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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 February 2015
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.
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on 18 November 2015
A biography about one of the greatest literary giants of all time. Well researched and put together and I learned a lot about what made Orwell tick and sparked his inspiration to write such timeless gems for all of us !
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on 18 February 2017
Good condition copy, slightly yellowed pages and clearly well- read, but dust jacket intact and pages unmarked. I find secondhand hardback copies often more congenial and better value than new paperback editions.
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on 8 July 2008
After reading this biography I feel that I really do know Orwell now. This book is an extremely detailed portrait of a highly intelligent and principled man. A maverick not afraid to do what he thought was right rather than what was expected of him. A good biography should be jam packed with details that enable us to get inside the mind and times of the subject and for me this book is only rivalled in this regard by Ian Kershaw's two volume biography of Hitler.

Yet unlike some of the biographies that I have most enjoyed only the character of Orwell really seems to come to life here. For me the joy of biography is not just finding out about the man or woman in the title but also all the people they were connected with during their life. Orwell was closely linked not just to the literary giants of his time such as Anthony Powell but also people who must have been fascinating such as anyone he fought with in the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately none of these people are portrayed very vividly. They are all foils for Orwell's story. These people are merely masks that enter the stage to give us some comment or other about Orwell and then move on.

In addition to the lack of detail given to others involved in the story is the overwhelming and at times trivial detail given to Orwell himself. At one point in the book Taylor takes time out to describe a stapler that he bought which was supposed to have belonged to Orwell himself. As if this were not tedious enough later on in the afterward the author tells us how mortified he was to learn that somebody else also claims to own Orwell's stapler. I suppose it never occurred to him that Orwell may have owned more than one during his life.

Observations such as this come mainly in the short essays which punctuate the main chapters of narrative. Some of these are very interesting such as Orwell and the Rats while others such as Orwell in View are very much less so. Who really cares that there is no film footage of Orwell?

Having said this the book does have its merits. You do learn a lot about Orwell. I never realised before how productive he was. Although I knew he was very ill when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-four I never comprehended how much the effort shattered his health and forced him into the final decline. He was obviously a man of principle who would even subordinate his own health for the welfare of his art.

Taylor does an extremely good job of describing what was going on in Orwell's life and mind when he was writing his novels. We get a good portrait of a growing artist going through trials and experiments before he finds his own distinctive voice.

Like many biographies I like, this one builds up to a climax at the end. We can feel Orwell racing against time to finish Nineteen Eighty-four and also the growing realisation of the people around him that the world was about to lose a writer in his prime.

This is the tragedy of Orwell that he shares with other artists as varied in stature and genre as Mozart, Jimi Hendrix and Heath Ledger. He died when he had so much more he could have given us.

Overall then this is a good book for the serious Orwell fan but for most people it probably contains too much detail that many would see as superfluous.
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on 25 June 2003
D.J. Taylor is not the first biographer of Orwell. This is a pity, as reading his new biography of the author of 'Animal Farm', you may rather wishe it was. Taylor seems to have built on the less than complete earlier books about Orwell. However, Taylor come across as a much better biographer and you are left feeling that he should have started from scratch rather than appearing to build on the work of others.
At times, certain major issues seem to be covered only briefly, whilst other (perhaps) more trivial factors are given a great degree of detail. For example, we read so little of the actual writing of 'Animal Farm' and so much more of seemingly trivial relationships that surround at the time. Simply because new material relating to the subject has been uncovered seems to be no good reason for inclusion, particularly if such material adds little or nothing to our understanding.
These are minor criticisms in a solid and readable account of Orwell and his life. The hype surrounding Orwell's centenary has perhaps indulged some books more than it should have, but this remains a good account of this influentioal and important writer.
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on 26 May 2003
Quite by chance I came across a pre-publication copy of this book (sans photographs, alas) on a 2nd-hand stall, and as a long-time reader of Orwell, picked it up at once.

There are two main dangers in writing a biography of Orwell, whose request in his will that none be written has inevitably been ignored. The first is hagiography - brilliant writer, courageous anti-Fascist volunteer, perceptive early critic of Soviet totalitarianism, conscience of an era, tragic early death etc. etc. - which is pretty much the image his widow Sonia fought fiercely to fashion for him.

The second danger is to seek to co-opt Orwell in support of one's own political agenda. Thus left wing writers seize on his self-proclaimed socialism, while right wingers stress his anti-Stalinist credentials and play down his left wing leanings as little more than a veneer concealing his solidly petit-bourgeois background. Neither of these viewpoints gives a fair picture of a complex man, and one whose political thought evolved over the course of his career.

