George Orwell: the world through the eyes of a ‘warped bird’
Orwell, The New Life
By D.J. Taylor. Oxford University Press. 2023. 540 pages
This lengthy biography of George Orwell by D.J Taylor, an English award-winning biographer, journalist and novelist, is exhaustively researched and referenced. It delves into every aspect of Orwell’s personal life and work. It sifts memories and impressions of every surviving friend, colleague, relation or acquaintance. The character who emerges is enigmatic, elusive and intense, defined largely by what first seem contradictions but are, in fact, complexities.
Orwell grew up in an upper-middle-class family; he was educated at Eton; and spent five years in the foreign service in colonial Burma. His speech, manner and many of his attitudes were in keeping with his background. Yet, he was avowedly and consistently socialist and he is described by contemporaries as shabby and unkempt, “three days away from a shave”.
He is described by several of those who knew him as “compassionate” and particularly good with children, lavishing tender care on his young adopted son Richard. Yet, his devotion did not keep him from abandoning the child to the care of his ill wife in a damp, comfortless cottage so he could pursue literary and journalistic research.
Along with the kindness are stinging reviews of the books of close friends with whom he was never embarrassed to continue socialising afterwards. Later in life, he was kind to the point of indulgence to young, aspiring writers. One associate described him “as humane but completely selfish”. It was as if he could compartmentalise his life into sealed-off zones. A former flatmate described him as “a closet sadist”. A reviewer of one of his early works, Burmese Days, describes him as “steeped in gall”, and another labelled the book “vitriol”.
Friends and acquaintances who shared school life and colonial life with him found him agreeable, sociable and kind, and apparently as comfortable as anyone else in his milieu. Yet, his reminiscences of his schools, St Cyprian’s Preparatory School and Eton, and of his five years in Burma read very differently. He recounts his school experience as poisoned by sadism, favouritism and belittling snobbery. According to a schoolmate, his sense of grievance was not grounded in the reality of school life but “in his imagination”.
Writing of his time in Burma where he served in the police force, he said, “For five years, I have been part of a regime that left me with a bad conscience”. According to those who served beside him there, “There was no evidence he was repulsed at the time.”
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His declared views fluctuated. When Labour under Attlee came to power after World War II, he urged “the instant abolition of private schools”. Yet, just one year earlier, when his adopted baby arrived home, one of his first comments was about “putting him down for Eton”. The man who emerges in this exhaustively researched biography becomes harder to fathom the more we hear about him.
He was an extraordinarily sharp observer of human nature and obviously, on the testimony of his two most famous works alone, Animal Farm and 1984, astoundingly prescient, prophetic even. For him, all systems of government, whether right or left, tend to totalitarianism and the deception, lies and savagery that maintaining it demands. His experience fighting on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War proved disillusioning but his thoughts on left-wing totalitarianism had been well formed before then. He had already described the Soviet commissars as “gangsters”.
Though cynical about the motives of all sides in war which he described as “a racket” and believing that it only serves the interests of elites, he could never align fully with pacifism. For him there is a point when one has little choice but to “smash windows, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with lumps of thermite”, because the alternative is to be enslaved by people “who are more willing to do these things than you are yourself”. Such thoughts seem to speak to the unfolding situation today between Gaza and Israel, and are reflected in both the words and actions of both sides in this conflict.
How did this bleak, misanthropic view of human nature form with such clarity, force and conviction in Orwell? From early on, his comments on human beings are heavy with animal analogies and metaphors. In part, of course, this may be linked to his keen interest in nature generally, and the habits of animals of all species in particular. Geese, moles, rabbits and rats were all used in his descriptions of human faces in his writings. One may ask if there was something more in his life experience to jaundice his view of his fellow humans?
A reader for the publisher Victor Gollancz, who published his earlier work, wrote, “I know nothing of Orwell, but it is perfectly clear that he has been through hell, and he is probably still there.” After meeting him, P.G. Wodehouse remarked that Orwell struck him as “a warped bird who never recovered from an unhappy childhood and miserable school life.” There is something in such assessments that rings true, but the book, with its extensive research, can find little to say about the Orwell family dynamic other than that it was “undemonstrative”, a word that crops up in a number of testimonies. What may or may not lie behind that word is anyone’s guess.
Orwell remained consistently a socialist in his expressed views, but that never blinded him to the reality that the working out of good and evil is not determined by ideology or class. With power comes a tendency to dominate and coerce and to corrupt. The reason he gave for his profound dislike of Catholicism was that it shared a lot with secular totalitarianism and “its orthodoxies were a form of mind control”. It is clear from some of his book reviews that he respected some Catholic commentators, but Catholic apologists like Belloc, Chesterton, (“Hilarie Chesternut”) and Ronald Knox seem to have greatly riled him. Did their optimism about the transformative power of grace irk his cynical streak?
Orwell’s disenchantment with humanity touched everything. Nothing was beyond the reach of the corrupting influence of power, no ideology, no religion, no institution, no individual, and no academic discipline. Scientific freedom could never be guaranteed. One wonders what he might have to say about modern governments’ claims to be “following the science” across a wide spectrum of public policy, and how such claims are used to discredit dissenting voices?
He cites the case of the Soviet director of Agricultural Science, Lysenko, publicly rejecting the signal discovery of genetics by Western biologists by declaring there was “no such thing as a gene”. For Orwell, science could not be equated with progress because it could be bent to serve, not just its master, the State, but to reflect the moral disposition of the individual scientist. The human brain was as capable of developing “race theory and poison gas” as it was penicillin or any other life-enhancing discovery. He might have added that the human brain was also fallible and capable of making catastrophic errors.
Orwell also perceived that no ruling class can govern without some form of morality, even if it’s only a “quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique”. He observed that “hedonistic societies do not endure” without the “vitality” of some framework of values. He believed that “at the heart of totalitarianism lay displaced religious sensibility”.
Despite his scepticism about religion, he saw that “the totalitarian shadow that hung over the world had its origins in the decline of religious belief.” The challenge he saw was “to put displaced religious beliefs to work for humanist ends”, to renew the idea of absolute right and wrong “even though belief on which it once rested had begun to disappear”. He acknowledges that change cannot be prescribed, but “must come from within”.
Orwell rejected faith and religion, yet clung to its mystery. He was buried, at his request, according to the rites of the Anglican Church. It was perhaps the final unresolved conundrum of a life of conundrums.
Perhaps atheism and disenchantment were connected to the quality of his own moral life. He was a sexual opportunist, who had multiple and simultaneous affairs before and after marriage without, it would seem from his correspondence and the testimony of those who knew him, including some of the women, any self-reflection, let alone self-reproach.
Ill health dogged him from childhood and may have engendered the kind of selfish neediness and negativity that led him to say, late in life, after many affairs and much marital infidelity, “I have hundreds of friends but no woman who takes an interest in me.” He made proposals of marriage to women he could not have known well after his first wife’s death, and did finally and bizarrely persuade a woman 15 years his junior to marry him as he lay close to death in a hospital bed in October 1949. The status of being married again seemed to give him a boost of morale, and for a short time, he rallied. He died on January 21, 1950.
I was left with a simple question. Whose presence or absence or what defining experience made him a “warped bird”? It’s a question D.J. Taylor did not answer. Perhaps, it takes a “warped bird” like Orwell to penetrate so unflinchingly the warped tendencies of the human heart when enabled by unaccountable power and an absence of an objective moral authority.
Margaret Hickey is a mother of three and lives with her husband in Blarney.
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