9 November 2003 NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
NO other writer in the English language has more often been likened to a saint than George Orwell. His contemporaries and subsequent hagiographers lauded his self-denial, integrity, physical and intellectual courage, and — Orwell’s favorite quality — ”decency.” These personal characteristics, so the thinking goes, are inseparable from his writerly ones: only such a man could write such clean, clear prose, ”like a windowpane” (as he famously described his ideal). But Orwell himself held that ”saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” With Gordon Bowker’s ”Inside George Orwell” and D. J. Taylor’s ”Orwell,” the number of comprehensive biographies has increased to five, and while the authors of all of them have plainly admired their subject, the man who emerges from this body of work is considerably less than saintly.
One might justifiably greet these new books with skepticism: are two additional fat biographies really necessary? Although each offers some fresh insights, neither breaks important new ground. Bowker’s is somewhat more detailed, but he often has difficulty separating his speculation from fact. Taylor is more sober — and achieves a usually smooth and sometimes elegant style, both idiosyncratic and analytical; his book will probably emerge as the standard biography. Yet neither succeeds in placing Orwell in the context of the fierce political atmosphere of Britain in the 1930’s — when the future of liberal democracy seemed very much in doubt — which means that Orwell’s own protean political views go largely unelucidated. Neither author, for example, notes, let alone explains, Orwell’s rapid transformation from an antiwar anti-imperialist (as late as July 1939 he suggested that British imperialism was ”just as bad” as Nazism) to a doughty English patriot.
As that shift suggests, Orwell’s views were, depending on one’s perspective, evolving or inconsistent — or both. Add to this his determined cussedness and it’s clear that Orwell’s oeuvre (his complete works fill 20 volumes) supports all sorts of disparate positions. Indeed, a problem with Orwell has always been that, as he wrote of Charles Dickens, he’s a writer ”well worth stealing.” For more than half a century he’s been celebrated and fought over by anarchists and cold war liberals, the Old Left and the New, socialists and neoconservatives.
Bowker and Taylor each lay out Orwell’s myriad — and largely familiar — intellectual and political contradictions. A man of the left, he turned to socialism largely because he thought capitalism was destroying the traditional decencies; as his friend Cyril Connolly said, Orwell was ”a rebel in love with 1910.” Although committed to the reformation of Britain’s class-bound society, Orwell put his infant son’s name down for Eton. This anti-imperialist former imperial policeman combined the cosmopolitan and the parochial. His mother was half French (Orwell wrote his first article in French); he fought in Spain under the banner of international socialism; he championed Henry Miller. But his intense attachment to England led V. S. Pritchett to remark that Orwell had ”gone native in his own country”: when venturing onto the Continent, he was gripped with fear at the prospect of being unable to find ”proper” tea. And, as both biographers keenly emphasize, Orwell the devout nonbeliever held that the loss of faith had left modern man spiritually bereft and ethically bankrupt. (Orwell, who always displayed an intricate knowledge of ecclesiastical matters, left instructions in his will that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England.)
But Taylor and Bowker display far more interest in the contradictions in Orwell’s personality and private life. As a writer Orwell prized lucidity and honesty, but nearly all his friends remarked on his intense secretiveness. His furtive nature engendered an elaborately conspiratorial view of the world. (To be fair, his experiences of being hunted by Stalinists in Spain plainly aggravated this tendency.) Other aspects of Orwell’s personality are also less than attractive. Although often gentle, he had a cruel, even sadistic side. And he carried the asceticism that accompanied his conspicuous saintliness to a disturbing extreme. To be sure, his self-deprivation had an endearing aspect (typically, he pronounced Britain’s wartime canteen food ”really very good”); but Orwell also evinced a streak of masochism and, in subjecting his ailing first wife, Eileen, to his life of excruciating self-denial, a narcissistic indifference to others’ suffering. However charming Orwell may have been in his (somewhat cultivated) eccentricities, he was — in his dalliances with married women and Berber girls, and in his string of clumsy incompleted passes — obliviously selfish in his married life.
Orwell’s consistently awkward relations with women are the most obvious manifestation of what seems to have been an arrested emotional and social development. He had the aloofness and intense self-pity, as Taylor nicely puts it, of one ”permanently on the edge of things.” And he never outgrew the adolescent pose of the outsider who draws attention to himself. His friend Malcolm Muggeridge caught the staginess of Orwell perfectly when he wrote of his ”proletarian fancy dress.” (Amused exasperation was a common refrain among Orwell’s friends.)
Refreshingly, Taylor and Bowker eschew an anachronistic condemnation of Orwell’s attitude toward Jews, a topic that has recently preoccupied Orwell revisionists. Both biographers discuss the subject at length, but both conclude (correctly, I believe) that while Orwell never fully transcended the sometimes ugly prejudices of his time and class, he struggled to do so through his entire adult life. And while both authors readily criticize Orwell, both rise to his defense (again, correctly, I believe) in assessing what has recently come to be seen as one of the most controversial incidents in his life.
In 1949 Orwell gave to an object of his affections who worked at the Foreign Office the names of Communist sympathizers who couldn’t be relied on to write pro-British propaganda. (The complete list was revealed only a few months ago.) Bowker and Taylor point out that Orwell wasn’t advocating state suppression or harassment of the people on his list; he merely, and sensibly, suggested that they shouldn’t be asked to write for the anti-Communist cause. Moreover, another crucial (and alas still not yet obvious) distinction should be remembered: as Orwell consistently stated, leftist progressivism and a commitment to social justice are not the same as — are, in fact, the very opposite of — Communism. Orwell believed the people he named (usually correctly, occasionally erroneously, seldom recklessly) served or sympathized with a murderous state and an ideology that was rotten to the core. (In the early days of World War II Orwell kept a list of those he suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. How many critics today would hold that had Orwell shared that list with the Foreign Office he would have acted wrongly?)
Although Taylor’s approach is far more literary than Bowker’s, Bowker’s assessment of Orwell’s literary achievement is the more trenchant. Indisputably, Orwell’s most historically significant works are ”Animal Farm” and ”Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But while neither book is merely topical, neither fully transcends its historical and political context. Some of Orwell’s other novels — ”Coming Up for Air,” ”Keep the Aspidistra Flying” — are underrated, though undoubtedly they would long ago have vanished into obscurity had Orwell not written them. As The Times of London acknowledged upon his death in 1950, Orwell ”had a critical rather than imaginative endowment of mind.” He wrote best when he married precise and forceful reportage and social observation with intensely personal experience — as in ”The Road to Wigan Pier,” ”Homage to Catalonia” and, above all, his essays and criticism. In such works as ”Charles Dickens,” ”The Art of Donald McGill” and the unjustly neglected ”English People,” Orwell, to quote Bowker’s spot-on assessment, ”combined an acute sociological imagination with great economy and clarity of style.” In pointing up the unspoken political and social assumptions behind cultural artifacts and works of literature, he practically invented what we now call ”cultural studies.” With these books and essays Orwell fulfilled his ambition to turn ”political writing into an art.” And in these works his character sloughs off its unpleasant features. His voice and arguments emerge clear, direct, plain — for better and worse, more clear, direct and plain than truth itself.