Although George Orwell requested in his will that no biography of him should be written, his must be the most picked-over illustrious literary corpse of the twentieth century. He was hardly cold in his grave—he died in 1950—when the first critical studies began to appear, many by people who had known him, and all of them weighted with biographical reminiscence or speculation. Then in 1972 Peter Stansky and William Abrahams published a two-volume biography, The Unknown Orwell, which was well received, but which prompted Orwell’s widow, Sonia, to go against her husband’s wishes and commission Bernard Crick to write the official version, which was published in 1980. Why she should have chosen Crick, a well-respected political scientist but no arbiter of literary values, is something of a puzzle—but then, the redoubtable Mrs. Orwell was famously quixotic. Besides, her first choice, Richard Ellmann, had declined the commission.
Orwell was contemptuous of biographies in general. He told his housekeeper in the 1940s that he was the only one who could write an adequate account of his life. The ban in his will, so one of his literary executors surmised, reflected Orwell’s fear that he might be “written up extravagantly or luridly.” In the event, he has been extremely fortunate in his chroniclers. Crick considered Orwell “the finest political writer in English since Swift,” and proceeded to write the biography according to this estimation, putting a heavier emphasis upon the two adjectives than on the noun. “Alas indeed,” he wrote, “the only life one can write about is the life someone actually led in reaction to actual events in a particular ‘evil time,’ not about ‘true character,’” and closed his introduction by stating his belief that “one can say less that is meaningful about the real character of the man than is usually assumed in the English biographical tradition and yet more that is true about the kind of life he led than is often supposed.”
This was startling candor from an officially appointed biographer, although it did ensure that we would the more readily trust Crick not only in his facts but in his judgments. However, Sonia Orwell was not alone in her rejection of the version according to Crick. After her death, another of Orwell’s executors, Mark Hamilton, commissioned the American Michael Shelden to write Orwell: The Authorized Biography, which appeared in 1991. Shelden, who is something of a controversialist, dismissed Crick’s book as “a large collection of facts which relies heavily on the notion that facts speak for themselves if presented in enough detail.” After the publication of Shelden’s book, Crick responded in sorrowingly wounded tones, accusing him of behaving “either obtusely or naughtily”—yes, Crick is of the old school—and laying countercharges of sensationalism and worse: “I mean there are too many dishonest, flash biographers, striving for effect not truth.”
The next contender in the Orwell bouts was Jeffrey Meyers, the biographer of, among numerous others, Ernest …