"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," George Orwell once warned in an essay, but many have disregarded that advice in judging Orwell himself.
John Morris, who worked with Orwell during World War II at the BBC, said, "Orwell always reminded me of one of those figures on the front of Chartres Cathedral; there was a sort of pinched Gothic quality about his tall thin frame. He laughed often, but in repose his lined face suggested the grey asceticism of a medieval saint carved in stone and very weathered." Another acquaintance, Noel Annan, described Orwell as "a biting, bleak, self-critical, self-denying man of the idealist left" who "spoke with the voice of ethical socialism... . He was the first saint of Our Age, quirky, fierce, independent and beholden to none."
And a man of causes. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell reveled in squalor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he ventured to socially submerge himself, he wrote, "to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants," tramping among the homeless, digging among the miners. Then he fought the good fight in Spain against Franco, and when the Republican forces fragmented, he was forced into the other good fight against Stalin, finally returning to England--wounded from a Fascist bullet through the throat and dressed in a battered tweed jacket, a drab tie, and a new persona.
Did he act, and write, the way he looked? Joseph Epstein complained in The New Criterion a decade ago that "one still feels that nothing like a clear picture of the precise quality of George Orwell has yet to emerge. Fame--a great, billowy, international cloud of fame--has got in the way." There had been one authorized biography, Bernard Crick's in 1980, written before Epstein made that complaint. Another, Michael Shelden's, came along in 1991. The rap on Crick's was that it was a bundle of facts that shed no light on Orwell's inner life. The presumption after Shelden's was that Orwell was just a cold fish without much of an inner life and that he had no secrets to speak of beyond being unattractive to women and possessing a few dirty postcards.
Now Jeffrey Meyers, in a masterful, melancholy new biography, has definitively exposed the saint, after all, to be human.
Maybe by the time someone writes the next Orwell bio, in 10 years, Meyers's book will have taken some serious knocks, but probably not. Meyers gives gracious credit to "the rich literary and documentary material" in Peter Davison's 8,500-page, 20-volume edition of The Complete Works of George Orwell, and to "unpublished material in the Orwell Archive in London." He also explains how Sonia Brownell, who married Orwell on his deathbed and became executor of his literary estate, thwarted previous scholars' efforts to get a handle on Orwell. She went so far as to hide evidence that Orwell, as a boy, disliked a night he had to spend in the rough. Brownell apparently thought it would mar Orwell's later reputation as the noble, socialist hobo. Brownell died in 1980 at age 62 a "blowsy drunk," Meyers writes savagely.
So time was an ally. And Meyers brought useful experience to the job, having written biographies of Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. It's the range and depth of Meyers's own research and interviews, and his instinct for seeing through the apocryphal and the exaggerated, that enabled him to paint this richly detailed portrait. Orwell, as Meyers depicts him, was indeed a wintry conscience, to use V.S. Pritchett's phrase, and was also violently conflicted, eccentric, and spectacularly self-destructive. A witty and keen-eyed observer, he could also be a bully, a philanderer, and a snob.
We hear about how Orwell once borrowed a pistol from Hemingway in Paris and about a peculiar World War II feud Orwell had with future Joy of Sex author Alex Comfort over pacifism, and about how Brownell tooled around with painter Lucian Freud. All of that is fun in a "no kidding!" sort of way. But the thoroughness conveys a more important point: Given the obstacles posed by Orwell's morose heart, self-scouring brain, and rotten health, it's astounding how much he accomplished in his short and often horrific 46 years. And from a critical angle, Meyers's book is most useful in deciphering Orwell's masterwork, 1984, not as the slightly bald dystopian fable it now sometimes appears--a victim of its own overexposure, prescience, and Cold War exploitation--but as a harrowing and weirdly realistic portrait of Orwell's own history and psyche.
It's easy to see how the whole saint business arose, for what Orwell did have in spades--what he was practically made of, Meyers convinces us--was guilt.
The product of a loveless and primarily long-distance marriage, Orwell was born Eric Blair in the northern Indian state of Bihar. From early childhood, he suffered from chronic bronchitis and perhaps more drastic, hidden lung trouble that would plague him, abetted by his habitual smoking, and eventually kill him.
His father, Richard, was a dreary assistant subdeputy opium agent, third grade, in the colonial Indian government. His mother, Ida, had been a governess whose Anglo-French family had lost its fortune in Burma. She'd been jilted and married Richard on the rebound. While Eric was still a baby, Ida took him and his older sister Marjorie to England.
Ida, frivolous and self-centered, dumped her son into St. Cyprian's School in Eastbourne, where, as a scholarship student, "he was never allowed to forget that he was there on sufferance, and had to perform well and win prizes to justify his presence." At the hands of headmaster Vaughan Wilkes and his domineering wife Cicely, Blair and his 90-some classmates suffered the classic physical and mental anguish of English private school--beatings with a riding whip until the whip broke, "games," as a schoolmate put it, "of emotional cat-and-mouse against every boy in the school ... [e]ach of us ... alternately in favor or out of favor, like the courtiers at Versailles." The school's cruel regimes developed Blair's intellect and, thanks to the cadet corps, his lifelong passion for firearms and military exploits. It also heightened both his class-consciousness and his hatred of that consciousness. When he heard that St. Cyprian's burned down in 1939, he was delighted.
