British academic and writer John Sutherland lost his sense of smell three years ago during hay fever season. George Orwell (nee Eric Arthur Blair) apparently suffered from an acute sensitivity to smells, called nasal hyperaesthesia. Pair the two conditions, and Sutherland seized a new way of thinking about Orwell. He cites a quote from Orwell’s book The Road to Wigan Pier, which “contains the four words that have hung like an albatross around Orwell’s neck: ‘The working classes smell.’” From this was born Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography, to be released this year.
Sutherland guides us through Orwell’s writing gigs in the early 20th century, his years in Burma, his 1937 engagement in the Spanish Civil War , and odd jobs such as picking hops and tutoring in English, all along the way to writing success.
It’s unavoidable that some conjecture comes into play when portraying a person who’s no longer living. Sutherland relies now and then on existing biographies, and illustrates his observations on Orwell’s life with select passages from Orwell’s fictions. Conflicting stories exist, especially concerning Orwell’s early years. One biographer, Bernard Crick “was confronted with the awkward fact that he couldn’t trust what George Orwell wrote about Eric Blair.” Sutherland then asks, “What does an ethical biographer do in that situation? Hums and hahs.”
It’s pretty certain that Orwell was born in 1903 in India to a French mother and English father. He was shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, his first wife Eileen died and he married his second wife Sonia days before he died of tuberculosis in 1950.
So more about the nose. Referring to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Sutherland writes: “Among the many points of interest in the novel is, as usual, the Orwellian obsession with smell.” For example, the novel’s protagonist Gordon creates an ad copy slogan for a product to combat stinky feet. Then Sutherland tosses in some trivia: “The term ‘BO’ had actually been invented in 1919 by the Odo-Ro-No firm [ . . . ]. The early deodorant industry was aimed at women, principally, but gradually became a man thing in the era of 1930s middle-class insecurity.”
Orwell’s best-selling books are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Sutherland focuses more strongly on A Clergyman’s Daughter and The Road to Wigan Pier, giving us an appendix on the “smell narrative” of each.
A Clergyman’s Daughter contains the following: “a melancholy smell of boiled cabbage and dish-water was oozing,” “A faint scent radiated from her – an ethereal scent, analysable as eau-de-Cologne, mothballs, and a sub-flavour of gin,” and “The harsh odour of maleness forced itself into her nostrils.”
This sampling is from Wigan Pier: “On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave,” “the room stank like a ferret’s cage,” and the infamous “The lower classes smell,” earlier phrased as “The working classes smell.” This sentence of Orwell’s may or may not have been construed negatively out of context. The debate goes on.
After reading about so many odors, you may want to open a window.
But Orwell’s Nose isn’t just about smells. Sutherland gives us a taste of how Orwell seemed to purposely hurt people close to him by placing thinly disguised versions of them in his novels. “Orwell’s depiction of his first wife Eileen (as Rosemary) in Keep the Aspidistra Flying is disparaging,” writes Sutherland. “Much more so is the fictional portraiture of his second wife. It is accepted that Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘is’ Sonia.”
Elsewhere he writes, “How could [Orwell], for example, write that cruel description of a son’s callous indifference at his father’s funeral in Coming Up for Air, as his own father was dying of cancer?” “Luckily,” he adds, Orwell’s father died “having only read a glowing review of the novel.”
So Orwell comes off as an occasional jerk, though an extremely talented one. As usual, fame glosses over imperfections.
This book is for fans of George Orwell, or for those with either nasal hyperaesthesia like Orwell or Sutherland’s self-described “organically neutralized” ability to smell. For whomever is drawn to this book, John Sutherland is a skilled, entertaining, and often humorous writer, so interested readers can look forward to the finished publication.