Orwell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, was a walking paradox: a great writer who never wrote an indisputably great novel, a socialist who spent much of his time criticizing socialism, an old Etonian and former officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma who renounced his advantages and lived with tramps and down-and-outs, a man who courted failure but achieved fame and success beyond what he could ever have imagined.

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Michael Shelden’s biography of this fascinating and very likable man is a major achievement, superior in every way to Bernard Crick’s GEORGE ORWELL: A LIFE (1982) which up to now has been the only complete life of Orwell available. Shelden has done a prodigious amount of research and has turned up new documents and information on every phase of Orwell’s life. The result is a picture of both the man and the work that is insightful, sympathetic, even-handed, and generous in its judgments, Shelden does not bully the facts to advance a particular thesis, but gets inside Orwell’s life and allows it to speak for itself. And it odes so with considerable power. Orwell, although his manner was reserved and his health almost always bad, was a man of passionate commitment and great determination. He as an idealist who never compromised his deepest beliefs, a man of integrity who was prepared to admit it when he was wrong, and, in spite of the gloominess of much of his work (who can forget that nightmare image in 1984 of a boot stamping on the human face forever?) he was not, as Shelden carefully demonstrates, the out-and-out pessimist that he is sometimes made out to be.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 30, 1991, V, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 3, 1992, p. 13.

The Guardian. October 17, 1991, p. 27.

London Review of Books. XIII, October 24, 1991, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 17, 1991, p. 6.

New Statesman and Society. IV, October 25, 1991, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 3, 1991, p. 3.

The Observer. August 11, 1991, p. 51.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 90.

The Spectator. CCLXVII, October 26, 1991, p. 29.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, November 17, 1991, p. 4.

Orwell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2066

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. Orwell’s comments show precisely which episodes in the book really happened as they were described.

During the mid-1930’s, Orwell became increasingly involved in politics. It is interesting to note that the levelheaded, uncompromising political voice that made Orwell famous was a departure from, or development out of, his primary interest in the early part of his literary career, when he wanted to write idealistic and romantic fiction. He even fancied himself as a poet. The turbulence of the time forced him to confront political issues, however, and he later decided that his best work was the result of this political impulse: “It is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally,” he wrote.

This increased political awareness was partly a product of Orwell’s adventures during the Spanish Civil War, about which Shelden provides a particularly insightful and gripping account. Desiring to fight Francisco Franco’s fascism, Orwell joined the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) and saw some action at the front, distinguishing himself by his reckless daring. He also got his baptism into the bitter infighting that characterized the various left-wing factions in Spain. It is easy to see how Orwell became exasperated with the kind of socialism that wallowed in dogma and specialized in denouncing heretics. POUM was often condemned as a “Trotskyist” organization, and Shelden has unearthed official Spanish documents from the period that reveal how close Orwell and his wife Eileen were to being arrested as “Trotskyists” in Barcelona in 1937. They got out just in time.

The intolerance and shortsightedness of the political left was a recurring theme in Orwell’s life. It shows up clearly in his relations with book publishers and newspaper editors alike. From the very start of his publishing career, Orwell had problems getting his books into print in the way that he wrote them. His first publisher, Victor Gollancz, was concerned about the possibility of lawsuits from disgruntled people who might think they had been libeled, even in such apparently innocuous novels as Burmese Days (1934) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Orwell learned how to deal with this kind of thing, but political censorship was harder to stomach. During the Spanish Civil War it was difficult for him to get anything into print that was critical of the communists in Spain or of Stalin’s Russia. He encountered censorship again when he was employed as a broadcaster by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) during World War II, and yet again when he was trying to find a publisher for Animal Farm (1945). Some of this was of a more subtle kind, a craven self-censorship that did not have to wait for outside pressure. Orwell wrote of it with some scorn: “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns the somersault when there is no whip.” (Censorship, however, was not the problem that Animal Farm encountered with one American publisher who turned down the novel because there was no market in America for animal stories.)

Although Shelden is not concerned with tracing the ins and outs of Orwell’s political philosophy, he does point out some of its contradictions. They were an intrinsic part of a personality that combined quiet conservatism with visionary radicalism. In 1936, Orwell remarked to a man who was justifying the disruption of a speech by Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the small British Fascist Party, “You ought to be British, fair play and all that sort of thing.” There was apparently no irony in this remark from a man who so soundly condemned many of the manifestations of British “fair play” and who said only a year later that British rule in India was no better than German fascism.

Yet what remains in one’s mind most vividly about Orwell’s life as presented in this biography is not his political beliefs, or even his novels. It is the quiet intensity, the warm humanity, of a man who did not readily show his feelings. There was a great kindness in the man. One episode that took place in Spain stands out in this regard. It dramatically reveals the strength of Orwell’s character and his bravery in sticking by a friend. During the Spanish government’s purge of “Trotskyists,” Georges Kopp, one of the commanders of POUM, was arrested. Orwell, at great risk to himself, regained an important document from police headquarters that might have helped win Kopp’s freedom. At a time when it was physically painful for Orwell to write—he was recovering from having been shot in the neck by a sniper—he still managed to write a long letter to the Spanish minister of war pleading Kopp’s case. He attempted to locate witnesses who would testify on Kopp’s behalf if the case ever came to trial, and he left money with Kopp’s friends to keep him supplied with cigarettes. What Orwell did not know was that Kopp had probably been carrying on an affair with Orwell’s wife.

Orwell’s integrity also shines through this biography. When he was wrong he was prepared to admit it, and in print, too. He once wrote in Partisan Review that there was a fascist element in a piece written by Julian Symons. Later he admitted that he had been in error and apologized to Symons, both in person and in the pages of Partisan Review. Only on rare occasions does one feel uneasy about the direction of Orwell’s work or his attitudes. Shelden discloses for the first time the names on a secret list of communist sympathizers that Orwell was composing in the last years of his life. What Orwell intended to do with such a list is not known (Shelden generously offers the opinion that Orwell had compiled the list “primarily to satisfy his own curiosity”), but one has only to think of the McCarthyism that was to sweep the United States a few years later to feel somewhat alarmed at how such a list might have been used by those who lacked Orwell’s balanced wisdom.

It is impossible to find fault with this outstanding biography. Shelden writes so well, and shows so much tact, sensitivity, and understanding about the private side of Orwell’s life, that one feels that the essence of the man, behind all that English reserve, has been faithfully rendered. One is left with the desire to plunge back into Orwell’s works with renewed admiration. His fervent advocacy of a democratic socialism has perhaps been outrun by world events, but his belief in a social system that was built on a spirit of compromise and the distrust of absolute power still needs to be heard.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 30, 1991, V, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 3, 1992, p. 13.

The Guardian. October 17, 1991, p. 27.

London Review of Books. XIII, October 24, 1991, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 17, 1991, p. 6.

New Statesman and Society. IV, October 25, 1991, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 3, 1991, p. 3.

The Observer. August 11, 1991, p. 51.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 90.

The Spectator. CCLXVII, October 26, 1991, p. 29.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, November 17, 1991, p. 4.

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