Orwell and Biography
The word ‘biography’ can create as many different expectations as the word ‘Orwell’. It can mean a memorial or a panegyric, it can mean a hatchet job, it can simply mean a good read (Wyndham Lewis once said that good biographies are like novels); or it can mean something scholarly, academic, definitive: a dull attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – as far as that is possible. I have no wish to say that popular biography cannot be truthful. I merely point to the paradox that the popular biographer himself does not know if he is being truthful, unless somebody else has, not sketched a character, but done the hard graft of long and patient factual investigation into the circumstances and events of a life. Strictly speaking, a truthful popular biography can only be a simplified and shortened version of an existing scholarly biography, just as all school history books are taken from academic monographs. I am proud that my life of Orwell is already being recycled and usefully plagiarised in this way, especially by people who seem to have a greater intuitive grasp of his ‘essential character’ than I have, though they are civil enough to praise my capacity for hard work.
More seriously, what is biography about? I deliberately called my work a ‘life’ of Orwell because, as I argued in the book, English ‘biography’, since the time of Dr Johnson, has come to imply the portrait of a character. The main business of a biographer has often been thought to be that of ‘getting inside’ his subject, ‘grasping the inwardness’, ‘revealing the true personality’ – in a word, empathy. And this is why, presumably, Wyndham Lewis – that famously tolerant and empathetic man – preferred the novelist to the historian as biographer. I, too, set out with this general view, which I now hold to be romantic. I’m not wholly sure how I came to change my mind, only that I did so as I became impressed with the incompleteness and ambiguity of much of the evidence and – if wanted to make good some well-established readings of Orwell’s character – with the need to suppress contrary evidence.
Critics are entitled to believe that, in justifying an external, almost alienated approach, I was rationalising a defeat. Several reviews, not merely by old friends of Orwell’s, paid great tribute to my energy, industry, sense of period, grasp of history (compliments that might have been less fulsome, incidentally, had the resources of the Orwell Archive been more widely known), before saying either that I failed to paint a credible character, or that what I did show was not what they remembered. But I’m unrepentant, and though sentimentally I would love to have met Orwell – he feels like a lost lover whom I never knew – yet for the stern purposes of biography I can see advantages in having no personal memories. For I must say publicly that, while each of these reviewers was able to paint in a few paragraphs a more coherent picture of Orwell’s character than I could manage in a quarter of a million words, yet these miniatures were each quite different from the other and each tinged with autobiography.
The point is an epistemological one: can we really know the character even of people we are very close to, friends, loved ones and family, in such a way that we can surmise accurately (as adolescents torture each other) what other people are ‘really thinking’; and can we use such ‘knowledge’ of character to fill gaps in the record of what he or she was doing in the many years before they came into our life, or to ascertain what their motivations then were? And yet English biographers, famous for their good judgment of people (which in itself may be a national stereotype, vice or collective delusion), following the good Dr Johnson – ‘I knew that poor wretch Savage’ (probably they drank together on two or three occasions) – commonly do just this: infer fact from fancy. We can become fair judges of each other’s probable behaviour, while allowing for a good many surprises and misunderstandings.
No names, no pack drill, but if I heard once on my trail I heard a dozen times something like this: ‘I really didn’t know Orwell awfully well; to tell the truth, Professor, we only met over lunch or drinks three or four times by way of business; but somehow, I really cannot explain, very different people you know, but somehow we clicked at once ...’ When, occasionally, this kind of understanding could be put into words specific enough to mean something, all I could do was to place it alongside other, different revelations, and puzzle. If it could be counted as evidence at all, it was only by default – if it related to some problematic event in Orwell’s life for which documentation was lacking. Why did he go to Burma? Why did he go to Spain, or the Jura? Why did he want a second marriage so much? I agree with Brecht: if people really want to know what the true interpretation of Hamlet is, I’d rather they made up their own minds than that the actor and producer should try to solve the enigma and smooth it all out.
It is possible to give, as far as surviving evidence allows, a reasonably objective and reliable account of how someone led their life. Even then, the evidence may overwhelm one, so of course one makes judgments as to what was important: in Orwell’s case, I chose (or rather I came to find myself choosing), not very surprisingly, to concentrate on his attempts to write and publish his books – as Marxists and structuralists would say, on his ‘literary production’. If Malcolm Muggeridge had carried out his original commission to write a biography of Orwell, it would have been an account of the struggles of a Christian without God to find a cause; while the gentle and well-meaning Sir Richard Rees, who had known Orwell very well, did write a book about Orwell as ‘almost a saint’. If one must say that biographies are about character rather than about the lives people led, then at least it is prudent to adopt, as philosophers would say, a soft rather than hard usage of the concept. Consider this dialogue about Lydgate in Middlemarch:
‘There is no proof in favour of the man outside his own consciousness and assertion.’
‘Oh how cruel!’ said Dorothea, elasping her hands. ‘And would you not like to be the one person who believed in that man’s innocence, if the rest of the world belied him? Besides, there is a man’s character beforehand to speak for him.’
But, my dear Mrs Casaubon,’ said Mr Fare-brother, smiling gently at her ardour, ‘character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing.’