George Orwell
George Orwell; drawing by David Levine

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.1 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.”2 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 Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Gary Cooper, who published A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell as long ago as 1975. His Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (2000)—the subtitle is taken from an obituary by V.S. Pritchett—delved deep into its subject’s psychological and sexual makeup, conceiving Orwell as a torn and tormented figure whose self-confessed work ethic was a symptom of an obsessive drive toward self-destruction:

Orwell’s life, in essence, was a series of irrational, sometimes life-threatening decisions. He joined the Burmese police instead of going to university…. He fought with the hopeless Anarchists in Spain…. He moved to London during the Blitz…and took up a suicidal residence on [the Hebridean island of] Jura when he was seriously ill. All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance for a happy life.

Meyers believed that Orwell’s refusal in his final years to heed the advice of his doctors that he must rest, i.e., give up writing, was the result of a strong death-urge, and that “the creation of Nineteen Eighty-Four virtually killed Orwell” at what was even in those days the early age of forty-six. Is this a tenable view? Certainly Orwell drove himself mercilessly. In his last years he produced journalism on the average of three substantial reviews or articles a week for English and American newspapers and periodicals, including the Manchester Evening News, Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, Partisan Review, and Commentary, as well as work on essays and Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and he contemplated the prospect of death with an eerie calmness. Six months before he died, in a letter to his friend the working-class novelist Jack Common, he wrote of his rapidly deteriorating health and remarked: “Of course I’ve had it coming to me all my life.”


It might have been thought that these three comprehensive biographies would have exhausted the subject, but not at all. In this year of Orwell’s centenary two fat new Lives have ap-peared, both claiming to have uncovered new biographical information, and acknowledging their debt to the prodigious work of Peter Davison, whose Complete Works of George Or- well, in twenty volumes and 8,500 pages, was published in 1998, superseding, for scholars if not for the general reader, the four-volume edition of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1968), edited by Sonia Orwell with the intention, so she declared, of making it read like a novel. D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life and Gordon Bowker’s Inside George Orwell are substantial, fine achievements, but the fact is there is little new to be said about Orwell.

D.J. Taylor, novelist, critic, and author of a well-received biography of Thackeray, stakes his claim if not to precedence then at least to comprehensiveness with his bold subtitle: “The Life” seems to brook no challenge. However, he sets out diffidently enough, with an epigraph from Richard Rees, Orwell’s friend and memorialist: “Obviously, no full explanation of a man is ever possible.” The question What more is to be said? is, Taylor admits, a good one, yet he does not provide a satisfactory answer—indeed, he slides away from the question by adducing one of the few tangibly original trouvailles resulting from what were no doubt extensive researches. This is an anecdote elicited in the 1990s from an old gentleman, George Summers, whose fiancée, one Dorothy Rogers, Orwell had tried to steal from him in Suffolk back in the early 1930s:

It ended with a chase—Orwell on foot, Mr Summers pursuing on a motorcycle—across Southwold common, remembered by the pursuer sixty-five years later as follows (this is a direct transcript from the tape): “I tried…I missed him… I went I suppose fifty yards, and there he was, and there was she… I was the guardian angel…I ran up the bank…I sort of pushed him off…I didn’t kill him,” Mr Summers innocuously concluded.

This early sighting of Orwell the peculiarly indolent and ineffective sexual predator is amusing, even enlightening, in a pallid sort of way, but it is hardly the stuff of which a great psychological study might be made.

Gordon Bowker, who has written biographies of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, is somewhat more willing to accept the necessarily enigmatic nature of his subject, although he too begins in diffidence, choosing for one of his epigraphs Orwell’s contention that “a history constructed imaginatively would never be right about any single event, but it might come nearer to essential truth than a mere compilation of names and dates in which no one statement is demonstrably true,” and, for another, Arthur Koestler’s cautionary observation that “I don’t think George ever knew what makes other people tick, because what made him tick was very different from what made most other people tick.” Koestler, who greatly admired Orwell and collaborated with him in his postwar anti-Stalinist efforts, wrote shrewdly of him in an obituary:

The urge of genius and the promptings of common sense can rarely be reconciled; Orwell’s life was a victory of the former over the latter.