In his teenage years at Eton--again on scholarship--Blair was happier, despite the stiff school collar that "sawed your head off" and the "savage mass battles" with the town boys. In addition to literature, he enjoyed vampires, the supernatural, and--in an unwholesome way--natural history, killing a jackdaw with a catapult and slitting open its gallbladder. He also had an odd, sophisticated sense of humor, sometimes quizzing new boys about their religious beliefs. "'Are you Cyrenaic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Cynic, Neoplatonist, Confucian or Zoroastrian?' he would ask a bewildered youngster. 'I'm a Christian.' 'Oh,' said [Blair], 'we haven't had that before.'"
Though previous scholarship (including Meyers's) has had it that Blair went into the British colonial Burma Police because he couldn't afford university tuition, Meyers contends that the lure was "the uniform, the money, the adventure, the danger ... and the power of the quasi-military police force, which would put him in charge of a small bit of Empire."
Blair quickly grew to hate it, however, though he eventually commanded hundreds of men and had a knack for the languages--Hindustani, Burmese, and Shaw-Karen. In four years, he served in a half-dozen often unpleasant districts, including the flat, malarial Myaungmya, which a colleague of Blair's described as "the most dismal and pestiferous tract in Burma ... a vast featureless plain of alluvium extending for hundreds of square miles... . Mosquitoes both by night and day exist in their millions... . [T]he greenfly from the paddy fields invades the houses and makes it difficult to eat meals or drink without swallowing quantities of the insect." Recruiting, training, and disciplining Burmese-born policemen, supervising criminal investigations, arranging search parties to go after fugitives, escorting prisoners to trial or jail, Blair had no close friends. Servants picked up his cigarette butts and dressed him. He later mentioned the "servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage." Meyers concludes that Blair came to resent the job "above all because it had turned him into a brute." Captain Robinson's breakdown and Flory's suicide in the novel Burmese Days "suggest what he feared might be his own fate," says Meyers, who argues that writing became Blair's way of "healing, of eradicating the barbarian in himself."
Like Gordon Comstock, the would-be writer in Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Blair, on returning to England, decided to "make it his especial purpose not to 'succeed,'" and started his expeditions as a tramp. Meyers calls them "self-punishing experiments that mystified his family and friends." It was a mode of self-exploration, but the impetus, Meyers believes, was the "irrational yet deep-rooted guilt that fed on past guilt and formed a kind of disfiguring hump that he always carried around with him."
He felt guilty about his family's colonial background--slaveowners in Jamaica, exploiters in Burma, opium dealers in India--as well as his own too comfortable bourgeois family, his snobbish upbringing ... and his education at Eton... . His colleagues in Burma made him feel guilty about being too young to serve in World War I, and this guilt was revived when he proved medically unfit to serve in World War II. He felt guilty about enjoying the oppressive power of his job as policeman. Finally, his family made him feel guilty about giving up a promising career, for disappointing them and cadging off them instead of getting a proper job.
In Paris he was a sort of un-Hemingway, going out of his way to avoid artists and the picturesque. And an ever-more virulent masochistic streak emerged as he traipsed around in inadequate clothing in a "pre-tubercular condition" leading, for instance, to two weeks in 1929 in the "grim public wards" of Paris's Hôpital Cochin, which he later described in the essay "How the Poor Die."
Blair adopted the pseudonym George Orwell around the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London. He did it in order to spare his family embarrassment, but also to distance himself from his middle-class past. Also, he associated the name Eric with a precious Victorian literary character he hated. The Orwell was a river from Ipswich that ran into the North Sea, as well as a village near Cambridge.
Orwell married Oxford-educated Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who had a societal empathy in sync with his. She'd taught school, worked among prostitutes as a social worker, and assisted her brother Laurence, a prominent chest surgeon. She comes across as a sweet, practical, long-suffering woman who put up with Orwell's fetish for poverty even beyond the broadly shared hardship of literary work or wartime sacrifice. She also endured Orwell's sexual distance and sickly diminished amorous appetite in some periods, and his numerous infidelities in others. If, as Meyers indicates, she herself took a lover or two, it's clear how she may have been driven to it.
Their hand-to-mouth existence in Wallington as grocers and farmers, both on a depressingly shabby scale, sounds quietly brutal, especially coupled with Orwell's self-punishing journalistic and literary undertakings. When Orwell later went to Spain to fight the Fascists, Eileen was peculiarly chipper while visiting him--at least that was adversity shared with many and for an obvious purpose.
Orwell's half-year in and near Barcelona fighting as part of the socialist forces provides some of Meyers's most harrowing and vivid material. Along with fellow fighters--such as the valiant if somewhat shady Georges Kopp, a true hero of the Republican cause and later the French resistance--Orwell left Spain with a hatred of the Communists as virulent as his loathing of Franco. And for good reason: Stalin's agents came as near to finishing Orwell off as did the Fascist's bullet that had ripped through his neck. The Spain experience also, of course, led to Homage to Catalonia, which Meyers considers Orwell's "finest book," not a claim to be shrugged off, considering the two major ones that followed and taking into account Meyers's cool-eyed judgment as a critic.
