Orwell's Nose: A Pathological Biography

Author(s): John Sutherland

Reaktion Books | No Category | Biography

Some time ago, John Sutherland permanently lost his sense of smell. At about the same time he embarked on a re-reading of George Orwell's works, and his lack of olfactory sense cast an entirely new light on the re-evaluation. What he now noticed was just how acutely attuned to scent Orwell was: rich descriptions of odours, fetors and reeks occur throughout his works, from Winston Smith's apartment building in Nineteen Eighty-Four: 'The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,' to John Flory's concubine Ma Hla May in Burmese Days: 'A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her.'Orwell's Nose is an original and imaginative account of the life and work of George Orwell, exploring the 'scent narratives' that abound in Orwell's fiction and non-fiction. Along the way the author elucidates questions that remain unanswered in previous biographies, and addresses gaps in the evidence of the writer's life and legacy. Orwell covered his tracks well; this illuminating and irreverent book provides a new understanding of one of our most iconic and influential writers.


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“Sutherland is not the first to notice that Orwell was “a virtuoso of the nostril”. George Orwell: A Life in Letters, edited by Peter Davison, has 10 entries under “Orwell: smell”. But I had read a great deal of Orwell without noticing his “obsessive relationship with smell”.  [This] book sent me walking about nose aloft, like a Bisto Kid, hungry for (in Sutherland’s phrase) “life’s olfactio”

Andrew Martin – The Financial Times    (JC BookGrocer)


'As the title suggests, this entertaining and scholarly, if somewhat eccentric, biography examines the life and works of George Orwell through the lens of his olfactory preoccupations ... What emerges is a rigorous, rollicking, and at times ribald portrait of the author, from his childhood "born into a class neurotic about sanitation" to the "lower-class smell" of his barracks as a British colonial policeman in Burma and his eventual marriage and purchase of "a grand building, still smelling of oats and horse piss" ... The overall depiction is diligently researched and scrupulously evenhanded, with the two authors' (perhaps) shared fixation providing a unique scaffolding for a fresh look at a luminary of English letters.' - Publishers Weekly 'Do we need another biography of George Orwell? The answer is yes, if it is as racily readable as Orwell's Nose. Orwell's obsession with smells, agreeable and (more often) offensive has been noted before, but never explored to such effect, not excluding the smells of shag tobacco and b.o. he emitted himself. Sutherland combines admiration for Orwell's "perfect prose" with a candid registration of his imperfections as a man, and his almost masochistic tendency to make life difficult for himself - which often however inspired his finest work.' - David Lodge 'It's difficult to describe this odd, wonderful, and exhilarating book by John Sutherland on Orwell. Sutherland is without doubt one of the best minds at work in literary studies, and one expects from him the unexpected. Orwell's Nose is certainly one of his most unexpected books, and might well be his best to date. This shrewd and riveting book deserves a wide audience.' - Jay Parini, author of Every Time a Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal

John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English at University College London. He is the author of some thirty books, including A Little History of Literature (2013) and How to Be Well Read (2014). He is a reviewer and essayist for Winston Smith's newspaper, The Times.

A Note on Notes 8Foreword 9Preface 11The Life 51Appendix i: Blair/Orwell's Smoking Diary 235Appendix ii: The Smell Narrative ofA Clergyman's Daughter 241Appendix iii: The Smell Narrative of The Road to Wigan Pier 245References 248Acknowledgements 257Photo Acknowledgements 258Index 259

General Fields

  • : 9781780236483
  • : Reaktion Books
  • : Reaktion Books
  • : 0.476
  • : July 2016
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : John Sutherland
  • : Hardback
  • : 240