Artist in Politics

George Orwell: A Life

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

Shirley Williams
Shirley Williams; drawing by David Levine

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…

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