I like Orwell. I have done since reading Down and Out in Paris & London in my formative years. However, my take on the man has now been influenced by my reading of an acclaimed biography by D. J. Taylor. This is not a book review but a review of Orwell as seen through a biographical prism written nearly a decade ago.
Does your increased knowledge of his life and personality alter your appreciation of his literary work? a friend asks.
Well, I think it does. But not in the way I expected. My opinion of Orwell is affected by having some knowledge of his family and upbringing. He seems to personify what has become of the BBC today. Left Wing and full of guilt about their Middle Class identity. So what you get in the end is, I believe, a form of psychological compensation rather than truth.
Orwell's father worked in the opium trade in India. This was the British Raj of the late 19th century. After leaving Eton, Orwell signed up as an Imperial Policeman in Burma. Here he would experience killing an Elephant or at least eventually write about the experience.
After about seven years telling Burmese people what to do Orwell arrived back in England and decided that he would live and breathe amongst the working classes occasionally faking his accent to be accepted as one of them. Nevertheless many ordinary people realized that this tall strange man was somehow different and called him "sir" despite themselves.
But what motivated Orwell?
Many things, but guilt may have played its part in shaping his character which may have been the reason for a self pitying essay he once wrote which detailed an emotionally blighted education at a Prep school prior to obtaining an Eton scholarship.
After some investigation by the author, however, it turned out that Orwell magnified his grievances by a smaller or larger degree. For me it was the same old story of someone gaining a great education, finding success, and then saying such an education ought to banned.
Orwell complains about his childhood education; but it seems to me that without it he would have struggled to have made an impact in this world.
Orwell's biography reads differently. I liked his sense of independence although even this is tempered by the fact that he remained dependent on his parents for a long time - they would send him ten bob every now and then while he was writing about how hard it was to exist on a pittance while down and out in Paris and London - until the age of thirty five Orwell lived in the north Suffolk coastal town of Southwold, sometimes privately teaching local children.
What I did not know was that Orwell was a bit of a womanizer and cheated on his wife. Many times. In fact he asked her if she would accept his being with a 15 or 16 year Arab prostitute while on holiday in Marrakesh in Morocco. Apparently, his wife relented and the prostitute consented.
Now I would not wish to throw the first stone for reasons obvious to anyone with a degree in human nature but for someone who is often described by the Left as a secular saint I find all this at odds with sainthood unless the definition has changed in which case I would like my application to be considered with immediate effect.
Then there is the writing. Animal Farm is a brilliant fable which revealed something of the nature of communism - the reality of Soviet communism confronted Orwell in 1936 whilst fighting for the Republicans in Spain - which previous Western governments appeared at the time unable or unwilling to expose. In this sense Orwell shaped the modern world and can be considered as influential as Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul in defeating Soviet communist tyranny.
Personally, I think Orwell revealed a world previously unthought of in an earlier book, 'Down and Out in Paris & London'. This was an account of days out tramping about two cities exploring life and inspiring social conscience at the same time. Not a bad combination for a good man but like many before and after, he certainly was no saint.