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Bernard Crick

George Orwell: A Life

INTRODUCTION

Orwell’s Achievement

What kind of biography have I tried to write, and about what kind of man? The questions are not wholly separable. It makes a difference, obviously, if one is writing about a statesman, a theologian, a scientist, an actor or a writer of a certain kind; one’s initial assumptions about one’s subject must affect the way one goes to work and the kind of evidence one looks for, even though working through the evidence inevitably modifies those assumptions. The reader is entitled to frankness about the author’s preconceptions (although frankness too can be a self-deception — straightaway, a typical Orwellian dilemma).

Eric Blair, with his odd combination of writing from experience, his autobiographical asides, his imagination as a writer (easy to underestimate), his common sense and common man honesty, the man’s love of privacy and yet the writer’s cultivation of a public image as George Orwell, raises unusual problems that seem to demand — or at least to excuse — some otherwise pretentious preliminaries before one presents what one has tried to do: simply to write as straightforward and informative a life as possible.

I saw and still see Orwell as someone who fully succeeded, despite his tragically early death, in the task he set himself in mid-career. He succeeded in such a way that he moved, even in his lifetime, from being a minor English writer to being a world figure, a name to set argument going wherever books are read. In 1946 he wrote in ‘Why I Write’: ‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art,’ adding that ‘looking back through my work, I see that 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.’

Orwell came to see himself as a ‘political writer’, and both words were of equal weight. He did not claim to be a political philosopher, nor simply a political polemicist: he was a writer, a general writer, author of novels, descriptive works that I will call ‘documentaries’, essays, poems and innumerable book reviews and newspaper columns. But if his best work was not always directly political in the subject matter, it always exhibited political consciousness. In that sense, he is the finest political writer in English since Swift, satirist, stylist, moralist and stirrer, who influenced him so much. The mature Orwell called Swift ‘a Tory anarchist’, forgetting that he had once used the phrase of himself when asked, as a young man, where he stood.

Orwell’s reputation and influence have increased since his death and show no sign of diminishing. The actual life of such a writer is, alas, only half the story. His greatest influence has been posthumous and has been for liberty and tolerance, but not as passive things to be enjoyed, rather as republican virtues to be exercised: the duty of speaking out boldly (‘the secret of liberty,’ said Pericles, ‘is courage’) and of tolerating rival opinions not out of indifference, but out of principle and because of their seriousness. And plain speaking always meant to him clear writing: communality, common sense, courage and a common style. He saw his literary and his political values as perfectly complementary to each other, he could not conceive of them being in contradiction — even if plain style sometimes limited the kind of literature he could enjoy as well as the development of his own more theoretical ideas. His own style became a cutting edge which, with much trial and error, by fits and starts, he slowly forged into a weapon of legendary strength. He made common words sharp, made them come to life again until under his spell one thinks twice before one uses any polysyllables, still less neologisms.

So in the term ‘political writer’ the second word is as important as the first. Obscure, pretentious or trendy language was to Orwell always a sign of indecision or of deceit, as much when used by private men as by party hacks. For though Orwell and Johnson have many characteristics in common, such as tenacity and pugnacity, an original affection for English letters and an abiding concern for the dignity and well-being of unfortunate writers in poverty, yet Orwell’s views on language would imply that Johnsonian ponderosities of style often masked a Tory mixture of deference and evasion.

He became a Socialist (somewhat later than people think) and denied fiercely, whether in reviewing a book by Professor Hayek or in the story of Animal Farm, that equality necessarily negates liberty. On the contrary, he stood in that lineage of English socialists who, through Morris, Blatchford, Tawney, Cole, Laski and Bevan, have argued that only in a more egalitarian and fraternal society can liberties flourish and abound for the common people.(1) It was a tradition that stressed the importance of freely held values, to which the structural arguments of Marxism were, at best, only marginal. Yet his influence has been to reprove backsliding socialists, to sustain democratic Socialists (he always capitalized it thus) and to win back Communist fellow-travellers rather than to convert non-socialists. Many liberals seem unimpressed by Orwell’s socialist values, taking what they want from him, admiring him rather abstractly as a political writer, but not wanting to come to terms with the content of his politics, with his actual views about the needs of humanity (always humanity, and not just Europeans) and the constraints of a capitalist, acquisitive society. Some either ignore his socialism or espouse a legend that by 1948 and in Nineteen Eighty-Four he had abandoned it — what one may call the Time-Life and Encounter view of Orwell. Part of his anger against the Communists was not only that they had become despots who squandered human life and despised liberty, but that they were also discrediting democratic Socialism. There is really no mystery about the general character of his politics. From 1936 onwards he was first a follower of the independent Labour Party and then a Tribune socialist; that is, he took his stand among those who were to the Left or on the left of the Labour Party: fiercely egalitarian, libertarian and democratic, but by Continental comparisons, surprisingly untheoretical, a congregation of secular evangelicals.

What was remarkable in Orwell was not his political position, which was common enough, but that he demanded publicly that his own side should live up to their principles, both in their lives and in their policies, should respect the liberty of others and tell the truth. Socialism could not come by seizure of power or by Act of Parliament, but only by convincing people in fair and open debate and by example. He would take no excuses and he mocked pretentious talk of ‘ideological necessity’. Truth to tell, he made rather a name as a journalist by his skill in rubbing the fur of his own cat backwards. At rimes he was like those loyal and vociferous football supporters who are at their best when hurling complaint, sarcasm and abuse at their own long-suffering side. Sometimes, of course, it is deserved; and it may always be said to keep them on their toes. Small wonder that some of Orwell’s fellow socialists have at times been tempted, like Raymond Williams in his Fontana Modern Masters study, Orwell, or like Isaac Deutscher in his polemic against Nineteen Eighty-Four, to doubt whether he should be on their terraces at all. But he chose to and he was, whether they like it or not or would prefer quieter spectators. At most rimes there was a touch of the true Jacobin about him rather than the John Stuart Millite.

