Frank Kermode

  • Orwell: The Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden
    Heinemann, 563 pp, £18.50, October 1991, ISBN 0 434 69517 3

There is already a lot of biographical writing about Orwell, including the memoir of Richard Rees and The Unknown Orwell by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky (lamed by the late Soni Orwell’s refusal of permission to quote), and, more recently, the expansive Life by Bernard Crick, at first authorised by the widow to emphasise her rejection of Stansky and Abrahams, and later de-authorised by her to indicate disapproval of Crick, who, much to her annoyance, had lawyers good enough to ensure that he was able to publish it anyway, quotations and all.

Crick traced many documents and interviewed dozens of helpful people, many of them now dead. But the assiduous Michael Shelden has found lots more paper, and interviewed not only the survivors on Crick’s list but others whom his predecessor did not come upon. His book is as long as Crick’s and inevitably repeats much that is in the earlier work, so it was all the more necessary for him and his publishers to insist that it is nevertheless sparklingly fresh and authoritative. They can rightly claim that their book is authorised (by Orwell’s literary executor) and are very willing to claim a good deal more.

Right at the outset Shelden has a go at Crick, who is accused of having been too dispassionate, too concerned with keeping a safe distance between himself and his subject. He is teased about his remark that the hanging Orwell claimed to have witnessed in Burma could have been one of the several hundreds a year carried out during his time there, and for pedantically citing the exact figures for such executions. Shelden says Orwell need never have attended a hanging at all, because nothing associated with his duties would have compelled him to do so (an unsafe point, one would have thought, considering the number of disagreeable things Orwell did though not having to), but nevertheless argues, somewhat naively, that everything about the sketch ‘A Hanging’ suggests that it must be based on real experience. Well it would, wouldn’t it? That is just what this kind of writing is meant to suggest. He goes on to specify the most likely place – Moulmein – for that particular hanging to have occurred. I don’t see why this should be thought an improvement on Crick’s efforts. But it is meant to contribute to the main contention – that Crick presented Orwell bloodlessley as a ‘bloodless writer of social tracts’ whereas Shelden will present him passionately as a man of strong passions.

He naturally stresses the amount of new information at his disposal, got from childhood friends, Etonian contemporaries, men who served with Orwell in Burma, relatives of the first wife, a secretary at the BBC, and so forth. He promises and delivers evidence – not, after all, amazing – of Orwell’s ‘romantic attachment’ to some boys at Eton, and at least suspects that he had some heterosexual affairs later, a matter in which Crick is bloodlessly but perhaps reasonably not very interested. He has found Orwell’s own annotations in a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London and recovered a ‘detailed list of medical records’. He considers the evidence that there was an affair between Eileen Blair, Orwell’s first wife, and ‘one of his commanders in the Spanish Civil War’ (this was the adventurous Georges Kopp – Crick, who knew the gossip, says ‘she kept him at a comradely distance’). He produces a security police report showing that Orwell escaped the fate of other supporters of POUM only by leaving when he did, and gives some details of that famous list of Communist sympathisers Orwell was compiling in his last years. He has read many letters not previously accessible – for example, a great many to Orwell’s agent Leonard Moore – which make it even clearer than it already was that the writer and Victor Gollancz didn’t get on, though not making it at all clear why he did not seek a more effective agent.

The above doesn’t include absolutely everything Shelden adds to the tale, but it is more or less what he puts before us at the outset to support the claim that, despite inevitably large overlaps in the information provided, so much that is new justifies a new treatment. As if conscious that this claim might still be unreasonably doubted, and possibly conscious also of the fact his book is as long as Crick’s, so that weight for weight there is nothing to choose between them, Shelden further maintains that since there is more to a good biography than the methodical amassing of well-researched facts, a sensitive biographer is also needed. We are to infer that this person is now at hand.

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