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Wintry Conscience

ISSUE:  Spring 1982
George Orwell: A Life. By Bernard Crick. Atlantic-Little, Brown. $17.95.

Orwell’s uncompromising intellectual honesty made him one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. In his credo “Why I Write” (1947), he recalled the effect of his combat experience in the Spanish Civil War on his style and thought: “What I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art. . . . Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” Because of his attacks on the Right and the Left, Orwell was praised and condemned by both sides. Lionel Trilling called Homage to Catalonia, which describes the Communist attacks on their Socialist allies in Spain, “one of the most important documents of our time.” But Mary McCarthy, in a rancorous essay, claimed Orwell would have supported America in the Vietnam war.

Animal Farm, a political allegory on the betrayal of revolutionary principles in Stalinist Russia, was rejected by T. S. Eliot and many American publishers. But Orwell’s clarity, precision, vigor, and wit made it a popular success: it was translated into 39 languages and had sold eleven million copies by 1972. 1984, which created the concepts of Big Brother, Doublethink, and Newspeak, alerted the postwar world to the dangers of a totalitarian future. Like Don Quixote and Pilgrim’s Progress, it became familiar to people who had never read the book. Like Silone, Koestler, Malraux, and Sartre, Orwell was a political novelist who “felt responsible in the face of history” for moral awareness and social justice. He belongs with Johnson, Blake, and Lawrence in the English tradition of prophetic moralists.

Bernard Crick, a professor of politics at London University, introduces his book by defining Orwell’s achievement: “the finest political writer in English since Swift” and announcing his own curiously crippling method: “the best that a biographer can do is to understand the relationship between the writer and the man.” He does not believe a biographer can enter into his subject’s mind, rejects “the fine writing, balanced appraisal and psychological insight that is the hallmark” of English biography, and dismisses the great line that runs from Johnson’s Lives of the Poets to George Painter’s Marcel Proust.

He writes in a consistently flat and graceless style (and even “takes up the cudgels”—a cliche specifically condemned in “Politics and the English Language”); emphasizes “how his books and essays came to be written” and published, rather than Orwell’s development as an artist; and provides a strictly external view of the man—with neither vivid details nor rich revelation of character—that tends to ignore his psychological motivation, guilt, masochism, and self-hatred. But Orwell (echoing Heine) stressed the inner life and self-reflectively wrote in his essay on Salvador Dali: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying; since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”

Crick was the first scholar with permission to use and quote from the unpublished papers at the Orwell Archive in London. He provides a more thoroughly documented factual biography than Peter Stansky and William Abrahams’ two-volume life, which appeared in 1972 and 1979. But because Crick is more interested in Orwell’s political ideas and their context than in the man who thought them out, we come no nearer to understanding the contradictions in Orwell’s elusive character: Etonian prole, anticolonial policeman, Tory anarchist, Leftist critic of the Left, puritanical seducer, kindly autocrat. Though Orwell was radical in politics, he was conservative in feeling. Malcolm Muggeridge, who once planned to write his life, said he “loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future.”

Crick’s comparison with Hobbes is misleading, for Orwell had comparatively few ideas and tended to express the same thoughts in all his works. He is more important for his brilliant style and noble character than for his rather superficial and frequently inconsistent political beliefs. His personal qualities—courage, compassion, honesty, integrity—led, immediately after his death, to the legend of the tall, lined, and shaggy man who shot the elephant in Burma and was wounded in Spain, witnessed a hanging and saw the poor die, lived with tramps and went down the mine, and was canonized as a secular saint. Crick fails to mention that this legend was based on Orwell’s own carefully constructed self-image.

Crick rejects Stansky and Abrahams’ dubious theory that in 1933 Eric Blair (his real name) was suddenly transformed into the pseudonymous George Orwell (the transformation in this biography is Orwell into Crick). But Orwell was such an impersonal and aloof figure that his obscure friends of the twenties and thirties have almost nothing significant to relate about his Burmese or Parisian days. There was nothing unusual about the young Orwell, no promise of genius, very little to suggest that he would become, after D. H. Lawrence, the most influential English writer of the century. Crick does not explain how the youth who began by writing banal poems finished by transforming the political experience of an entire generation into the mythic power of 1984.

Crick’s attitude toward Orwell scholars is extremely churlish. He sneers at their errors, though they can scarcely be blamed for being misled by the published chronology of lan Angus, the curator of the Archive, who was instructed to prevent scholars from checking the facts. And he plunders the discoveries of his predecessors, who first established the bibliography of criticism, the history of Orwell’s reputation, the reason he went from Eton to Burma (he could neither win a university scholarship nor afford the expense), and his selection and training as an imperial policeman. His account of Orwell’s constabulary duties (p. 84), for example, is lifted straight from Stansky and Abrahams (p. 179)—without acknowledgment.