Certainly to call Orwell a supreme political writer, both for what he said and how he said it, is to point only to his major talent and influence. There were other good things as well. He began as a novelist and was planning a new novel when he died. Later he repudiated his early novels, except Burmese Days and Coming Up For Air. A Clergyman’s Daughter has some good parts but, overall, is embarrassingly bad. Keep the Aspidistra Flying won some good critical notices and is still very readable, but it seemed an interesting and promising book, rather than integrated and fully successful. Both these books were selfconsciously ‘literary’: he was, indeed, ‘betrayed into purple passages’ when he ‘lacked a political purpose’. Burmese Days was written far more directly from experience and had a clear political purpose, anri-imperialist (though not necessarily socialist, as is commonly supposed — he was a late developer, both politically and artistically). Coming Up For Air was received by most reviewers much as Keep the Aspidistra Flying had been, but second opinions are now beginning to see greater depths in it, a true novelist’s craft, a greater detachment from his own person than appeared at first sight; and certainly it is a comic and satiric tour deforce not merely in the tradition of Dickens and Wells but as good as any but their very best.

He developed as an essayist. Much critical opinion now locates his genius in his essays. There is much to be said for this view, especially if Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia can be treated as long essays, since they are all as unusual a mixture of description and speculation as one of them is of fact and fiction. His best essays are by no means all political, though those on politics and literature, language and censorship have become classics of English prose, anthologized and translated throughout the world, even where they are not supposed to be read. A small history could be written of samizdat and illegal translations of such essays and of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (read behind the Iron Curtain as angry satire rather than a pessimistic prophecy). ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’ are similarly famous and must each year arouse political reflection for the first time in many new readers, who are often reading them in innocence simply for their good English in respectable language schools or cautious English classes throughout the world.

In his essays on ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, on violence (‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’) and on pornography (‘The Secret Life of Salvador Dali’), he was a moralist who made pioneering studies of unsophisticated, as well as of intellectual, literature to expose anti-humanitarian values. But in the same essays he also pointed to traditional decencies which he believed are more secure among the common people than among the power — and prestige-hungry intellectuals. And there are many short essays that appear simply to entertain, but also lead us by humour and irony to reflect upon, or simply to gain compassion and understanding for, tolerable human failings, oddities and imperfections. While angry at injustice and intolerance, he never seemed to ask too much of ordinary people: his anger centred on the intellectuals, precisely because they hold or influence power and should know better. His politics were Left-wing, but many of his prejudices were conservative. And he wrote about many positive values that have nothing directly to do with politics, love of nature above all: he did not wish to live in a world in which everything could be manipulated, even for the public good. He was capable of literary criticism of the highest order. No one who cares for Dickens and Swift can ignore these two essays; and ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ is a brilliant reproof of one moralist by another for being monumentally silly, and defends the play of art such as Shakespeare’s from the Tolstoyan grumbles (so close to the Leninist) that Shakespeare ‘is boring and frivolous’ and ‘where does he really stand?’. Orwell championed and understood James Joyce’s Ulysses at a time when some traditional intellectuals denounced it as meaningless filth andlionest customs officers seized it to the applause of the Daily Mail and the Express, though his voice reached few people then. Far more effectively, he praised the art of Henry Miller whose cynicism and deliberate apoliticism he cordially detested. He made simple but bold distinctions between the artistic excellence of figures as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Rudyard Kipling and the inhumanity and bleak pessimism of their politics. It took rare courage and discernment to defend giving a prize to Ezra Pound while condemning him utterly as a person: a Fascist, a war-criminal and a most foul anti-Semite and racialist. Most critics still skirt around the double issue; Orwell waded in with both feet flying, and he was right, horrible old Ezra could sing. He defended with an essay, money and personal activity the gentle British anarchists when in 1944 the police picked on them and the National Council for Civil Liberties ignored them. (The NCCL was then Communist-dominated, no Orwellian paranoia that.)

Not merely was he, in his long and formal set-pieces, a great essayist; he was also a brilliant journalist. He was not outstanding as a reporter when the Observer sent him to report events and conditions in France and Germany at the end of the war, and to cover London in the General Election of 1945: he could not reproduce, as it were, the descriptive part of The Road to Wigan Pier in miniature — that needed more time and space. But he excelled in the short, characterful and speculative essay. He was a master of column journalism, knocking off quickly straight onto the typewriter three or four topics to a printed page, some serious and provocative, some quirky, comic or perverse. His seventy-six ‘As I Please’ contributions to Tribune — where he was a tribune indeed, protesting, denouncing, needling, nagging, mocking, teasing, and celebrating — became a model for young journalists for their mixture of profundity and humour, their range and variety, and for their plain, easy colloquial style. The model has not always been a fortunate one; it takes an Orwell to do it successfully, someone with a great store of reading and experience, amused and relaxed, working smoothly and fluently but at considerably less than full power, showing no signs of strain to achieve the effect or to fill the space. He made his column a continuing education for his readers, and I have met some old political activists who remember him for that alone and who never read his books.

Specific themes recurred throughout his journalism and essays: love of nature, love of books and literature, dislike of mass production, distrust of intellectuals, suspicion of government, contempt for and warnings against totalitarianism, advice on making, mending or growing things for yourself, anti-imperialism and anti-racialism, detestation of censorship, and praise of plain language, plain speaking, the good in the past, decency, fraternity, individuality, liberty, egalitarianism and patriotism. I list them in no particular order because, although a ‘characteristic’ and finite list (for instance he rarely discussed music, theatre, opera, art, schools, sport, travel, Whitehall, Westminster, political gossip, scandal, ‘Society’, or sex — some columnists today would wonder what was left), he never reduced them to any system and it is not always easy to see what they have in common; nor did he always seem aware of obvious contradictions that could arise.

