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Orwell: The Life
D.J. Taylor
London: Chatto & Windus, 2003.
xiv-466 pages, ISBN 0701169192 (hardback).

George Orwell
Gordon Bowker
London: Little, Brown, 2003.
xvi-495 pages, ISBN 0316861154 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

“The definitive biography”—this is the mention that my old, battered Penguin copy of Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: A Life (1) proudly displays on its faded cover. Sic transit gloria mundi: nothing in our world is ever “definitive,” least of all biographies of famous people, as the minor cottage industry in Churchill biographies amply demonstrates.

Why then not one, but two biographies attempting to supersede Orwell’s “definitive biography” on the occasion of the centenary of his birth? With Churchill biographies or predominantly biographical studies, at least, we sometimes have books which offer new angles of attack, like his obsession with personal diplomacy (2) or the hagiography which surrounded him even in his lifetime (3). But both books under review only claim to be general biographies in the conventional style.

Also, the sustained interest in him in impeccably “politically correct” twenty-first-century intellectual circles might seem puzzling, since Philip French reminds us in a review of yet another Orwell biographical study, Orwell’s Victory (4), that “That Orwell was homophobic as well as misogynistic and anti-Semitic is difficult to deny” (5). In the same vein, but going one (or two) better, Piers Brandon writes that “Orwell was given to violence, masochism, paranoia, homophobia, male chauvinism and anti-Semitism” (6). Why, if there is a consensus among “liberal” intellectuals that Orwell held what common opinion in their circles sees as despicable beliefs, should serious biographies continue to be written about him, with extensive reviews in The Guardian and in The Observer (by Paul Foot, that guardian of Radical Left values! 7), and substantial features on his time as a journalist (8)?

The answer to these two questions is that the exploration of Orwell’s contradictory personality is a never-ending process in which “left-wing intellectuals” will always revel, because at bottom they all feel, paraphrasing Flaubert, that “George Orwell c’est moi,” sensing that the type of contradictions which they see in him is also theirs, if on a minor key.

On the “modern” assumption—largely inspired by Madison Avenue—that “newer is better,” it is tempting to believe that Bowker and Taylor—who have both benefited from access to the superb twenty-volume collection of Orwell writings published in 1998 (9) where their predecessors only had the “old” four volumes edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell (10)—were able to produce new insights into Orwell’s character, thanks to the new material thus made available to them. It can also be assumed that their own research for the books has unearthed new documentary or oral evidence: indeed the blurb on the dust cover of Taylor’s volume alludes to “a mass of previously unseen material,” while Bowker claims in the last paragraph of his Preface that “it is surprising how much fresh material is still to be found,” concluding that “[m]uch of this new material enables Orwell to be seen in a somewhat different light from the way in which he has been hitherto viewed.”

One critic who is not taken in by this kind of claim is Stefan Collini who, in his thorough review of the two volumes in the Times Literary Supplement, makes short shift of the “fresh material”: “The fact of the matter is that the vaunted ‘new evidence’ constitutes a tiny proportion of the content of both books” (11). It would be idle to try to better Collini’s impressive list of what we could call “false new facts”—not that he suggests that the authors have made up new evidence: he simply demonstrates that in most cases the “new facts” do not add up to much, and certainly do not justify the bold conclusions which they derive from them. Collini is especially dismissive of “the recall of octogenarians for events that happened over half a century ago” (12). This immediately belittles the value of the oral testimonies derived from the interviews of “new” witnesses especially conducted for these books. So, if newer is not really better as far as the material on which the new biographies are built, what remains to justify their existence?

