Despite George Orwell’s irrefutable progressive credentials, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was conservative at heart. A childhood spent in Henley-on-Thames – the archetypal upper middle-class English town and an Eton education, instilled in him a belief in traditional values, Anglo-Saxon ‘common sense’ and, perhaps most offensively to his intellectually minded critics, a life long love of poetry that rhymes. Even after his ‘conversion’ to socialism in his thirties, he still had no time for many fellow travellers, whether they were Marxist intellectuals or, even worse, vegetarian, sandal wearing, left-wing ‘cranks’. No amount of slumming it with down and outs in Paris and London or fighting fascism from Spanish trenches – and receiving a bullet through the neck for his efforts – could take Henley out of the boy, it would seem.
So when John Sutherland, author of the peculiar and delightfully engrossing new biography Orwell’s Nose, wonders what Orwell would make of today’s fashion-conscious craze for veganism, anyone familiar with Orwell’s work knows the answer: he would loathe it. As this biography clearly shows, this small ‘c’ conservative was also a rebel. He labelled himself a ‘Tory anarchist’ at Eton and he detested anything that smelt of conformism.
Which brings us to the reason for this new biography: smell. While re-reading the complete works of Orwell, Sutherland lost his sense of smell and was told by doctors it would never return. However, this unfortunate event focussed Sutherland’s attention on the importance of smell in Orwell’s output. Whether it is his infamous remark in The Road to Wigan Pier about the working classes smelling bad, the pungent aroma from the pipes smoked by the pigs in Animal Farm, or the constant reek of ‘boiled cabbage’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four’s dystopian London, Sutherland highlights the ways in which Orwell’s nose was always finely tuned to the odours that emanated from the people and places he wrote about.
Despite this theme, smells do not linger throughout the entire biography. After a bizarrely long ‘preface’ (50 pages!) in which Sutherland outlines various ways in which smell played a part in Orwell’s life, the book resumes a more traditional biographical style and it is not until Orwell is out of Eton and wondering what to do with his life that matters concerning the nostrils pop up again, when we learn how he associated the smell of the outdoors with deep carnal desires.
Such assertions about Orwell’s seedier side, as well as the general clumsiness of the book’s structure, are in fact the weakest things about this biography. At various points Sutherland accuses his subject of many unpleasant things, including coprophilia (don’t ask!).
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book and it is at its best when, instead of psychoanalysing Orwell, Sutherland instead champions him as a defender of free speech and a purveyor of truth. His defence of Orwell in the chapter covering his experience in the Spanish Civil War is especially convincing and necessary. Orwell left Spain a true believer in socialism but fanatically opposed to Communism, convinced the USSR had actively sabotaged Trotskyist and Anarchist groups in the civil war and even murdered some of their members. Of course, anyone with a little bit of Orwell’s ‘common sense’ knows he was correct to attack Stalinism, but even today, it is fashionable in academic circles to paint him as somewhat politically naïve.
Sutherland, a celebrated English Lit prof at University College London, is also strong when arguing that Orwell’s ideas about language and its misuse (most famously summed up in his pamphlet Politics and the English Language) are still relevant. In our current overly sensitive society, ‘Newspeak’ type phrases designed to inhibit debate, such as ‘safe spaces’ and ‘mansplain’, have become the norm, while so-called liberals celebrate when discourse they do not agree with is ‘shut down’. In fact, as Orwell famously said, ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’. It appears there has never been a better time to re-engage with this vegetarian hating ‘Tory anarchist’. Sutherland’s biography is a good start.