All the same, Bowker is if anything more ambitious than Taylor, refusing to accept that Orwell was as simple as the version of himself he presented to the world. “The main thrust of this book,” he declares, “will be to reach down as far as possible to the roots of [Orwell’s] emotional life, to get as close as possible to the dark sources mirrored in his work.”

In his determination to uncover the dark side of Orwell the man, Bowker begins by emphasizing his fascination with ghosts, horoscopes, and the black arts—“He told a friend that he used a pseudonym so that no enemy could take his name and work magic against him”—and solemnly recounts an incident at Eton when Orwell, or young Eric Blair as he still was, put a successful hex on a senior boy, Philip Yorke, brother of the novelist Henry (Yorke) Green. Yorke had insulted Orwell’s pal Steven Runciman, the future historian, and the pair retaliated by fashioning an effigy of Yorke from candle wax and breaking off its leg. Blair had wanted to stick pins in it, but Runciman was a gentler soul, it seems, and contented himself by going for a maiming. To their dismay, Yorke subsequently not only broke a leg, but died shortly afterward from leukemia.3 Surely Bowker is pushing matters a little by suggesting that Orwell was haunted all his life by the success of this piece of sympathetic magic. For the most part, however, his portrait of his subject is as down-to-earth as Taylor’s.


Late arrivals at the biographical third degree tend to treat their already well-pummeled subjects with intensified roughness. Meyers was the bad cop to Crick’s good one, and Bowker and Taylor too get out their truncheons without much delay. Thus for instance Bowker in his index cites seventeen references under the heading “Orwell: misogyny and sadism,” as against one for “death.” Taylor, although claiming to harbor a deep, indeed a personal, love for Orwell (“…Orwell is, above all, a moral force, a light glinting in the darkness”), interpolates into his narrative a series of brief meditations on such topics as “Orwell and the rats”—he hated them, which is hardly news; “Orwell and the Jews”—he was no more or less anti-Semitic than others of his class, education and time; “Orwell’s paranoia”—he saw conspiracies everywhere, many directed against him personally; and “The case against.” In this last reflection, Taylor impersonates a Marxist critic delivering judgment on Orwell as “secretive, incompetent, womanising, offhand, anti- Semitic and homophobic,” a writer whose early books are derivative of Maugham and Wells, and whose masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, “is merely an exercise in emotional vulgarity, all flaring surfaces and bogus special effects, its bleakness coexisting with an altogether ghastly brand of guilt-ridden upper-bourgeois sentimentalising of the working class.” Blimey! Whichever way one looks at this three-page tirade, as jeu d’esprit or sly trahison du clerc, one cannot help but reflect that it is as well for Orwell that Taylor is an admirer rather than a detractor.

Out of such a welter of biographical evidence is it possible for the weary reader to assemble a version of Orwell that will be something less, or more, than a Frankenstein’s monster? He was, as we all are, a meld of contradictions. For instance, it is often overlooked that this utterly typical Englishman had a French grandfather, and all his life, as Bowker in particular emphasizes, maintained a deep interest in French life and an extensive knowledge of and love for French literature. Bowker lists as influences not only Maupassant and Baudelaire but also François Villon. He detested organized religion, yet wrote that “the major problem of our time is the decay of belief in personal immortality.” He was a convinced socialist who in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote two of the most horrible warnings on what society would be like if it were to be run along Marxist/ Leninist lines. He spurned the bourgeois life, yet was as dewy-eyed as any latter-day Little-Englander in celebrating the sustaining joys of warm beer, cricket on the village green, the Sunday roast, and strong tea. Indeed, it might be said that the essential English values of fair play and common sense formed the basis of his brand of socialism.

