Orwell by DJ Taylor review – a very English socialist

Though he worked for the BBC for two and a half years and often spoke on air, no recording of George Orwell’s voice has been found. Many friends and memoirists have described it, and his struggles to make himself audible (all the more so after a sniper’s bullet went through his throat in Spain), but their accounts vary: was his voice high-pitched or husky, old Etonian or a Cockney drawl? DJ Taylor settles for calling it deadpan, but its elusiveness seems apt.

Orwell was one of the great voices of the 20th century. But the voice of the early novels isn’t the voice of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. And the voice of the reporter, down and out among Kentish hop-pickers or Grimethorpe miners, isn’t the voice of Tribune’s “As I Please” columnist. As Taylor rightly says, Orwell remains an indispensable reference point today, whether the topic is CCTV, ID cards, cancel culture or Ukraine.

But in a changing moral climate he has ceased to be Saintly George and become a murkier figure. His life was full of subterfuge and his fiction of stage management. He could be homophobic and antisemitic, too (with the slave trade in his family background), and for all his leftist meliorism his first thought on having a son (Richard, through adoption) was about putting him down for Eton. One friend portrayed him as a violent sadist. Now, 120 years after his birth, how can we make sense of Orwell’s contradictions?

This book is DJ Taylor’s second shot at a biography: The Life came out in 2003; The New Life, eight chapters and 100 pages longer, draws on various new caches of material, mostly letters. It doesn’t offer shocking revelations. But nor is it a reprise of the first book, except for the short thematic interludes between the main chapters. The approach is fair-minded and scrupulous, with a schoolboy passion underneath. Taylor first read Orwell at the age of 13 and has kept up with everything written about him since: “he is my park, my pleasance … a writer to whom no other twentieth-century titan comes close”.

The key to his reading of Orwell is what happened to him in Spain. Though married to Eileen only six months before, he was determined to fight for the Republican cause (“Good chaps, the Spaniards, can’t let them down”) and on his return became far more politically engaged: “at last [I] really believe in Socialism, which I never did before”. But he’d seen bullying and infighting too. For the rest of his life and in his two great novels, this was the war he fought, on behalf of a wholesome, English, sweetly C of E brand of socialism, as opposed to Stalinist totalitarianism.

Some of the most rewarding passages are about the practical Orwell, homesteader and handyman, keeping hens and goats

Equally crucial was that sniper’s bullet, which along with damp Catalan trench warfare damaged his already frail health. Born with defective bronchial tubes, he’d had bouts of pneumonia; after Spain he looked gaunt, haggard, primed for death. He hung on for 12 more years, but ill health is Taylor’s refrain throughout. If he resists making Orwell a caricatural bohemian consumptive, doomed to die young, he can’t disguise the stress and exhaustion Orwell endured in completing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Work was always his refuge in times of crisis: in the first 20 months of the second world war he produced around 200 book, theatre and film reviews, quite aside from longer essays; and in the year after Eileen’s sudden death (during an operation) he filed 130 pieces. The novel took him longer, but his insistence on typing the final version himself, while seriously ill in bed on Jura, hastened his final collapse. “It isn’t a book I would gamble on for a big sale,” he told his publisher, with his usual self-disparagement. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

If finishing the novel was his priority (work was always his priority), his second concern was to find a replacement wife. He’d been happy with the complaisant Eileen, though friends found it an odd match and it didn’t stop him pursuing other women, least of all old flames from Southwold, where his parents lived: “Eileen said she wished I could sleep with you about twice a year,” he wrote to one of them, “just to keep me happy.”

The list of those he made passes at is long – Jacintha, Brenda, Eleanor, Dorothy, Inez, Celia, among others. His wooing was mostly hapless, but after Eileen died, and he had Richard to care for, his come-ons had a new focus and intensity: to one candidate, Anne, he wrote: “What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.” Anne declined but Sonia Brownell was more amenable. Gold-digger or Florence Nightingale? Opinions differ. She’s treated sympathetically by Taylor, though she couldn’t save her man. Orwell married her from his hospital bed and died 100 days later.

Some of the most rewarding passages here, aside from those on Southwold, are about the practical Orwell, homesteader and handyman, at his best in a ramshackle cottage, keeping hens and goats, growing potatoes, pruning raspberry bushes, selling eggs to the milkman. It’s a strand Taylor links to the novels (where love is made in the countryside) and to Orwell’s ideas of what a utopian society would be.

The book is astute about all the other strands too – schoolboy, tramp, teacher, bookseller, broadcaster, propagandist for decency – and by the standard of most lives it’s comparatively short. No further biography will be needed for the foreseeable future, though it seems that one or even two of Orwell’s journals are lying in a Moscow archive. And who knows, maybe the BBC, which has an Orwell statue mounted outside Broadcasting House, will one day turn up a recording of his voice.

• Orwell: The New Life by DJ Taylor is published by Constable (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.