In this book, Robert Colls sets out to chart George Orwell’s changing attitudes towards “Englishness”, and the various positions he holds, and tries to hold, in relation to it. He achieves this through a mixture of biography, political history, and literary criticism that weave together to create a narrative full of depth and interest. What results is a picture of George Orwell as a dual personality; he is both the man he is, and the man he wants to be. He is Eric Blair. He is George Orwell. A man from the comfortable upper-middle classes, trying to throw off the attitudes associated with his background. An idealist in search of ideals, Orwell is at times a stubborn contrarian, a man who looks but doesn’t see, but he is also well intentioned, and easily affected by the circumstances of others; a ‘belly to earth’ kind of guy, interested in telling things as they are.
In choosing to follow a single strand of Orwell’s politics rather than a more general course, Colls is able to draw out the complexities of Orwell’s often contradictory positions, and interrogate his reasoning. A key strength of this book is that Colls does not flatter his subject. He is able to take Orwell to task for some of his less sound ideas, and for the times he makes sweeping generalisations or overlooks important facts in order to maintain his vision of how things are. Particularly well argued in this regard is Colls’ contention that Orwell refused to accept the engaged politicisation of the working classes in spite of the growing existence of unionisation and worker’s parties, so that he would not lose the idea of their simplicity and helplessness so central to his arguments. This criticism is made possible by placing Orwell in his historical and political context. Rather than focussing on Orwell’s own political ideas and how he saw the events of the period, Colls sees Orwell’s position within its contemporary climate, where he is able to judge it with a degree of objectivity.
The biographical elements of this book are all put into service of Colls’ central thesis, and as such form more of a backdrop to proceedings. We see Orwell’s Etonian childhood, his upper-middle class family, his colonial heritage, his time in Burma, in Spain, and back in England, all through the singular preoccupation of how they relate to his sense of Englishness, and to his political views. This may draw criticism for the fact that his first wife receives scant attention, as do his friendships and family bonds, including those with his adopted son. As a result of this singular focus, the Orwell of this book can cut quite a solitary figure. Yet there are brief glimpses of Orwell’s personal life. Eileen Blair appears as a strong, intellectual figure with a lively wit, who often critiqued her husband’s work for him, suggesting improvements and honing in on any lazy writing, and whom, in spite of the couple’s various infidelities, was able to write to her husband in convivial tones, days before her death. His second wife, Sonia, gets more attention as the woman who saw him through the final years of his life and then took on his legacy. But this is not a personal biography. It is a political one, an ideological one, and to judge it for what it isn’t would be unfair.
Colls’ discussion of Orwell’s literary and journalistic output is driven by the same impetus; to further explicate his constantly evolving relationship to England and ideas of “Englishness”. In following this line, Colls is able to offer fresh insight into Orwell’s works, particularly earlier works such as The Road to Wigan Pier, and Coming up for Air. For Colls, Orwell is a better essayist than a novelist, and a writer over a journalist. He has particular praise for Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, in which ‘he is a book length essayist trying to capture the intimacy of the first-person novelist.’ True to chronology, Orwell’s novels are not covered until the final chapters of the book, where Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular is carefully considered both for its politics, and for its lasting resonances in twentieth century culture and beyond.
The book ends with a ‘bibliographical essay’ that provides an overview of some of the works that have been written about Orwell since his death, as well as offering some concluding comments on the ideas that have been raised throughout the book, and some interesting speculations on how Orwell might have viewed more contemporary national and world events. The lingering feeling from reading this book is of a carefully considered, well-structured pathway into understanding Orwell as a man. In not attempting to be comprehensive, it has succeeded in doing what it set out to do with both insight and finesse. Colls’ prose style is engaging, with the occasional nudge into the humorous, which makes for a lively reading experience in what is, at heart, an academically minded work.