In 1984 — the last time the media paused to take notice of George Orwell — his reputation seemed secure. At the time, both conservatives and liberals celebrated the author of 1984 and Animal Farm as a prophet, the man who perhaps best understood totalitarianisms of the left as well as the right. There was justice in this characterization, but also something odd. In a properly ”Orwellian” political sleight of hand, the writer was rendered morally pristine and politically innocuous.
Perhaps the chief virtue of Michael Shelden’s new biography is the way it brings this plaster saint down to earth. ”He was not a bloodless writer of dreary social tracts,” Shelden insists, ”and his life was anything but dull.”
Indeed, Orwell’s career was wonderfully picaresque. After attending Eton as a King’s Scholar (as Eric Blair, his real name) he worked for five years in Burma, serving as an Indian Imperial Police officer. He resigned from his post in 1927 and tramped around France and England, washing dishes in Paris, harvesting hops in Kent, and watching coal being mined in Wigan. While experiencing working-class life in Depression-era Europe, Orwell found his calling as a writer. By describing the conditions that he saw and the injustice that he felt, he could offer ”an eloquent voice,” as Shelden puts it, ”for others whose voices have been silenced or ignored.”
In many ways, Shelden is an ideal biographer. The author of a stylishly written study of Cyril Connolly, the literary wit who was one of Orwell’s oldest and closest friends, Shelden knows the relevant literary milieu intimately. A painstaking scholar, he also has a novelist’s knack for narrative and characterization. Given unrestricted access to a variety of previously unknown letters and documents, he has produced the liveliest account yet of Orwell’s life.
Still, something crucial is missing: politics. Shelden makes only a halfhearted effort to illuminate Orwell’s passionate convictions. It is an unfortunate omission, especially since his bleak views on the prospects of democracy in Britain and elsewhere are likely to startle a great many readers. Shelden may be right that Orwell’s lasting legacy is purely literary. But Connolly was also right. ”Orwell was a political animal,” he wrote in the 1960s, summing up his old friend. ”His line may have been unpopular or unfashionable, but he followed it unhesitantly; in fact it was an obsession.” Forty years after Orwell’s death, it may be difficult to credit all of his convictions, but the fact that almost none of Orwell’s professed admirers take his apocalyptic vision seriously may be as much a commentary on our own time as evidence that his political imagination is obsolete. B