‘Orwell’ Review: A Fresh Biography of Truth’s Champion

To transform himself from imperial policeman to writer, Eric Blair set aside both his name and the trappings of respectability his family cherished.

Orwell: The New Life; By D. J. Taylor

Reviewed by Dominic Green

George Orwell, the inventor of the Ministry of Love and Room 101 in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” was married for the second time in Room 65 of University College Hospital in London. His sickbed was not far from Senate House, the building that had inspired the Ministry of Truth. The groom was dying of tuberculosis and wore a crimson corduroy jacket. The bride, Sonia Brownell, had been the model for Julia from the Fiction Department. After the service, she and the witnesses left for lunch at the Ritz. One hundred days later, on Jan. 21, 1950, Orwell was dead, aged 46.

Love and truth, truth and fiction, Eric Blair and George Orwell. Blair created Orwell to be the conscience of his age, and Orwell became the conscience of ours. “Orwellian” means “doublethink” and “Newspeak,” the exploitation of language for political ends. “Orwell” means honesty and clarity, decency and bravery. Yet Orwell was, like all writers, an exploiter of language, and his own ends were deliberately political. “Animal Farm” (1945) is not a children’s fable, and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) is not a love story. The genres are aesthetically corrupted by Orwell’s themes: the power that crushes the individual and the “smelly little orthodoxies,” as he wrote in his essay on Dickens, “which are now contending for our souls.”

Orwell the author deliberately obscured Blair the man. “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality,” he claimed in “Why I Write” (1946). He requested that there be no biography, but Sonia, an avid custodian of his legend, eventually permitted Bernard Crick to write one. Crick, a political theorist, wrote a political biography. In “Orwell: The Life,” published in 2003, the novelist and literary historian D.J. Taylor revealed Orwell the London man of letters. Mr. Taylor’s “Orwell: The New Life” is a new text that completes the picture by fleshing out Orwell’s emotional life with recently discovered letters and interviews with the last living people to have known him. Expertly told and subtle in judgment, “The New Life” will not be the last word in the ever-growing field of Orwelliana, but it will become its central monument.

Eric Arthur Blair was born in British India in 1903. The Blairs, Mr. Taylor writes, were “dull, Scottish and in retreat.” An ancestor had made money in Jamaican sugar and slaves. His son, Orwell’s great-grandfather, had married an earl’s daughter. But the money ran out. Orwell’s father, Richard, was a sub-deputy opium agent in the Indian administration. His mother, Ida Limouzin, descended from a family of shipbuilders with timber and tea connections but no cash. Raised amid “genteel economy,” Orwell was hypersensitive to the slights of class.

Born with defective bronchial tubes, Orwell was a sickly child of the confident Edwardian age. He called himself “lower-upper-middle class,” and would remain so. When he was 8, he went to board at St. Cyprian’s, a private boys’ school. Orwell’s account of the place, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” was so venomous that it was not published in the U.K. until 1968. He accused the proprietors, a husband-and-wife team known to the boys as “Sambo” and “Flip,” of favoritism, snobbery and sadism. In Orwell’s telling, Sambo flogs a bedwetter until his riding crop breaks. Flip, betraying her maternal duty, revels in arbitrarily withdrawing her care.

Orwell’s contemporaries at St. Cyprian’s, the critic Cyril Connolly among them, thought Orwell exaggerated how bad it was. One of them called Flip the “outstanding woman” in his life, even if “she had once made him eat his own vomit.” Flip said that young Blair had “declined to accept the affection that was offered him.” Either way, St. Cyprian’s, Mr. Taylor believes, “ruined Orwell’s life.” His acute awareness of class distinctions contributed to his torture, even as the school secured him a scholarship to Eton, that inner circle of class hell.

At Eton, the “precociously bright” student slumped into academic mediocrity, though he did enjoy French, which was taught by Aldous Huxley. Orwell had literary ambitions, but his taste tended to the lower-upper-middlebrow. He was overshadowed by a legendary Etonian cohort that included Connolly, Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. They went up to Oxford; Orwell joined the Burma police.

Orwell was in Burma from 1922 to 1927. He effaced his personality when he wrote about the era, leaving artful residues of disgust at the power he exercised and guilty excitement over the pleasure he took. He may have smoked opium and frequented “the waterfront brothels of Rangoon,” Mr. Taylor writes, but the evidence is unclear. The author does identify how the anti-imperial essay “A Hanging” (1931) draws upon Thackeray’s “Going to See a Man Hanged” (1840).