Orwell came from what he characterized as the lower-upper-middle-class. His Blair forebears had made their money in the Jamaican sugar and slave trades, a not insignificant fact given Orwell’s lifelong opposition to imperialism in general and the British Empire in particular, “even though,” as Bowker remarks, “he sneakingly admired the people who made the system work.” (We must assume Bowker does not mean to imply that Orwell would have approved of slave traders, sneakingly or not.) His father, Richard Blair, went to India at the age of eighteen to work for the Government Opium Department, as assistant sub-deputy opium agent, fifth grade. In those days the opium trade was roaring, the bulk of the drug, which had been legalized in 1870, being exported to China. Richard was thirty-nine, and not much further up the promotion ladder in the opium business, when he met and married Ida Mabel Limouzin, eighteen years younger than he, the daughter of a once well-to-do but now declining family of Franco-English shipbuilders and timber merchants based near Rangoon in Burma.

Eric Arthur Blair was born at Motihari in Bengal on June 25, 1903, and was sent back with his mother to England the following year—

When good King Edward ruled the land
And I was a chubby boy

—as he wrote in a poem composed on his deathbed. And chubby he certainly was, as early photographs attest. Taylor in the section on “Orwell’s face” remarks that it was “one of the most extraordinary things about him: extraordinary for the way it changes, and, ultimately, its almost complete separation from the template of youth.” Indeed, looking at the photographs in Taylor’s and Bowker’s books, one is struck by the remarkable transformation that occurred in Orwell’s physiognomy between childhood and maturity, not all of them attributable, surely, to the onset of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. It is as if Orwell not only changed his name but over the years managed by some natural instinct of concealment to alter his physical identity, too. As Bowker remarks, “Behind every bearer of a pseudonym there stands…an individual who can appear in various guises and a life which can come to us in different versions.”

At the age of eight Eric was sent to St. Cyprian’s boarding school near Eastbourne on the Sussex coast. As Taylor ruefully points out, “So much has been written about St Cyprian’s in the past half-century—most of it by famous old boys with grudges to nurture—that it is sometimes difficult to remember that it was simply a school rather than a mythological seed-bed.” The establishment was run by a Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes, known to the pupils respectively as Sambo and Flip, Mrs. Wilkes’s nickname deriving, Taylor informs us, “from her uncorseted breasts.” Years later, in the long essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Orwell wrought a terrible revenge on Sambo and “that filthy old sow Mrs. Wilkes.” No thumbnail sketch of the piece, Taylor writes, “can ever quite do justice to the feeling of sheer horror that rises up from its pages, the thought of a childhood lived out at a bedrock level of misery and desperation, in a nightmare world where one’s every action is liable to rebuke by stern, unyielding and above all arbitrary authority”—not altogether unlike, Taylor implies, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Eton, which Orwell attended as a scholarship boy, was more congenial. Here “Eric the FAMOUS AUTHOR,” as he styled himself, began to fill copybooks with stories and dramas; it was the start of a literary enterprise that would continue with rarely flagging determination and energy to the very edge of the grave. No doubt his writings were among the things that set him apart from most of the other boys. “The role of critical ‘outsider’ sat well on him,” Bowker writes, “and he soon became known as a Socratic, challenging received ideas and drawing others into contentious dialogues.” He was, Bowker goes on, “anti most institutions,” including “Kipling and empire, top hats and millionaires.” As an adult he softened toward Kipling, but never toward empire, or, for that matter, top hats. Although Orwell later claimed that he was there on sufferance, Taylor believes that his position at Eton “was no different from anyone else’s.” When his time at the school came to an end, however, he maintained his separateness by opting not for Oxford or Cambridge, as most of his class would do, but for the Indian Imperial Police force, stating a preference for a posting to Burma. At the age of twenty he was sent to Myaungma, on the Irrawaddy delta, as headquarters assistant to the district superintendent.

