No one would have been more surprised by the fame that George Orwell has achieved than the man himself. Not widely known until the last year of his life, he is the 20th-century writer who overshadows all others. His account of the Spanish Civil War is a revelation, not only of the nature of that conflict but of a type of savage, internecine, popular warfare that is instantly recognisable today. Animal Farm captured the experience of life under communism and was read avidly behind the Iron Curtain. Nor has Orwell’s work dated as the Cold War has faded from memory. With Edward Snowden announcing the approach of something like a surveillance state, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have spiked worldwide. No other author of the last century has Orwell’s universal reach. Yet this was a writer who spent much of his life reconciling himself to his own country, which he first despised, then admired and eventually came to love. While making a cult of Englishness, Orwell somehow turned himself into a global figure.
The author of Identity of England (2002), Robert Colls places the contradictions of Orwell’s Englishness at the heart of this subtle, probing and refreshingly original new study. Orwell was a thoroughly political writer; at the same time, nothing like a theory of politics can be extracted from his work. As