In 1927, Orwell returned to England on leave determined to marry a childhood friend, Jacintha Buddicom. She, meanwhile, had fallen pregnant by one of her brothers’ friends and had secretly given birth two months earlier. Her family did not tell Orwell this, nor where she was, which may have influenced Orwell’s decision to resign his colonial position and become a writer. His parents were “scandalized” by his rejection of family and class. Shortly afterward, he changed into a shabby suit at a friend’s flat in London, wandered into the East End, and began the research for “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933) by taking a room for a night in a lodging house.

Orwell changed his name when “Down and Out” was published, but his conversation in the doss-houses and restaurant kitchens remained that of an upper-class Englishman: awkward with emotions and women, revolted by Jews and homosexuals, and especially disgusted by dirty Continental lavatories. Like the hero of his novel “Burmese Days” (1934), who has a birthmark on his face, Orwell could not escape his origins. He masked them to pursue his campaign of class war.

“George” was the king’s name, but also the generic name that a master used for his servants. The Orwell was a river in Suffolk. George Orwell sought out “cheap, savage haircuts” and spoke in a “stylized cockney drawl,” but the stance fooled no one. He hand-rolled his tobacco, but his corduroy pants and “well-cut sports jackets” were hand-tailored. He made his own pickles, but his Etonian friends always helped him out of a jam.

The political writers of the 1930s agonized over “commitment.” The torments of slumming it were Orwell’s proofs of conviction. His gaunt face resembles that of an El Greco saint, or perhaps Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” (1903-04), whose solitary contortions present a vision of agonies to come. In 1936, Orwell passed two further tests. He married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who was training to be an educational psychologist, and then the two of them went to join the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell pawned the family silver to fund their trip. He served on the front with a Trotskyite militia and was shot in the neck, but survived. Spain, Mr. Taylor writes, “ruined what was left of his health.”

Orwell’s class enemies were his own class and his political kin. His experience of the Soviet-controlled communists in Spain made him a furious critic of the “Communism-racket.” We know that Orwell opposed tyranny and the lies it requires because he told us explicitly. Before he went to Spain, he called himself a “Tory anarchist.” Afterward, a “democratic socialist.” Meanwhile, his politics remained as Edwardian as his fiction, which was firmly in the image of H.G. Wells.

“The problem of the world is this,” Orwell told a friend from his hospital bed shortly before he died. “Can we get men to behave decently to each other if they no longer believe in God?” This was not the mechanistic determinism of Marx and Engels. Decency is not an economic term. It is a social ethic, the Christian conception of human dignity milled through the manners of the Anglican Church.

Orwell did not behave “decently” to Eileen, who died alone after a hysterectomy went wrong, but he made a decent job of tweaking the conscience of his peers. When the journalist George Woodcock sent back a wartime plate of boiled cod and turnip tops, Orwell ate it and pronounced it delicious. He lectured V.S. Pritchett, a son of the London working class, on the economics of keeping goats. He asked Anthony Powell if he had ever had sex in a public park. Powell, whose wife was one of the Earl of Longford’s daughters, said he had not.

The war of 1939 exposed the paradox of Orwell’s politics: “We cannot establish socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and politically in the nineteenth century.” But the centralizing modern state, he realized, was the enemy of decency. Orwell, who spent the war manufacturing propaganda at the BBC, believed that the modern totalitarians differed from the tyrants of the past because technology would allow them to breach the window into men’s souls. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the torturer O’Brien demands more than outward conformity. He demands inner faith.

The war also made Orwell the Orwell we know. Like Winston Churchill and Evelyn Waugh, he found that Edwardian decency was the last defense against barbarism, and that there was a market for this ethos. Orwell’s four prewar novels are elegies for what he called “the golden years between 1890 and 1914.” His last two, “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” are political nightmares for our age. He wrote a mountain of journalism, including excellent essays on literature, popular culture and Englishness, but those that resonate the loudest are his defense of clear, honest expression in “Politics and the English Language” and “Why I Write.”

Publication of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was brought forward to June 8, 1949, to give Orwell a three-week lead over Churchill’s “Their Finest Hour.” The book was an instant hit. Orwell, Mr. Taylor writes, managed “to create a dystopian world so convincing that the reader really minded what had happened to the characters.” Like Keats’s odes, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has the feverish clarity of the sickroom. Orwell’s intellectual convictions, however, remained deep and consistent. As one of Anthony Powell’s characters says, it was “a question of upbringing.”