Taylor has done well to avoid both these dangers, presenting a balanced view that pays due tribute to the greatness of Orwell's last two novels, among the few that have actually shaped twentieth century thinking, while recognising that in many of his early works he was still searching for a distinctive voice.

Taylor acknowledges Orwell's faults and contradictions, including his womanising, but does not sensationalise them unnecessarily. He gives much interesting background information on the Spanish Civil War experiences which Orwell distilled into "Homage to Catalonia". He seems to have talked to or read widely from most of Orwell's contemporaries and associates. Finally, he draws a fair picture of the often controversial Sonia and her guardianship of Orwell's heritage.

All in all, barring new information coming to light, this is as good a life of Orwell as one could demand, and one which like all good literary biographies sends one back to the subject's own writings. All Orwell fans should read it.
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on 11 March 2014
Book not in condition advertised. Ex-library, which wasn't stated by seller. I never buy ex-library books as they have a horrible feel to them.
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VINE VOICEon 29 March 2008
DJ Taylor is an accomplished writer and writes well. But this is a very poor excuse for a biography of Orwell. Considering that Orwell was born in colonial India, attended Eton college, was the subject of Soviet and British secret service files and had two very successful books published within living memory, one might think there would be a fair amount of information about him. But Taylor has unearthed a pathetic amount of it.

He repeatedly resorts to feeble lines like "nothing is known about Orwell's life at this time" and seeks to fill in the gaps by rolling on a bunch of other literary figures, with lesser or greater attachment to Orwell. So instead of telling us what Orwell did or thought, Taylor chucks in a bit of opinion from people like Malcolm Muggeridge, Cyril Connolly or Evelyn Waugh. I didn't buy this biography to know what they thought. I bought it to know about Orwell. Taylor is caught up in the literary world of the time and he expects us to know who these people are. In one sentence, for example, he wheels on "Francis King" and "J.R. Ackerley's sister Nancy" without explaining who they are or ever mentioning them again.

Orwell's family, on the other hand, gets short shrift. His sister Avril barely features. Why not? Where was she? Had she fallen out with him? At one point Taylor tells us that Orwell's father has been "four years dead" - er... did this event not merit a mention at the time? If not, why not? Had Orwell fallen out with his father so badly that his death made no impact? If so, shouldn't we be told? What kind of biography can leave out the death of the author's father, especially a father whose class, career and temperament provide interesting insights into the subject?

The biography also fails us in its photographs. The collection of photographs is pretty inadequate. There are not enough illustrating the people and events of Orwell's life, and too many mugshots of people with walk-on parts who we don't really need to see. Peter Vansittart, for example. He barely features in the book. Do we need his pic? I would have preferred a bit more on Orwell. One of the Orwell pictures is a blurred, cropped, it's-probably-him snap of people doing exercises in the park. What a waste.

Taylor also shoots himself in the foot about motion pictures. He bangs on about how there is no surviving motion picture of Orwell, but lo! in an appendix he describes how one has now been found. Oops.

I could go on.

There must be a better Orwell biography than this. Actually, this is written in a nice enough style, it's just that it's almost completely devoid of any facts and very thin on enlightening research, despite the fact that Taylor says he spent four years on it. The only thing that got me to the end was the fact that his biggest successes (Animal Farm and 1984) came right at the end of his life, coupled with my curiosity to see if Taylor would redeem himself at the last minute. Take my advice, and don't bother with this book. You'll find out a lot more from Wikipedia.
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on 3 September 2003
As you would expect from such an experienced biographer, DJ Taylor has brought a detailed insight to Orwell the man, possibly more accurately and comprehensively than others have done before. However, for me, what separates Taylor's book from his predecessors is his lifting the lid on the political positions taken by members of the pre war literary world in London. Orwells own excursion to fight in Spain was marred by internicene rivalry between various parts of the radical left, and the overtly political stance of publishers of the day just goes to show that nothing has changed.
DJ Taylor's style drew me easily into Orwell's world of contradictions and predjudices and I'm left with the feeling that he would have been a very uncomfortable man to know.
A compelling, if sometimes challenging, read.
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A very good, very readable and very interesting biography of Orwell. Taylor doesn’t seem to have uncovered any new material, nor indeed come to any new conclusions about his subject, but he presents the reader with a portrait of Orwell that is balanced and perceptive, and I very much enjoyed it.
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