Crick argues—against the generally accepted belief first proposed by the New Yorker critic Anthony West—that the autobiographical essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” was probably written in 1938 rather than in 1947 (when Orwell was writing 1984), and that the origins of his most important novel lie in the political events of the thirties and forties rather than in his terrifying experiences in the authoritarian school. Crick quotes Orwell’s statement: “I originally undertook [the essay] as a sort of pendant to Cyril Connolly’s autobiography, Enemies of Promise (1938), he having asked me to write a reminiscence.” But this does not necessarily mean that Orwell wrote the essay just after Connolly’s memoirs appeared. Crick also insists that Orwell’s censored letters home during his first term at prep school give “no evidence of disturbance.” But Kipling, who also endured agonies at school, wrote in Something of Myself: “Badly treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it.” Contrary to Crick’s theory, Orwell states that these traumatic memories took place “thirty years ago and more,” which makes the date of composition precisely 1947. Connolly regards “Such, Such” as the “key to Orwell’s formation.”

Once Orwell decided to become a writer—he was a late and slow starter—he pursued his goal with fanatical determination. His friend Ruth Pitter observed: “He had the gift, he had the courage, he had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition, until he became an acknowledged master of English prose.” His imaginative powers were limited, and he often sought experience for literary purposes (“I would like to spend Christmas in gaol”). Nearly every phase of his life was reflected in his books: school days in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” the East in “Shooting an Elephant” and Burmese Days, dishwashing and tramping in Down and Out in Paris and London, illness in “How the Poor Die,” teaching in A Clergyman’s Daughter, working in a bookshop in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, investigating the condition of slums and mines in The Road to Wigan Pier, fighting for Republican Spain in Homage to Catalonia, convalescing in “Marrakech,” childhood fishing in Coming Up For Air, farming at Wallington in Animal Farm, working for the wartime B. B. C. in 1984.

Orwell, who had a chronic cough as a child, was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1929, left teaching after a second attack in 1933, and had his first tubercular hemorrhage in 1938. He was always extremely careless about his health. He worked compulsively, ate poorly, lived austerely, wore no overcoat during wintry rides on a motorbike, and distrusted doctors. An anonymous gift from the novelist L. H. Myers allowed him to spend the winter of 1938 recovering in the mild climate of Morocco.

Orwell had predicted the war throughout the thirties. When it came, Connolly thought he was “enormously at home in the Blitz, among the bombs, the bravery, the rubble, the shortages, the homeless, the signs of rising revolutionary temper.” His proletarian affectations in the B. B. C. staff canteen—slurping tea from a saucer and rolling shaggy cigarettes—embarrassed colleagues and shocked the doormen. Friends were struck by his peculiar combination of gaiety and grimness, of personal gentleness and literary ferocity.

Though Orwell believed he was sterile, Crick suggests that the fault was more likely his wife’s. They apparently had sexual problems. The heroines of Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, and 1984 are all frigid; she may well have been frightened of his contagious disease; he had several casual affairs during the last years of the war. They finally adopted a month-old baby in June 1944. In March 1945 his wife (aged 39) died of cardiac failure during a serious operation for cancer of the uterus. Orwell, who had another hemorrhage while reporting the war in Germany that month (Crick says nothing about his direct experience with concentration camps), was shattered and guilt-ridden by her death. But he was determined to keep the baby, precipitously proposed to four women who gently turned him down, and then capably cared for his son.

After the success of Animal Farm, Orwell wanted to get away from the distractions of London in order to complete 1984. A friend told him about the remote island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, and he moved to Barnhill in May 1946. Crick opposes friends and critics like T. R. Fyvel and Anthony West who believe the move to Jura was a fatal mistake. He calls it a “long premeditated and quite sensible decision,” and then inadvertently provides evidence that contradicts his own argument. Barnhill, at the end of a fivemile rutted track that was “extraordinarily uncomfortable and exhausting,” was far from a telephone, a doctor, a hospital. The paraffin stove in his writing room gave off “smelly and heavy fumes.” The farm life was physically arduous, the climate was wet, the dampness “obviously harmful.”

Orwell had two hemorrhages in 1945—46; he was in poor health when he went to Jura and gravely ill when he left to enter a hospital in 1947. He had an adverse reaction to the newly discovered streptomycin, which could cure the disease and was specially imported from America. He desperately needed a warm, dry climate and would almost certainly have lived longer if he had gone to Switzerland, Morocco or the Mediterranean. He was the last of the modern writers— Chekhov, Mansfield, Kafka, Lawrence—to succumb to tuberculosis.

Orwell married the beautiful Sonia Brownell, who had been Connolly’s secretary at Horizon, in University College Hospital in October 1949 and died there three months later at the age of 46. “The tragedy of Orwell’s life,” wrote Connolly, “is that when at last he achieved fame and success he was a dying man. He had fame and was too ill to leave the room, money and nothing to spend it on, love in which he could not participate; he tasted the bitterness of dying.” But, as Orwell said of Gandhi, “How clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”


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