Orwell & Empire
Oxford University Press, 2022, pp 240
ISBN: 978 0 192 86409 3
Once there was a British writer, an Englishman who was born in India. He was privately educated in England, did not go to university, returned to the East after leaving school, and lived and worked there for a handful of years. Empire, and the relation between those in authority and those under authority, became one of the principal themes of his writing, both in journalism and fiction (p. 152).
In his excellent new book, Douglas Kerr convincingly argues that empire was central to George Orwell’s cultural identity and that colonial life shaped the writer he became. Kerr’s ideas – first explored in his earlier, concise work on the writer, about the ‘familiar pattern’ of Orwell’s ‘journey to the East’ for one born into ‘a family of the military and imperial class’ – have been developed considerably. By allowing ‘Orwell to speak for himself’ of ‘the East’ and focusing on the oft-neglected historical/cultural context in which he wrote, Kerr offers new insights into an ‘eastward-facing Orwell, poised between the Anglo-Indian Rudyard Kipling and the Indo-Anglian Mulk Raj Anand’ (p. 17).
The introduction, a masterclass in synthesis and originality, employs irony and motifs from Orwell’s work to bring the ‘strong oriental subtext’ that ‘ran like the great seams of coal’ through British life, into focus:
The national beverage of the British, consumed in stately homes and in the shelters of the homeless, and celebrated in a characteristic essay by George Orwell called ‘A nice cup of tea’, is brewed from the leaves of a plant that cannot be cultivated in Europe, but grows on the hillsides of India and China. Tea was not the only quintessentially English thing, important to Orwell, that was not English at all. The aspidistra, that hardy and inelegant plant once so common in English middle-class homes that Orwell made it a comic symbol of respectability in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is also a botanical immigrant from the East. In English country gardens, oriental rhododendrons and camellias and peonies flourished under their assumed European names (p. 1).
Orwell, despite his enthusiasm for English cookery, beer, pubs, gardening and a nice cup of tea is shown to be ‘a lifelong immigrant’ of sorts, ‘reporting on England, like Kipling, as on a foreign land’ (p. 8).
Kerr’s ideas are structured into thematic and largely freestanding chapters: Animals, Environment, Burmese Days, Class, Empire, Geography, Women, Race, Police, The Law, and Literature. He compellingly challenges conventional narratives and tropes throughout and does not baulk at discussing Orwell’s limitations – especially on race, women and as a novelist. His commentary on Kipling and Orwell, the ‘twinned heraldic animals, the lion and the unicorn of modern British literature’, is particularly insightful (p. 152). Usually viewed through the prism of their differences as writers, Kerr’s list of similarities the men share includes that they were both:
- Anglo-Indians and Asian by birth;
- patriots but highly critical of their government and the citizenry;
- public intellectuals interested in raising the political consciousness of the nation;
- enamoured with nature and the English countryside, loved (and anthropomorphised) animals;
- men of principle but pragmatic about change;
- impatient with orthodoxy, theory and hypocrisy (pp 152-153).
Kerr details the lifelong intellectual quarrel Orwell had with Kipling, whom he ‘worshipped’ at thirteen when at prep school, ‘loathed’ at seventeen while a sixth-former at Eton, ‘enjoyed’ at twenty serving as a police officer in Burma, ‘despised’ at twenty-five while living a bohemian existence in Paris and was to rather ‘admire’ again by 1936, as a struggling professional author with three published novels (p. 155). Kerr sees Orwell’s ambivalence as evidence of paradoxical feelings towards both empire and his Anglo-Indian heritage. Considering the influence of Kipling on Orwell’s work published in the period 1931-1936 – such as ‘A hanging’, ‘Shooting an elephant’ and especially Burmese Days, where the Englishmen, who lounge at the club, are clearly Kiplingesque characters ‘stripped of their glamour and charm’ – the struggle is evident (p. 154). Burmese Days is a powerful, although limited, indictment of empire but the protagonist, John Flory, an English timber merchant, certainly understands the ‘commercial motives’ that underpinned British imperialism in a way Kipling never did’ (p. 68).
Edward Said’s analysis of European imperialism, in his seminal book Orientalism (1978), explored ‘the East’ as an invention of the Western mind. Imaginative writers, such as Kipling, were the intellectual lifeblood of this invention. Kerr is surefooted explaining why the term ‘orientalism’ (in lowercase) is vexed terminology rightly associated ‘with mastery, selection, and prejudice’ and necessarily employed to foreground ‘the powerful oriental dimension’ in the work of Orwell who:
… struggled all his life, and not with complete success, to exorcise the Orientalism (in Said’s sense) which came with his Anglo-Indian patrimony. The argument is that this is absolutely formative to his intellectual and political development. Replacing Orwell in the Orient—and examining the Orient in Orwell—are central to the ambition of this book to rehistoricize him (p. 4).
