Orwell and Empire by Douglas Kerr

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Review by Karen Langley

George Orwell is still regarded as one of the 20th Century’s towering literary figures. Best known for his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, he in fact produced a large body of work encompassing fiction, essays, poetry and non-fiction writings – when collected, his work stretches to 20 volumes. Orwell’s background was an interesting one; born in India, from a colonial family, his experiences there and in the Burmese police force led him to be one of imperialism’s biggest critics. In a new book from Oxford University Press, Douglas Kerr explores Orwell and Empire, taking a fascinating look at the influence of the East on Orwell’s life and writing. 

Some of Orwell’s most effective works draw on his time in Burma, from early essays such as A Hanging to his first novel Burmese Days. Instead of taking a traditional look at the writer’s books, Kerr instead adopts an intriguing approach, dividing his chapters into what are almost themed, linked essays. So the chapters bear titles such as ‘Class’, ‘Empire’, ‘Geography’, ‘Women’ and ‘Race’, to name just a few. Within each section, Kerr explores Orwell through a specific lens, and this approach does allow for a very nuanced look at the writer’s work and thought.

Kerr’s view is obviously that empire was central to Orwell’s cultural identity, with his time in Burma in particular, with its experience of colonial life, being vital to making the man the writer that he was. Although Burmese Days, by necessity, gets much attention, it’s fascinating to see how Kerr draws out how those early years shaped all of Orwell’s writings in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Colonialism has many different aspects, and these again feed into the book’s discussions. Race is an obvious one, and as Kerr observes, Orwell spent much of his life fighting against racism, even recognising taints of it in himself yet always wanting to ensure fairness for all. Class too, and the authority assumed by those from a certain strata of society, is something Orwell railed against in so many of his works, whether fiction like Keep the Aspidistra Flying or journalistic works like The Road to Wigan Pier. The latter, in particular, contains many references to, and comparisons with, the conditions Orwell had seen amongst the indigenous populations of Burma, and this angle was especially interesting. 

… Orwell is not our contemporary. The values of the twenty first century did not all pertain in the past, and he was under political and cultural pressures different from ours, and not entirely clear even to him. Historicizing Orwell, replacing him as far as possible in the context of his time, is our best hope for understanding how it was that, for all his undoubted intelligence and thoughtfulness, he nonetheless felt, believed, and said some things that make us profoundly uneasy.

I found Kerr’s book to be eminently readable, and a fascinating new look at Orwell’s work. He’s at pains to be fair to his subject, acknowledging Orwell’s flaws but recognising he was a human struggling against his background and conditioning, as are we all. As someone who loves Orwell’s work I appreciated this sympathetic response. 

By examining the writings of George Orwell through the different perspective of each chapter, Kerr’s explorations throw up unexpected revelations. There are sometimes slight repetitions of subject and influences in the various chapters, and the different angles explored reinforce the points Kerr is making. I hadn’t taken on board before how much Orwell’s early experiences inform all of his works up to Nineteen Eighty Four, where its two minute hate focuses on Eurasian soldiers; and they even affect his views on Jura (where he spent his last years, commenting on Scotland that its rule from a distant capital made it almost an occupied country).

Orwell and Empire is an engrossing work from start to finish, clearly written (something of which the author would approve) and well annotated. It’s one of those books which takes a familiar subject and makes you look at it in a new light; and certainly, I’ll read and re-read Orwell in a different way after exploring his colonial life and its influence through Douglas Kerr’s eyes. 

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and still wonders how Orwell managed to be so eerily prescient…

Douglas Kerr, Orwell and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2022). 978-0192864093, 240pp., hardback.

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4 comments

  1. What an interesting look at a fascinating man! It sounds as though there’s a rich background here with some really interesting details. I’ve always liked Orwell’s writing, and it sounds as though this just adds to one’s understanding of him and his work.

    1. It certainly does, Margot, and I hadn’t really appreciated how deeply the influences of his early life had affected his later writings. A fascinating book!

      1. That looks fascinating!

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