As usual, emphasis and interpretation. There is no doubt for instance that Bowker gives far greater importance to Orwell’s sex life than his rival or his predecessors. Interestingly, Taylor does not have a single entry in his Index which mentions “sex” as such. All he has is an entry on “Women, attitude to,” which mostly refers to Orwell's marriages. In contrast, Bowker has a very comprehensive one on “sex and sexuality,” which often refers to Orwell's visits to prostitutes and illicit affairs, another one on “homosexuality and homophobia,” with one reference to a phrase found in Orwell’s own writings, “Like all men addicted to whoring, he professed to be revolted by homosexuality” (13), and one on his “misogyny and sadism,” referring among others to a passage that will delight Freud’s devotees:

Was Blair the dark sadistic self that the noble Orwell was wrestling to suppress? Was he the libertine who visited brothels, seduced married women, betrayed his wife, while the saintly Orwell remained morally aloof? Or was he the homoerotic-inclined guilt-ridden individual glimpsed by Michael Sayers? (14)

Yet, it would be too easy to dismiss Bowker as overly sensationalist, because even if that kind of corny pseudo-psychoanalytical style can be found irritating, his approach of Orwell’s dual persona leads him to ask the right questions—the questions which cause people to continue to write biographies of Orwell and other people to continue to read them, such as when he discusses his contradictions in a superb passage which sums it all:

The ability to hold two opposing views simultaneously, used to perverse effect in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was a characteristic of his own paradoxical cast of mind. He loved animals and yet was happy to shoot them; he was an atheist yet retained a highly religious sense of morality; he hated the class system but hankered for a time when the English class system seemed immutable; he hated the Scots and yet some of his favourite novelists were Scottish; he sneered at ‘pansies’ and yet he enjoyed close friendships with homosexual men; he came to call himself a socialist yet wrote witheringly about socialist types; he enjoyed reasoning and argument yet held some highly irrational opinions; he held strong political views and yet remained independent of all political movements and parties (15).

It is to be supposed that serious readers do not buy a book because of the illustration on the cover, and this is a good thing for Bowker’s biography, since few educated people will like the “colourized” photograph of Orwell, with the black-and-white original retouched with blue for his eyes, his shirt and his tie.

At all levels, by contrast, Taylor’s approach is more subdued, though we have short sections on, for instance, “Orwell and the rats,” “Orwell’s paranoia” or “Orwell’s dream.” One excellent such piece is a parody of Stalinist prose, “The case against” as it might have been written by “Comrade X” to demolish Orwell. These intriguing vignettes, however, are the only intrusion of fashionable writing in what remains primarily a classical biography. Taylor is thoroughly impregnated with the “George Orwell c’est moi” syndrome mentioned above, with a revealing cri de cœur in his first chapter: " 'He knows all about me,’ you feel, 'he wrote this for me' " (16). That a biographer should have a special warmth towards his subject is of course taken for granted, but Taylor probably carries his identification with Orwell too far when he attempts to defend the indefensible—that is, the consequences of Orwell’s visceral hatred for the Stalinists in the post-war years.

The set piece in any post-1991 (17) Orwell biography, in which all readers expect to find the author’s version, is of course the affair of the notorious list (18) of crypto-Communists and other fellow-travellers supplied by Orwell to the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, a Cold War institution intended to fight Communist subversion (19). Taylor valiantly takes Orwell’s defence, arguing that the names were bound to be known to British authorities as the people involved made no disguise of their pro-Soviet leanings. He has a curious conclusion on the affair, with a final twist accusing the NKVD of also having a file on Orwell—but this is a very feeble argument because two wrongs do not make a right. Bowker devotes more space to what he calls “the story of Orwell’s collaboration with the covert Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, which has aroused such controversy” (20), but comes to the same conclusion that Orwell’s action was perfectly legitimate if one accepts (as he did) that the Stalinist enemy was no better than the Nazis.

What is one to conclude from all this? Orwell scholars will deplore the absence of proper footnotes in Taylor (replaced by a running commentary on sources for each section) and the shortness of the Bibliography in Bowker, notably as far as articles are concerned, but will no doubt find interesting new insights in both volumes. Orwell devotees buy and/or read all new publications on him as a matter of course and do not need any reviewer’s guidance. University librarians will find these two books an excellent complement to the Crick which they already have. People interested in biography will want to have both. A clear case of “a little something for everybody” in both books, which are therefore warmly recommended, though it goes without saying that neither can claim to approach that elusive ideal, “The definitive biography.”

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