Review of Robert Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel (Oxford University Press, £25), Tribune, 4 October 2013
I started Robert Colls’s new biography of George Orwell with some trepidation. Colls is a writer I like who has written intelligently and provocatively on working-class history and the creation of an English national identity – but I was wondering what a new biography could possibly add to the already massive literature on Orwell.
I was wrong to worry. This is a stunning piece of work, well researched, tautly written and often funny. Colls’s take on Orwell is that he should be understood as a writer grappling with his Englishness and with England.
His story is essentially one of how Orwell got to know and embrace the society into which he was born but from which he was semi-detached by his family’s class, his privileged education and his early career as a colonial policeman. The watershed is 1939-40, the start of the second world war, though it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The key episodes and events are now as familiar as the writing they spawned, from Down and Out in Paris and London to Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Colls’s accounts are fresh, sometimes exhilarating. He weaves discussion of Orwell’s novels and most important essays apparently effortlessly into his exegesis of political and cultural context: there are no sharper précis of the 1930s novels, and Colls’s sense of the world in which Orwell was writing is spot-on time and again.
He is as pointed on everyday life in the empire as on the twists and turns of the Moscow line or the grim story of appeasement. He has read a great deal and taken it in, though he doesn’t show it off too blatantly. Colls is an admirer of Orwell, but not a slavish one. He is impatient with his subject’s hard-line left revolutionary politics in the late 1930s and his hypocritical anti-intellectualism, but he acknowledges what Orwell got right about Stalinism and its supporters among the British intelligentsia. I’ve not read a more judicious weighing up of Orwell’s experience in Spain in 1936-37 or a better summary of his brutal critical lashing of W H Auden.
The passages on the context of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four are not as good … but by then the argument has largely been made. There are lacunae and what I think are errors of judgment. Colls has little to say about Orwell the left-wing journalist, most importantly as a columnist on Tribune in the 1940s – and that means he is prone to downgrade the extent to which Orwell was in tune with the Labour left in the 1940s (although he catches perfectly Orwell’s relationship with Aneurin Bevan).
Like a lot of Orwell’s anarchist, Trotskyist and right-wing friends who thought his Labourism a terrible sell-out, he gives too much attention to the old trope that Orwell was a “Tory anarchist”, a joking self-description from the early 1930s, and too little to the Trotskyist and left-libertarian influences on his thinking that offer better explanations for his deviations from the left orthodoxies of his day than any vestige of Toryism (for which see John Newsinger’s excellent Orwell’s Politics and Bernard Crick’s now venerable biography). And, most important of all, I think Colls underplays Orwell’s sense of himself not as an English intellectual but as a European democratic leftist: there’s another reading of his life and concerns, still to be written, that places him squarely as a pioneer of left-wing European republican federalism.
But these are quibbles: we all have our own Orwell. Colls’s is not mine exactly, but this is a volume to enjoy and with which to disagree. It is the best book on Orwell to appear for several years, erudite and original. It catches the extent to which Orwell lived on his wits better than any other account of his life. It’s up there with Crick, Gordon Bowker and D J Taylor.