[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0199680809″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51S-yGp4LLL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Robert Colls” ]A Window on the Truth
A Feature Review of
George Orwell: English Rebel
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2013
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Reviewed by Taylor Brorby
George Orwell was nothing if not contradictory. As Robert Colls points out in his latest book, George Orwell: English Rebel, Orwell “was what they used to call a ‘Socialist’. He shared also some attitudes to life that used to be called ‘Tory’.” But, as Colls highlights, Orwell’s contrariness goes even deeper—he was a privately educated (scholarship-funded) student who chose to decline attending Cambridge; he joined the Imperial Police, going to Burma, though he disdained British imperialism; he was thoroughly British, though he swore no allegiance to his homeland. Orwell, in many ways, was the precursor to another of Britain’s more famous sons, Christopher Hitchens.
Colls’s book deftly illustrates a rather conflicted man: Orwell left no major body of work, though his works play a large part in literature and political science classes, and, as a result, leave him without classification—is Orwell a satirist? Polemic? Allegorist? Essayist? Novelist? Since Orwell lived in no narrow genre, his mind lives largely in many areas of scholarship.
Orwell, too, might be characterized as a precursor to George Plimpton due to his willingness to experience life, work, and various occupational hazards while subsequently producing brilliant works over the course of his writing life. As Colls highlights in his analysis of The Road to Wigan Pier, “After twelve days in Wigan, on 23 February 1936, Orwell went down the mine. He was three hours down, 300 yards below, two miles out, and the event was a landmark in his life. He made his way to the face to see the cutters in action, and in the dark and the heat took his first glimpse of an England he never knew. Here were men who confirmed all his doubts about people like him, and all his growing faith in people like them.”
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Who were the people like Orwell? Educated, literate, professionals—though Orwell bucked the trend of British expectation. Colls incorporates the most salient passages of Orwell’s works to highlight the history he so expertly infuses in his book. Quoting a passage from The Road to Wigan Pier, Colls highlights this: “A miner’s working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for ‘travelling’, more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course the ‘travelling’ is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to say that miners don’t mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for them as it would be for you and me…But it is a mistake to think that they enjoy it.”
This is perhaps when Colls is at his best, peppering his historical research with lifted quotations from Orwell’s own work, which help emphasize Orwell’s deep thinking and contradictory nature.
In a section of Colls’s book which examines the nature of Orwell’s identity shift—he was originally born Eric Blair—Colls says this: “It is not at all clear that Orwell and Blair are the same man. ‘George Orwell’, author, is the decent Englishman who goes into corners, puts himself to the test, and can be relied upon to speak the truth, or try to. He is not bookish, but intelligent. He is not classless, but he is fair, and you can trust him. Blair, on the other hand, seems more like the writer Orwell left behind, the metropolitan intellectual who thinks in a high register and knows what he wants before he finds it; the man who spends his days and nights at the typewriter.” This section adds a further level of complexity to the Orwell-Blair narrative, making the reader scratch his head and wonder if the author “Orwell” is complete artifice.