His patriotism is important. He was almost alone among Left-wing intellectuals in stressing the naturalness and positive virtues of loving, not exclusively but none the less intensely and unashamedly, one’s native land. He held this view because of his rather old-fashioned radicalism that links his ‘Tory anarchist’ or individualist phase to his final socialist period. The whiff of Cromwellian powder or dust from Cobbett’s Rural Rides seems never far from his nostrils, like that hors of whom God boasted to Job: ‘He saith among the trumpets, Ha Ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains and the shouting.’ He was indeed, a ‘revolutionary patriot’. For he saw our heritage and the land itself as belonging to the common people, not to the gentry and the upper middle classes. It was their land because, as in the rhetoric of Wilkes, in the beliefs of the Chartists and in the philosophy of John Locke, they had mixed their labour with the land. He held this view before the War, even in his anti-militarist, quasi-pacifist mood: it was neither an overreaction to accepting the necessity of war in September 1939 nor a lapse back to Edwardian jingoism. Like Cobbett he fought against ‘the great Thing’, what Cobbett also called ‘the Establishment’, and part of his anger was that ‘they’ had tried to monopolize patriotism, so that, for instance, the greatest revolutionary hymn in the language, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, could come to be sung at Tory conferences without perceived incongruity. But part of his anger was reserved for those intellectuals who had yielded the native field without a fight, departing for a shallow cosmopolitanism or, worse, staying at home to mock. He was intellectually but never socially intolerant of pacifists on this score. He rejected their policies but defended their principles and liked their company. He confessed to a liking for the ‘rather jingoistic’ ballad of ‘Admiral Benbow’ because there was, he said, a tradition that old Benbow had risen from the ranks and remained a friend of the common seaman.

Orwell was careful, amid all his diatribes, to distinguish between patriotism, as love of one’s own native land (so that anyone who grows into that love can be a patriot), and nationalism, as a claim to natural superiority over others (so that States must naturally consist of one nation and seek to exclude others). It is typical that he makes this distinction, which is of extraordinary importance, briefly and almost in passing, neither elaborating it theoretically nor exploring its implications. But it is clear, deliberate, and it is there in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ of 1945.

Certainly there was a gender patriotism in Orwell which preceded his socialism and stemmed from his love of English literature, customs and countryside. In many ways he remained socially conservative, or as his friend Cyril Connoliy put it in a famous aphorism, ‘a revolutionary who was in love with the 1900s’. Orwell said of himself in ‘Why I Write’ of 1946, the same essay that declared himself to be a political writer: ‘I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.’ He would tease the fierce readers of Tribune by writing a column on the beauty and longevity of a Woolworth sixpenny rosebush or an essay on the mating habits of the common toad. His socialism embraces both memory and nature.

He is a specifically English writer and a specifically English character, both in his seeming amateurism — sometimes truly amateurish — and in his eccentricities. He lived and dressed as simply as he came to write, and in some ways as oddly. But he was never insular. He was steeped in French and also in Russian literature through translation, though hardly at all in German. He knew more about European and colonial politics in the 1930s and 1940s than most of his literary contemporaries, or politicians for that matter. He followed contemporary American writing closely but knew little about American history and politics — had he known more he might have avoided misunderstandings when Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were published in America. His other best works came to be reprinted and translated well and widely. He had things to say which are still of universal significance, more so than those of some far more systematic philosophical and academic thinkers. And something of his characteristic style, discursiveness and colloquial ease, the buttonholing directness, the zeal to write for a broad, rather than a purely intellectual public, must come across even in translation, for his style has influenced a generation of young writers in Germany, Japan and Italy, for instance, who do not all read him in the original. Throughout the world ‘Orwellian’ means this English essayist’s manner as well as the quite different connotation that ‘Orwellian’ has gained from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He is also, perhaps in the very security of his Englishness (it is Englishness, not Britishness, incidentally), a writer of historical stature on English national character. His Lion and the Unicorn and his later reworking of some of the same themes in The English People are among the few serious studies of the English national character, quite different from the celebratory banalities of Sir Arthur Bryant, Sir Winston Churchill, or even Dr A. L. Rowse. He did not merely write about the manners of the English, but attempted to assess the matter of Britain in the light of our history; who we were and what we should do as a people. He offered a moral and sociological stocktaking, both patriotic and radical, worrying about what was happening to England, the degradation and selfishness of its inhabitants and the despoliation of its landscape; but always having hope in the common sense of the common people and pleasure in their pastimes. American intellectuals have often, almost obsessively, at times masochistically, addressed themselves to the question of ‘what is an American?’. English intellectuals have kept well away from such speculation, offering little more than smug asides and rude jibes. Now, amid new uncertainties, not just psychological but directly political, such as doubts about the laws of citizenship and the unity of the United Kingdom, we are finding the need for such assessments. Those writing such books will have to start where Orwell left off.

Some literary friends in Orwell’s last years of fame never understood his politics nor accepted the importance he attached to politics in general. Cyril Connolly, for instance, often urged Orwell to get away from his political journalism and back to the writing of real novels. Such English intellectuals themselves represented that divorce of political and literary sensibility which Orwell’s life contradicted and which so many of his essays railed against. In France, Germany and in the United States it had long been more customary for intellectuals to be viewed as public figures and to make their views known on public questions, sometimes pompously and pretentiously, on occasion ignorantly, but it was both accepted and expected that they should do so. When English intellectuals did commit themselves, as did some but by no means all in the 1930s (legends grow and are fostered), they tended, Orwell considered, to go to extremes, to go overboard, to act with an irresponsible enthusiasm and ignorance like boy scouts on an afternoon’s outing, not as mature men journeying through life. In ‘Inside the Whale’ he struck savagely at W. H. Auden in those terms. The polemicist exaggerated and, as regards people, sometimes hit out crushingly at the wrong enemy. But he was basically right. Many English intellectuals who considered themselves political had, in fact, a divided sensibility and double standards. They tolerated, expected and practised a reckless and passionate sincerity and a crudeness of judgement in politics, even called for it, of a kind that they would not tolerate for one moment in literary writing or in literary criticism. Sense and sensibility were for art, and anger and authenticity were for politics. But Orwell developed a political sensibility of an ancient kind, if rare in the industrial modern, world, that without being precisely philosophical and analytical was reflective and conceptually imaginative as well as polemical and activist.(2) Whether he knew it or not he lay close to the Graeco-Roman republican roots of European civilization which assumed the indivisibility of citizenship and culture, whereas so many of his friends believed in separation and wasted many words rationalizing their own alienation from the public realm.

