D. J. Taylor: Orwell’s Face

Orwell was interested in faces. Above all, he was fascinated by their ability to convey the characteristics – the personality, in extreme cases the ideology – of what lay beneath the skin.

The poem inspired by the Italian militiaman who shook his hand at the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona ends with the words: ‘But the thing that I saw in your face/No power can disinherit/No bomb that ever burst/Shatters the crystal spirit.’ One of the last things he wrote in his hospital notebook was the valedictory epigram: ‘At fifty, every man has the face he deserves.’ Primed to tell him about the mentalities they concealed, faces stared up at him from print. Whenever you read a strongly individual piece of writing, he believed, the features of the author could be glimpsed somewhere behind the page: not always accurate portraits, but a figurative projection. Reading Dickens, famously, he saw ‘the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry.’

It would be surprising, given the importance that Orwell ascribed to human features, if they didn’t merit lavish descriptions in his work. Each of his early novels opens with a shrewd little survey of the physiognomy of the principal character. These are not generally prepossessing. Even without his hideous birthmark, Flory in Burmese Days has a face grown ‘very haggard in spite of the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look round the eyes’. Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter, on the other hand, sees in the mirror ‘a thin, blonde, unremarkable kind of face, with pale eyes and a nose just a shade too long: and if you looked closely you could see crows’ feet round the eyes, and the mouth, when it was in repose, looked tired.’ Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, catching sight of his reflection in the window of Mr McKechnie’s bookshop, divines that it is ‘not a good face. Not thirty yet, but moth-eaten already. Very pale, with bitter, ineradicable lines.’ The single exception to this rule, perhaps, is George Bowling – the least cast-down of Orwell’s 1930s creations – who decides that he ‘hasn’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those brick-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes.’ Even Bowling, though, has just lost the last of his natural teeth.

And these, it should be pointed out, are Orwell’s heroes and heroine, the people with whom he sympathises and regards, in however complex a way, as emblems of himself. Turn to his minor characters and one might as well be inspecting a line of Victorian waxworks. Dorothy’s solitary companion at early morning Communion is the venerable Miss Mayfill, in whose ancient, bloodless face the mouth is ‘surprisingly large, loose and wet. The under lip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano.’ If Miss Mayfill resembles an elderly bloodhound, Julia, Gordon’s sister, might be taken for a large, lumbering bird: ‘a tall, ungainly girl… with a thin face just a little too long – one of those girls who even at their most youthful reminds one irresistibly of a goose’. As for Lieutenant Verrall, the cavalry officer who supplants Flory in Elizabeth Lackersteen’s affections, however hard, brutal and fearless its contours, his face in the last resort is that of a rabbit. To move a bit deeper into the text, into its world of momentary glimpses and fleeting impressions, is to fetch up instantly in a chamber of horrors. ‘A bad face he had,’ Gordon thinks, looking out of the bookshop window at a browsing passer-by. ‘Pale, heavy… Welsh, by the look of him.’ ‘Corner Table,’ whose bland features stare down from the Bovex ad that Gordon so despises, has ‘an idiotic, grinning face, like the face of a self-satisfied rat’. Bloodhounds, geese, rabbits, rats: the seeds of Orwell’s anthropomorphic farmyard were sown many years before Animal Farm.

None of these faces – Flory’s, Comstock’s, Bowling’s – is recognisably Orwell’s own, although his friend Richard Rees believed that in describing Dorothy Hare’s features he was describing a feminised version of himself. At the same time, certain adjectives recur: ‘thin’, for example, and ‘pale’. Like their creator, Orwell’s characters look old before their time: even Rosemary’s freshness in Keep the Aspidistra Flying is somehow compromised by the two white hairs on her crown which she declines to pull out. Youthfulness, where it exists, is practically a guarantee of irresponsibility. Bowling’s retired public school Classics master chum Porteous, for instance, has a ‘thin, dreamy kind of face that’s a bit discoloured but might almost belong to a boy, though he must be nearly sixty’. Porteous, with his refusal to take Hitler seriously and his belief in the ‘eternal verities’, has never grown up.

