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Artist in Politics

George Orwell: A Life

by Bernard Crick
Atlantic Monthly / Little, Brown, 456 pp., $19.95

Bernard Crick is the editor of the Political Quarterly, a journal founded and in the past edited by Leonard Woolf, which places him politically. He is middle-of-the-road socialist, disliking British snobbery and inefficiency but not disposed to have much truck with notions of mass participation and alliances with communists or Trotskyites. He is not a social democrat but a socialist like Woolf, or G.D.H. Cole. That may well be why Crick was chosen to write George Orwell’s life and given access to the archive.

There may have been another reason. Crick has a remarkably independent mind and a large, irascible way of seeing things. He has interviewed as many people as he could who knew Orwell and accepts none of their accounts at face value. Neither does he accept Orwell’s account. Orwell’s first six books and numbers of his articles appear to be strongly autobiographical, but Crick pounces on all the deviations from the factual record of his life. He reminds one of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, whose first action when faced with the murder of Mr. Tulking-horn was to arrest the honorable and upright Sergeant George.

Quick as a flash Crick has the handcuffs on Orwell. No good protesting that Orwell was the soul of honesty, bleak, self-critical, self-denying, transparently deflationary of upper-class hypocrisy and of the self-deceptions of his fellow intellectuals. Anyone who changes his name must be suspect. Why did he do it? (Answer: No need to make a drama or anything significant out of it. Eric Blair chose George Orwell as a pen name because he thought his first book might flop, and if so he could write his second under his own name. He responded with equal ease to both and always signed business documents with his real name.)

But there are less satisfactory stories. Did Orwell or did Orwell not exaggerate in his account of being beaten for wetting his bed at the boarding school for small boys to which he was sent (along with his contemporary Cyril Connolly)? Is it credible that he was beaten for five minutes with a riding crop that broke? Indeed, was it not, as another contemporary recalls, another boy who was punished? Savage as some of the customs of the school were, does not the evidence suggest that he was unpopular not because his parents were too poor to pay full fees or that he was socially unacceptable but because he was bookish, unclubbable, and mentally superior to the other boys?

Crick’s interrogation of his suspect continues throughout the book. Mark Benney, a friendly, acute social analyst born in the working class, remembers that in one of his wartime “Letters from London” for Partisan Review Orwell reported that when the railings surrounding squares were torn down to provide scrap metal, the squares in working-class districts were chosen for demolition while the railings in the upper-class West End squares were spared. When Benney told him that it was patently untrue, Orwell said, “Anyway, it was essentially true.” This looks bad for the prisoner. After all, what is this remark but a characteristic Marxist ploy of maintaining that there is an objective truth which does not depend on fact and which no citation of facts to the contrary can affect? This time the Inspector exculpates Orwell. The rumor was widely believed at the time and Orwell was merely guilty of a practice all too common among journalists of not checking his facts.

Such is the technique Crick employs throughout his book. How much of an anticolonialist was Orwell when he was in the Burmese police? (Not so committed a one when he struck with his stick a student at Rangoon University College who, fooling about, bumped into him.) When did he become a socialist? (Not so early as you might think.) Why did he join the anarchists and not the communists in Spain? (Because he had already made some slighting remarks about communism in The Road to Wigan Pier and Communist Party headquarters refused to help him, whereas the Independent Labour Party, a splinter group on the left which, at that time, came nearest to what Orwell stood for, sponsored him.) Did he, on his return from Spain, support Churchill and others who were in favor of rearmament? (Answer: He believed that a war between Britain and Germany would be “one band of robbers against another” and hence opposed rearmament until the Nazi-Soviet Pact, no better than most members of the Labour Party.)

Of course, Inspector Bucket only held Sergeant George in custody so as to lull the true murderess into a sense of false security; and Bernard Crick has no intention of debunking Orwell, for whom he has a steady admiration. Nor does he dissent much from Orwell’s main contention that the murderers of the good life in Britain are its upper classes with their snobbery and its progressive intelligentsia who connive in replacing them with a totalitarian Marxist regime.

But what Crick mainly dislikes is portraiture in biography. I have been interested to see that the last two scholarly biographies which I have studied both reject portraiture. Phyllis Grosskurth’s documentation of Havelock Ellis was so crushing that she left the reader to make up his own mind what kind of man Ellis was. So did Allen Bell, who, on finding a couple of thousand letters by Sydney Smith in addition to the two thousand already published, wrote a chronological account of his life and left us to fill in for ourselves the undeniable defects of that latitudinarian Whig and the undeniable charm and good sense of that inspired master of humor.

