A biography of George Orwell (1903-1950) based on his “obsessive relationship with smell.”
Having recently lost his sense of smell, Sutherland (Emeritus, English/Univ. College, London; A Little History of Literature, 2013, etc.) noticed that Orwell was hypersensitive to odors and loved the smell of farmyard animals and other “uplifting natural smells.” Although Sutherland asserts that it is possible to trace “scent narratives” in Orwell’s fiction, his “nasocriticism” rarely fulfills that project. Instead, Sutherland offers a brisk biographical overview, drawing in part from previous biographies that he admires: Bernard Crick’s, authorized by Orwell’s widow (1980), and later works by D.J. Taylor and Gordon Bowker, both published in 2003. Sutherland’s Orwell is awkward, cynical, and generally unsympathetic. He was a bright student, winning a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and then went on to Eton, where he met two influential and wealthy young men who helped him to get published; one “immensely and discretely” supported him as he lay dying of tuberculosis. Poverty was a consistent theme in Orwell’s life and work. Sutherland does not dispute rumors that Orwell was a “flagellophile” who derived “a fetishized sexual thrill from the whip and being whipped,” nor that he went to Burma (“the biggest brothel in the Empire”) for sex; nor that he was attracted by “the androgynous beauty of the dominant Burmese race.” As a young man, he botched his relationship with a girlfriend by nearly raping her as they walked through the countryside, a landscape that Orwell found “wildly aphrodisiac.” When he finally married, in 1936, his mother told his new wife that she must be “a brave girl” to marry her son. The couple lived in an “uncomfortably primitive” house in a remote village, where they tried to farm. Sutherland offers three “smell narratives” as appendices, but, otherwise, few odors waft through the book.
An unusual perspective illuminates a much written-about author.