Few writers have been more hard-working or prolific than George Orwell: alongside six novels and three books of reportage, he bashed out almost four thousand pages of prose for various print media. When he was perilously ill in hospital in 1947, staff had to confiscate his typewriter to prevent him from working. D J Taylor, the author of some twenty-nine books, is almost as industrious. His latest production, a new life of Orwell, is not entirely new, but is a significant revamp of his award-winning biography of 2003.
Taylor is convinced that this act of retelling is justified by ‘a vast amount of new material’ that has surfaced since the writing of the first life. The vastness of that material might be queried, as might his confidence that in several instances it makes Orwell ‘seem a radically different person’ (the differences are never quite specified). Taylor certainly makes good use of correspondence that has been discovered since 2003 – in particular letters to Orwell’s young loves Eleanor Jaques and Brenda Salkeld – but the main moves and mood of the story remain much the same.
Not that the tale isn’t worth retelling, beginning with the imperial airs and straitened graces of Eric Blair’s childhood, his studious days at St Cyprian’s and his more dissipated period at Eton. We re-encounter the lonely policeman in Burma; the down-and-out writer in Southwold, London and Paris; the