The portrait, so Crick argues, is almost always fake. It is not a study of inwardness that reveals what a man is. It is his relationship with other human beings and with society itself. And yet, despite his disclaimers and the fact that some of Orwell’s friends such as Arthur Koestler declare that they cannot get Crick’s image of Orwell into focus, a portrait of Orwell undoubtedly emerges. Just as there are painters who are interested primarily in the problems of blending one patch of light with another by means of glazes, and who let the character of the sitter emerge through, almost in spite of, their technique, so Orwell remains at the end not, it is true, the character of his own factoid writing, but recognizable as the character who impressed his friends by his devotion to a vision of political life as impressive as that of Tawney—a character of exceptional integrity, austerity, and dedication.

The portrait of Orwell that emerges is a good deal more credible and sympathetic than the stereotype of recent years. Ask an English schoolboy on entering college what books he has read and he will usually answer: Lawrence, Hardy, Orwell. Their works are set for the examinations that qualify you to enter a university, and the Establishment that Orwell so detested can be seen as skillfully passing him off as the classic defender of English liberty and democracy against communism. But the young do not read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four alone: they read the essays and enjoy the way Orwell takes the mickey out of the society whose liberty he defended.

The fact that toward the end of his life he found a power, Soviet Russia and its agent the Communist Party, even more odious and despicable than the English ruling classes should not blind anyone to the fact that they too were his target. And so was the British intelligentsia. He had little use for most of them: they were either pretentious or conceited and he did not endear himself to the New Statesman by often referring to the “pansy left” or by writing in his column in the Tribune, “Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.” (This brought Kingsley Martin to the phone shouting that he would sue the rival left-wing periodical for libel.)

When Orwell left the police force in Burma, he had two ambitions: to write and to learn, like St. Francis, what it was to be poor. He knew nothing about writing. One story began, “Inside the park, the crocuses were out.” He didn’t even know how to spell the four-letter words he wanted to use. He became a master of short, simple, hard-hitting prose the hard way. Poverty was no problem. He earned so little. He determined to declare himself, and his first books describe this experience. He was not the first middle-class young man to do so and, as a writer, he inevitably came up for air after submerging himself in vile kitchens in Paris or in the tripe shop at Wigan.

But he had the writer’s instincts for the preservation of his talent. He knew that it could grow only if he fed it with not only new experiences but those which spoke to his condition; and that however strong his commitment to working-class life, he had to surface to record his feelings. His behavior at Wigan is revealing. His Independent Labour Party contacts found him a working-class lodging, his hosts unemployed, cold water only, outside lavatory, but, with working-class pride, a home kept clean and tidy. Not good enough for Orwell: he left to find something worse and dirtier. His hosts concluded he was interested only in muckraking and that he wanted to make the working classes out as squalid and feckless. Those who met him there thought he was cynical, but also “delving”; and Orwell did in fact transmit incomparably what it was like to be unemployed and under the lash of the Means Test (a series of administrative regulations which humiliated the unemployed by permitting officials to peer into every corner of their lives). But he also appreciated the decency, the warmth, the homeliness of the families he met, and contrasted their lives with the acquisitiveness of the entrepreneurs and the ignorant arrogance of the intelligentsia.

Creators, as distinct from analysts, must distort and shape to their will their raw material, but Crick shows how much Orwell cared for truth and how he never cared whether his pursuit of it would upset his allies. Orwell described a fascist rally addressed by Oswald Mosley and noted how the working-class audience was bamboozled by the anti-Semitic propaganda, noted with anger how one of his communist friends was beaten up by the bully boys when he persistently heckled, but then argued with him later that heckling to break up a meeting was wrong. Not exactly the kind of ally that politicians relish.

He was an artist in politics, not a politician. A politician has to build up a power base, grapple for allies, go along with their prejudices, and satisfy their desires as far as he can without deviating too far from the path he has worked out as his own; and hence he is abused by the Orwells for hypocrisy and treachery. It was this bleak, defiant, high-minded hatred of conservative cant and communist double-speak which made him so wary of people such as Kingsley Martin and his own publisher Victor Gollancz. They produced the stock answer of the Thirties, which was that since no capitalist government would be likely to oppose fascism, a working alliance—the Popular Front—had to be formed; and if in that alliance the Communist Party was unquestionably the most militant and resourceful, well, one did not question too closely the motives or credibility of one’s allies.

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