D. J. Taylor: Orwell’s Voice

Despite his years at the BBC, despite countless one-man broadcasts and dozens of panel discussions, no record of Orwell’s voice survives. For an idea of what he sounded like and the words that he used – diction, delivery, phrasing – one can only turn to the testimonies of his friends.

The Spanish surgeon who treated the bullet wound in his throat in 1937 assured him that the power of speech would never return. As it turned out, this was unduly pessimistic. His voice came back, but it had lost its vigour. In a crowded room, or against background noise, Orwell had trouble making himself heard. A friend from the 1940s remembered him at a packed luncheon table trying once or twice to raise the necessary decibels and then abandoning the attempt, to pass the rest of the meal in silence.

One thing all Orwell’s friends were agreed upon was that his accent was upper-class. In an age when locution was quite as important as the clothes one wore, Orwell’s vocal register immediately enveloped its owner in a pair of spiritual plus-fours. ‘Markedly Old Etonian,’ thought his young friend Michael Meyer, by which he meant simultaneously high-pitched and drawling. No doubt Orwell was aware of his elevated tone. The young George Bowling, joining a west London tennis club in Coming Up For Air, listens to its middle-class suburban members calling out the score in voices that are ‘a passable imitation of the upper crust’. His creator’s was the real thing, ripe for modification if he thought the social circumstances demanded it. There were occasional forays, for example, into the style known as ‘Duke of Windsor cockney’. A BBC colleague once heard him assuring an Asian contributor that skin tone played no part in their relationship: ‘The fack that you’re black and I’m white has nudding woddever to do wiv it.’ On down and out excursions he tried to stick with cockney impersonations. In fact the tramps and the Kentish hop-pickers noticed simply that he talked ‘different’. Amidst a Babel tower of contemporary regional accents, not everyone located his vocal distinctiveness in class. Yet however drawled and languid Orwell’s voice, there was something peculiar about it – a peculiarity that seems to have preceded the Fascist bullet. Gow remembered that he ‘croaked discordantly’ at Eton. A teenage girl met in Suffolk years before the Spanish trip was struck by his ‘jerky sentences’. David Astor noted a distinctive, staccato way of talking, ‘husky rather than indistinct’, but, given that his first wife apparently adopted several of its mannerisms, clearly imitable by those in close proximity to it. Lucian Freud had the curious impression of a voice struggling to overcome some kind of obstruction, ‘literally monotone’. Powell, perhaps predictably, saw it as a question of upbringing – a way of speaking brought back to him when talking to former forestry officials from India and Africa, an intonation possibly even subconsciously copied from Richard Blair.

Such voices are suited to the dead-pan. Orwell’s humour seems to have been intimately connected to the way in which he delivered his words. Astor once asked him what the Marxists thought of him. Orwell itemised some choice pieces of invective. ‘A Fascist hyena… A Fascist octopus.’ There was a pause. ‘They’re very fond of animals.’

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. Reproduced from Orwell: The Life (2003), by kind permission of the author.