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.

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.