So as well as a political writer, Orwell was a political thinker of genuine stature. Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen as a ‘development model’, of a kind familiar to economic historians and social scientists, challenging comparison, in its ironic logic and internal consistency, with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the masterpiece of English political philosophy. The governing régime is a wickedly clever and plausible synthesis ofStalinism and Nazism. Nineteen Eighty-Four is to the disorders of the twentieth century what Leviathan was to those of the seventeenth. Orwell chose to write in the form of a novel, not in the form of a philosophical tractatus. He would, indeed, have been incapable of writing a contemporary philosophical monograph, scarcely of understanding one. He was what Oxford dons sometimes call ‘an untrained mind’ (that is, untamed). He sailed boldly and skilfully, reached and explored some important destinations, but he had not the least idea of the theories of navigation or of naval architecture. To theorize about political developments in the form of a novel rather than as a treatise has advantages in reaching a wider public and for intuitive understanding, but disadvantages in credibility and explanatory precision.

Hobbes believed that a breakdown in good government would cause a return to a hypothetical state of nature, a condition of violent anarchy where the life of man is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. Orwell believed that a breakdown in good government (by which he meant a breakdown in liberty, tolerance and welfare) could cause a leap forward into a hypothetical world order of one-party total power, a kind of State that the world had never seen before. He thought it would be unique in that the vestiges of genuine ideology, whether Communist or Fascist, would have withered away and yet merged in a single hierarchy of oppression and propaganda motivated by a desire for pure power: ‘If you want a picture of the future of humanity imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ Memory would be abolished, history rewritten and language controlled.

Orwell had first formulated the concept of totalitarianism shortly after his escape from Spain. He argued that common factors were emerging in Stalinism and in Nazism concerned with the retention and extension of power by the inner party élite. These lead the state to mobilize all society as if for perpetual and total war, a common process more important than the vestigial and nominally antagonistic ideologies. Koesder, Borkenau, Silone, Malraux and Orwell all established this usage and began to develop the theory at about the same time, 1936 to 1940 (as far as I can discover, quite independently of each other). They were all political and literary intellectuals in ‘the continental manner’, as the Englishman Orwell was to say of the others. They set out this theory and acted upon it. It was to be a decade and a half before the scholars and the academics ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ the totalitarian thesis and elaborated it at length, notably Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Carl Friederich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in their Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956). Arendt nowhere refers to Nineteen Eighty-Four although it anticipates many other conclusions.

If one takes the term ‘political writer’ in its broadest sense to include philosophers, statesmen, publicists and pamphleteers who might claim to be secure in the canon of English literature, three names seem indisputably pre-eminent: Thomas Hobbes, Jonathan Swift, and George Orwell. The intellectual historian might make some claims for Edmund Burke, J. S. Mill or William Morris, but Burke and Mill, while fine writers indeed, seem too narrow in their range, sonorous but pedestrian compared to the nominated three; and to read Morris after Swift and Orwell is to condemn him as being too consciously literary by far, however original and influential were many of his ideas. Hobbes was a philosopher, grinding and grounding every point, but also indulging in a vast polemical irony that makes Leviathan a masterpiece of baroque prose. Swift was a pamphleteer and the supreme satirist, able to satirize knowledgeably philosophy and theology as well as party politics, but not himself philosophical; and his style was a forceful blend of classical form and colloquial diction, so that Gulliver is a masterpiece of Augustan prose. Orwell in one work approached the importance and the scale of Hobbes, but he had none of his philosophical knowledge or disposition; and in many others of his works he learned consciously from Swift how colloquiality and formality can be mingled both for comic and polemic effect, and in so doing evolved his own flexible plain style which, while not the most beautiful modem English prose, is certainly the best model of English writing for a hundred and one different purposes. Orwell’s common style rested on the questionable assumption that all knowledge can be reduced to common sense. But if he did not have the philosophical sophistication of Hobbes, yet his common sense saved him from Swift’s bitter pessimism, at times hatred of humanity. For the thing about common sense is that one believes that other people, quite ordinary people, have it too.

The achievement is more important than the man. The main theme of a biography might therefore simply be how he came to hold the original and heterodox views of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But that would be too narrow, excluding not only a picture of the life he led but also the achievement of the writer. Many of the best essays would get lost. And the essays raise at once the peculiarly Orwellian problem of the image of the writer and the character of the man. The very image he came to exhibit or established is complex, for such a simple man (so it is said). To hold Orwellian views and to write in an Orwellian manner mean different things. How could the essayist Orwell, revelling in natural variety, produce the Orwellian vision of a totally machined society? The common-sense answer is that being a writer of great ability, he adopted another style and mode of writing when he wanted to warn against the possibility of something happening. But if one reads Nineteen Eighty-Four before any other book of Orwell’s or is told that it was his last testament, then one may well believe that it is a prophecy or forecast of the future, not simply an awful warning. Then there is, indeed, a contradiction between the two images of Orwell, and so people have presumed a change of character and of values in his last years. I examined this view very carefully, since it was commonly held and important, but I am bound to say that I found no evidence for it.

