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In George Orwell: English Rebel, a book that is part biography, part literary criticism, Robert Colls evaluates his subject through the lens of Orwell’s “Englishness.” It is a fresh approach for discussing a man who has had many books written about him, but not much addressing his relationship with his country and national identity.
Orwell lived in turbulent times. He is of course best known for writing Animal Farm and 1984, books that attack totalitarianism. What is less well known is that he also frequently wrote about little cultural details, like naughty picture postcards or how to make the perfect cup of tea. In Colls’s view, this aspect of Orwell kept him anchored in what he calls a “belly-to-earth” way, even when tackling, and at times encouraging, socialist revolution. In 1984, a novel concerned with larger and darker themes, we see how Winston Smith is drawn to commonplace objects like a glass paperweight. Orwell never lost his grounding in ordinary life, no matter what the topic was, and he considered it worth preserving.
Colls is helpful in giving the details of the political backdrop in Orwell’s day, information which can otherwise be a little fuzzy to readers, particularly American ones, more than 60 years after Orwell’s death. Orwell is considered a leading political writer, but his writing rarely addressed the nitty-gritty facets of electoral politics. His focus was on big picture concepts. This emphasis helps keep Orwell’s writing relevant today, but he could also be vague when it came to translating political ideas into reality. Colls brings Orwell down to earth on some of the issues, helping us see where Orwell, master of plain speaking and plain writing, was wriggling out of having to explain how his political concepts would actually work.
Colls also looks at Orwell’s relationship to his class and elucidates the nuances of 1930s British class divisions for modern readers. Orwell was a champion of the working class, but never of it, and was never completely able to shake his “lower-upper-middle-class“ upbringing and accent (see The Road to Wigan Pier, ch. 8), nor his Eton education. Colls also discusses regional variations in the north and south of England at the time and how those played into Orwell’s views.
I appreciated Colls’s analysis of the novel Coming Up for Air. While this is probably one of Orwell’s better novels technically, it has never interested me as much as the others, even weaker books like Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman's Daughter. Colls’s interpretation helped with that, putting the novel into the context of the 1930s class system with nuances that had previously been foreign to me as an American in the 21st century.
Colls relies a bit too much on Orwell’s book/pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941) to justify his theories about Orwell’s political views. It is true that this is one of the few places where Orwell lays out explicitly what he means by socialism and socialist revolution, and certainly it serves as a useful reference for Colls’s discussion of Orwell’s Englishness. In 1949, though, Orwell listed this book as one that was he did not want reprinted (see Orwell/Davison A Patriot After All: 1940-1941 pg. 391). The reasons for that are not entirely clear, but he listed it along with Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, two books he was not proud of. It is reasonable to believe that by that time The Lion and the Unicorn no longer represented Orwell’s definitive take on socialism.
George Orwell: English Rebel is also weaker when playing the parlor game of What Would Orwell Say? The final section gets bogged down in whether, if he had lived, Orwell would have been a Cold War warrior or neo-Conservative or New Left or socialist or Tory anarchist, etc., etc. Of course it is impossible to know what exactly Orwell would have said about issues he couldn’t have envisioned, and the further the matters in question are from his lifetime, the more speculative this game becomes. If we take his actions during his life as a guide, I suspect Orwell would have shied away from labels and would have changed and refined his positions over time, throwing in a few twists to keep biographers guessing.
A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Oxford University Press.