Wintry Conscience

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

October 2000 ATLANTIC

Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Norton, 397 pages, $27.95.

George Orwell and a pigNo other writer in the English language has been more often likened to a saint than George Orwell. His contemporaries and subsequent hagiographers have lauded his self-denial, integrity, courage, and decency, and these personal qualities — so the thinking goes — are inseparable from his writerly ones: only such a man could write such clean, clear prose, “like a windowpane.” But Orwell himself averred that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” In this biography Jeffrey Meyers draws an admiring portrait of Orwell, but he doesn’t omit the writer’s unsaintlike qualities. Orwell was often gentle, but had a violent, even sadistic, streak. He was endearing in his eccentricities, but obliviously selfish in his married life. In his dalliances with married women and Berber girls, and in his string of clumsy incompleted passes, Orwell, the cadaverous ascetic, was also, as Meyers writes, a bit of a “puritanical lecher.” Orwell’s two earlier biographers saw this side of their subject, but Meyers, the first able to avail himself of the materials in Orwell’s recently published complete papers, is more specific, and hence his portrait is somewhat darker. Meyers, however, too easily dismisses the complicated issues involved in what has recently emerged as one of the most controversial incidents in Orwell’s life: in 1949 Orwell gave an object of his attentions, who worked at the Foreign Office, the names of Communist sympathizers who couldn’t be relied on to write pro-British propaganda. (This list was revealed only a few years ago.) Although Meyers is right that Orwell’s move was hardly McCarthyite, it did, at the very least, display his inclination toward stupidity about women with whom he was besotted. Meyers’s discussion of Orwell’s writing and ideas is surprisingly wooden and superficial, but his is now the authoritative biography, and it amply confirms Malcolm Muggeridge’s judgment that Orwell was “more lovable than likeable.”

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