Some people still underestimate him as a writer. Why identify the final and utter pessimism and defeat of Winston Smith with the milder pessimism of the author? Why identify the shallow and imperceptive nostalgia of George Bowling in Coming Up For Air with George Orwell’s loving, but knowing and measured, even half-ironic nostalgia? Mere names mislead. With what other novelist would so many readers and critics so confidently identify characters with author? Is the man so simple or does his art lull or gull some of his readers into simplicity? Perhaps the trouble arises from the nature of the essayist who appears to talk about himself so much, about his experiences and his prejudices. How closely related is that ‘George Orwell’ to Eric Blair who became known as George Orwell? The art of the colloquial essayist, himself constantly and amusingly breaking the normal divide between fact and fiction, between the real person and the persona, this is well enough understood; but it can make things difficult when the same man is also a novelist; it can actually encourage critics and readers to think of Winston Smith as what Orwell thought he himself might become. Suppose there was, however, an Orwell mask that got stuck upon the private and modest person, Eric Blair? Does that diminish the performance?

‘Orwell’ sets many traps both for himself and for his readers. The question is only important, of course, if one is primarily concerned with the man. Some have said that the man is more important than his writings, meaning the example of the life he led. I do not share this view. A biographer should not, in any case, accept such absolute disjunctions between ‘character’, ‘circumstances’ and ‘works’. Also the view diminishes his works. I suspect that when his old friend. Sir Richard Rees (in his George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory, Secker & Warburg, London, 1961), called him ‘almost saintly’, it was because he was never as happy with the content of Orwell’s writing as he hoped to be.

Some have found an easier solution to this problem of the literary Orwell and a real Orwell. But I have found no evidence that a man called Eric Blair changed character when he came to call himself for the publication of the first book, ‘George Orwell’. I have observed, however, a more subtle and gradual process, that Julian Symons first noted, by which Blair came to adopt the Orwell part of himself as an ideal image to be lived up to: an image of integrity, honesty, simplicity, egalitarian conviction, plain living, plain writing and plain speaking, in all a man with an almost reckless commitment to speaking out unwelcome truths: ‘liberty is what people do not want to hear.’ But a public image of Orwell grew up even in his lifetime which was like a vulgarized version of this somewhat ideal image. It presented Orwell as the corporal of the awkward squad, that perennial difficult fellow who speaks unwanted home truths out of order, asks embarrassing questions, pricks the bubbles of his own side’s occasional pomposity, who goes too far in all this, making the whole Labour movement sound like a swarm of pacifist, naturist, fruit-juice-drinking cranks, and loses his own sense of humour when he cannot appreciate that a pack of lies is ideological necessity, or that an election address is necessarily humbug. ‘If you look into your own mind, which are you,’ Orwell once asked, ‘Don Quixote or Sancho Panza?’ George Woodcock began his study of Orwell with that quotation.

But I must explain why I do not think that one can look into Orwell’s mind, or minds — or anyone else’s. The best that a biographer can do is to understand the relationship between the writer and the man, between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by examining their journey together in detail, always remembering that what they did together and how they reacted to what happened along the way will tell us more than constantly analysing and reanalysing their ‘characters’ and the difference between them.

Biography and 'Character'

What kind of biography, then, have I tried to write about a man with this kind of achievement? I began with the naive idea that the main task would be to know the character of Orwell as well as humanly possible, while all the time working away at the facts, so that by knowing him, understanding his inwardness, entering into his mind, I could supply his motivations, perhaps even correcting his own later accounts of them, and make Sensitive suppositions (i.e., guess) at what was happening when documentation was lacking. But simultaneously reading a lot of ‘good biography’ and beginning to grapple with the evidence for this book, not in any rational order (as I had hoped) but simply as it came, dictated by ease of access to papers and the proximity or age of certain witnesses, I grew to be sceptical of much of the fine writing, balanced appraisal and psychological insight that is the hallmark of the English tradition of biography. It may be pleasant to read, but readers should realize that often they are being led by the nose, or that the biographer is fooling himself by an affable pretence of being able to enter into another person’s mind. All too often the literary virtues of the English biographical tradition give rise to characteristic vices: smoothing out or silently resolving contradictions in the evidence and bridging gaps by empathy and intuition (our famous English ‘good judgement of character’ which, compared to the French stress on formal criteria, lets us down so often); and this all done so elegantly that neither contradictions nor gaps in the evidence are apparent to any but scholarly eyes carefully reading the fnt_intro or cynically noting their lack. None of us can enter into another person’s mind; to believe so is fiction. We can only know actual persons by observing their behaviour in a variety of different situations and through different perspectives. Hence the great emphasis I found myself placing on reporting the views of his contemporaries at unusual length and in their own words, neither synthesizing nor always sensitively resolving them when they conflicted. Wyndham Lewis once remarked that good biographies are like novels. He did not intend to let the cat out of the bag.

Some good bad biographies appear to be, epistemologically speaking, novels indeed. That is the extreme of the empathetic fallacy. A contrary extreme is a purely empiricist presentation of the evidence, such as one can find in biographies written by professional historians. But they too deceive themselves if they think to avoid selectivity simply by offering a commentary on extracts from original archives. Rather than produce a symbolic distillation called ‘basic character’, they throw a cloud of dust — called facts — in our eyes. Common sense suggests that one can and must characterize Henry VIII, Wallenstein, Shaftesbury, Woodrow Wilson or Lloyd George, indeed offer rival contemporary characterizations too, but without abandoning the evidence and the chronicle of events for the seductive shortcuts and pseudo-certainries even of ‘empathy’, still less of literary psychoanalysis.

One has only the evidence that one can find. Which papers survive and which do not is largely accidental; there is no neat proportionality between the records and periods of Orwell’s life. His letters to his agent, for instance, survive and are a continuous series from 1930 to 1949, but his agent’s letters to him, which would add much to the tale, were foolishly destroyed. Orwell was not the kind of man to keep intimate diaries or to write long personal letters. For most of his career he was too strapped for cash, too hard pressed earning a living by book-reviewing and column journalism to have done so, even had he wished; and to say that he was careless about preserving copies of letters he did write would be to imply that he should have seen some point in doing so. Orwell’s ambitions as a writer were modest and what he valued was publication. He was not born to the literary purple of the Bloomsbury group, whose every scribbled note to ‘come to tea on Tuesday’ seem to contain phrases of wit, malice or insight written in the knowledge or hope that one day they would be published or be useful to some relative writing a biography. Which is the more valuable record of a state of mind, or interesting human document: a file of self-conscious literary letters carefully preserved by the sender, or a few hasty but argumentative letters sent without copies to a friend who happens not to destroy them? Gaps in the evidence are inevitable and should not be disguised either by expanding with surmise what we do not have, or by contracting, for the sake of balanced chapter lengths, what we do have.

