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Book review: Who is Big Brother? A reader’s guide to George Orwell by D. J. Taylor

21 June 2024

Richard Harries looks at the motivations in George Orwell’s life

GEORGE ORWELL never quite belonged. At least, that was how he felt. But this, far from being a weakness, made him sensitive to injustice, whatever form it took, and fuelled his protests against tyranny. Like so much in English life, it began with a consciousness of class.

He said he belonged to the lower upper middle class. Although he went to a smart prep school and then to Eton, it was on scholarships, and he was conscious of coming from a less well-off family than his peers. His father, a middle-ranking official in the Indian Civil Service, could not afford the fees for these schools or later university. So, Eric Blair, as he was then called, joined the Burma Police and came to hate the empire that he was paid to administer.

Returning to England to write, he revealed the other fundamental feature of his character, a desire to be real, and from this to tell the truth about things. He lived as a plongeur, or dish washer, in Paris and as a tramp in London, writing a vivid book about the terrible poverty that he experienced. “The mass of the rich and poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, and which is the thief?”

This was followed by a book reflecting his experience of living with miners in the north of England. Here again, he was real; for he knew that, however long he lived in that world, his background meant that he could never be fully intimate with the miners. Then, again in his quest for reality rather than just words, he was nearly killed, fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

For the same reason, though totally committed to the Left in politics, he hated left-wing intellectuals and mercilessly exposed the lies and tyranny of Soviet Russia in his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984. He was particularly critical of those intellectuals who continued to support the Soviet Union. It is entirely fitting that, as you enter the new entrance to the BBC from Hallam Street, there is a statue of Orwell with the words: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Orwell is also rightly admired as a fine writer of prose. He had a widely ranging, enquiring mind and an eye for the vivid detail. His guide to writing good prose was for many years used by the BBC. Here again, we can see how it is shaped by the desire to tell the truth.

AlamyThe George Orwell statue by Martin Jennings, with inscription, unveiled at Broadcasting House in 2017

D. J. Taylor, a leading scholar on Orwell, has written a book that can be used as an introduction, as he gives us all the basic facts of Orwell’s life; but it will be more useful to people who already know something about him. Using Orwell’s life, and his writings and novels of the time, on which he is an expert, Taylor explores certain themes in depth. One of these is religion.

Although Orwell is known as an agnostic, he went, as Taylor points out, through a serious phase of Anglican Christianity. This is reflected particularly in the novel The Clergyman’s Daughter. It is a book that reveals a detailed knowledge of a particular kind of high but not Anglo-Catholic church, including a pious member who is always writing polemical letters to the Church Times. What is particularly interesting is the exploration of how the clergy daughter, once so pious, loses her faith.

I suspect that this reflected Orwell’s own experience; but he never lost his sense that there was in British life what he called a common decency, and he thought that this was due to the Christian faith. Orwell loved England and wrote movingly in praise of it. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote that, in working-class homes where the man had a good job, “you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not easy to find elsewhere.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

Who is Big Brother? A reader’s guide to George Orwell
D. J. Taylor
Yale £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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