Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Orwell by DJ Taylor: Among justifications for the new book are letters sent by author to two women

Eye-opening details emerge on ancestral family involvement in Jamaican sugar and slave trades

Orwell: The New Life
Orwell: The New Life
Author: DJ Taylor
ISBN-13: 978 1 4721 3296 3
Publisher: Constable
Guideline Price: £30

The first question to ask about any new biography of George Orwell, one of the last century’s most widely read and discussed writers, is: do we really need another? For Richard Bradford’s eccentric offering a couple of years ago, the answer was: definitely not that one.

This time, the question is slightly different. Do we need another Orwell biography by DJ Taylor? The novelist, critic and literary historian has already produced a full-length biography, Orwell: The Life, in 2003, which was widely acclaimed and is still in print. So: what’s new? The key to this revised life, says Taylor, is that new letters from Orwell have been uncovered.

The bulk of these, and “one of the chief justifications” for the new book, are two bundles of letters sent by Orwell to two women. The first, Jacintha Buddicom, was a childhood friend of Orwell’s (or Eric Blair as he then was), and her 1974 memoir Eric & Us, along with the letters newly discovered, is the chief source of information about Orwell’s teenage years.

Recently discovered letters remind us that Orwell, famous for saying that ‘good prose is like a window pane’, had more varied tastes than that implies

In addition, there are letters sent by Orwell to Brenda Salkeld between 1931 and 1949 — that is, during the last 18 years of Orwell’s life, when he published the five novels and three books of nonfiction on which his reputation rests: as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and reviews.


These are interesting new sources, without question. Jacinda, as a childhood friend, features only in 60 or so pages of the 540-page book, but the letters to Brenda are more revealing. First, they remind us that Orwell, famous for saying that “good prose is like a window pane”, had more varied tastes than that implies, and we see in his letters that he repeatedly urged Brenda to read James Joyce: not just the window-pane-ish Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the advanced obscurity of Two Tales of Shem + Sham, a published fragment from the work–in–progress that would become Finnegans Wake.

Second, the letters show Orwell’s long-term interest in and pursuit of Brenda, not just as a single man but after he met his first wife Eileen. “You said that you thought you would finally take a lover,” he wrote to her in the summer of 1936, around the time of his marriage to Eileen, “and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be me”.

Interesting though these new titbits are, they are only a tiny part of Orwell’s story, and the book is a full life delivered with Taylor’s customary attention to detail: not a supplement to the earlier biography, but a fully achieved and valuable substitute.

It also delivers the other requirement of a new biography, of rereading the life according to current times, so there are eye-opening details on the ancestral family involvement in the Jamaican sugar and slave trades (though the Blair descendants failed to capitalise on the proceeds), Orwell’s “profound contempt” for homosexuals, and his antisemitism (though this hardly set him apart from contemporaries like TS Eliot).

As for the rest, what a busy short life this man had, hampered by lifelong ill-health. There was his mixed education: at St Cyprian’s school (eviscerated in the essay Such, Such Were the Joys) then Eton as a King’s Scholar, where he adopted the role of happy slacker.

Animal Farm was an instant success, earning him the equivalent today of £350,000 in the last 4½ years of his life

There was his early journalism, in an era where there were so many outlets for writing that (according to Alec Waugh, brother of Evelyn) “a short story had to be very bad or very, very good (that is, hopelessly highbrow) not to find a sponsor”. There was his time as a policeman in Burma and a producer at the BBC.

Orwell, although associated through his writing with an empathy for the working-class, was himself “slumming” it with his attempts to follow the road to Wigan Pier or to act at being down and out in Paris and London. But his clothes were too well-cut to fool anyone, even when he made ostentatious attempts to model working-class behaviour: “His BBC colleague John Morris remembered him purposefully pouring the liquid from his canteen teacup into a saucer and then sucking it up ‘with a slightly defiant expression’.”

But it is the books for which he is remembered, and the (sometimes literally death-defying) efforts he put into them, typing up Nineteen Eighty-Four in the gravest ill-health on the island of Jura, a year before his death. Not all his books did well: Homage to Catalonia, his account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War, failed to sell out its first print run of 1,500 during his lifetime. By contrast, Animal Farm was an instant success, earning him the equivalent today of £350,000 in the last 4½ years of his life.

One of the juicy details we learn in a biography full of them is that Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, sent out for a copy of Animal Farm — but supplies were so low in the usual outlets, that the order had to be fulfilled by an anarchist bookshop. It was an irony that Orwell might have appreciated.

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times