Orwell: the authorised biography
By Michael Shelden
Heinemann, 1991. $45.
Reviewed by Craig Brittain
Over the years I've read a number of biographies that seemed just about perfect: Dotson Rader's beautiful portrait of Tennessee Williams, Tennessee: cry of the heart; Jean Stein's Edie: an American biography (the life of Andy Warhol's superstar, Edie Sedgwick); Barry Miles' biography of Allan Ginsberg. This biography joins the group.
All are works of art in their own right; you come away from them with the feeling that you have been changed — you understand more about the human condition and yourself — as though you'd been to see a great play or read a great novel; and it is something for which you feel extremely grateful.
Michael Shelden is the first of Orwell's biographers to have had unrestricted access to his papers, and he makes good use of it. Previous biographers — Peter Stansky and William Abrahams and Bernard Crick — suffered from interference by Orwell's widow, who delighted in exercising her power of veto; she wanted only her version of the story told.
In the case of Stansky and Abrahams, she actually prevented them quoting from any of Orwell's books (a considerable handicap in a literary biography); and in Crick's she tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to stop publication because she felt that his book was too "political".
It is obvious from Shelden's biography that she didn't share her husband's political beliefs, unlike his first wife, Eileen, who went to the Spanish Civil War with him and worked in Barcelona with the Loyalists while he was at the front, and who influenced the writing of Animal Farm to the extent that many of their friends recognised her sense of humour in it. The emergence of Eileen Blair is, in fact, one of the strong features of this new biography.
Shelden says that he set himself the task of simply trying to understand Orwell's life. He hasn't got a particular barrow to push; literature isn't discussed to the exclusion of politics, or vice versa; and he doesn't try to turn Orwell into a saint. Also, he doesn't get bogged down in literary criticism, minutely analysing each of the novels and essays, which is the big temptation for "literary" biographers.
He uses all of the material available (quite a lot of it new and discovered by Shelden himself) and combines it with information derived from interviews he's done with people who knew Orwell, to make as accurate a portrait as possible of the man Eric Blair (Orwell's real name).
Especially interesting, I think, is the section on Orwell's relationship with Victor Gollancz, the publisher. Gollancz rejected Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm because they didn't conform to the party line on Communism. At the time it wasn't acceptable on the left to criticise Communism; after all, the Soviet Union was a workers' state and was allowed a few mistakes, and anyway its excesses had been forced upon it by international capitalism. Orwell strongly disagreed: a police state was a police state, whether of the right of the left; the Communists in Spain had sabotaged the fight against Franco, and were much more interested in consolidating their own power than destroying the fascists.
Orwell himself was on a list of those to be eliminated because, as it happened, he had joined POUM (Trotskyist), not the International Brigade (Communist) — by the end of the war the POUM and the anarchists were as much the enemy of the Communists as the Nationalists.
His experiences in Spain convinced him that totalitarianism was the main enemy of democratic socialism, and he spent the rest of his life writing against it. As far as he was concerned, for socialism to deserve our support it must guarantee all of the freedoms achieved (in part at least) under capitalism — freedom of speech and assembly, and the freedom to hold and express different opinions — as well as bringing about a fairer, more equal society.
It's surprising how many on the left still think that socialism means that everyone should think just like them. People might want socialism (many would like a fairer society), but they don't want thought police, nor can they stomach the self-righteousness and intolerance of many so-called socialists.
This is a wonderful biography, worth every cent of the $45. If you can't buy it, make sure your local library does.