Kerr works hard to achieve that, knowing that the Anglo-Indians have ‘disappeared from view as completely as the Elizabethan apprentice boys or the London Huguenots’ (p. 5).He explains that the Anglo-Indians ‘carried a geography, and a history, different from people who took their bearings unquestioningly from the Greenwich meridian’ (p. 6). As Orwell knew well, it was nearly impossible to escape from the class into which you were born.
Kerr is rightly unconvinced about theoretical claims that suggest Orwell is a ‘post-colonial writer’ pointing out that the great anti-imperialist does not seem to have developed friendships with indigenous people in Burma (which may be understandable as was an imperial policeman) nor in London during the war (p. 75). Orwell was always sceptical about the realpolitik of a successful Burmese democracy (p. 8). Burmese Days makes little attempt to explore the private life of the local people and is most notable for descriptive passages of the country’s natural environment. Kerr notes that U Po Kyin, the villain of the novel, was the name of the only Indigenous face in the famous photograph taken at the Police Training School at Mandalay in 1923 (p. 125).
Orwell, the Anglo-Indian, had, indeed, internalised a geography different from those whose bearings were taken from the Greenwich meridian. Re-reading Homage to Catalonia (on completing Kerr’s book), I noted that Orwell’s memories of the war in Spain are represented through the geographical prism of the sub-continent. He arrives back in Barcelona on the train, after several months at the front, which reminds him of an experience more than a decade earlier:
From Mandalay, in Upper Burma, you can travel by train to Maymyo, the principal hill station of the province, on the edge of the Shan plateau. It is rather a queer experience. You start off in the typical atmosphere of an eastern city – the scorching sunlight, the dusty palms, the smells of fish and spices and garlic, the squashy tropical fruits, the swarming dark-faced human beings – and because you are so used to it you carry this atmosphere intact, so to speak, in your railway carriage. Mentally you are still in Mandalay when the train stops at Maymyo, four thousand feet above sea level. But in stepping out of the carriage you step into a different hemisphere. Suddenly you are breathing cool sweet air that might be that of England, and all round you are green grass, bracken, fir trees, and hill-women with pink cheeks selling baskets of strawberries. Getting back to Barcelona, after three and a half months at the front, reminded me of this. There was the same abrupt and startling change of atmosphere (Orwell 1998 : 87).
Britain’s empire was never far from Orwell’s consciousness. His plan to return to India, to work on a newspaper in Lucknow just before the Second World War, never reached fruition. Two subsequent, ‘wasted’ years at the BBC as a talks assistant, then as the producer broadcasting propaganda into the sub-continent is explored (albeit briefly) in several chapters. Kerr’s commentary on Mulk Raj Anand insightfully unpacks Orwell’s complex relationship to the politics of empire during this time at the BBC:
Anand was an anti-imperialist, a socialist, and an Indian nationalist. This was tricky for Orwell, who was highly suspicious of nationalism. But he defended Anand from charges of being anti-British and unfriendly to Anglo-Indians in his writing. He was impatient with Anand’s politics for the same reason that he disapproved of Congress agitation for Indian independence from Britain while the imperial Japanese army was storming through Asia. But as a literary figure, Orwell had no doubt about Anand’s value and importance (p. 165).
Anand believed Anglo-Indians were often out of touch with their own countrymen, as well as the sub-continent (p. 6). Orwell was very surprised that independence came so quickly after the end of the war for the Indian and Burmese people and Kerr notes that Orwell, wrestling with his illness and Nineteen Eighty-Four on Jura, wrote nothing about it (p. 166). The recent discovery of letters, written to David Astor from Paris in 1945, do reveal Orwell’s strong desire to return to Burma as a war correspondent to ‘report the closing stages of the campaign and interview some of the political leaders’. This fact, unknown to Kerr on publication, further strengthens his thesis about the centrality of the sub-continent to Orwell’s cultural, professional and imaginative identity. Kerr concludes by mentioning that Orwell, returning to ‘the Anglo-Indian world of his youth’, was working on a new short story, A Smoking-Room Story, when he died (p. 167).
Scholarly and readable, Douglas Kerr’s convincing new book is an essential one for those interested in Orwell, imperialism and the legacy of empire. It is also worth returning to his earlier book (2003) to see the development of Kerr’s thinking about Orwell and ‘the East’.
Highly recommended. You can buy a copy here.
Keeble, Richard Lance (2022) Letters from Paris throw new insights on Orwell, George Orwell Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 pp 3-7
Kerr, Douglas (2003) George Orwell (Writers and Their Work), Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House Publishers Ltd
Orwell, George (1998 ) Homage to Catalonia, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. VI, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1923) The Police Mess, Burma, N.P. Print.
*The review appears in “Orwell and Empire by Douglas Kerr”, George Orwell Studies (2022) Vol. 7, No.1 pp. 102–106