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The Tory Anarchist

Orwell: The Authorized Biography

by Michael Shelden
Harper Collins, 497 pp., $25.00

There have been a number of personal memoirs and at least two biographies of Orwell, and both the course of his life and his peculiar and impressive personality, as seen by his friends, are fairly well known. Certainly his life makes a dramatic story: particularly his service with POUM and the Republican forces in Spain, the nearly mortal wound that he received there, and his escape through France to England from the Communist commissars. There are also his tentative beginnings as a novelist—Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistras Flying (1936), and Coming Up for Air (1939)—leading to the enormous popular and critical success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, at the end of his short life.

He had not expected this success, and the biography shows him plodding along through weekly journalism, through reviewing, through organizing BBC talks for India, toward his final status as a classical writer of English prose and a classical political satirist. There is, finally, the pathos of his last illness as the long sought literary success came to him and while his recently adopted son was becoming a new source of happiness. He died at the age of forty-six, and, as with Lawrence dying at forty-five, one must be overawed by the volume of published work produced, in spite of a lifelong disease of the lungs, in a febrile rush of self-expression.

Bernard Crick was commissioned by Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell, as his biographer, and, being a professor of political philosophy, he perhaps understated Orwell’s purely literary ambitions and achievements, preferring to dwell on Orwell’s political attitudes. Professor Shelden, an American academic, writes that he intends to correct this balance and repeatedly praises, and I think overpraises, Orwell’s prose. But Shelden’s principal criticism of Crick, and the justification of his own labors, is that Crick buried Orwell under a mound of fact and that his character did not come to life. Crick had himself admitted that he did not wish to explore Orwell’s inner life and character, and that he preferred to concentrate on his public life. Obviously the art of biography is in dispute here. On present evidence I find myself on Professor Crick’s side rather than with Professor Shelden.

Memoirs are one thing and biographies another. Julian Symons, Cyril Connolly, George Woodcock, Anthony Powell, Malcolm Muggeridge, T.J. Fyvel, have all written memoirs of Orwell, and there are others. Over the years I have spoken about Orwell to many people who knew him well. Putting these sources together, I have a rough picture, although I never knew him: rough, in the sense that an Identikit picture is rough, unlike a good photograph, lacking definition and certainty—almost, one may say, abstract and colorless. One does not know a person, even less his inner life, until one has seen his or her face, the look in his eyes, the way he walks and stands, and heard the varying expressions in his voice.

Sometimes, though very rarely, a great memoir writer, Boswell or less consistently Saint-Simon, can bring to life on the page a voice or a physical presence or both; or the expression and the voice may come through in letters or in journals, as with Byron and Lawrence and Queen Victoria, whom we can know almost as we knew an actual acquaintance. Lytton Strachey attempted the feat as a biographer and essayist of resurrecting unseen persons, and perhaps he came as near to success as anyone can—William IV, Stockmar, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, Madame du Deffand, General Gordon, all have some life on his pages. Carlyle’s famous picture of Robespierre, however overworked, is still vivid as a picture. Otherwise we more naturally find the living person in caricature or drawing—in Beerbohm or even Spy—and not in words.

Professor Shelden is often heavyhanded and too sure of himself in imputing states of mind to Orwell when I think he would have done better to let the facts, which include quotations, speak for themselves, as in biography facts usually do. The mound-of-fact type of literary biography—Mossner’s Hume, Leslie Marchand’s Byron, Mondor’s Mallarmé—provides the details of action and self-revelation and sets the reader free to wonder and to speculate for himself.

Professor Shelden has found new sources, particularly about Orwell’s first marriage and about his early school experiences, and he quotes Orwell’s own words very usefully from letters, some of which have not been known before. But he seems to me to have spoilt some of the effect of his research by repeatedly thrusting upon the reader his own too virtuous interpretations of Orwell’s movements of mind. Long past phases of middleclass life in the South of England, in which Orwell was deeply absorbed, are naturally unfamiliar to Professor Shelden, and he consequently misinterprets Orwell’s habits of reticence, the concealments of his private life, and his hatred of publicity and of any avoidable display of suffering or weakness.

Orwell was following, even if exaggerating, the ordinary rules and conventions of his public schoolboy upbringing, and his lifelong friend Cyril Connolly, a Bohemian rebel against the insular British middle class, was the odd man out in his reckless lack of reticence. The most notorious lapse in this biography comes in the account of Orwell’s second marriage to Sonia Brownell, who had worked with Connolly and Stephen Spender on Horizon. There has been surprise and some indignation, reflected in the press in Britain, at the suggestion that Sonia Brownell’s motive in marrying Orwell was mercenary, or at least was a step in self-aggrandizement. Many people are still alive who knew her, including the present reviewer, and they can testify that this speculation is so maladroit and overconfident as to undermine one’s interest in the speculations about motives elsewhere in the book.

