George Orwell was a romantic. His politics represents the clang of his aspirations against the cold steel of reality
Once a novelist has achieved a certain level of fame, they will be expected to comment on both art and politics. Chances are, they will know next to nothing about the latter. Can any intellectual genuinely understand both politics and art simultaneously? George Orwell looked at this question, cleared his throat, and showed us how it’s done.
Orwell’s biographers offer two ways of reading him: as a man of letters or as a man of politics. In DJ Taylor’s 2003 biography Orwell: The Life, we get the literary Orwell. Taylor writes the literary parodies in Private Eye magazine and, unsurprisingly, his book can be placed squarely on a pile of literary anecdotage, alongside the collected letters of Philip Larkin and a fully-annotated deluxe edition of Finnegans Wake. Magazines are equally fond of the literary Orwell. They often hand their Orwell assignments to novelists, critics and poets like Stephen Spender, Julian Barnes, James Wood and VS Pritchett.
Then there is the political Orwell. This is the Orwell of the Twitter account @GeorgeOrwell1984, which was set up in the wake of the NSA scandal. (Its only ever tweet: “I told you so”). This Orwell emerges from the definitive biography by Bernard Crick, which places him firmly in the political camp. Crick includes the feuds with publishers and fellow writers—how could he not, elasticising a 47-year life into 600 pages—but his emphasis is the political development of his subject, and how his personality shaped his principles. Orwell was a petulant human being who jealously guarded his identity. Within this narcissistic creature burned a passionate desire to understand society—and in understanding it, to change it.
But there can be a straightforward middle course between the literary and political perspective. Christopher Hitchens cannot be said to answer his own question in Why Orwell Matters, but this intellectual biography mixes up the literary, political and biographical without scrimping on any of them. Hitchens sees Orwell as a contemporary guru, and as such largely avoids the historical approach favoured by Robert Colls, an academic specialising in the cultural history of Englishness, whose new biography, George Orwell: English Rebel (OUP, £25), arrives this month.
This short, witty and intelligent account hops over parts of Orwell’s life where the lumbering Crick and Taylor drag their feet, performing a valuable service by situating Orwell in the context of interwar history. However, it is the emphasis on England that marks out this biography from the others. By putting Orwell’s Anglomania under microscopic scholarly observation, Colls teases out the turbulent intellectual processes which help explain the two Orwells that we have today: the political and the literary.
Whichever Orwell is, he wrote a lot. His complete works amount to 20 volumes. They are enormously varied, but the reader is almost always confronted with a single slashing mind, expressed in beautiful language and with a politics that crackles off the page even in the lowest hack-work. Colls joins other biographers in pointing out how the quality of Orwell’s political prose veils subtle changes in his political ideology. Orwell opposed a war against Hitler until 1939, on the foolishly Leninist belief that all capitalist empires were as bad as each other. When war actually arrived, of course, Orwell junked this objection and enthusiastically embraced the patriotism of the English middle class. Such shifts in reaction to events help to uncover the shape of Orwell’s fundamental beliefs.
The way Orwell presents these fundamental beliefs, meanwhile, explain where his loyalties truly lie in any dichotomy between literary and political writing (or, more accurately, fiction and non-fiction). Relative to his essays and journalistic books, Orwell simply isn’t a very good novelist. He does not seriously attempt a work of fiction in which imagination, characterisation and plot go beyond the requirements of political argument. This tendency was reinforced by the times in which Orwell lived. In his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” Orwell commented that “as a writer, he [the creative novelist] is a liberal and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism.” He felt that there was less and less room for apolitical fiction.
Orwell wrote two brilliant novels (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four) and, early in his career, four duds (A Clergyman’s Daughter was so poor he himself disowned it). This is still two masterpieces out of six. Not bad. But both are only fiction in the strictest sense. They are guided, above all, by Orwell’s political ideas. In a letter to his publisher about the first edition of Animal Farm, for instance, Orwell requested changing part of the line “All the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces,” to “All the animals except Napoleon,” because “the alteration would be fair to [Stalin, who Napoleon represented] as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.” This is not a politically inclined novel, it is novelised political history. Meanwhile the entire plot of Nineteen Eighty Four is essentially a way for Orwell to explain how, in the climax, totalitarianism works. For a large part of the novel, Orwell abandons the pretext of fiction altogether, writing what is effectively a long essay about the origins of totalitarianism. This is not a technique used in similar dystopian fiction such as Brave New World or We. Orwell was trying to ram home what readers of his essays were already aware of: his philosophy of democratic libertarianism founded in the essential but fragile decency of ordinary people. Many writers want to make clear their political ideas—but it is very rare for a novelist to do so with such single-minded determination.
However, Orwell’s political writing is characterised by its profound dislike of the political process, political activists, and people who were excessively political by temperament. In one of his masterpieces, The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell describes the everyday life of the unemployed. Socialism, he decreed, was the only remedy to their plight. But the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier is a notorious polemic against the “lentil-eaters” and “sandal-wearers,” who actually wrote the literature and campaigned on behalf of socialism. Meanwhile, as a child of the 1930s—an era of determinedly unpleasant British political leaders like Ramsay Macdonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain—Orwell does not seem to have much to say for political leaders either. (Despite this he did have a grudging respect for Churchill, probably based on the “tough and humorous” Prime Minister’s appeal to the writerly and apolitical sort: “One has to admire in him not only his courage but also his largeness of geniality.”)
Orwell was essentially a romantic, and his political thought represents the clang of his aspirations against the cold steel of reality. By concentrating on the mature expression of Orwell’s idea of England, in all its nostalgia and shaggy sentimentality, Colls gives us a sharp insight into Orwell’s mind. One of the reasons Orwell can be approached from so many angles, whether as a literary figure bound in the specifics of the 1930s, or a political icon shining for all democrats in all times, is because he himself made little distinction between his personal nostalgia, political and literary life. His idea of England combines these into one.
Orwell’s England represents the culmination of his romantic notions of human decency, equality and the right to live an apolitical life away from dictatorial oppression and intrusion. England’s cultural touchstones, like pubs or toads or the simple cup of tea, are something Orwell chronicles with quiet adoration. That England is also a political entity is an inconvenience—its culture and civilisation is, if anything, anti-political. This helps explain why Orwell is so obsessed with English literature and language: it is the product of a political life that specifically avoids politics. Nineteen Eighty Four ‘s depiction of England represents Orwell’s nightmare: a nation forgotten (it is now named Airstrip One), where there is no life outside the state, no method of expression except that allowed by the state (which is rewriting English as Newspeak), and no possibility of redemption except in a revolution by the politically obliterated proletariat.
In the climax of Nineteen Eighty Four, the character of O’Brien is depicted as the supreme politician, devoted entirely to the Party’s pursuit of power. It is O’Brien who tells Winston Smith exactly what this will mean.
“There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science … There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed.”
Orwell always believed that there’s more to life than politics. The true democrat, and the true Englishman, should take pride in their enjoyment of life. As he writes, beautifully, in his 1946 essay, “Some thoughts on the common toad”:
“At any rate, spring is here, even in London N1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
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