Thus the texture of this biography is necessarily lumpy and uneven, both because I quote so much, to let Orwell and his contemporaries tell their own tales as far as possible, and because the sources are so uneven and bear no relationship to the relative importance of events in his life. Of course one tries to fill gaps, or to find other sources of evidence. Any scholar will know the ghastly disproportion of time one spends searching for people or papers that one is relatively unlikely to find compared to the speed and economy with which one assimilates an important section of a large and well-ordered correspondence in an archive. But when one does have to speculate, when a gap in the evidence seems crucial to the coherence of other parts of the record, one should simply say so clearly. I use words like ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ and ‘might’ as little as possible, but do so when coherence dictates. A biographer has a duty to show how he reaches his conclusions, not to pretend to omniscience; and he should share things that are moot, problematic and uncertain with the reader.

The need to present conflicts in evidence rather than to resolve them all neatly is particularly acute because there is so much good writing about Orwell by famous men of letters who either only knew him in the last few years of his fame, or did not in fact pay much attention to him before. They are eye-witnesses of a few years but can only speculate about and offer hearsay evidence for the long formative years when he was struggling to succeed as a writer. As poets and novelists, they do not always make the distinction clear, so I have always sought and, when I could find it, preferred the direct evidence of people who knew him at the relevant times. A good memory has nothing to do with literary abilities. Indeed sometimes when people have published their memories of someone, their writings act as a block to any further memories and, when interviewed, they simply repeat and defend, consciously or unconsciously, their published position.

A reader has observed that my stress on externality, standing outside Orwell, noting his behaviour, noting contemporary characterizations of him but not claiming to be able to get inside him and to know his character, creates an alienation effect. Perhaps so, for the trouble with the empathetic approach to acting, Brecht argued, was that in trying to create the illusion of being someone else, the character is then fixed, frozen and unchallengeable. The audience loses any critical distance and must accept or reject totally the character as portrayed. But both human freedom and good art demand not a suspension of disbelief, but a critical awareness that an actor is acting and that the part could be played in other ways; more generally, that the world could be other than it was and is. So also with an actual human life and a biography. I interpret Orwell’s character while feeling acutely aware that other sensible people (who actually knew him) see him rather differently. And yet we cannot substitute ‘context’ for ‘character’. We may understand a person better by knowing more about their history and background, but however much we know there is no inevitable inference from these antecedent facts to what someone actually writes. Childhood experiences, for instance, may limit, but they do not determine. Freedom, imagination, will and chance are all at play throughout life, especially in someone as self-conscious as Orwell: we must be as much on our guard in biography against the danger of reducing everything that happened to character or psychology, as we should be that the need to establish a context does not produce a crude reduction of events to economic structures.

Interpretations about character can even be perceptive and correct, and yet misleading about the actual course of someone’s life. Sonia Orwell spoke for many of his friends when she said in the Introduction to The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: ‘If political events had made less impact on him, he would have lived in the country, written a book — preferably a novel — a year, pursued his interest in the essay form and, when money was badly lacking, done straightforward book reviews which, he said, he enjoyed writing... War made him a political activist...’ But so it did and political events did have a great impact on him — or should one say it was not in his character to ignore them? If we are too confident in our judgements of character we end up by writing instead of history a kind of speculative teleology: what he should have done had he lived differently or longer.

Each of us may even speculate that we have a ‘true character’ which is not fully realized in our actual life. Orwell himself began a poem in 1935 ‘A happy vicar I might have been/Two hundred years ago’, but the poem goes on to point ironically to the impossibility of this when ‘... born, alas, in an evil rime’; and when he quotes this poem himself in his ‘Why I Write’ of 1946, it is to say that ‘the Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood’, that what ‘he most wanted to do’ was ‘to make political writing into an art’. Alas, indeed, the only life one can write about is the life someone actually led in reaction to actual events in a particular ‘evil time’, not about ‘true character’. Otherwise biography descends into psycho-drama, just as so many people in an ultra-individualistic culture can waste so much of their sensibility and frustrate so much of their life in wondering who they ‘really are’. Our human identity consists in relationships, not in inwardness.

I realize that the externality of my method runs the risk that I appear unsympathetic to Orwell, putting him in the box, as it were, under oath and treating his testimony critically. I would rather run this risk, however (liking him very much, but admitting, not surprisingly, that the works are greater than the man), than pontificate about character and states of mind. Sympathy must be present in a biographer — otherwise one would grow sour living for so long with someone one disliked; but sympathy is not, once again, a reliable short cut to establishing, so far as is possible, what actually happened at the time. An honest biographer must be more dull than he could be, must repress proud inclinations to ‘recreate a life’ or to imagine too often what someone ‘really felt’ on some crucial occasion.

If not on ‘states of mind’ and ‘character’, then on what threads have I come to hang this biography? Basically I found that I was looking more and more at his occupations, what he was doing to stay alive, and at his bibliography. Once he was determined to be a writer, everything seems secondary to the production of his books and essays. With someone else, circles of friends might be the thread, but not with Orwell: he was grudging with his time, had developed solitary habits in school and Burma, kept different circles well apart; they were all secondary to his passion to write. The main tale must be of how his books and essays came to be written and of how they were published.

