The publisher’s claim that this is the first “major” biography since Orwell’s centenary in 2003 is itself rather Orwellian. Now that even Orwell’s most robust contemporaries are no longer around to share their memories, every biographer must walk a well-trodden path (Eton, Burma, Paris, Wigan, Spain, London, Jura) in the footsteps of earlier scholars, but there is not an ounce of unfamiliar material here and even the less obvious quotations and anecdotes appear to have been drawn from secondary sources. Vital context is missing. Bradford’s minimal interest in other writers of the period gives the false impression that Orwell was alone in, say, noticing that Stalin and Hitler had much in common, rather than one node in an informal international network of anti-totalitarian socialists. The bibliography is both thin and predictable... This is a book undone by its own premise. The intent is to use Orwell’s life and work to illuminate the present. Instead, the klieg-light glare of the present reduces Orwell’s precise observations to banal truisms – politicians lie, groupthink is pernicious – and traps him in the second half of the 2010s. While Orwell’s best work may well be eternal, this peculiar book is already out of date.
It was indeed peculiar, the way Orwell both wanted to identify with the working class (he self-consciously slurped tea from a saucer) and keep apart from them, like a social anthropologist. Bradford, who has written biographies of Philip Larkin and both Amises, is correct, I think, to suggest that a lot of play-acting was going on – playing at being a tramp, playing at being a soldier in Catalonia, playing at being a schoolmaster in Middlesex, “performing his tasks dutifully”... Bradford sees Orwell as being a prophet (Trump as the pig Napoleon in Animal Farm and so forth). I prefer to see him as exemplifying and eulogising what Harold Nicolson called “the slow-grinding willpower of the British people”, who when push comes to shove are very good at fighting for their lives.
If Orwell endures as our “wintry conscience” — a title bestowed on him by VS Pritchett — it is on the back of this rare and penetrating intellectual honesty. He could “step outside himself”, as Bradford writes in this fascinating book, and in so doing deterge the darkest corners of his own mind.
And overall, the book is disorganised: structured chronologically but with little indication of a vision for how the story will be told – which may explain the repetitions and sense of facts scattered for the reader to pick through.
Even in the chapter on Animal Farm, which is one of the more interesting parts of the book, the style too often reads like first-draft journalism, with a reference to something that happened “in May” (meaning May 2019) and personal references to the British leader of the Opposition, without specifying Jeremy Corbyn. By the time the paperback comes out, it will need footnotes.