It wasn't just through subjecting himself to tropical or frigid climes or throwing himself into battle on foreign soil that Orwell put himself in harm's way. When all of London was fleeing for the country during the Blitz, Orwell ran the other direction and took a propaganda job in the city with the BBC. The life he shared in London with Eileen was no less pitiful than the one they'd had in Wallington: a series of dreary flats and arduous work. The trying existence took its eventually fatal toll on Eileen's health--for she, too, was none too hearty--but not before they'd adopted a son, Richard.
Eileen's death and the adoption, along with Orwell's first commercial success with Animal Farm--the grim parodic fable of communism--transformed his life in a matter of months. Characteristically, he fled from his laurels, heading to the bleak island of Jura off the west coast of Scotland, where he rented an abandoned house on the northern end. Not only was it depressing, but he couldn't have chosen a worse place to watch his fragile health.
In the biography's most heartbreaking but enlightening pages, Meyers details how in that desolate setting Orwell raced against the microbes devouring his lungs, to finish 1984. One can too easily imagine how in a frenetic, fevered frame of mind, Orwell concocted Airstrip One in Oceania from Blitzed-out England, Doublespeak from Communist and BBC propaganda, "young and pretty and sexless" Julia from Sonia Brownell, and Winston Smith's debilitating torture from Orwell's excruciating and futile sanitorium treatments.
Even Meyers cannot entirely pierce Orwell's great, billowy cloud of fame, and the book leaves a couple things messy, but maybe only messy in the way that lives really are. He wisps by, for instance, a crush Orwell had on a younger boy at Eton and echoes of it later in Orwell's life. Meyers dismisses the episode as "a common emotional hazard of public school life" and pauses only briefly to note that "Eric probably felt guilty about this homosexual crush, and later condemned Auden and Spender as 'Nancy boy' poets to distance himself from these feelings." But as Meyers himself later notes, Orwell launched that kind of broadside against "pansy-left circles" not once but many times. You don't have to be some kind of Freudian reductionist to wonder whether there was not only a defensive element to that vitriol, but also a chasm between desire and expectation that could explain some of Orwell's oddly mechanical, alienated views of heterosexual love in both his life and his writings. It's odd that Meyers, the author of Homosexuality and Literature 1890-1930, doesn't explore that in greater depth.
It's also a bit hard to reconcile Orwell the able soldier with the dullard who used an oversized bomb in a spigot-morter while in London's World War II Home Guard, accidentally blowing out one of his men's front teeth and knocking another comrade unconscious for 24 hours. Later, Orwell almost drowned along with two of his sister's children and his son Richard when, on a camping and fishing trip, he "steered his twelve-foot dinghy straight into one of the most perilous whirlpools in Europe" between Jura and the isle of Scarba. When all this is considered along with accounts of Orwell's rotten carpentry, the suspicion arises that, though Orwell possessed a kind of martyrish daring, his earthly skills may not have furthered his role as a man of the people. Might that chasm have inspired some literary efforts at compensation?
Most important, Meyers offers an unconvincing defense of Orwell's 1949 pinpointing for the Labour government 35 writers and artists whom he considered "crypto-Communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way." That list--which included Charlie Chaplin, Michael Redgrave, Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, and George Bernard Shaw--has caused a recent furor among leftist pundits. Some see it as a betrayal; others interpret it as a sensible, practical Cold War measure, a straightforward favor for his good friend Celia Paget, who was working for the Information Research Department at the time and who visited Orwell at a sanatorium in Cranham.
Meyers comes down on the side of the apologists, arguing feebly that "[t]hese people, whose Communist sympathies were well known, would not lose their jobs or be harmed in any way. They would, quite simply, not be asked to write anti-Soviet propaganda for the British government." Meyers cites Orwell's rage at the "Russians' slaughter of 15,000 Poles at Katyn, Starobielsk and other prison camps" as well as other more-than-legitimate gripes. He also points out that Orwell "protested against the purge of Communists from the British Civil Service." But to say that the betrayal is understandable or atypical does not make it excusable. Of all people, Orwell--who had a particular lifelong antipathy toward rats of the rodent and human varieties--should have known that names named, however offhandedly and no matter how narrow the context, can ricochet in ruinous ways.
Nonetheless, the best indicator that Meyers's book has touched us is that by the biography's end, we miss Orwell even though we didn't know him. Totalitarianism, communism, capitalism, and brutalism are surely still with us. But in this third-way era, when Big Brother is trademark grist for a lawsuit over a "reality TV" series featuring spied-on dolts, would idiotism be just as alarming to him were he with us today? In our collective wintry conscience, can't you faintly hear the sad, hoarse chuckle?
Having rescued Orwell from beatitude, Meyers places him "with Johnson, Blake and Lawrence in the English tradition of prophetic moralists." OK: sale. But it's poet and historian Robert Conquest, crediting Orwell with "real, rather than ideological, honesty," who takes the best snapshot of Orwell with the lovely, quirky lines:
A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)