Orwell by Jeffrey Meyers

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The Independent Culture

In the crowded field of Orwell biography, this absorbing, superbly researched portrait is streets ahead if its rivals. While celebrating Orwell's gritty genius, Meyers acknowledges his weird character quirks. Just as cigarettes were vital for the emphysema-racked Tynan, so the tubercular Orwell needed to live in conditions that were chilly, threadbare and Spartan. Even in his mid-twenties, the austere lifestyle of this unlikely old Etonian was described by a friend as "not just poverty, but suicidal perversity".

We learn that his celebrated destitution in Paris was the result of having his money pinched by "a little trollop, desirable in every way". Even after producing Down and Out in Paris and London, his circumstances changed little for the better. The dire lodging that provided the memorably pungent vignette concerning a chamber pot in Road to Wigan Pier was described by a local Wiganite as "a right filthy hole, a specially filthy hole".

At the same time, Orwell was not averse to a nice meal at Rule's and fancied himself as a bit of a ladies' man. He seems to have ignored the health problems that killed his wife in 1945. Orwell's terse acknowledgement in a letter ("I'm very cut up about it") hid his guilty devastation. He proved a caring father for his adopted son Richard, but Orwell's demand for austerity pushed him to Jura and what a visitor described as "the most uninhabitable house in the British Isles". This cold, isolated, habitation was where Orwell produced his two masterpieces. It also killed him.

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