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The Truth about Orwell

George Orwell

by Raymond Williams
Viking, 102 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Road to Wigan Pier

by George Orwell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 232 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Just as I sat down to write this article, a letter appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (October 13) from Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell, stating that The Unknown Orwell by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams contains “mistakes and inaccuracies” and misinterprets Orwell’s character, and that it was written without her cooperation (with the result that the authors were not permitted to see important documents at University College, London, which are in her trust). In refusing to assist the authors she was respecting Orwell’s wish, stated in his will, that no biography of him should be written. At the same time, since she now realizes that there is no way of preventing people from writing about Orwell’s life, she has authorized Professor Bernard Crick, who is already writing about Orwell’s political thought, to write a biography, and she has given him “irrevocable” access to the materials.

I congratulate Sonia Orwell on her wise decision (which must have been very painful to her) to make the Orwell material available, and perhaps one can be grateful to Stansky and Abrahams for jogging her into appointing Professor Crick. For a writer to attempt to prevent his biography from being written is like imposing an ordinance on his neighbors not to talk about him behind his back. The only effect such a demand could possibly have would be to silence one’s loyal friends (who would say “hush” instead of speaking out in one’s defense) and loosen the tongues of enemies and gossips. The eventual answer to this would necessarily be to authorize a biography based on the facts made accessible.

The Unknown Orwell is, however, neither gossipy nor malicious. It may contain mistakes (doubtless we shall see a list of them) but it is in no way indiscreet or damaging to Orwell’s reputation. I myself disagree at some points with the authors’ interpretation of Orwell, but it is difficult to think that seeing the withheld material would have substantially altered their views. A biographer’s interpretation of his subject is, after all, simply a point of view. Presumably Professor Crick will have a point of view about Orwell with which, however well founded, one might disagree.

The background to their writing this book is that Stansky and Abrahams had originally planned their brilliant previous book Journey to the Frontier as a study of the attitudes and actions of four English writers during the Spanish Civil War—Julian Bell, John Cornford, George Orwell, and another English writer, still alive. Their researches into Cornford and Bell were so fruitful that they found they had enough material for a book exclusively about them. Since they explored the histories of their subjects not just about “Spain” but about their educations and early lives, they were left with a mass of unused material, chiefly about Orwell. The Unknown Orwell is based on this. It is written by writers well qualified to discuss their subject. It does not fall into the class of Robert Sencourt’s biographical memoir of T. S. Eliot, which is spottily informed but written by someone completely incapable of understanding Eliot’s work or personality.

Orwell came from one of those English families which although middle class are rather mixed up socially. His real name was Eric Blair (Orwell being a pseudonym which he adopted when he published his first book). The Blairs had come down in the world rather, and Eric Blair’s father had a position in the Indian Civil Service (Sub-Deputy Opium Agent) of exactly the kind that would make a son ask himself, when sent home to preparatory school in England, whether his father was a gentleman. Our authors make too much of the Blair family tree, which had ramifications reaching into the family of the present Earl of Westmorland. I cannot really believe this was important. The English, unless they are intensely snobbish, don’t—or didn’t—attach much importance to their remote cousinly connections with the aristocracy. But small boys of my own generation were told we must write “esq.” after our father’s name on the envelope, because we were gentlemen. Not to be a tradesman was what mattered.

Eric Blair’s mother was half French, her father being of a French family—Limouzin—which had for long conducted businesses in Burma. Blair spent the first four years of his life in Bengal, to which his father had been transferred, and was then taken by his mother and two sisters to England. He was a near-win—almost near-miss—child who got a scholarship first at St. Cyprian’s, a well-known prep school graced with the presence of two other remarkable boys, Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton. Later Blair won a scholarship to Eton.

Stansky and Abrahams give us a tremendous amount of English school and “class” background. The picture of Eric Blair that emerges is of a gritty, physically unattractive child, one of those boys who seem to have been born old, as Cyril Connolly recalled, and with no close friends, but still making his mark as an intellectual and contributing priggish, moralistic stories to the school literary society.