Like his time at Eton, Orwell’s Burmese days were hardly different from those of any other servant of the extended Raj. He was diligent in his duties, studied the local languages, thwacked the odd recalcitrant native, shot an elephant, drank in the club, caught dengue fever. He also slept with Burmese girls, with one of whom, according to rumor, he fathered a child. Of this period as of so many others in his life his biographers exclaim at the apparent ordinariness of his behavior and attitudes. But surely that is the point about Orwell—that in his everyday life he was ordinary, as he insisted from first to last. Practically everything he said about himself, and most of the things that he did, apart from his writing—and the artist and the man, as T.S. Eliot insisted, must be acknowledged as separate beings—showed him to be un homme moyen sensuel, not the “homoerotic-inclined guilt-ridden individual” that one of his acquaintances suggested he was. “The job,” Orwell wrote, “is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on us all.” Even the adoption of a pseudonym in 1933, on the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, was a gesture of solidarity with the majority of his fellow countrymen: “George Orwell,” he considered, was a much rounder, more solidly English-sounding name than “Eric Blair.” As Freud probably never said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Orwell professed to care deeply for life’s norms, for the everyday, for the ordinary. As Taylor points out, the idea of the family meant much to him, “both as a social unit and as a metaphorical conceit.”

England, he once suggested, was a family with the wrong members in control. The image of a nation as a restless, rackety household ruled over by feeble uncles and mad aunts is a captivating one, and it shows the depths, or rather the fervor, of Orwell’s collectivism. As an adult he was an intensely solitary man who believed steadfastly in the benefits of a communal life.

Yet even though Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four declares that the only hope for the future lies with the proles, Orwell, especially in the early novels, frequently displays a marked distaste for the “communal life,” while the startlingly dystopian vision that produced Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four attests to a deeply troubled and pessimistic spirit. Perhaps those professions of love for the mundane were Orwell’s version of whistling in the dark.

His taste for solitude is most strongly manifest in the period he spent, following his return from Burma, “down and out” in Paris and in various parts of England. After this, in 1936, he went to Spain. There his experience fighting alongside the “hopeless Anarchists” was what radicalized him, and turned Blair into Orwell and, indeed, Orwell into “Orwell,” as John Rodden puts it. Taylor is incisive on the Spanish venture, which, he writes, left “an indelible mark” on Orwell, “confirming his belief in the indomitability of the human spirit; above all, perhaps, giving him a context in which he could approach and come to terms with the much greater European conflagration that lay two years beyond the horizon.” He was not much of a soldier, but very brave, the typical laconic, dry Englishman who thinks nothing of sticking his head out of the trench to have a look at what the jolly old enemy might be getting up to today. On one such foolhardy occasion, while fighting on the Aragon front, he was shot through the neck by a sniper, and believed he would die. He survived, however, and went on to fight far more effectively, with pen rather than rifle, against the Stalinists, whom he came intensely to hate in Spain and afterward, and who returned the feeling: post-1989 research showed that in the USSR he was seen as a dangerous and outspoken enemy.

For all his solitariness, Orwell had a strong yearning for female company, although Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the woman he married in 1936, is a curiously shadowy figure in the story of his life. The marriage was an open one, at least, as is usually the case, on the man’s side. Orwell carried on a dalliance for years with one of his wife’s closest friends, but when Eileen died, suddenly and tragically, in 1945, he was bereft. For the next four and a half years he sought repeatedly to find a replacement for her, making awkward proposals to a number of young women, until he was finally accepted by the spirited and ravishing Sonia Brownell. He had met her first in 1940 at the offices of Horizon magazine and, like so many other men of her circle, was immediately struck by her beauty, intelligence, and vivacity. They had a brief and seemingly unsatisfactory affair, after which she did not appear in his life again until 1949, when he was on what would prove to be his deathbed in a London hospital. It was in his hospital room that they were married in a ceremony that Malcolm Muggeridge prophesied would be “a rather macabre wedding.” However, marriage to Sonia, brief though it was, brought comfort and happiness to the desperately sick Orwell in his last weeks and months.