Orwell, who wished to have no biography, has posthumously suffered from the cult of personality. As with T.E. Lawrence, the effect of his despising and rejecting personal publicity has been to redouble it. The prolific writer and political thinker have been largely smothered under the mantle of the eccentric saint, the man of rugged integrity, the hero of the Spanish Civil War and of the slums. But Orwell’s pride was in his writing. He became a master of the higher journalism, of the plain-spoken and non-academic essay, in the genre established and skilfully cultivated over many years by G.K. Chesterton in The Illustrated London News and elsewhere. Orwell’s principal vehicle was Tribune, the Socialist weekly, but some of his longer classical essays appeared in Horizon. He addressed the common reader, not other writers or critics, on Dickens, The Boy’s Own Paper, Salvador Dali, Henry Miller, on “Wells, Hitler and the World State,” “On Art of the Seaside Postcard”; these are just samples of essays to be found in the fourvolume collected essays, journalism, and letters. He always traced a connection between social attitudes and literary forms, even in the most humble literary forms, as well as works of high culture. After the tepid reception of his four earlier novels, he turned himself into a journeyman of letters in the English tradition, which goes back to the radical journals under the Regency, the tradition of Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt.

In his youth he had revered Wells and Shaw, and his own style of journalism, at its best, is close to the style of Shaw’s prefaces to the Plays. Like Shaw he intended to shock the bourgeois and to cause them to sit up in their armchairs, but his tone was largely genial and without hatred. His aim was to start an argument on, for example, the relation between good prose and democracy, or between nastiness as a person and excellence as a writer. He enjoyed argument about general ideas, both in print and among friends, and he associated democracy with the protection of a public space in which the poor, the unpopular, and the outnumbered, even cranks, might occasionally win the argument and get the benefit. As an editor of Tribune and as a columnist and essayist, he served this purpose very successfully, particularly in the immediate postwar years when public argument about general ideas in magazines and broadcasts flourished in Britain more than it ever has since. Professor Shelden quotes from Orwell’s “As I Please” column in the Socialist weekly magazine Tribune, a typical piece would include a dissection of the language of fashion advertising or his confession of having burned a bedstead to keep warm during England’s fuel crisis.

He despised (this word always recurs in writing about Orwell) the subtleties of literary criticism invented by intellectuals, and he never suffered from what Arthur Koestler called the “French Flu,” an epidemic among the English intelligentsia in the age of Sartre and Camus, which has become an epidemic again. He took it for granted that the aim of literature was to enable people the better to enjoy life, or the better to endure it, and that the canon of literature was established by a gradual convergence of opinion among those to whom reading is important.

Professor Shelden quotes Orwell’s statement about Gulliver’s Travels, which he had first read on the day before his eighth birthday: “A year has never passed without my re-reading at least part of it.” The immensely popular and greatly admired Animal Farm and 1984 were the outcome of these re-readings. His literary temperament was very close to Swift’s: he shared Swift’s love of the concrete and distrust of abstractions, the satirist’s sense of the corruptions of office and of public authority, the belief that public and private morality are equally matters of simple human decency and do not require any philosophical elaboration or theoretical underpinning. To such a satirist all abstract theories, theological or philosophical, are no more than pretty veils designed to obscure and to complicate the basic decencies of human behavior. An animal fable restores bare common sense through its grotesque incongruities.

Orwell wrote Animal Farm at just the time when he had come to see that socialism for him was a simple creed stressing the dignity of independent men and women, who require decent conditions of life that would protect their independence. When he first arrived in Republican Spain he had found in the streets of Barcelona exactly the sense of independence and sovereignty of the individual which he had always imagined as the negation of capitalism as it existed in London, Paris, and Wigan. There was an air of genuine freedom in the streets of Barcelona, even if the freedom was no more than a moment of liberation without the solid substance of settled institutions.

Thereafter he met the realities of Soviet communism as he fled from Spain with his wife to escape the vengeful commissars—who wanted to punish him for serving with the independent Socialist POUM—and his probable imprisonment as a Trotskyist. Telling the truth in England in Homage to Catalonia he found that his fellow Socialists, the publisher Victor Gollancz and Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, would not publish this record of his observations, even as the record of one man’s experience. In Kingsley Martin’s hideous phrase, quoted once again by Professor Shelden, his observations “controverted policy.”

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