discussion of the ideological contortions of Orwell’s position on the coming war with Germany in the last days of appeasement is superb.
This book would have benefitted from a more thorough discussion of Orwell’s relative lack of interest in the U.S. Was it resentment of American popular culture in the form of jazz and movies that made inroads in the Britain and Europe of Orwell’s era? Did he not like the fact that Eisenhower was leading the crusade in Europe and that a British general was not? Was it simply that capitalism did not collapse in the U.S. during the Great Depression, much to Orwell’s chagrin?
This book is a must read for those in need of a greater understanding of such subjects as the bitter battles on the British left over what position to take on defense matters with Hitler’s regime on the ascendant in Europe 1938-1939, what Orwell did throughout World War II, his often unfair attacks on figures on the Spanish left such as Juan Negrín, Orwell’s schoolboy fascination with guns and uniforms, and his toe-curling gushing about military men on parade, and the writing of The Road to Wigan Pier.
Yes, we did need this book.