George Orwell: English Rebel
by Robert Colls.
Oxford University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 330 pages, $34.95.

Reviewed by John P. Rossi

This is a curious book. It is not a traditional biography. Nor is it an intellectual biography. Instead it is an attempt, through a close analysis of the body of Orwell’s writings, to validate the author’s subtitle—that Orwell was an English rebel. What makes the monograph so curious is that those who knew him best, and those who have written about him, would agree that there was no question about the first part of the subtitle, that he was a quintessential Englishman.

Colls equally is on safe ground with part two of the subtitle; that Orwell was a rebel. The question is against what: his class, the British Empire, the intellectuals of his time, the idea of an all-powerful government? Colls seems (and I stress seems because he wanders all over the place) to be saying at different points in the book that Orwell was in rebellion against all of them. As a result the book meanders through Orwell’s writings, occasionally passing off suggestive ideas but at other times just repeating insights that have been well documented by others.

Colls notes that George Orwell is the most quoted and referenced of any modern British writer. His name has become synonymous with the power of the state to crush the will of the individual while the term, “Orwellian” has passed into modern parlance to describe actions that are illogical, irrational, and focused on the abuse of government power. He contributed words and phrases to the language that we still reference today: Big Brother, doublespeak, thought crime, newspeak, 2 + 2 = 5, etc. Sixty-five years after his death, he remains a vivid presence in intellectual and literary circles. His books, especially Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, remain in print—11 million copies of each have been sold and they have translated into some sixty languages.

Colls correctly observes that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Orwell never went through a pro-Communist period and thus didn’t have to recant earlier views and causes he had championed. This is why so many on the Left, his own Left, hated him. They had been taken in by lies of Soviet miracles, the fake purge trials, the various twists and turns of Stalin’s foreign policy. Orwell hadn’t. As he wrote he knew from the beginning that the Communist Eden was based on lies.

Colls seeks the root of Orwell’s uniqueness through an exhaustive examination of his novels, non-fiction, essays, and journalism. After a brief biographical sketch, Colls focuses on Orwell’s sense of “Englishness,” arguing that Englishness is not the key to Orwell but rather is “something that he thought with as well as about, and that it stayed with him from first to last.” Colls connects Orwell’s Englishness to two traumatic experiences of his early life—his service as a policeman in Burma in defense of the British Empire and his experience with the poor and downtrodden, especially his investigation of the depression in the North of England in Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Colls is undoubtedly correct; unlike many of his fellow English intellectuals, Orwell had a keen appreciation for things English: the beer, the tea drinking, the food, the mild “knobby” faces of the people, even the weather.

Colls believes that Road to Wigan Pier and Orwell’s account of his experiences in Spain, Homage to Catalonia (1938), saw the emergence of the unparalleled, direct literary style that distinguished his prose and would make him unique among writers of his generation. I would argue that Orwell had in his essays “The Spike,” “A Hanging,” and especially “Shooting an Elephant,” all written before 1937, already shown his mastery of that clear, crisp, concise style. According to Colls, by the mid-1930s Orwell had become an accomplished and successful professional writer.

The three themes that Colls seeks to explore in understanding Orwell’s growth as a writer are his contempt for members of the English intelligentsia, his low opinion of his fellow socialists, and finally his incipient Toryism. This assessment forms the heart of the book and Colls has some interesting observations about each theme. He notes, for example, a strong contrarian streak in Orwell’s make-up, a quality that runs through his entire literary life and helps explain some of his seemingly contradictory views. An example of how unpredictable Orwell could be can be found in his view of the British Empire, which he believed was a source of evil in the world. But as Colls notes, Orwell was honest enough to condemn both those pro-imperialists who “value Empire too much, and an anti-imperialist position that valued it too little.”

Orwell grew skeptical of socialism, and especially its proponents, partly because in his view many of its adherents served as apologists for Communism and partly because he feared the power of the central state, themes which would surface after the war in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell saved some of best vitriolic language for the eccentricities of his fellow socialists: “One sometimes gets the impression,” Orwell wrote in an oft-quoted passage in Road to Wigan Pier, “that the words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Despite this blast, Orwell remained loyal to the Left-wing Labor Party because, as Colls argues, it “enjoyed an organic connection with the British working class.”

Although one himself, Orwell was deeply suspicious of intellectuals. He believed that they had no roots in the country and were in reality just power-worshippers. In a phrase from his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell wrote that the English intelligentsia was made up of individuals who were querulous, irresponsible, emotionally shallow, and Europeanized. “They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.” Colls finds this amusing coming from a classic English intellectual who spoke fluent French and enjoyed all kinds of cuisine. Perhaps part of Orwell’s charm is how effectively heattacks his own—his fellow socialists and intellectuals. That gives his views a validity that other enemies of the Left have lacked.

One of the most interesting aspects of Colls’s study is his discussion of Orwell’s latent Toryism—something he believes is another example of Orwell’s contrarian side. In part Orwell’s Toryism grew out of his distrust of some of his fellow socialists and what he called their fascination “with a fat-bellied, godless conception of progress” which he believed cut them off from the mass of the English people who sought a sustainable material life.

In many ways what Colls is saying is not that complicated. Orwell was a political radical but a cultural conservative with a deep affection for the world he grew up in: the English villages and the beautiful green countryside with its woods and streams filled with fish, its quiet, civilized people. Colls is on to something when he writes that Orwell “could not hide his Tory upbringing, his old-school sensibilities, his gentlemanly drawl, and the way in which he took his bearings from a natural and moral universe.”

Colls has some interesting and valuable things to say about Orwell and his quirky views and opinions. But the book has its flaws. It suffers from a dense prose style that can leave the reader confused. “Wodehouse (like Orwell up to 1939) might have understood the situation better than he did, but it was not his fault”—whatever that means. This is a typical example of the long, confusing sentences sprinkled throughout the text. There also are long sections where Orwell disappears while Colls expounds at length about some aspect of British society.

Some Colls’s judgments also are questionable. In his discussion of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four Colls writes that Orwell died before the Cold War began—an interesting comment in light of the fact that by Orwell’s death in January 1950, the Iron Curtain enclosed Eastern Europe, China had fallen to the Communists, the Berlin Blockade had taken place, and the Soviet Union had exploded its atomic bomb. In fact, both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were classic expressions of the Cold War, a term one of his biographers, Gordon Bowker, points out that Orwell had used as early as 1944.

Those interested in Orwell will find Colls’s textual notes useful. He provides the reader with sixty-seven pages of valuable, if often esoteric, information about Orwell’s life and work. If nothing else it shows the depth of Colls’s research and constitutes one of the most valuable parts of this closely written study of Orwell’s life and writings.  

John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.