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.”
The shock of this dishonesty compelled Orwell to think what kind of Socialist he was himself if these men were representative Socialists of their time. It was clear to him, as to Bertrand Russell and to Leonard Woolf, that as a writer, and particularly as a serious journalist, he could not enter into the deceptions and evasions which any practicing party politician allows himself in pursuit of his ends.
His two Swiftean masterpieces, 1984 and Animal Farm, which have been read in translations all over the world and are on countless syllabuses and university book lists, are a defense of basic decencies as being essential to both private and public life. They are a modern anti-Machiavel, arguing that public brutality and mendacity, carried far enough, will soon infect every nook and cranny of private thought and private feeling. They are less exquisite and less sophisticated than A Modest Proposal, but, partly for this reason, their moral impact has been immense in precisely the way that he had hoped. They have a certain obviousness, a lucidity, like the best journalism, and they sweep away the cant of high theory, which had been treasured by a self-deceiving elite in Britain and in France.
What kind of socialist, then, was Orwell, after his experiences with the Communists in Spain and his encounter with the appeasement of Stalin on the left in Britain? One may ask whether his kind of socialism is in any way relevant to contemporary politics, or whether, in reading Professor Shelden, one is only studying a particular interesting episode in the long history of the left in Britain, exactly as one might study the life and works of Cobbett or Robert Owen or William Morris, all greatly distinguished and quite dead.
I believe that his kind of socialism, although it was so obviously the direct expression of his temperament, is peculiarly relevant to contemporary politics for some reasons that he could not have anticipated before he died. Professor Shelden quotes a sentence from Orwell answering the question “Why I write”:
So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.
This is beautifully clear and convincing, but “solid objects” is, I think, the essential clue to his mind and temperament. He had an unwavering sense of the concrete, and he was drawn to look intensely at individual persons, houses, gardens, animals, churches, and to recall them with piety and passion; especially if they were associated with his childhood in the Home Counties and along the Thames near Henley where he played and fished as a child, and where he enjoyed the meadows and lanes during the hot summers typical of Georgian England and of the Twenties. In Coming Up for Air there are passages of description of local nature which seem to come from Edmund Blunden or C.E. Montague rather than from the angry, contemptuous Orwell of the later work. In fact throughout his life and his writing he returns with affection to the basic decencies of village and of suburban life, as if each person must have, as a condition of his independence, one acre and a car, or, more likely, a goat. He liked to live like that himself when he could, that is, on a normal human household scale, as he conceived it. In this respect his socialism was Tolstoyan, the Tolstoy of the story “How much land does a man need?”
Orwell’s fundamental conception in social philosophy was the absolute independence and integrity of the individual, who must not need to be deferential in the face of his superiors or to accept second-class citizenship. The hatred of social inferiorities, and of the manners that go with them, comes from his Burmese days and from the perceived impossibility of a decent imperialism in actual practice. He had found himself speaking to the natives for whom he was responsible as public schoolboys speak to their fags. It was disgusting; adult selfrespect and natural dignity could not survive under any colonial system. He was not greatly stirred by equality as an abstract ideal, the ideal of the Jacobins; rather he responded to that ideal of the free and independent Englishman which had been debated among the Protestant sects under the Commonwealth. He would have been at ease among the Diggers and the Levelers, or arguing with Harrington about the basic rights of an Englishman. This was a Puritan philosophy in a strict sense, with a specifically English history and with the myth of the obstinate free-holder, his own man, who will resist the encroachments and enclosures of the rich and under provocation will burn the landowners’ hayricks.
The sentiment was as much aesthetic as moral, as in all genuine Puritanism: a distaste for the extended spaces and advertised grandeurs of the richer parts of London as compared with the natural confinement of the working-class terrace and the small suburban house and garden, or village cottage. The seventeeth-century Puritan was disgusted, in a pretheoretical rush of feeling, by the gold and glitter of High Church altars and priestly vestments and by the foppish dress and swagger and the gross superfluities of the Court and the aristocracy. Nor was this an entirely negative and destructive sentiment. Puritanism carried with it a positive aesthetic ideal of plainness, the pure style of the uncluttered Quaker meetinghouse and the heavy and undecorated elegance of Commonwealth silver. Orwell’s plain, undecorated, argumentative style of prose was the style of the meetinghouse to be set against the manners of the hierarchy, against mandarin prose, and he explained it as both a political and an aesthetic ideal. He wrote easy, level-headed, and plain prose which was still rather clearer than ordinary. He remained throughout his life a Socialist because he looked to the labor movement in Britain to sweep away class distinctions, with all the pomposities and vulgarities and hard-heartedness that were and are associated with them. Some degree of social equality is a necessary condition of the independence and reasonable self-respect of the individual, who does not feel bound to touch his cap to his superiors and who feels able to answer back when he wants to. Presented in a very different tone of voice, Orwell’s case for socialism in his essays and reviews was the same as Oscar Wilde’s in “The Soul of Man under Socialism”: only state intervention can restrain the restraints on individuality and eccentricity, and can counterbalance the dominance of the self-satisfied property-owning classes.
