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The centenary of George Orwell's birth on 25 June is marked by the appearance of two new full-scale biographies, by Gordon Bowker and D J Taylor. "The wintry conscience of a generation", as V S Pritchett famously called him, Orwell was swiftly canonised as the secular saint of the post-war era in the years immediately following his death from tuberculosis in 1950 at the age of 46, and his reputation has continued to expand and develop ever since.
The reasons for this are obvious. Orwell's final two novels, Animal Farm, his anti-Soviet farmyard fable, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his nightmare depiction of a dystopian world in which the suppression of truth and free speech in the pursuit of ideological ends are pushed to their ultimate, chilling conclusion, have literally changed the way in which people think. Forty million copies of these two books have been sold to date, translated into every language under the sun. "Newspeak", "Room 101", "The Ministry of Truth", and, of course, most popularly, "Big Brother", are terms that have entered common parlance, and Orwell's bitter exposé of totalitarianism has become a weapon in the hands of the ideologues of both the Left and Right, themselves far removed from Orwell's espousal of democratic socialism.
Despite minor blips in Orwell's public persona - the over-hyped revelation, for instance, a decade ago, that in 1949 he had betrayed the names of suspected crypto-communists to the Foreign Office, a perfectly understandable action in the context of the time if one considers the possible threat to Britain of a new totalitarian enemy - he remains a touchstone of our moral seriousness. And there is more besides. As perhaps the leading essayist of 20th-century popular culture, Orwell is one of the founding fathers of modern journalism. His recognition that manipulation of language leads inexorably to the perversion of truth led him to set great store by a "window-pane" transparency in his own prose.
Unlike the character of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose job it is to falsify the past, Orwell maintained a deeply ambivalent attitude to his personal history. His books and journalism are rife with autobiographical references while he wrote approvingly of literary biography and thought it a useful tool in understanding writers and their work. Furthermore, at the end while gravely ill, he apparently intended to leave a list of dates and places to assist his eventual biographer. Yet his final will somewhat mysteriously requested that no biography should be written. The effort of enforcing this edict down the years lay like a curse on the life of "the Widow Orwell", Sonia, Orwell's second wife, whom he married on his deathbed, who finally authorised Bernard Crick to proceed with a biography, the publication of which she then unsuccessfully tried to prohibit shortly before her death in 1980. Two other major biographies followed in the course of the next 20 years, Michael Sheldon's in 1991 and Jeffrey Meyers's in 2000. Meyers was able to take advantage of the monumental edition of the Complete Works, two million words edited in 20 volumes by Peter Davison.
Any new biographer of Orwell has to grapple with some fairly intractable problems. Most pressing is the fact that all the biographical detritus - letters, diaries, and reminiscences - has by now been pretty thoroughly worked over. Secondly, Orwell's own versions of his experiences - slumming it as a tramp in London and Paris, immersing himself in poverty and destitution in the north of England, or reporting militia life at first hand in the Spanish Civil War - are so well-known that any attempts at retelling or reassessing them, even with the benefit of new information, inevitably fall a bit flat. Finally, there is the decisive drawback that the materials for writing Orwell's biography, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s, are often painfully slight, and that consequently crucial areas of his life - especially his relationships with women - are cloaked in silence. Orwell never ran with the pack. Feelings of isolation had always been inextricably linked with his literary ambitions, and during his brief burst of fame he remained elusive, even to his close friends.
In view of all this, it has to be said that both Bowker and Taylor have succeeded remarkably well, in their radically different ways, in shedding new light on Orwell as a biographical subject. Bowker's is the more conventional book, the strength of his approach lying in his careful and judicious sifting of the evidence, and in the writing, which possesses an admirable clarity that Orwell himself would have appreciated. Bowker is also able to steal a march on Taylor in the discovery of the new evidence, especially the unearthing of KGB files that show the extent to which the lives of Orwell and his first wife Eileen were under threat in Spain from the Soviet authorities. Bowker emphasises what he sees as Orwell's darker side, arguing strongly that there was a sadistic side to his nature. (Stevie Smith, whose shadowy relationship with Orwell is missing from Taylor's book, portrayed the two sides of what she saw as Orwell's schizophrenic personality in her novel The Holiday where he is represented by two characters, one, "lanky, melancholic, murderous and mad", the other, icy and homicidal.)
My own preference, though, is for D J Taylor's more reflective, critical biography. It's easy to see how some readers might be irritated or put off by the assumption that underlies this book, that much about Orwell's life must remain unknowable. But Taylor writes with such skill and aplomb that it's impossible not to be swept along by the intelligence of his observations, or by the little biographical meditations that intersperse the narrative, on subjects like Orwell's face (the degeneration of his features, from chubby boy to ravaged manhood when he could easily be 20 years older than his age, is shocking); his voice (an Etonian drawl); his paranoia (evident at every stage of his career, long before Nineteen Eighty-Four, back to his "police state" prep school); his attitude to Jews (not anti-semitic, but defying easy summary). All that's missing is similar treatment of Orwell's alleged homophobia and anti-feminism.
For Taylor, the clue to Orwell lies in his "ceaseless cultivation" throughout his life of a personal myth. Born Eric Blair, in Bengal, India, a child of the British Raj (his father was a civil servant in the opium department), he returned to England to be educated at St Cyprian's, a prep school in Eastbourne before proceeding to Eton. "Such, Such Were the Joys" was Orwell's answer to Dickens' Dotheboys Hall, a barely disguised attack on his first school, dwelling on its cruelty, snobbishness, and squalor, and portraying the headmaster's wife - known as "Flip" because of her uncorseted breasts - with such venom that the account remained unpublished until 1968 for fear of libel action. Taylor is unable to corroborate many of the features of this slice of autobiography. It stands as a significant indicator of the ways in which Eric Blair, reborn as George Orwell, would extract the most potent symbolism from a variety of different aspects of his life. If put-upon, beaten schoolboy was one posture, then Orwell's extraordinary forays among the tramp life of the East End and Paris was another, serving as part of his literary apprenticeship, and only acquiring its "ideological armature", as Taylor calls it, later. What's fascinating about this period in Orwell's life is that while he was undoubtedly stirred by the plight of the dispossessed, and could easily pass as a tramp with his gangly, unfed appearance, he also felt an overwhelming compulsion to immerse himself in something that thoroughly revolted him.
In the final analysis, Orwell's real self, as both these biographies suggest, remains obscure, concealed behind a pseudonym. That this had long been Orwell's purpose is confirmed by one telling statement of his that "a writer's literary personality has little or nothing to do with his private character."Reuse content