Though he must have known by the end of his life that such a request would be ignored, George Orwell famously asked that no-one write his biography. The disparity between his public and private lives was substantial, though perhaps no more so than in the cases of many of his contemporaries. Going by his books, he was a man of the highest principles, with a preternatural ability of committing to paper his thoughts in a way that lent them extraordinary clarity and urgency. He drew attention to the plight of the poor, the ill, the working class; he despised fascism and championed political freedom, and was ready to take a soldier’s bullet for it, as he did in Spain in 1937 as recorded in Homage to Catalonia (1938).
He was also — from the first, it seems — an obnoxious snob who was capable of arguing with another at will; a mummy’s boy whose apparent sense of entitlement rendered him unwilling or unable to recognise the substantial monetary sacrifices his down-at-heel petty bourgeois family suffered in order to send him to Eton (neither of his sisters gained such an education); an adulterer who thought nothing of sleeping with his married literary patrons and who once proposed to marry a friend’s wife if she would leave her husband — even as Orwell’s own wife was gravely ill; a man who attempted rape, or something very close indeed to it, on at least two occasions; a frequent if irregular user of prostitutes; (in his late teens and early 20s) an official in the Burmese police who was not slow to use the cane against natives who displeased him; and an Old Etonian whose early essays are suffused with the occasional anti-Semitic overtone when they are not withering towards the Scots, the Welsh, the Burmese, the French (though he himself had a French mother), the Spanish, or pretty much anyone who lived below the 50th parallel.
Some of these vices were endemic in the culture to which he was exposed from his first days in boarding school, and while the excuse that this or that mode of behaviour was de rigueur at the time might be seen by some as constituting no defence for Orwell or anyone else, it weighs a little in the balance. Such is the fig-leaf that the reader must assume when reading his incandescent essays, or the brilliant clutch of novels that emerged in the 20-year period from 1930. Reading Orwell is like listening to Wagner — it’s an intensely rewarding experience if only one can put the personal odiousness of the man behind the works to one side.
A man of Orwell’s stripe cannot but have been aware of his failings; hence, perhaps, the reluctance to be placed under the biographer’s magnifying glass. As Gordon Bowker has pointed out, this cannot have derived from any ill-will towards the form. Orwell was vociferous in calling for biographical treatments of literary men he deemed important or neglected, including Joseph Conrad and Arthur Conan Doyle. A good biography, he asserted, needed two things: piety and wit.
John Sutherland’s extraordinary new book, Orwell’s Nose, abounds in both. The Times reviewer and Orwell devotee takes as his point of departure what to many minds is a most unusual aspect of Orwell’s work: a preoccupation with smells — scents and stenches — that veers toward the obsessive. It’s hard not to be struck by this tendency on reading his novels and semiautobiographical works — objects, places and people frequently ‘smell’, ‘reek’, ‘stink’, ‘whiff’, and so forth. In lucid prose, Sutherland grounds this aspect of Orwell’s work in an analysis of English (or British) ideas about smell, and the epigrammatic quality of his prose frequently throws up choice descriptions and summaries that will doubtless find a permanent place in the amorphous body of literature on Orwell and his writings, such as the following piquant observation:
… for the Americans, [smell is] purifying deodorant; for the French, enriching fragrance. For the English, as the German cynic von Treitschke put it, ‘soap is civilisation.’
Not for nothing, Sutherland adds, was the most popular soap brand in Orwell’s day called ‘Lifebuoy’.
As with Orwell’s writing style, very little goes to waste here, and the book is a remarkable achievement of synthesis. His demeanour and habits are subjected to an examination that, despite its brevity, is in some ways as forensic as those offered by the lengthier investigations of Sutherland’s predecessors. His love of the English language and his literary idiosyncrasies (he habitually spelled the word ‘bollocks’ as ‘bollox’) are well explored; the sense of release on becoming solvent in the ’40s, as work streamed in from the Observer (Sutherland credits Orwell with establishing at least in part the paper’s anti-establishment credentials and bolstering its circulation) and left-wing publications such as Tribune, was palpable.
Around this time, Orwell was widowed. Sutherland deserves praise for drawing so much attention to Orwell’s functional but peculiar relationship with first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a psychology postgraduate at University College, London when she met Orwell in 1935. A steadfast radical leftist, her exceptional academic promise withered on the vine, as within 18 months she married Orwell only to find herself shortly domiciled in a wretched cottage in rural Hertfordshire with no electricity and a failing shop to attend.
Orwell partook of numerous flings during the marriage. O’Shaughnessy tolerated them at first, and perhaps sanctioned some of them (by way of partial explanation, Sutherland speculates that the marriage was sexless by 1938). Sutherland’s quotations from her correspondence bring out what must have been a streak of caprice even longer than Orwell’s, and he (surely correctly) imbues her with the wherewithal to appreciate what she was getting herself into — there’s little to none of the condescension that has been doled out to her by others. By the end of her life, reduced to the status of Orwell’s copyist and general dogsbody, bitterly resentful of the poverty-stricken conditions under which she and her self-flagellating husband lived yet unflaggingly loyal to him nonetheless, hers, one feels on reading Orwell’s Nose, was a lost oeuvre. Sutherland is fascinated by her undoubtedly ‘vivacious’ writing style, and it’s startling that we remain short of even a brief biographical study.
As one would expect from a writer of Sutherland’s stripe, there’s an easy familiarity with Orwell’s output, the reams of criticism in print, and also the countless literary allusions found in his writings, all of which make it an effortless read. The only quibbles are ones of taste. The personal anecdotes dotting the narrative here and there could profitably be dispensed with, as could the brickbat thrown in the BBC’s direction (why shouldn’t the Corporation honour DJs alongside writers?), and very occasionally one becomes aware of a need to expiate perceived injustices meted out to Orwell by previous biographers weighing on the book. Sutherland dismisses, slightly haughtily, the notion that Orwell was an anti-Semite, and he wasn’t, more or less — but one finds a tacit admission of, in Crick’s words, a ‘mild’, ‘conventional’ anti-Semitism earlier in his career tucked away in a footnote.
Everywhere else, the more unpleasant aspects of Orwell’s manner are confronted with admirable candour. Sutherland meets head-on his long-term affair in the early ’40s, one that caused O’Shaughnessy considerable hurt; his particularly insufferable nature during his time in as an imperial official in Burma (‘one would not much want the company of ADS Blair’); his frequent reliance on handouts to support himself (given how much he purported to hate the school and its student body, his network of financially supportive Old Etonians was a wonder to behold).
When fame arrived with the publication of his masterpieces Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four at the end of the ’40s, the latter published in 1949 (less than a year before his death), Orwell was already on his last legs, a lifetime of weak health and a lifestyle so unhealthy as to verge on practising a sort of literary man’s mortification of the flesh having caught up with him. His reputation doubtless gained thereby. The literary decline that affected so many of his peers in their later years would have come to him sooner or later, and one feels that as a novelist he would have acquitted himself badly in the rarified atmosphere of the ’50s, where even as the protagonists of Huxley and Golding’s novels dallied in the Pacific — the former in a druggy island utopia, the latter in a visceral, schoolboy-populated state of nature — conservatism had retrenched itself in British society after the twin shocks of wartime permissiveness and the Attlee ministry, and the liberal excesses of the ’60s had yet to arrive.
But perhaps it was better that way. Some might rue the two books Orwell asserted were left in him at the time of his death; but to claim they could possibly have spoken as compellingly to the ages as Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, or even the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier, as Orwell himself might have put it, would be bollox.