But there is a second and deeper ground of Orwell’s distinctive socialist beliefs and commitments: his understanding of poverty and of the concrete consequences of poverty under capitalism. In Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) he described his painful investigation of the conditions and quality of life among the very poor. It has often been suggested that his plunge into extreme poverty, damaging to his health, satisfied a psychological need, perhaps the explorer’s need to assure himself that he could cope with even the most extreme conditions.
This may be some part of the explanation, but it is certainly not the whole truth. In the Thirties he was an ambitious young writer with a literary mission, a mission to search out the concrete realities of contemporary living and to tell the unprepared and unfiltered truth about them in plain English prose, whether in novels or in reportage. He admired Joyce’s Ulysses because of its gritty and minute account of day-to-day city living, while even Dickens had decorated his descriptions of poverty with melodrama and with humor. In the early Thirties the unemployed came down from the North of England in organized Hunger Marches to London, and they were fed and cared for on the way. But a middle-class writer who had never been poor could not know exactly what it felt like at that time to live on the dole. He knew that the long-term unemployed in Jarrow or in Birkenhead experienced a final despair at the wretchedness of their family life, and the sullen deprivations of their children, which extended indefinitely into the future. But this was still, as I remember, abstract knowledge. The concrete details of wretchedness are not easily imagined without experience and therefore Orwell was resolved to supply them. What is it like to see your children playing on the winter pavements of cities without shoes because you have no money to buy shoes?
Professor Shelden appositely quotes from the first chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier a dark passage which illustrates both the largeness of Orwell’s spirit and the basis of his socialism: he sees from a train a young woman at the back of her house trying to unblock a leaden waste pipe with a stick
She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say “It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,” and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums…. She knew well enough what was happening to her, understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drainpipe.
Poverty had been the shared condition of the majority of humanity for centuries past, but after the Industrial Revolution poverty was increasingly seen and felt as “a dreadful destiny” during the last century, as the facts were exposed by Booth and Mayhew and Rowntree and by many other inquiries, even as far back as Carlyle’s Past and Present and Lord Shaftesbury’s reforms. “The condition of the people question,” as it used to be called, had been moved nearer to the center of British politics by the end of the century with the beginnings of a self-conscious labor movement. In the early Thirties the children without shoes in the slums, and the unemployed standing at the corners of streets in northern industrial towns, were already a moral disgrace, and they were no longer part of the natural and normal order of things. Abstract theories were needed to explain the disgrace and, if possible, to explain it away as beyond the reach of morality.
After 1929 poverty in a rich industrial setting constituted a crisis, dividing left from right, each clinging to their own invented theories of capitalist crisis. The supreme distinction of Orwell is that he ignored the abstract theories, whether of the Marxists or of the political economists and, guided by his literary temperament, he saw poverty for what it was: an absolute and man-made evil, like the secret police, and not as a necessary stage in the theoretical march of history, as the extreme left thought, nor as an inevitable effect of the iron laws of supply and demand as the right pretended.
Where socialism now survives as a set of beliefs, it is no longer a theory of history’s necessary development, but an affirmation of moral outrage in the face of continuing poverty, conceived as a man-made evil, at least in the richer countries of the world, comparable with the evils of totalitarianism and oppression. Orwell liked to describe himself as a “Tory anarchist”: Tory, in virtue of his attachment to English words and sentences and to all the tokens of shared English ways of life, such as village churches, corner shops, and small, muddy vegetable gardens; an anarchist, because his heart was always on the side of those who burnt hayricks or who later went out on strike in defense of a threatened way of life, their way of life, and in defiance of the possessing classes and all their minions. He always perceived Disraeli’s “Two Nations” in Britain; the rich and the wellprovided, and then the poor and the children of the poor, some still in slums and some without homes of any kind. A writer and not a party man, he stayed on the same side throughout his life.
January 30, 1992