Orwell emerges as left-of-center conservative

January 19, 1992|By Brian Murray

ORWELL: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY.

Michael Shelden.

HarperCollins.

497 pages. $25. As he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1950, George Orwell, 46, added to his will a few simple requests. He wanted to be buried "according to the rites of the Church of England in the nearest convenient cemetery." And he asked "that no memorial service be held after my death and that no biography shall be written."

Orwell was, in fact, buried beneath a modest headstone in a country churchyard close to the Thames.

His second request remained honored until the early 1970s, when two Americans -- Peter Stansky and William Abrahams -- published "The Unknown Orwell," covering the childhood and early adolescence of one Eric Blair, the son of a former governess and a bureaucrat in Britain's colonial system.

In 1979, Mr. Stansky and Mr. Abrahams published "Orwell: the Transformation," following Blair from 1933, when -- with the publication of "Down and Out in Paris and London" -- he assumed his now-famous pen name and began the first phase of the brief but prolific career that led to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949).

In the mid 1970s, Bernard Crick, a professor of politics at the University of London, undertook another biography. Initially, Mr. Crick was encouraged by Orwell's widow, Sonia, who had blocked Mr. Stansky and Mr. Abrahams from using her husband's papers. Indeed, Sonia could be very prickly. For a variety of vague reasons, she also condemned Mr. Crick's "George Orwell: a Life," which appeared in late 1980.

As his "Orwell: The Authorized Biography" makes clear, Michael Shelden finds little to like in Sonia, whom he portrays as too willing to exploit her husband's name in order to secure her own small fame in London's literary world. But like Sonia, Dr. Shelden is critical of Mr. Crick's biography, suggesting that its plodding style and cautiously "external" approach amount to little more than "a large collection of facts" that reduce Orwell "to the level of a dry functionary."

Dr. Shelden protests too much. Bernard Crick, it's true, is no Michael Holroyd -- no Andre Maurois. But in his industrious, objective way he did produce a perfectly readable portrait of Orwell that is impressive in both heft and depth. As a result, Dr. Shelden can't help crossing much terrain that Mr. Crick has crossed before.

It's probably this fact that accounts for the rather defensive tone of Dr. Shelden's introduction, in which he not only dismisses Mr. Crick, but stresses that his own book -- "authorized" by the Orwell estate -- contains new discoveries mined from a mass of material largely unexplored by previous biographers. Some of these discoveries -- including those casting glints of light on Orwell's passing affairs and romantic attractions -- are not hugely interesting, and don't by themselves justify a new biography.

But Dr. Shelden does break new ground, especially when he demonstrates that Orwell's father spent years calmly supervising the transference of opium from British-run India to China's vast slums -- surely contributing to Orwell's loathing for all colonialist enterprises.

Dr. Shelden also effectively refutes the widely held notion (fostered in part by Orwell himself) that Eric Blair's own tour of duty as a young officer in Burma was marked by little more than incompetence and failure. And Dr. Shelden provides an appropriately thorough portrait of Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy, Orwell's first wife; more than previous biographers, he shows her to be "an exceptional person" who contributed much to the quality and character of Orwell's work.

Moreover, Dr. Shelden, a professor of English, offers insightful discussions of Orwell's writings, including that Cliff Notes classic, "Animal Farm" (1945), which became an American bestseller after being widely promoted as an important tool in the raging Cold War.

But as Dr. Shelden rightly stresses, Orwell's basic political biases were decidedly left-of-center. He was an anti-Stalinist who called repeatedly for the establishment, in Europe, of democratic socialism.

Still, as his request for a church burial suggests, Orwell had a strong conservative streak that added to his complexity as a writer and a man. Indeed, as John Rodden documented so well in "The Politics of Literary Reputation" (1989), Orwell has always managed to attract readers -- and champions -- from both the Right and the Left.

Of course, Orwell was not a saint. But his flaws, seen in the totality of his life, were small. He emerges from Dr. Shelden's biography -- as from Mr. Crick's -- with his dignity intact. Despite its shortcomings, "Orwell: The Authorized Biography" offers a sympathetic but balanced account of Orwell's life, and communicates well the wonderfully lucid, lively and still very relevant quality of his writings.

And for that, all of Orwell's admirers can be grateful.

Dr. Murray teaches in the Writing Department at Loyola College.

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