With the possible exception of Verrall’s (‘a rabbit, perhaps, but a tough and martial rabbit’) none of these faces embodies or represents any kind of power. In some ways their weakness is a result of the detail lavished on them. Significantly, when Orwell came to describe faces – actual or fictional – with the ability to put millions of men on the march his language is much more abstract and imprecise. Big Brother’s head, which pursues Winston Smith from every hoarding and every telescreen, is simply ‘black-haired, black-moustachioed, full of power and mysterious calm’. The qualities that give the face its resonance, its capacity to command and subdue, hang in the ether. Confronted with a real-life tyrant, too, Orwell’s response is oddly unsatisfactory. There is a curious review of Mein Kampf, written in the spring of 1940, which discusses the standard publicity photographs of Hitler. It was, Orwell decided, ‘a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified.’ Most contemporary commentators were inclined to be a little less charitable than this, but Orwell had detected something in Hitler’s face to which he invariably reacted: self-pity.

All this raises the question of what Orwell thought of his own face, and what other people thought of it. Anthony Powell was not alone in detecting a resemblance to Doré’s version of Don Quixote – in fact Paul Potts’ affectionate 1950s memoir is entitled ‘Don Quixote on a Bicycle’. An East End woman who met him during his tramping days was reminded of Stan Laurel. In certain respects – a throwback to his Limouzin forebears – it was not an English face. Powell, again, noted the similarity to French workmen seem contemplating life in Parisian estaminets. Orwell himself was uninterested in, in fact downright indifferent to, his own personal appearance. Requests later on in his career for publicity photographs invariably ran into trouble. The problem was only solved in 1946 when his friend Vernon Richards was commissioned to take a portfolio of pictures in the flat (the camera eventually moves out into the surrounding streets) at Canonbury Square, Islington. And yet for all this indifference Orwell’s face is, to my mind, one of the most extraordinary things about him: extraordinary for the way it changes, and, ultimately, its almost complete separation from the template of youth. Place a picture of Thackeray in his white-haired old buffer phase next to Maclise’s portrait of the twenty-two-year-old club lounger and you can at least recognise the similarity of the facial lines. It would be possible to set the famous ‘Orwell at the microphone’ BBC photograph alongside Jacintha Buddicom’s childhood snaps without realising that they are the same person. ‘What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece?’ he asked in The Lion and the Unicorn. In Orwell’s case, not even a physical similarity.

The degeneration of Orwell’s features between childhood and young manhood is quite startling. The Eton pictures, even the solitary Burma Police shot, show a chubby, almost moon-faced boy. By the time of Dennis Collings’s Walberswick beach photograph of 1932 – he was then thirty-one – he looks forty. In the line of Spanish comrades snapped at an ILP summer school three years later he looks nearer fifty. Friends who picked up with him again in the 1930s after a decade and a half’s gap were shocked by this contrast: Connolly noted the gulf between the ravaged grooves of Orwell’s face and his own plump, cigar-smoking persona. And finally there are Vernon Richards’s photographs, the last-known photographs of Orwell in existence, taken in the Islington flat six months after the publication of Animal Farm. Encouraged by the presence of a friend – two friends, as Richards brought his wife, Marie-Louise – Orwell looks more relaxed than in any previous incarnation. Absorbed, kindly, still a little detached from the proceedings, he changes his son Richard’s trousers, types, rolls cigarettes, takes the child for a walk in his pram, examines a Burmese sword half-drawn from its scabbard and performs various manoeuvres in his workshop. In by far the most striking portrait he sits bolt upright and expressionless in his chair. It is an impassive, elongated face, the eyes fixed on everything and nothing. At forty-two, he could be any age between fifty and seventy-five, ‘full of power and mysterious calm’.

This excerpt is reproduced from Orwell: The Life (2003), by kind permission of the author.


D. J. Taylor was born in Norwich in 1960. He is the author of five novels, including English Settlement, which won a Grinzane Cavour prize, Trespass and The Comedy Man. He is also well-known as a critic and reviewer, and is the author of A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, After the War: The Novel and England since 1945 and an acclaimed biography, Thackeray. His critically acclaimed Orwell biography, Orwell: The Life (2003) won the Whitbread Biography Award, and he gave the 2005 Orwell Lecture entitled ‘Projections of the Inner “I”: George Orwell’s Fiction’. He is married with three children and lives in Norwich. David is a trustee of The Orwell Foundation.