This again swung me away from internality towards externality, from the British tradition of the inward eye and what Dr Johnson called ‘domestic privacies’ (when he virtually invented biography as an English literary mode), towards something closer, I discovered, to the French tradition of literary biography: an account of a subject’s public life and of the impact of his works. Certainly this shift has some surprising consequences. What of childhood and the time before works are published? I believe that many English biographers have unnecessarily perplexed themselves by trying to demonstrate that the child is always father to the literary man, when on any cool appraisal of first publications we must often be as astonished at the unpredictable discontinuities from childhood as with the few slender analogues. We have not yet emancipated ourselves either from literary Freudianism or from the cultural belief of the English upper middle classes that school-days are necessarily crucial, whether for good or ill (sometimes this belief amounts to a cult of permanent adolescence). However I discover to my surprise that the amount of space I have actually given to his childhood is greater than I had intended. The difficulty is that there have been so many theories about his mature work based upon thinly supported surmises about his childhood and particularly his schooling, that I have had to spend a disproportionate amount of time in order to reach an essentially negative conclusion. Truth often has to deal in dull negations, unlike the glittering results of intuition and characterology.

This volume is not, however, a ‘Life and Times’ either: such a formula, unless a man has a great effect on events, is mainly padding. I am worried enough that people sometimes treat a full biography as an introduction to the subject’s writings, but to think that a biography could also provide a political and social history of the twentieth century is absurd. I have written as briefly as possible, thinking of the general reader but assuming that he has read some Orwell already and has at least a background knowledge of the political and literary history of our times. Yet it is not literary criticism either, not ‘Life and Works’. This distinction is not crucial, however — only a self-denying ordinance to prevent elephantiasis. How the books came to be written and published is the central theme of the’ biography of any writer, but not necessarily a full appreciation of the books themselves, seen as texts and symbolic structures. The line is not always easy to draw, it depends on the nature of the writings: none of Orwell’s works raise the same problems for a biographer as do the major works of Joyce or Proust. So I have only discussed the texts when strictly relevant to biography — which, in fact, is often. None the less a biography must have limited aims.

Right from the beginning I realized how complex was the relationship between Orwell’s life and his writings. All of his books except the last two are obviously based upon his own experiences, and it is clear that he deliberately went out to gain experiences in order to write about them. This is customary and raises no problems in writers of travel books. But Orwell was primarily a traveller through his own land, through his own society and his own memories. As V. S. Pritchett said, he was ‘a writer who has "gone native" in his own country’. Even beyond that double relationship, however, I soon saw that if the autobiographical quality of his novels became a commonplace of criticism from shortly after his death, it has been less often grasped how extraordinarily creative and imaginative were his ‘documentaries’. Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia, as well as essays like ‘A Hanging’, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, and ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, his essay on prep school, raise similar problems — indeed the latter is the most puzzling of all his works to locate accurately between fiction and non-fiction. Each of his documentaries is on a different footing and will be looked at separately. Do we think of documentaries as necessarily conveying the literal truth about the ‘I’ who pretends to be what the author must know he never can be, ‘a camera’? Should we rather not try to gain some critical distance from the documentary technique by exploring the author’s intentions biographically as well as by examining the literary result. (Otherwise, we may, like that humble sea-captain, write to the author demanding to be shown where Lilliput is upon the map. Did Orwell witness a hanging and shoot an elephant?) Intentions and results are not always the same. I will seek to show, for instance, that there is little reasonable doubt what effects he intended to achieve in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four about which, for works written in such clear and simple English, interpretations have varied so greatly.

‘Though he invented nothing, he altered everything,’ was George Painter’s conclusion about the relationship of A la Recherche du temps perdu to Proust’s own life. Reading this remark crystallized my feelings that a biography of Orwell was needed, despite the seeming straightforwardness of his own autobiographical passages and the chronological progression of the four volumes of The Collected Essays, journalism and Letters, precisely in order to understand his literary achievement better. For Orwell had said in The Road to Wigan Pier of his earlier Down and Out in Paris and London that ‘Nearly all the incidents described there actually happened, but they have been rearranged’. I cannot entirely agree with Sonia Orwell when she said in her influential Introduction to The Collected Essays that all his novels except Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘contain Straight descriptions of himself or that ‘a whole chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier suddenly turns into straight autobiography’ (my italics). Some critics, particularly when commenting on ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ have not distinguished between the rare autobiographical ‘I’ and the more common storyteller’s ‘I’. (‘Were you really present when all those events occurred at Simla, Mr Kipling? "Plain Tales" indeed!’) To question the literal truth or straight forwardness of some of his writings is not to question his honesty and his integrity, but is rather to notice how his skill as a writer and his persona as a public figure have made some of us willing to accept his partly imagined worlds as literally true. It is easy to underestimate the literary achievement of his ‘documentaries’(3) and to confuse his straightforwardness as a person (the first and last impression he made on so many people) with the seeming-simplicity of his major writings.

One of his oldest friends fell into this trap. The late Sir Richard Rees, his first literary executor, wrote to Sonia Orwell (28 January 1950) advising against publication of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’:

...it is such a bad piece of writing, far below G’s standard. If one knows, as I do, that he was already past his best when he wrote it, one does not allow it to shake one’s confidence in his ability as a reporter of his own experiences. But if one did not know that, one might well wonder after reading it whether what he reports in Down and Out in Paris and London and Wigan Pier, and Catalonia, should be taken seriously.

If he had not dismissed it as a bad piece of writing and made a questionable assumption about when it was written, he might have been led to wonder whether he was right simply to praise his friend for ‘ability as a reporter of his own experiences’. Not all reporters write so well and raise moral issues. On Rees’ line of reasoning. Down and Out would have been a greater work of art but Orwell a worse man if it could be proved that he had never been to Paris. Orwell’s documentaries were all far more subtle and difficult to allocate between the Fiction and the Non-Fiction shelves than Rees appreciated. Rees had his friend somewhat patronizingly typecast, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of English Letters.

