A good biography merely tolerates its subject; a great biography is often a form of reprimand or reproof. To be confronted with the failings and foolishnesses of another often calls forth the moralist in the most circumspect and can produce work of astonishing vehemence. Jonathan Bate’s controversial biography of Ted Hughes is one recent example. But there is yet another kind of biography that is neither attack nor defence and is in fact often a form of self-analysis and self-reproach. Geoff Dyer’s biography of D H Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage (1997), famously puts the ‘auto’ into the biographical and tells us much more about Dyer than it does about Lawrence. John Sutherland’s new book about George Orwell tells us a lot about Orwell; it also tells us rather a lot about Sutherland.
In the first part of the book Sutherland sets out a case for the importance of attending to what he calls the ‘scent’ or ‘smell narratives’ in Orwell’s fiction. Orwell, he claims, was ‘a virtuoso of the nostril’, with ‘the beagle’s rare ability to particularize and separate out the