The making of a modern prophet

Taylor’s impressive second biography of Orwell is more than justified


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Orwell: The New Life, D.J. Taylor (Little, Brown, £30)

If the ghost of George Orwell is haunting anyone, it’s likely to be D.J. Taylor. In his will, Orwell insisted that no biography should be written after his death. His widow, Sonia Brownell, spent the next few decades fending off would-be biographers; she even enlisted Malcolm Muggeridge as a decoy who pretended to be busy at work on the project. Yet having produced the acclaimed biography Orwell: The Life in 2003, D.J. Taylor has now written a second. Even if he has flagrantly defied the great author’s wishes, we should all be grateful for his labours. 

Taylor is not only a compelling writer, but he is also able to distil the essence of a notoriously elusive man. We can never really know Orwell, but Taylor’s work brings us closer to the truth — and with undisguised passion. Taylor recalls how when he happened upon A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) on his parents’ bookshelves, aged 13, it initiated a lifelong fascination: “Just as The Jam were ‘my’ pop group and Norwich City were ‘my’ football club, so Orwell was ‘my’ writer.” “To read him and write about him,” Taylor says, “is one of the greatest satisfactions I know.” 

For all that, Taylor is not afraid to acknowledge his hero’s critics. He opens the book with a reminder of those who have sought to obliterate a literary reputation that now seems permanently established. He mentions “the tiny handful of Stalinists who have never forgiven him for Animal Farm’s burlesque of the Soviet Revolution”. 

Into this category we would place the journalist Ben Norton, who described Orwell as a “vile man” and in 2016 wrote a petulant hit piece which dismissed him as “the worst kind of reactionary turncoat”. Then there are the weaker postmodernist critics whose banal method of analysis consists of putting dead authors on trial for their moral shortcomings, teasing out the homophobia, sexism and racism of any given text. This breed of critic, Taylor suggests, is like “a small child trying to bring down an elephant with a pea-shooter”.

Phrases coined in Nineteen Eighty-Four have become staples of political analysis

Yet Taylor is no hagiographer. His affectionate portrait reveals how Orwell’s flaws are as crucial to his life story as his many achievements: Orwell was a self-mythologiser, and Taylor is alert to the performative aspect of his character. Some contemporaries saw Orwell as an elitist never able to shake off his Etonian roots. Certainly, many have taken issue with what has been described as the “poverty tourism” of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Taylor suggests that Orwell “spent much of his time projecting visions of himself that he thought compatible with the kind of person he imagined himself to be”. Although Taylor makes a strong case, surely this criticism could be applied to almost anyone. 

Taylor draws out Orwell’s many contradictions and speaks of his “abiding inner conflict”, generated by the combination of his “intensely conservative background” and “the radicalism of his politics”, that informed his fiction from the outset. The imperialist system of his time as a police officer in Burma, the inspiration for his debut novel Burmese Days (1934), is one he found instinctively rebarbative. 

For all his adoration of Rudyard Kipling, Orwell took him to task for his failure to acknowledge the exploitative nature of empire. Yet, Taylor points out, Orwell could not help but feel some vestigial admiration for the “personal dynamism” of British colonialists of the Raj, along with “the achievements of a caste made up of people ‘who did things’”.

Orwell: The New Life takes us on a broadly chronological journey, from his childhood in Henley-on-Thames to his final years on the remote Scottish island of Jura. Along the way, we are treated to meticulous accounts of the key periods of his life, including an absorbing description of his time as an anti-fascist volunteer during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). 

Taylor has that rare ability to keep his prose brisk and entertaining without skimping on detail. He wisely keeps his focus on Orwell the man rather than offering a critical assessment of his works. Details from the novels are provided only when they illuminate something about their creator. 

The book is interspersed with short thematic chapters drawn from Taylor’s previous biography. In one, “Orwell and the Jews”, he argues that Orwell’s later writings on anti-Semitism were “an attempt to make amends for past insensitivity”. “Orwell in Fiction” offers an overview of how the writer was represented by fellow novelists during his lifetime. In “Orwell and the ‘Nancy Boys’”, we are confronted with his deep-seated loathing of gay men. Taylor speculates such revulsion might have originated in suppressed desires of his own. 

That Orwell is, in Taylor’s words, “more important than ever” seems unquestionable. The phrases he coined in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have become staples of popular culture and political analysis. When we hear “Big Brother”, we think of state authoritarianism — or possibly the spectacle of George Galloway on all fours impersonating a cat at the behest of Rula Lenska. 

The novel might have encouraged them to reflect upon their own worst excesses

Similarly, “Room 101” is the title of a popular television show in which celebrities chat about their bêtes noires, but we also know it as the place where our greatest fears are reified (although I only now learnt that this was named after the room in which Orwell attended editorial meetings at the BBC’s Eastern Service). 

Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four soared almost tenfold after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Many readers were doubtless seeking a better understanding of their corrupt Commander-in-Chief, but one wonders if the novel might instead have encouraged them to reflect upon their own worst excesses. For all Trump’s lies, Nineteen Eighty-Four appears more accurately to anticipate the instincts of today’s identitiarian Left.

As activists bray for the renaming of streets, the demolition of historical landmarks and the sanitisation of fiction by “sensitivity readers”, the words of Winston Smith reverberate with greater force: 

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

Similarly, phrases such as “memory hole”, “Newspeak”, “thoughtcrime” and “doublethink” are routinely deployed by commentators as they try to make sense of the revisionist and authoritarian tendencies of what has become known as “woke” ideology. When The Times reported that Scottish police were recording male rapists as female if they so identified, J.K. Rowling tweeted her criticism by adding a final line to the motto of Oceania: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. The Penised Individual Who Raped You is a Woman.” Indeed, the sense of drifting into an Orwellian society is so palpable that an online meme was created, urging us to “Make Orwell Fiction Again”. 

This ideology has spread at a greater pace through left-wing circles, which means that Orwell has become the go-to author for those on the Right seeking a rhetorical shorthand. In this sense, we are seeing a rerun of the aftermath of the publication of both Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Taylor outlines how, in both cases, there were fears by the author and his publishers that the texts would be co-opted by the Right to attack their political opponents. 

He mentions a conversation with the philosopher A.J. Ayer in which Orwell expressed concerns that Animal Farm, with its anti-Stalin messaging, “would be a godsend to British conservatives”. The publisher Fred Warburg saw Nineteen Eighty-Four as marking a “final breach between Orwell and socialism”. Taylor shows that Orwell’s ire was aroused by authoritarianism from the Left or the Right, however. One of his major criticisms of Harold Laski’s Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (1943) was the author’s “unwillingness to admit that Socialism has totalitarian possibilities”

For those of a tribal mindset, such utterances are unforgivable. Some find it difficult to reconcile Orwell’s socialism with the cultural conservatism and patriotism he espoused in his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”. Orwell is difficult to pin down politically, which is troubling to those for whom Left and Right are inflexible and convenient Manichean designations. 

Taylor’s impressive second biography of Orwell is more than justified by the previously unseen correspondence that has come to light in recent years. He acknowledges that even the most well-informed biographer must accept that a complete picture is impossible to assemble. Yet Orwell: The New Life comes as close to recreating the man as can be expected, at a time when his insights are most needed.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover