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.

Shelden did a satisfactory job in his first book, about Cyril Connolly and Horizon, but Orwell is an altogether more substantial, and more difficult, subject. Biographers of ordinary competence, if allowed to quote, cannot hope to avoid the contrast between the way they write and the way Orwell writes. Shelden recognises well enough that Orwell’s mature manner was the result of extremely hard work, not just practising writing but getting writing into contact with a self-understanding that took a long time to achieve. He confessed the relative weakness of his early work, its tendency towards ‘literary’ decorativeness, and often emphasised the sheer technical difficulty of describing what is under your nose. He believed the discipline necessary to this achievement came only when he was writing with a definite purpose – in his case, as it turned out, a political purpose: ‘looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.’ The sense he for so long had of himself as a failure was a reflection of the difficulty of the process. The craft of the plain style is hard to learn; it calls for at least as much rhetorical skill as euphuism, and beginners do not achieve it even by genius or accident. In Orwell it is sometimes, paradoxically, so artful as to seem mannered. It is, in its way, a kind of fine writing. But it is fine, and shows up what is not.

Though Shelden understands something of that, his own prose, soft and enervated, shows up badly in comparison. Here is a passage in which he happens to be analysing and admiring Orwell’s style:

For most writers the use of slang or other informal language creates dangerous pitfalls, tempting them to be casual in the construction of sentences. Orwell had a talent for fitting loose expressions into tight sentences. For example, the phrase ‘block it up’ is, by itself, an awkward phrase, and can easily damage the balance of any sentence which includes it, but not when Orwell uses it. He knows how to make it sound smooth and sharp, as in this sentence on an English tendency to spoil the view of pleasant landscapes: ‘Whenever you do by chance have a decent vista, block it up with the ugliest statue you can find.’

To make anything at all of this you need to agree that ‘block it up’ is, on its own, ‘an awkward phrase’ or a ‘loose expression’, in which case you are already out of touch with Orwell’s prose, a lack of contact not to be concealed by attributing to it some indescribable magic by which the awkward becomes smooth and sharp, the loose tight, and the unbalanced balanced.

Even when Shelden is just cruising along, not risking damaging comparisons by quoting, he is often so flaccid that one can’t help reflecting that this, after all, is a book about Orwell. Here is a passage describing a crisis, late in Orwell’s life, when he was living in Jura. Susan Watson was a partly crippled woman who had come to look after him and his adopted son. All went well until Avril, Orwell’s sister, turned up and decided she wanted to stay. Susan Watson ‘may have felt overly sensitive to any criticism from Avril, and in her own mind the comments about her disability may have taken on more importance than Avril had intended. But she could not have been mistaken about the feeling that Avril wanted her job, and that her presence was an inconvenience. The sad thing is that no matter how seriously Avril may have been determined to persuade her to leave, the critical remarks that were made about her were ones which stung deeply.’ Orwell, as reviewer, was capable of what he himself called ‘intellectual brutality’, and he might have been roused to it by the sheer floppiness of such passages: the limp rhythms, the feeble concessives, the insecure pronouns, the dreary Mills & Boonish cadence with its terminal cliché. And for that matter less severe reviewers might be so roused, having committed themselves to reading more than five hundred pages of this kind of prose.

Perhaps the book (unlike most of Orwell’s) was written too hastily to allow a period of revision in which to stiffen a few sinews and summon up some blood. Perhaps research took up too much of the available time; Shelden’s, as I’ve suggested, was extensive and laborious, and it must be said that his narrative does tell you what happened to Orwell, and even lets you understand something of the kind of person he was.

It is true that we must once again attend to arguments about the veracity of ‘Such, such were the joys’, his account of his prep school: was he as miserable as he said? Cyril Connolly was there and he wasn’t miserable. Neither was Henry Longhurst. The evidence is conflicting. Shelden thinks that Mrs Wilkes, the headmaster’s formidable wife, ‘helped to shape’ Orwell’s ‘character, and he never entirely outgrew her influence, no matter how much he may have wanted to blot it out’. I daresay you don’t easily forget a woman who beats you for bedwetting and loudly tells others about your wanton, filthy habit, but whether such a memory would have contributed importantly to ‘his incredible drive, his acute sense of guilt, and his great fear of “wasting time” ’, is more debatable. Cyril Connolly lacked the drive, the guilt and the fear in any comparable degree, but that may have been because even as a child he was wily enough to charm Mrs Wilkes, and presumably didn’t wet his bed.

Connolly, however, did know the boy and did read the man’s account of those days, and he is on record as saying that it offered ‘the key’ to Orwell’s ‘formation’, so I suppose any biographer is obliged to bang on for a while about whether or how far ‘Such, such were the joys’ tells the truth. But this obligation shouldn’t tempt him or her to neglect other considerations. The essay isn’t, of course, a sworn statement of fact: what is, on the other hand, quite true is that Orwell found reasons outside his own experience for hating what he saw as the prep school racket – the middle classes preferring for their children anything, however mean, to the fate of the ‘board school’, in itself, without qualification, a term of contempt. (All the same, when it came to the point, Orwell sent his own adopted son to a prep school: he was English, after all, and middle-class.)

In rather the same way, his loathing for Empire as a form of oppression imperfectly disguised by cant was not based entirely on his own experience as an imperialist oppressor in Burma, though he was somewhat afraid of his tendency to comply with colonialist habits of mind and behaviour. Shelden is probably right in thinking he must have been unhappy with the idea that his unimpressive father, another imperial servant, had devoted his working life to making sure that the Chinese were amply provided with opium: his son’s expensive education must have been partly paid for by its ravaged victims. So the Empire had involved both father and son in its oppressive plot, which, as it later appeared, was itself only part of a much larger, almost cosmic plot to increase the number of the earth’s oppressed, to replace truth with lies, and ‘decent’ with manipulative behaviour. There is some sort of parallel between Orwell and the Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia, a writer of comparable power, whose figure for this world-plot is the Mafia, operating in the institutions of government, the newspapers and the Vatican, but also in remote Sicilian parishes, procuring perjuries, persecuting decent priests, killing peasants, and nearly always ensuring that there are no complaints.

What emerges from a reading of any account of Orwell’s life is that if finding out how to write was consequent on his discovery of a large political purpose, that discovery was in part a consequence of these intimations of totalitarian evil. In the end, they came to control not only his writing but his actions. Shelden gives a good account of the Spanish episode, emphasising not only Orwell’s uncompromising physical courage but his amazement at the impudent mendacity of Communist propaganda. Even his colleague Bob Edwards, Shelden says, told lies; he is one of the caste for whom this biographer, as shocked as his subject by lies, evasions and treacheries, has developed a strong dislike. (This aligns Edwards with Victor Gollancz, who sacrificed Orwell to the party line, and with Sonia Orwell, who is represented, perhaps not altogether fairly, as tiresomely selfish and irresponsible).

Orwell’s response to the lies and treachery that seemed endemic was always to try to speak the truth, or at any rate what he thought the ‘essential’ truth, which is not always quite the same thing. Stevie Smith and Connolly both teased him for his preoccupation with the exposure of little-known and perhaps sometimes imaginary evils. But he would not see their point; the unwillingness of others to be like him was a perpetual disappointment. Wartime censors prevented him from writing what he took to be the truth about Soviet Russia on the ground that to do so would be ‘playing into the hands of the Nazis’. He could not understand this meddling with the truth, and it made him even more determined to resist all distortions not only of fact but of language. The answer to Newspeak was to write with unadorned exactness, and never to treat the language as a means of concealment or deception. Occasionally he overdid this, just as, in his personal life, he could react too violently when irritated; and he sometimes seemed as indifferent to the feelings, as he was to the opinions, of others, especially when they failed to match his own indifference to hostility or danger. Probably to write as he did you need to be a bit of a monster.

He is to this day, as in the Thirties and Forties, treated as a reactionary by some on the left, but he was always socialist in his own way: ‘The Socialist movement has not time to be a league of dialectical materialists, it has got to be a league of the oppressed against the oppressors.’ Orwell’s idea of the Cockaigne we might achieve if this resistance succeeded is even more remote now than it was in 1948, for it is a vision of happy people looking after their smallholdings, chickens and goats, or sitting beside roaring coal fires and smoking fearfully strong tobacco while they wait for the jug of supper beer to be brought from the pub down the street. One can imagine what he would have had to say about battery hens, shopping malls and supermarkets, canned lager and fags at £2 a packet. Yet his idea of the working class would probably still be of an unchangeably decent lot of people, continually and cynically exploited and oppressed. His complaints about the pollution of the rivers are far more to the point now than when he made them. He would not have lacked material, either, for assaults on political chicanery, double talk and outright lying, all of it contributing to the great world plague of oppression against which he saw it as his first duty to fight. ‘The object of power is power,’ says O’Brien in 1984, echoing James Burnham. If it was so then it very likely still is now, and Orwell, unheard still, would have wanted to explain to the powerful that to deprive others of their freedom is ultimately to lose your own.

One of his insistent complaints was of ‘the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves’, and as Raymond Williams pointed out in his 1984 meditation on 1984, this conviction accounts for a lot that happens in the novel, where the tyrannical system concerns itself mostly with controlling the intellectual minority. Williams thought this a false prophecy: such ‘systems’, at any rate in the capitalist societies, have attended far more to manipulating majority popular opinion than to bullying intellectuals. They have found that by doing so they can abolish the past without the trouble of rewriting history: the facts of the past can then be safely left to the research and consideration of an impotent minority.

Williams even charges Orwell with using ‘a totalitarian way of warning against totalitarianism, by excluding just those discriminating historical analyses, those veridical political distinctions, those authentic as distinct from assumed beliefs and aspirations, which are a much better protection against it than the irrational projection inspiring either terror or hate’. On this view, Orwell was himself yielding to the power worship he condemned; his book was ‘an imaginative submission’ to the inevitability of triumphant, irrational totalitarian power. Such a surrender, says Williams, shows ‘little respect’ for the many who have struggled against this outcome, and of course he includes among them Orwell himself. In Williams’s opinion, there was, and there still is, more decency around, or anyway gentler ways of oppressing people, than Orwell, in his last years, had come to believe. Maybe so, but it is very hard to imagine 1984 effectively revised to take proper account of that view.

We can’t know what Orwell might have written had he survived – he certainly had projects, and Shelden thinks it was only by a series of mischances that he was not treated with the drugs that might have enabled him to live on – but as things are the last novel does look like a terminal confrontation with the monster, its desperateness arising partly from a sense that nobody else was tracking its approach as seriously as this embattled champion of decency and peace.

It is a virtue of this book that it does show Orwell, despite a certain unconscious selfishness, as decent, and a good deal more than that, both in public and in private. He might not have been glad of this favour, disliking as he did the idea of a biography – very few important writers do like it, though each nowadays gets at least one – but he might have thought Shelden’s had some good points buried under its prose. He might have been glad to see justice done to his wife Eileen as a lively mind and, as her letters suggest, a pretty good writer herself. He might even have approved the balance here maintained between the kindness and the strangeness of his personal habits. On the other hand, he might have agreed also that the whole job, if it had to be done, would have been done better if done more vigorously – and more tersely too. But, himself a reluctant though copious reviewer, he had read enough books to know how much too much that would be to ask.