Having read all of George Orwell’s novels, and some of his essays and articles, I was keen to read a biography. This is the only biography I have read to date.
I previously enjoyed Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940, also by D.J. Taylor. In common with Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940, Orwell is thorough, well written and insightful.
A chronological approach is augmented by shorter chapters. One interesting chapter is entitled, “The Case Against Orwell” in which D.J. Taylor presents the evidence that Orwell’s reputation is undeserved. Evidence includes: Orwell’s novels are derivative, he was an unreliable reporter, he exaggerated, he was naive, deceptive, sent the names of 135 people he suspected of being “fellow-travellers” to the anti-communist Information Re-search Department at the Foreign Office, and was a serial adulterer. Whilst it is clear that D.J. Taylor likes his subject, admitting in the afterword that this did not change having completed the book, it is instructive to read such a compelling counter-argument. Another chapter looks at Orwell’s alleged anti-semitism, and here the case against Orwell is pretty strong and, it seems to me, it was only towards the end of his life that he seriously realised how wrong these views were.
Most interesting for me, is the extent to which Orwell constructed his own myth, and the differences between that and the real person, who despite living in the twentieth century is a remarkably opaque individual. D.J. Taylor has done a marvellous job in sifting through the evidence, such as it is, to allow the reader to make up her or his own mind. Orwell is a nuanced and balanced assessment of a frustrating and complex man. My sense is that those who have read all, or at least most, of his key works would get the most out of this biography. If, like me, you have an interest in the English literary scene in the 1930s and 1940s then you will find it even more rewarding.