Francis Mulhern in New Left Review:
Rob Colls’s intellectual portrait George Orwell: English Rebel joins an already substantial body of commentary—his introduction lists some twenty predecessors, who themselves are only a sub-set of the much larger corpus of writing devoted to the man, the works and their afterlife. Where he differs from these is in his particular interest in Englishness, which has been his speciality as a historian over the past thirty-odd years. That too has been a busy field, and the result is a book of conspicuous learning, more than a quarter of its length given over to the scholarly apparatus. It is also, within its simple chronological scheme, a digressive book, here taking off to explore some aspect of a general situation, there pausing over some circumstance or consideration, as if wanting to find room for everything. In this, Colls is faithful to his general understanding of Englishness as a historical formation: the title of his principal work on the topic, a loose-limbed discussion ranging from the Middle Ages to the present, is an awkward, telling epitome of his position. Identity of England (2002) finds its form by negation of the more obvious and fluent phrasings to hand in the book itself. (Omit the essentializing or stipulativeThe . . . while avoiding an easy, evasive plural or the deceptive calm of English Identity: national character is a singular not a plural, yet indeterminate and changeful.) Colls’s understanding of Orwell is of a piece with this. ‘I am not saying that Englishness is the key to Orwell . . . There is no “key” to Orwell’, he writes in his Introduction, ‘any more than he is a “box” to open.’ But then, in a parting sentence whose placing and manner are worth noting for later consideration: ‘His Englishness, though, is worth following through.’
This is the optic through which Colls reviews the familiar course of Orwell’s life: private schooling and service in the Imperial Indian Police (1922–28); the rejection of Empire and return to England with the aim of becoming a writer; living hand to mouth in Paris, hop-picking and tramping in the South of England, a self-styled Tory anarchist discovers the poor (1928–31); the early novels and the decisive encounter with the North of England working class (1932–36); a socialist fighting in Spain, fighting at home, against fascism, Stalinism and war (1937–39); the herald of revolutionary patriotism (1940–43); the fabulist of political betrayal (1943–50). The turning-point in the sequence comes in 1936, and its significance, as Colls reads it, is that during his two months of fieldwork for the publishing commission that became The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell ‘for the first time in his life found an England he could believe in’, a popular, proletarian Englishness that would serve him as a political stimulus and test from then onwards, inspiring his wartime advocacy of revolutionary patriotism.
The test applied in two ways. It served to justify Orwell’s unrelenting campaign against the left intelligentsia, whom he portrayed as a menagerie of grotesques, rootless eccentrics with a fatal weakness for abstraction and hard-wired doctrine, gullible in the face of Soviet boosterism and nihilistic in their attitude towards English institutions. Colls relays these themes in a kindred spirit, as contemptuous as Orwell if not so inventively abusive in his treatment of abstractions, systems, ‘set-squares and equations’, dogmas asserted in disregard of personal experience and what is ‘reasonably assumed to be the case’—everything that is suggested to him by the word ‘ideology’. However, he goes further and applies the test to Orwell himself. The ‘ludicrous’ anti-intellectualism, as he sees it, was at least in part a projection of the feelings of deracination that Orwell recognized and feared in himself.