Orwell: The Transformation
by Peter Stansky, by William Abrahams
Knopf, 320 pp., $12.95
In British social history there are innumerable examples of the disadvantaged man rising in the world and becoming eminent. The class system is mobile. There have been fewer examples, until the 1930s, of upper-class figures attempting, on principle, to go down hill, though, especially in the arts and sciences, there is an instinctive freedom from conformity to the ruling social ethos. It is obvious that the rigorous educational system by which the privileged were formed in Great Britain was a training also for the privilege of dissidence tending to leadership in revolt—see Shelley.
The case of George Orwell shows how complex, ambiguous, and long drawn out such conversions are. (Or are they reversions? That is to say, instances of a privileged family “going down” in the course of nature?) This (but as a conversion) was examined in Peter Stansky and William Abrahams’s earlier and admirable book The Unknown Orwell when they spoke of the double identity of Eric Blair and the pseudonymous George Orwell, and looked into his background as the child of “lower, upper middle class”—Orwell’s phrase—Anglo-Indian civil servants of decent means.
Orwell was sent to the right cramming prep school, became a scholar at Eton, and drifted, far too young, because he did not go to the university, into the Indian Police in Burma. He acquired the Imperial veneer, but was languid in his job and did not much like either the ruling white company or the “natives.” A loner and odd-man-out, he had some inborn melancholy, even an actively cherished sense of failure which so often guarantees being “doomed for success”—as one of his friends put it—his real intention being literary fame of some kind. His difficulty was the usual one of not knowing whether he had the talent.
The new book takes up the story when Down and Out in Paris and London gave Orwell a start and shows the slow phases of the change of personality and conscience until the change from Blair into Orwell was completed by the Spanish Civil War. There was a strong bent for fantasizing in Blair. Like many impatient young writers he took over the perennial delusion that his talents were frustrated by a literary mafia. His quickly acknowledged reputation makes nonsense of this. He could complain only that his books did not sell well at first. A “political” writer—”all art is political”—he was a total innocent of the “dishonesty” of politics until the Spanish Civil War introduced him to the sectarian tangle, the compromises and bloody betrayals of revolt—in short, the mafia was political. He was not among the doctrinaires whose quarrels dominated the decade; he remained an idiosyncratic socialist, at odds with the established coreligionaries. A decade after the Spanish Civil War and its disillusion, he declared, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Those last four words with …