George Orwell, an inveterate and overworked book reviewer, once wrote that most reviewers, if they were honest, would have to begin their reviews with the words, “this book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.” It would be a rare book reviewer, however, who would say the same of Michael Shelden’s splendid and moving biography of Orwell, which will surely become the standard work for generations to come. It is far more lively, and gets far closer to the humanity of its subject, than the only previous biography that covers the whole of Orwell’s life, one written by Bernard Crick in 1982.
Crick, a professor of political science, subordinated the private life to the public one, content to trace the story of how Orwell’s books and journalism came to be written and published. Shelden has gone much further than this and has given a picture of both the man and the work that is insightful, sympathetic, evenhanded, and generous in its judgments.
One of the outstanding features of the book is Shelden’s meticulous research. He has managed to track down a number of people who knew Orwell at different stages of his life and who have not been contacted by earlier biographers. They include two friends from Orwell’s childhood, two men who served with him in Burma, a former girlfriend from the 1930’s, a former pupil at the school where Orwell taught, a former employee of the bookstore where he worked, and former comrades from the Spanish Civil War, including the commander of his unit. Shelden has also turned up previously unknown documents and made use of many previously unpublished letters written by Orwell and his circle. This resourcefulness enables Shelden to present an authentic narrative that in many cases, in particular those relating to Orwell’s early life, might have been impossible to piece together so fully a decade later.
Shelden’s research leads to reassessments of some of the conventional views of Orwell’s life. It turns out, for example, that St. Cyprian’s, the preparatory school that Orwell savaged in his memorable essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” as a cheerless place where boys were tyrannized and humiliated by despotic teachers, was not after all, such a bad place. At least, that is the conclusion that Shelden reaches after examining all the evidence, although he is careful to point out that Orwell’s purpose in writing the essay was not to provide an objective account tempered by adult wisdom but to convey the impression the school had made on his boyhood feelings.
It is a paradox that although Orwell (who was of course at the time known by his real name of Eric Blair) hated St. Cyprian’s, his academic performance there was excellent. A second paradox is that when he went on to Eton, the famous public school, he became only a mediocre scholar, even though he enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere that Eton provided.
A poor scholastic record at Eton meant that a university career was out of the question. Orwell decided to go to Burma to train as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police. Shelden convincingly refutes the frequently expressed view that Orwell’s five-year career in Burma was a failure, that he was an incompetent officer who was posted only to undesirable locations. On the contrary, Orwell quickly became head of the police force in two districts, one of which, Moulmein, was one of the most important in Burma. In Moulmein, Orwell had three hundred men under his command—not a small achievement for a twenty-three-year-old. Shelden wryly notes that in Moulmein the future author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) was in charge of an extensive surveillance system.
Throughout his time in Burma, Orwell’s dislike of the British imperial system he had chosen to serve grew, although he was careful not to divulge his feelings to anyone. When ill health encouraged him to quit his post, however, he began self- consciously to slough off all the material advantages that a corrupt system was willing to bestow upon those who served it well. Orwell elevated failure to a virtue because he thought that success always meant that one man, or group of men, held power over others, a situation he was determined to renounce completely. Deliberately courting hardship, and showing the kind of reckless disregard for his health that would continue throughout his life, he chose to identify with those whom he saw as the victims of an oppressive system.
Shelden’s detective work again yields some valuable information about one of the first fruits of Orwell’s excursions into the forgotten world of the poor, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Orwell scholars have never been certain of the precise manner in which Orwell blended fact with fiction in this book. In 1989, Brenda Salkeld, one of Orwell’s friends from that period, showed Shelden a first edition of Down and Out in Paris and London, annotated in the margins by Orwell himself, that Orwell had presented to her as a gift....