GEORGE ORWELL WAS born on 25 June 1903. To mark the event there are two new biographies as well as several planned television programmes and a conference in Boston. It is one example of how fiction usually triumphs over fact that the events of this year are not a patch on what marked 1984, although there was less biographical attention that year. As Orwell was so much an autobiographical writer and knew so many literary figures from the 1930s on, many of the studies of him that appeared in the first two decades after his death in 1950 had biographical aspects, but the first strictly biographical study was probably The Unknown Orwell (1972), which I wrote jointly with William Abrahams. (It is indicative of Gordon Bowker’s rather cavalier attitude to facts that he gets some of them wrong: William Abrahams was not an academic, and the second volume, Orwell: The Transformation, was not published until 1979.) In our books, we had no interest in going beyond the Spanish Civil War, which we felt put the finishing touches to the creation of George Orwell. Because of her anger at us, Orwell’s widow, Sonia, responded by authorising Bernard Crick to write a full-length life (to her ultimate regret), which appeared in 1980. Michael Sheldon’s followed in 1991, then Jeffrey Meyers’s in 2000: approximately one a decade. Now the pace has accelerated.
Which to read? On the whole, I would recommend D J Taylor’s as the most recent and the most sensible account of the life. The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation are still, just about, in print, and I like to think that that they contain valuable insights. Yet, while we had the advantage of talking to some people who knew Orwell (who have since died), we did not have available to us the immensely valuable twenty volumes of Orwell’s complete works edited by Peter Davison or the two publications of reminiscences that came out in 1984.
What view of the man is reflected in these two new studies? We seem, thank goodness, to have abandoned the ‘saintly’ Orwell. It was never quite clear why we were to regard him as a saint, and he himself made us vividly aware in several essays that saints were probably not nice people. Perhaps the ‘saintly’ view had its origins in Lionel Trilling’s introduction to Homage to Catalonia in 1952, which claimed that the author was a virtuous man. And Orwell was certainly concerned with questions of morality, particularly in his brilliant analyses of imperialism, fascism and communism, the unholy trinity of the modern world.
As Taylor points out, Orwell intertwines morality and politics, particularly in his essays. The effectiveness of Orwell’s style is as important, I believe, as his ideas. One of the indications of an enduringly significant writer is that he is discovered and rediscovered as a model by the intelligent youth of subsequent generations, both for his ideas and for how he expressed them. It is also a testament to him – though a more ambiguous one – that his texts can be cited on various sides of an argument. Orwell himself changed his mind more than he might have cared to admit, but the strength of his prose is such that he has the power to convince, even if his views were not necessarily always consistent. He was more aware of the paradoxes of his own character than has been acknowledged. He was bred at the height of Edwardian militarism: during the First World War his adolescent poems on the need to fight and on the death of Lord Kitchener were published in the local paper. This influence was not totally absent from his writing during the Second World War, as can be seen in ‘My Country Right or Left’ and his brilliant pamphlet about the necessity of a revolution to win the war, The Lion and the Unicorn. As a police officer in Burma he had the urge to bayonet Burmese priests, yet he concluded that the Empire was immoral and should be abandoned. Up until the mid 1930s he was politically rather naive. Touring depressed England, he moved towards socialism while bemoaning the off-putting attitudes of most middle-class socialists. He became convinced of the necessity of socialism while witnessing its failure in Spain and its destruction by the Communists. At the same time he had wished to transfer from his inefficient military unit to the Communist-dominated International Brigade, until he became ‘a fugitive from the camp of Victory’, as his friend Richard Rees called him. Orwell’s paranoia about the Communists was richly justified. Bowker uses KGB material to demonstrate that Orwell was spied upon in Barcelona by English agents of the Comintern, who posed as friends. He experienced the perversion – so vividly captured in Nineteen Eighty-Four – of the total spy state. Spain made him a firm believer in democratic socialism, as he understood it. He defended it by so vividly depicting its betrayal in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Those on the right have wrongly interpreted these works as condemnations of any sort of socialism. Orwell put forward his views in a stream of well-crafted words before his too early death at the age of forty-six in January 1950.
This, I believe, is the Orwell who emerges in all the biographical accounts. More strongly apparent in these two latest versions are his defects as a human being. Although it is always interesting to learn more about a prominent person (and I fear we may take particular pleasure in being told bad things about someone), it is not totally clear how well the primary function of the biography of a writer – to illuminate the subject’s art – is served by what we discover here. It could be argued that one can never learn too much about someone’s sex life, but there may be too much emphasis in both these studies – Bowker’s more than Taylor’s – on Orwell as philanderer. Bowker has him as a man who pounces on women (with homoerotic impulses thrown in, despite his homophobia). He may be right, but, without any hesitancy as to the reliability of his sources, he has Orwell as a frequent visitor of Burmese brothels, and he chooses the most overtly sexual interpretation of any piece of evidence. In both accounts the happy picture of his first marriage, to Eileen, disintegrates as Orwell assiduously pursues former loves, one a very close friend of Eileen’s. Bowker uses the newly released letters to one, Brenda Salkeld. She was never a conquest, but not for lack of trying. Orwell wrote to her that Eileen thought it would be good for him if he could sleep with her twice a year! Eileen herself may have had affairs, most notably with Orwell’s commander in Spain, Georges Kopp. She suddenly died, just after they had adopted a baby boy. In his remaining years, Orwell tried to bed and marry a succession of young women, both for the pleasure of it and also to have someone to look after the child.
Orwell had the views of his age and class (‘lower-upper-middle’, as he so exactly characterised himself). Taylor handles some of these in a convincing and unusual way, through a series of short inter-chapters dealing with questions that run through his subject’s life and work – his attitude towards Jews; his voice; his phobia about rats; his paranoia; his face – and climaxing in a few powerful pages, ‘The case against’, written in the voice of a Communist critic.
Perhaps Orwell was right to resist the idea of a biography and one might regret helping to start the onslaught. But it was bound to happen. In the last analysis, to know more about Orwell the man – or perhaps one should say Blair – does help to illuminate Orwell the writer. The story does carry one along in Bowker’s study, but he makes hasty and unreliable judgements, and rather careless statements that cause concern. Taylor’s narrative is much better shaped, with more insight and intelligence.
One fears that so many warts may drive readers away from Orwell. Both biographers may exaggerate his sense of failure; does anybody achieve as much as wished? Whatever his life might have been, in his writings are brilliance, compassion and skill: first in the essays (including ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, his memoir about school); then in The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia; and finally in his dystopias, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He achieved so much in so short a time.