The problem of genre and truth is important in reading ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ as evidence of what happened at his prep school and of how he reacted to it at the time. The problem is even more acute because some have read into the essay a direct relationship with Nineteen Eighty-Four, have reduced the novel to a self-dramatization of trauma at his prep school, strengthening this case by assuming, from the chronological position in which it is printed in The Collected Essays, that he wrote the essay immediately before the fatal writing of his last great book. If this were so, the end is indeed in the beginning and an orderly chronological narrative becomes impossible. Nineteen Eighty-Four is then evidence on the character of his formative years and St Cyprian’s is the key to understanding the government and psychology of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This thesis lies like a booby-trapped road-block across any progress towards a sensible understanding of Orwell’s life and achievement, so I have to devote virtually the whole of a chapter to clearing up these confusions. A short preliminary chapter draws attention to the ambivalence of his memories of childhood. I have learned in these researches to have a great scepticism about the accuracy of memory, about both states of mind and facts, unless supported by some external evidence.

To move from the achievements to the man is also to remember that the man expressed a wish in his will that a biography should not be written. Such a wish is bound to be forlorn, as the executors of Hardy and Kipling found. Attempts to enforce such wishes only lead to biographies being written without proper access to sources. Why did he make such a wish, however? Perhaps he simply disliked those sensation-mongering kinds of biography of which he had read and reviewed so many. But he once wrote to John Atkins, his predecessor as Literary Editor of Tribune, that he thought that a truthful biography was impossible ‘because every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats too humiliating and disgraceful to contemplate’. This suggests that he thought of biography as trying to view ‘from the inside’, as primarily concerned with Samuel Johnson’s ‘domestic privacies’. These ‘privacies’ were once noble and pathetic, advantages or obstacles to be overcome on the road to authorship and fame; since Lytton Strachey they have become the exposure of personal inadequacies, warping or shaping future writing. But whichever mode of privacies was to be pursued, the ancient or the modem, or to put it crudely (and precisely) in Orwell-like terms, whether an official life or a hatchet job, his objection would be the same: its irrelevance to what he valued, his writings, not himself. He had no great secrets to hide, he simply valued his privacy and despised irrelevant effort. At times he almost literally cared for his writing more than his life, certainly more than his comfort and physical well-being. He was both a brave man and one who drove himself hard, for the sake, first, of ‘writing’ and then more and more for an integrated sense of what he had to write.

He might, of course, have withdrawn his objection had he known that with the passage of time some of his writings could be badly misunderstood because of mistaken beliefs about the nature of his life. And he might have objected less to a way of writing biography that looks at the writer’s position as a public figure: ‘in France a far more classical, mandarin, Eliotesque idea has prevailed, emphasizing... the clericatwe of the writer’, as lan Willison has put it: ‘This implies an indifference to domestic privacies in themselves on the part not only of the author but of the serious reader as well.’(4) Orwell with his vivid attacks on ‘intellectuals’, but with his high-minded view of the political and moral responsibilities of men of letters, deserves to be treated in this manner rather than in the Johnsonian. But the disjunction between English and French biography is one of emphasis, tempered by fact, not a total separation. If the domestic privacies are relevant to understanding the writings or the public role of an author, then they must be fully treated and not ignored; but if they are not relevant, they need not be examined and therefore, for the sake of clarity and economy, should not be examined. In fact I explore domestic privacies a great deal, but only because of the kind of writer that Orwell was: not simply a novelist, but an essayist and a journalist who dealt with private morals in an autobiographical vein quite as much as he dealt with public issues. Mild disparities between personal conduct and public preachment are sometimes revealed, but not of a kind that should discredit a man — unless foolish claims are made to saintliness or to total honesty and openness on all occasions. It is always easy simply to drop the preachments and to lead a life of full and empty acquisitive zeal and material comfort. Prying into his ‘domestic privacies’, discovering the full measure of the pain and difficulties that he underwent, have heightened my initial respect for the man as well as for, above all else, the writer.

Orwell was unusually reticent to his friends about his background and his life, his openness was all in print for literary or moral effect; he tried to keep his small circles of good friends well apart — people are still surprised to learn who else at the time he knew; he did not confide in people easily, nor talk about his emotions — even to women with whom he was close; he was not fully integrated as a person, not quite comfortable within his own skin, until late in his life — and he was many-faceted, not a simple man at all. So for all these reasons the famous honest and straightforward man, George Woodcock’s ‘crystal spirit’, appears as enigmatic, and has positively challenged and provoked his contemporaries to attempt, both in his own brief years of fame and in some remarkable obituaries and posthumous essays, to characterize him. There has been astonishing agreement either that the man was more interesting than much of his work or else that the work could only be understood by accurately characterizing the man. There are many such characterizations, nearly all beautifully written, but they differ significantly.

What I have come to believe through this work is simply this: that one can say less that is meaningful about the real character of the man than is usually assumed in the English biographical tradition and yet more that is true about the kind of life he led than is often supposed. The labour of writing a biography, like the education of a child, involves a prolonged and strange mixture of love and critical distance, of commitment and restraint.

1992

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1) A. W. Wright names Orwell in this company in his recent G. D. H. Colt and Socialist Democracy (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979), p. 263. [back]

2) Two of Orwell’s friends have understood and written well about the precise quality of his political writing as political sensibility: George Woodcock in The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (London, 1967) reprinted by Minerva Press, New York; and Julian Symons, ‘Orwell, a Reminiscence’, London Magazine, September 1963, pp. 35-49, and ‘An Appreciation’, being a postscript to the Heron Books (London, 1970) edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 317-45. [back]

3) No one has written a scholarly study of the documentary as a fashionable genre between the two wars, its conventions about fact and fiction and its links both with social research and the realistic novel. [back]

4) I am grateful to lan Willison for showing me his ‘Authors and their Publishing Histories: the Case of George Orwell’, to appear in a forthcoming number of Publishing History. I take from him the point about Johnson and the contrasting French tradition. [back]

____BD____
Bernard Crick: ‘George Orwell: A Life’
Published: book ‘Penguin Books Ltd’. — 27 Wrights Lane, London w8 5TZ, England, 1992.

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