"George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls – review"
Is the key to Orwell his sense of England? This is an excellent, provocative addition to Orwell studies
November 20th, 2013
One of the most cheering aspects of Orwell studies, when the subject got going in the 1950s and 1960s, was that much of the pioneering work was carried out beyond the gates of the academy. Early accounts of Orwell tended to be by personal friends such as Richard Rees (Fugitive from the Camp of Victory, 1961) or George Woodcock (The Crystal Spirit, 1967). Bernard Crick, who produced the first bona fide biography in 1980, though indisputably an academic, was a political theorist parachuted down on to what, from his point of view, were the virgin fields of literature. Even Peter Davison, who laboured for a decade and a half on the 20-volume complete works, was a Tudor specialist heroically diverted into the modern age. Broadly speaking, the best work on Orwell has, by and large, been done by zealous amateurs, people with something to prove beyond the confines of the lecture hall.
In a curious way, George Orwell: English Rebel perpetuates this tradition. Robert Colls is a professor of cultural history, and in this capacity author of Identity of England (2002), but he doesn't write like an academic, and some of his voluminous endnotes carry a whiff of gunpowder, or at at any rate the hint of a very unacademic asperity. Thus the Orwell biographer Jeffrey Meyers is ticked off for criticising fellow workers in the field for their mistakes while himself imagining that Wigan is somewhere in the "industrial Midlands". Of Orwell's appearances in Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns, Colls claims that "two of the references to him are wrong and the third is a quote", while there is withering mention of "the posh end" of Orwell "cliche" apparently served up by one "Sean O'Hagen" in the 2008 Orwell memorial lecture, later reprinted in this newspaper – a barb that loses almost none of its impact when you deduce that Colls is actually referring to Andrew O'Hagan.
Colls's big idea about Orwell is that the legions of critics who have approached his writings in the past half-century have missed out a vital component from the machinery that makes him tick: this is the question of his "Englishness". One or two of Orwell's biographers (I am one myself) may well conclude that this is essentially a paper tiger, flushed out of the undergrowth and blown up with lumps of Thermite in a stalking operation entirely disproportionate to the animal's size and strength, but the result – belligerent endnotes and all – turns out to be an exceptionally interesting book. It isn't always accurate in some of its incidental detail, but is convincing in its claims that many of the reading public's assumptions about Orwell are woefully misguided and that the development of his political views was far more complicated a process than it may look from the outside.
This is especially true of Orwell's attitude to the 1930s Labour party. Colls notes that when he set out for the north of England on the journey that was to produce The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he knew hardly anything about the socialism on which he was soon so confidently to pronounce. He was a man of "very limited political experience" Colls observes of the 30s journalist Orwell, who was capable of writing to a friend, with an almost anthropological detachment, that "I haven't anything of great interest to report to you yet about the Lower Classes". On one level, consequently, his exploits in Wigan (and elsewhere) are a chronicle of non-engagement. As Colls points out, he arrived there shortly after the town had suffered the threat of a miners' strike, but doesn't appear to have noticed. He takes no interest in Labour party history, knows nothing of institutions such as Socialist Sunday Schools and Leagues of Youth that were at work rallying the local community, and shuts his eyes to "the more gregarious and entertaining aspects of life in an industrial town". Football, the variety hall and the Boys Brigade might just as well not have existed.
If the experience of visiting Barcelona in the early days of 1937 alerted Orwell to what socialism might look like in practice, then the novel Coming Up For Air (1939), Colls argues, is his key text on "Englishness". Bowling, its disillusioned middle-aged hero, is – unlike his creator – manifestly not a gentleman, but neither, to borrow the title of the working-class writer Jack Hilton's autobiography, is he Caliban come to shriek. While nostalgic for the lost world of his turn-of-the-century Oxfordshire childhood, he can see the point of material progress while regretting its dehumanising sheen. He can take certain of modernity's blandishments and leave others, while remaining darkly conscious that the ability to make this choice may shortly be rather beyond him. All this is indicative of what Colls calls Orwell's "reconciliation" with his native land, and his eventual conclusion – refined in the essays of the early 1940s – that he was going to have to take the English people as they were rather than as he wanted them to be.
"If there is hope," Winston Smith famously declares in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "it lies in the proles." Colls takes this statement for granted, rather than wondering, as several Orwell critics have wondered, whether hope doesn't really reside in the radical middle classes, who, when push comes to shove, are often the people who get things done. But this disinclination to interrogate a first principle doesn't prevent English Rebel from being an arresting and provocative piece of work. As Colls is so keen on drawing attention to other people's mistakes, he may not mind if I point out a few of his own. It is, for example, pushing things to assert that Orwell came home from Burma in 1927 with his anti-imperialism fully formed: in fact, he returned to England on a medical certificate to convalesce from a bout of dengue fever, and doesn't at that point seem to have made up his mind whether or not to go back. He does not write "only once" about sport "and that badly": in addition to "The Sporting Spirit", about the 1945 Moscow Dynamo tour of the UK, there is an elegiac review, written in 1944, of Edmund Blunden's Cricket Country. And while he never, strictly speaking, kept in touch with his alma mater, Eton College, his letters to Old Etonian friends in the late 1930s show a surprising interest in the results of the Eton-Harrow match.
To go back to Orwell studies, of which Colls is now entitled to consider himself a prime ornament, several promising avenues of inquiry are currently off-limits owing to the disappearance of vital material. This includes the letters and diaries stolen from Orwell in Spain by the NKVD in 1937, which are hidden somewhere in the Moscow archives, and the 19 unpublished love letters to Eleanor Jaques (to whom he fruitlessly proposed marriage in the 1930s), which, since their discovery in 2008, are being sat on by her descendants. Each of these caches is capable of offering a dramatic new twist to our view of Orwell, and Robert Colls should straightaway set off in their pursuit.
George Orwell: English Rebel