After leaving school, Eric Blair, who did not want to go up to Oxford or Cambridge, joined the Indian Imperial Police Force. Stansky and Abrahams regard this as a choice well within the tradition of the Blair family, since his opium-supervising father had been a kind of police agent. But it was a non-choice rather than a choice: a young man taking the first job in sight in order to get away from home and from the Etonians now become Oxfordians. Perhaps, too, the idea of the police had for Blair the fascination of repulsion (though his views were thoroughly patriotic and conservative and un-Orwellian at the time). His school poems were inspired by those of Kipling and his essays by his own conviction that slackers should be punished, though these attitudes were combined with a cynical disrespect for his schoolmasters. Eric Blair was a man who (while following secretly or openly his vocation as a writer) always nonchalantly chose for himself the least pleasant job, not exactly to punish himself, but because he instinctively knew that unpleasant tasks were those which plunged him deepest into the grim realities of living.

In Burma, as a police official, Blair learned to detest imperialism. Later he emphasized that he did so because he had seen it and lived it at first hand and as a wicked part of it. He felt guilty about having been in the police. He resigned from his job there, returned to England, and set out on his toilsome journey to become a writer.

Long before he had become an “idiosyncratic socialist” Blair had determined to be a writer. The most interesting sections of The Unknown Orwell are probably those concerned with this. He contributed poems and stories to an Eton magazine called The Election Times. A revealing story is called “The Slack-bob.” It is an extremely priggish parable attacking boys who are slack about playing games. The poems that Stansky and Abrahams quote are all conventionally patriotic. It is as though the police officer with a literary turn had written them.

A few of his contemporaries at Eton had extraordinary literary gifts: Cyril Connolly, Brian Howard, Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), Harold Acton, and Anthony Powell. Orwell had little connection with them as they were “Oppidans” (not scholars). But he had known Connolly already at St. Cyprian’s. These elegant, sophisticated, witty, and attractive boys (Orwell suffered at Eton from not being pretty) were altogether “superior persons.” They were the nucleus of the Oxford Aesthetes who were to have such an influence at that university from 1926 to 1929.

Orwell’s writing, when it was to emerge, was to be as different as possible from theirs. It seems to me probable that resentment of their writing, which was so much bound up with their manners and “life style,” must have influenced him. According to Stansky and Abrahams he went about learning to write with a plodding assiduity which was the very opposite of their gay dilettantism. He took a room in London and wrote long poems, “some in rhymed quatrains, some in unrhymed iambic pentameters. Their tone was cynical; their language banal; their ironies predictable.” How different from the rich, exotic, Sitwellian verses which Harold Acton had published in Oxford Poetry and from the prose of Cyril Connolly.

During this period he showed his work to the poet Ruth Pitter but not to Connolly. Nearly ten years later, in 1936, he wrote to Connolly inquiring after the novel he was writing, with the suggestion that he would like to boost it—not that that would do it much good. A few weeks later he reviewed this novel—The Rock Pool—in a way that showed how far stronger with him was the impulse to tell what he took to be the truth about his friend’s work than to give it the suggested forward shove.

The Rock Pool is a wittily malicious account of an English artists’ colony in the South of France. After suggesting that this kind of thing has been done much better by Norman Douglas and Aldous Huxley, Orwell goes on;

Even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy. For it is clear that Mr. Connolly rather admires the disgusting beasts he depicts, and certainly he prefers them to the polite sheep-like Englishman; he even compares them, in their ceaseless war against decency, to heroic savage tribes struggling against western civilization. But this, you see, only amounts to a distaste for modern life and common decency and one might equally well express it, as so many do, by scuttling between the moulting wings of Mother Church.

One notes here how Orwell falls back into the slang of the public school debating society when he is attacking intellectuals of his own class. He uses similar expressions in The Road to Wigan Pier. The idiom, which is itself almost grotesquely “public school,” is in a style of invective which he perhaps thought would appeal to ordinary people on account of its straightforwardness.

Stansky and Abrahams argue that in 1927 and 1928, when Orwell took a room in the Portobello Road and sat at his work table training himself to be a writer, he had not acquired the skills that later enabled him to describe experiences in Burma which he recorded in the early Thirties in Burmese Days and “A Hanging.” Yet the conversion, political, intellectual, and personal, that his feelings of hatred and guilt about Burma had effected, drove him in search of his subject matter, which was the lives of the miserable and oppressed (so different from the kind of lives described by writers who were his contemporaries at Eton). With the example of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss in front of him, as well as of the disguises which London adopted in order to obtain his material, Orwell got himself up as a tramp and went on week-long excursions into the London East End, where he slept in doss houses. In doing this he was living out both his own writing and his politics.

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