George Orwell: English Rebel

By Rowbotham, Sheila | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, January 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

George Orwell: English Rebel


Rowbotham, Sheila, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


George Orwell: English Rebel. By Robert Colls. Oxford University Press. 352pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780199680801. Published 24 October 2013

George Orwell wanted no biographers; nonetheless, this paradoxical figure has been depicted as an anarchist, a democratic socialist, a revolutionary warrior, a Tory, a quietist, a petit-bourgeois individualist, a sexist and a snitch.

Robert Colls seeks to understand the life of Eric Blair, who took the pseudonym George Orwell, "a step at a time, in and out of argument". George Orwell: English Rebel takes us from his parental home in Henley-on- Thames, to prep school and a scholarship to Eton, and then on to the Burmese police force. After returning to Britain in 1927, Orwell the writer would emerge.

Bringing his expertise as a cultural historian to bear on Orwell's early books on tramps in Paris and London and workers in the North of England, Colls details how middle-class leftists, literary, anthropological and photographic, were tumbling over one another in Lancashire and Yorkshire in a rush to document an "authentic" working class. He shows how Orwell wanted to get under the skin of the Northerners, but they spotted Eton a mile off and clammed up tight. Burma and the North discomfited Orwell, but he learned from both places.

This discomfort, Colls shows, contributed to Orwell's radicalisation. The experiences of the colonised, the down and outs and the working class revealed a system out of joint. A grotesque distortion of human relationships was being perpetuated as normality. It is to Orwell's credit that he did not simply accommodate himself to the status quo, but tried to change it.

Perhaps another realisation drove him, too. Colls mentions in passing Orwell's awareness of how the colonialists in Burma went to elaborate lengths not to be laughed at. Orwell was alert to the fear lurking around the authority of Empire and class privilege because he understood both from within.

Nevertheless, Orwell retained the raw prejudices of his background: snobbery, homophobia and contempt for Jews. There were (and are) many conflicting Englands and Orwell's story belongs to more than one. Colls avoids facile sneers from the vantage point of 2013, but he could have interrogated more rigorously the aspects of Orwell that disclose the underbelly of some distasteful elements of "Englishness". Conversely, he is strangely incurious about Orwell's interactions at the BBC's Empire Service (as the World Service was originally known) with writers such as Mulk Raj Anand and Una Marson, which surely would throw "Englishness" into interesting relief. …

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