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)

George Orwell
George Orwell; drawing by David Levine

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…

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