Sniffing Out


Some Sutherland insights (and errors)


Richard Lance Keeble sniffs out some useful Orwellian insights in the work of the controversial biographer, John Sutherland


John Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography (London, Reaktion Books, 2016) has proven to be highly controversial. While its focus on ‘smell narratives’ throughout Orwell’s work is both original and fascinating, the biographical section of the book has been criticised for being under-researched. As a result Sutherland is left following hunches, raising (often meaningless) questions and, at worst, spreading scurrilous gossip.

Yet, in his other writings on Orwell, Sutherland offers some useful insights. For instance, in 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know (Quercus, London, 2011), he uses Nineteen Eighty-Four to help explain the concept of the ‘solidity of specification’ (pp 116-119). Sutherland distinguishes between ‘motivated’ and ‘unmotivated’ details. The first kind have a role to play in the eventual unfolding of the story; the second kind are milestones that ‘will play no part in the plot at all: they are just there’.

Sutherland goes on to look at the famous opening sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Is the detail here motivated or unmotivated? ‘On the face of it, what does it matter if it’s noon, or one o’clock or two o’clock? Not at all. It’s simply a time and place thing, creating (along with the rest of the paragraph) the mise en scène.’

But looking closer, motives do appear. Thirteen is unnatural, un-English. It’s also proverbially the unluckiest of numbers. Orwell originally wrote ‘and a million radios were striking thirteen’ but then changed to clocks. Why? Later, a nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and lemons/went the bells of St Clements’ comes to obsess Winston Smith. The jingle then goes through all London’s time-chiming churches. But Winston just can’t recall the last line. Finally, the Thought Police officer who sends Smith off to be tortured in Room 101 reminds him: ‘And here comes the chopper to chop off your head.’

As Sutherland concludes: ‘It is, one eventually works out, motivated. But how do we know until we have read the whole thing? One of the tasks alert readers must set themselves is to remember everything, in the event that it will “come in useful” later. Most detail won’t. Some will.’

In another section (pp 132-135), Sutherland explains the notion of the ‘double bind’: namely situations in which ‘separate instructions clash, then mesh, creating (like other kinds of bondage) paralysis’. To illustrate the point he again refers to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell makes institutionalised double bind central to the tyranny in the novel. ‘Winston Smith, a Times journalist, is professionally bound to report the facts. But as a party member, he must believe (wholeheartedly) the fact that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia when he knows that a few hours ago Eurasia was an ally against Eastasia. The only way though the double bind is “doublethink” – institutionalised schizophrenia.’

Winston Smith is also referenced in Sutherland’s section on irony (pp 92-95). In the name ‘he makes an ironic conjunction between the greatest war leader of the twentieth century and a nobody’ He adds: ‘Reading modern literature, it is wise to keep one’s nostrils always on the twitch for the sharp tang of such irony.’

Orwell, not surprisingly, also turns up in Sutherland’s monumental 818-page Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives (London, Profile Books, 2011). The biography is somehow crammed into just four pages (pp 431-435) slotted between the section on John Hersey and John O’Hara – and the one on Evelyn Waugh. Sutherland begins in typical controversial style: ‘Orwell’s status as a writer of novels is debatable, but Orwell’s status as a non-fiction writer is unimpeachable. He made reportage not merely a valid literary form but an instrument of social hygiene and personal therapy.’ He notes that when Winston Smith first puts pen to paper clandestinely he reports a public hanging – intriguingly the ‘subject of Orwell’s first significant published essay “A Hanging” (1931)’.

On returning to England from Burma in 1927, why did Orwell become a tramp? ‘It may have been self-punitive – his forty days in the desert – or it could have been political, inspired by the 1932 Jarrow “National Hunger March”. Or it could have been an act of literary homage to Jack London’s The People of the Abyss and W. H. Davies’ Autobiography of a Super-tramp.’

Sutherland rates Coming Up for Air (1939) Orwell’s best novel. ‘In a virtuoso act of ventriloquism, he took on the voice and personality of George Bowling, a shrewd, tubby, middle-aged insurance salesman, recently possessed of a set of gleaming false teeth.’ From 1940 (when Orwell reviewed over 100 books), through the BBC work and Animal Farm, his ‘Swiftian satire on totalitarianism’, Sutherland traces Orwell’s retreat to the island of Jura to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four. A professed atheist, Orwell asked to be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Sutherland quotes Orwell’s poem: ‘A happy vicar I might have been/Two hundred years ago’. And he concludes, ruefully: ‘One remembers that Swift was a vicar two hundred years ago. But hardly happy.’

But hang on. Aren’t there some mistakes in the Sutherland quotes? Remember how his deliberately provocative and often witty Orwell’s Nose was marred by a string of errors: for instance, Fredric Warburg is spelled incorrectly (p.13), biographer Bernard Crick is said (p. 47) to have founded the Orwell Society (he didn’t: it was Dione Venables); Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s first wife, is said (p. 160) to have been brought up in Sheffield (she grew up actually in South Shields). And so on.

Here, he says the rhyme goes ‘went the bells of St Clements’; in fact, it’s ‘say the bells of St Clement’s’ (and notice the apostrophe in Clement’s). He describes Winston Smith as a Times journalist. Significantly, in a discussion in the canteen Winston’s friend Syme does praise him for some of the pieces he writes occasionally in The Times in Newspeak. ‘They are good enough,’ comments Syme, ‘but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak.’ But Orwell is careful never to give Smith. who works in the Ministry of Truth largely ‘correcting’ back issues of The Times, the job title of journalist. Sutherland has Winston’s first diary entry being about a hanging: it wasn’t. Rather, he writes about going to the ‘flicks’ and seeing a ‘ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean’. And the great Jarrow Hunger March was in 1936. The hunger march in 1932 began in Glasgow and had drawn in 100,000 protestors by the time it ended in Hyde Park. But it did not go through Jarrow.

So Sutherland has fallen into a trap many writers fall into: they write too much too quickly and, inevitably, errors crop up. Authors: be warned!



Richard Lance Keeble is the chair of The Orwell Society

(with thanks to Les Hurst for his extremely useful comments on the first draft)



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