Much has been said and written of Sonia Orwell, most of it malign. Orwell’s unlikely friend, the snobbish Anthony Powell, dubbed her, according to his crony Muggeridge, an “Art Tart,” but that was the least of it. Her reputation, however, has been slowly recovering since her death in 1980. Certainly she was, in her young friend David Plante’s description, a “difficult woman,” but she had much to make her so. A rackety childhood—like Orwell she was a daughter of the Raj—ended abruptly when at the age of seventeen she was involved in a boating accident in which three of her friends drowned, one of whom she tried to rescue but had to push under in order to save herself from his panic-stricken grasp. Later she became part of the London art world, and was taken up by the group of neoconservative figurative painters known as the Euston Road School, for whom she became the “Euston Road Madonna.” At the time that she married Orwell some considered her little more than a gold digger with an eye on her husband’s posthumous royalties and an impressive literary name. Officially her married name was “Blair,” but for obvious and not necessarily meretricious reasons she preferred “Orwell.” In fact she profited little from being Orwell’s widow, and ended her life in straitened financial circumstances.4

How does Orwell’s reputation stand today? All of his biographers since Crick are more or less agreed on the poor quality of his early fiction, such as A Clergyman’s Daughter, published in 1935.5 Indeed, Orwell was at least partially of this opinion himself, for in his final years he repudiated the early works, with the exceptions of Burmese Days and Coming Up for Air, the latter a fine and subtle evocation of England between the wars, an England that had already largely disappeared in 1939 when the novel was published. He was indeed, as D.J. Taylor in his role as devil’s advocate points out, influenced by popular writers such as Maugham and Wells as well as by the Victorian novelist George Gissing.6 As Crick emphasized, Orwell’s true metier was the polemic, fashioned in one of the most limpid of English prose styles. In the essay “Why I Write,” which Sonia Orwell set at the beginning of the Collected Essays, Orwell stated his own literary creed:

What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

There is no doubt that Orwell’s standing as a champion of liberty has been reduced, even if only fractionally, by the revelations, which first began to come out in the 1990s, that at the end of his life he had cooperated with the innocuously named Information Research Department, a shadowy branch of the British Foreign Office set up to disseminate anti-Soviet propaganda, and had given a list of the names of thirty-eight suspected British Communists or “fellow-travellers” to Celia Kirwan née Paget, who was working for the IRD. Enough has been written on the affair to obviate the need to rehearse it here, but one cannot avoid again making the point, which others, including Timothy Garton Ash,7 have stated strongly, that had the story been that Orwell in 1941 had passed on to the government a similar list of potential Nazi collaborators, it would not now raise the eyebrow of even the most ardent Orwell admirer, or detractor.

In the long run, Orwell will be remembered above all, above even Nineteen Eighty-Four, perhaps, for his essential decency and sense of fairness, as expressed primarily in his essays and journalism. Each new generation will surely rediscover him, and take comfort and support from the example of this obviously good man in a bad world, as so many of us did in the chaotic and murderous 1960s and 1970s, when the cold war was entering upon its desperate, decades-long endgame. What struck us most forcefully then was not the overtly political work—political writing ages the quickest—but the immensely subtle and, though Orwell would have disapproved of the word, elegant essays such as “How the Poor Die,” “Boys’ Weeklies,” and, of course, “A Hanging.” Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” with its warning of the dangers of allowing low politics to leach the meaning out of words, was particularly apposite in those mendacious decades, while “Charles Dickens,” a seemingly purely literary essay, in which he pointed out that his beloved Dickens was less a social reformist than a wistful liberal who believed all would be well with the world if only people could be a little better than they are, was a timely corrective to our flower-childish notions of the perfectibility of man in the Age of Aquarius, which we were confident was just about to dawn.

Those qualities we valued in him, his passion and honesty, his clearsightedness, the limpidness of his prose, and, above all, his peculiar brand of valor are in short supply in the world today, when we are caught between on one side the proponents of the Rumsfeld Doctrine of unending conflict, by which war is peace and occupation is liberation, and, on the other, radical fundamentalist Islam, for which, as Martin Amis remarked in a recent BBC radio interview, life is not life and death is not death. How Orwell would have excoriated the new Hot Warriors on both sides.

It is possible still to love Orwell, if for nothing other than his steadfast refusal to play the Great Man and for never pretending to be more than he was. Perhaps the words that best capture him are those from the words quoted above, that he wrote of himself, with characteristic modesty, clarity, and humor, at the close of his life: “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.” How could anyone not find endearing a leading figure of world literature who would include among such a short list of the things he treasures “scraps of useless information”?

This Issue

November 6, 2003