Orwell: A Man of Our Time, by Richard Bradford Richard Davenport-hines
Orwell: A Man of Our Time by Richard Bradford Bloomsbury £20
Richard Bradford has entered his book on Orwell – who died 70 years ago, on 21st January 1950 – to run in a crowded field.
The first full-length biography, by Bernard Crick in 1980, remains the most meticulously researched as well as the most brightly written. D J Taylor’s in 2003 is wonderfully heartfelt – but there have been some shockers, too.
Bradford is a veteran literary biographer who divides his working year between being a professor at Ulster University and a professor at the University of Avignon. His effort is a sensible length, fluent and accessible, but cranky. It is studded with his opinions – sometimes jolly, but often bitter.
The facts are these. George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair. Born in 1903, the only son of an opium agent employed in the Bengal civil service, he spent his childhood in two quiet towns of the Thames valley, Henley and Shiplake. As a King’s Scholar at Eton, he was disruptively nonconformist in his politics. Instead of going to Oxford, he joined the imperial police force in Burma in 1922. Bradford sees this as a masochistic act, intended to provide him with shocking experiences that would be the equivalent of Conrad’s inspiration for Heart of Darkness.
Orwell remained a Burmese colonial policeman for five years. Then came a new phase of self-mortification, when he returned to Europe to experience poverty at first hand. He began living in a dosshouse in
London’s Limehouse Causeway, disguised himself as a tramp and ended up in a Paris slum, where he worked as a dishwasher. This resulted in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and
London (1933). The English puritan belief that frugality and discomfort are virtuous, character-building and marks of emotional superiority seems strong in Orwell. The cold houses, the bad food, the dirty clothes, the cheese-paring and high-minded dinginess of his life are pretty repellent. Perhaps they were a necessary choice that enabled him to write his arresting and thoughtful quartet of pre-war novels: Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939).
There were more political books. The Road to Wigan Pier, published by the Left Book Club in 1937, is a documentary of proletarian unemployment. Homage to Catalonia (1938) was the outcome of Orwell’s joining the Republican troops fighting in the Spanish Civil War and sustaining a wound. He worked in the BBC and as literary editor of Tribune during the war years, and published his famous political fable Animal Farm in 1945 and his apocalyptic satire Nineteen Eighty-four in 1949.
Bradford estimates that Orwell declared his love or proposed marriage to eight women whom he barely knew.